'And Just Like That' stars talk race, fashion and whether *that* college scene worked
When HBO's Sex and the City premiered in June of 1998, the world was quite a different place.
The Sept. 11 attacks were more than three years away. The #MeToo revolution was almost a generation away, not to mention the racial justice movements or the pandemic.
All of that was yet to come, that summer when 30-somethings Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha first appeared on screen.
Changes in the world and changes brought on by age are among the things that Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and several new characters are dealing with when they meet up in HBO's new show, And Just Like That.
Cynthia Nixon, who plays Miranda, and Karen Pittman, who plays newcomer Professor Nya Wallace, spoke to NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about how the new show is working to better reflect the racial diversity of New York City, the portrayal of the original characters in their mid-50s, and the fashion that everyone knows and loves.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and includes some web-only answers.
Cynthia, I'm going to give you first word because I have been watching you back since 1998. What does it feel like picking up a character that you played that long ago? Do you have to get to know her all over again?
Cynthia Nixon: No – I mean, I think when you play the character for this long, she lives inside you. And certainly when you're back together with so many of the original people on screen and some really crucial ones behind the camera, it just really feels like you're putting on a suit of clothes that's made to fit. But I think what's really exciting for all of us that were in it before is getting to come back and really allowing these characters to grow and change. And yes, age, but something that our show has not been good about previously is widening our universe. It was a very, very white show, and so to get a chance to revisit it and broaden our world and have these amazing new characters played by these unbelievable actors is a real pleasure. And like throwing these original women into new situations.
Speaking of amazing new characters, Karen, the storylines are all new to this show, but I wonder for you, does it feel like you're crashing a party that everybody else was invited to 20 years ago?
Karen Pittman: Yeah, and it feels like the best party to crash, right? I mean, I think part of my goal as an actor and as an artist is to work on material with collaborators who are interested in saying bold and daring things and great stories with great storytellers and actors. And this is obviously an extraordinary playground to be on with people living in New York City in 2021.
Well, let's dive in on how the show is different in 2021. I want to just zoom in on this great scene that kicks off the relationship between your two characters. Karen, you are playing Miranda's law professor, which is awkward because she's got a professor. She's in her mid-50s. You're younger than her. And the first encounter between the two of you is like Miranda putting her foot in her mouth and then putting it deeper down and then like, swallowing the whole thing. It's so rough.
In the scene, Nixon's character Miranda makes a series of increasingly awkward comments, including expressing surprise that Pittman's character is the professor "because of your braids" and then trying to correct by saying she joined the class in part because the professor is Black.
Was it meant to be a train wreck? And I'm asking because, you know, some critics have panned that scene and said it kind of hits the wrong note. Like, no one is quite that awkward. Do you feel like it works as a scene, Karen?
Pittman: I mean, the folks in my circle, certainly the African-American women in their 30s and 40s and even 50s who absolutely feel that scene to their core. Like, "Yeah, definitely. I've dealt with that." I think because we live in this society that our audience has experienced so much of this cancel culture, we're under the impression that Miranda's in danger, but she's not. She's just trying to figure something out.
Nixon: Yeah, no, Miranda is not in any danger. And I think that Miranda's always been kind of a person who leaps and who speaks her mind, even if maybe she'll want to retract it a bit later. And I think to me, this is her walking out and trying to have conversations that she's never had before. And I mean, I think that's kind of the idea of the show is like, we don't want to show these characters doing things that they know how to do, right? We want to pull the rug out from under them a little bit and actually put them in new situations and watch them work.
Another big change this time around is the whole core original group of characters are well into your 50s. Everybody's middle aged. That very awkward scene we just heard, you know, you're fishing around in your bag for your reading glasses, Cynthia, and your gray hair is like it's its own plotline. It felt very intentional. Like you were saying to everybody watching, "Hey, people, this is what 55 looks like."
Nixon: Right, and in the first scene we're actually debating Miranda's hair color being gray and Charlotte's unhappiness with it. And what does it mean when you color your hair? Or what does it mean when you have work done to your face? Are you trying to look your "best"? Or are you actually trying to pass as younger than you are?
Karen, your character's at the younger end of the spectrum trying to figure out whether to start a family, whether to have a baby. But do you want to take this question on just the challenges of getting a show greenlit that's going to star women who, God forbid, have gray hair and wrinkles?
Pittman: Well, I think the interesting aspect to that is how we're, you know, discussing something I don't think that probably we would see on a men's show, we're discussing hair. Do you know what I mean? Is your hair gray? Should it stay gray? Like, these are actually conversations that women sort of have to sort of navigate through. I know that we spend a lot of time talking about Nya's hair. You know that it is natural. And I wanted to have that conversation with the Sex and The City audience to talk about what it looks like to be an African-American woman in New York City with natural hair. You know, braids. These are women I see on the subway and that we see on the subway all the time, but may not have been introduced in this way on this platform.
One thing that has not changed from the original series: The clothes, the shoes. They are still fabulous. And I do wonder, because as we've been talking about, so much has changed from the original in the '90s, and I know a lot of people will look at shoes that cost a thousand bucks and say, "Oh hello, privilege, hello, elitism." And I wonder, did either of you worry about how that part of the show was going to play in 2021?
Nixon: I mean, I think the clothes are beautiful and have always been beautiful and have all the actors and actresses looking amazing. It's a part of the show I've never been very interested in, particularly the consumer part. And you might notice that Miranda's not really much of a part of that.
I don't know. You had a couple of good outfits that I wouldn't have minded borrowing. Karen, how about you?
Pittman: I think that Nya doesn't have a ton of money. I mean, it's certainly not as well monied as maybe some of the other characters. So I think, Nya in a lot of ways – I talked to Molly Rogers and Danny Santiago, who are the costume designers for the show about exploring, you know, sort of street fashion and street culture. A lot of what Niya represents is that African-American woman who is influencing fashion from the inside out. Again, I think that's new. I think that's welcome. But it isn't necessarily a conversation around money. It's really – there are women who are fashionable and incredibly culturally relevant and don't have a lot of money. And I think that's part of opening up the aperture of this show. You know, if you're going to include different women and how they look, you're going to include how they see themselves aesthetically in New York City. And in culture, we are the center of a lot of how that conversation comes about. So I think women are going to look forward to that as much as they look forward to the conversations and the stories.
Nixon: And [it] encloses so much of an expression of who each of these characters are. I mean, I feel like you could take the seven of us, you could line up seven racks that had all of our clothes. You would never mistake one character for another. Never.
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