Cynthia Nixon doesn’t think it’s a coincidence she’s playing a queer political firebrand in Ryan Murphy’s Ratched
Cynthia Nixon and her Ratched co-stars, Sarah Paulson, Sharon Stone and Sophie Okonedo, discuss how they came to be a part of Ryan Murphy latest: a decadent, film-noir tale of feminism, trauma and love.
Ratched, Ryan Murphy’s new prequel series to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, marks Cynthia Nixon’s return to television following a brief pivot into politics.
It was March 2018 when the actor and activist announced she was running for governor of New York, challenging the incumbent Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic nomination.
Nixon’s was an uphill battle. Cuomo was an experienced politico, a two-term governor from a popular political dynasty (his father Mario Cuomo served three terms in the same seat). She was (and remains) a popular actor, the sort who campaigns for progressive Democrats such as Bernie Sanders and advocates for causes including for education, women’s and LGBT+ rights – but an actor nonetheless, without the sort of heavyweight backing one accumulates through decades of experience (and generations of familial connections).
You likely know the rest: Cuomo won the primary and is currently half-way through a third term with eyes on a fourth and – who knows, perhaps a presidential run soon after.
Nixon told Time in 2019 she had “hoped to win”, but harbours no regrets. She continues to campaign for progressive causes (and against Cuomo), but professionally, it seems, her focus is back on acting.
Which brings us on to Ratched. Nixon plays Gwendolyn Briggs in the new Netflix series, a political campaign manager who, though bright and talented, is professionally hampered by her gender. It’s 1947 and Gwendolyn’s boss, governor George Milburn, is a leering misogynist pig who holds her livelihood in the palm of his sweaty hand, and doesn’t intend to let go anytime soon.
Like Nixon, Gwendolyn is a queer woman. She’s in a marriage of convenience, but enjoys weekends away to a hidden, sapphic enclave. And when an enigmatic nurse by the name of Mildred Ratched crosses her path, she’s completely enthralled.
Any similarities between Nixon and Gwendolyn probably aren’t all that coincidental, the actor concedes. In fact, she agrees that the role “seems like a natural fit”.
“The overlapping biography can’t just be a coincidence,” she says. “He [Ryan Murphy, executive producer] must have either written it with me in mind or once he had written it, it reminded him of me.
“Maybe he started to write this queer, political female character and and and thought of me, I’m not sure.
“But certainly, as with so much in television, even if something wasn’t written for you initially, as you’re [making the show] episode by episode, in real time, eventually the writer start writing for you.”
Sharon Stone is crystal clear that her Ratched character was written specifically for her.
Though not because of any similarities between actor and intended. She plays Lenore Osgood, an elegant, erudite heiress with a murderous streak and a pet monkey she carries on her finely-dressed shoulder.
“[Ryan] took me out to lunch and told me that he was writing this part for me,” Stone says. “He told me he wanted me to have a pet monkey, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to. Can’t I have a tiger or something else that’s on a chain?’
“But he was very insistent and once we started working I totally understood the metaphorical aspects of the monkey. It became so clear to me how genius this concept was.”
Stone says that playing a character so far removed from herself is “very freeing”.
“I just was offered a part, in fact, that I thought, ‘Oh, this character is so close to home, I could just go to work in my own clothes’. And I suppose that’ll probably be very dangerous for me.
“These characters who I feel like I have nothing in common with, like this character or like the Basic Instinct character, sometimes those are easier. And it’s a really fun, wild ride. It’s dangerous and weird and scary.
“I’m playing a character who is very unpredictable, dangerous, mad. So it doesn’t have to make exact sense. You know what I mean? She moves in a different way, a little more like a brain octopus.”
Like Sharon, Sarah Paulson couldn’t be further from her Ratched alter ego, the titular nurse Mildred Ratched.
One is warm, gentle, charming with a wry sense of humour. The other is closed-off, mysterious, with a questionable moral compass.
“Essentially, this is the story of a woman becoming something and people who are familiar with the movie [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest] – and I would argue that that’s that’s a pretty healthy number of people – we know who she becomes, so getting to watch it all happen i think is is is really interesting.”
As with pretty much anything she turns her hand to these days, Paulson nails the part, but she insists it’s all down to her frequent collaborator and friend, Ryan Murphy.
“Ryan’s given me an opportunity to consistently grow and if I am any good, it’s only because he gives me so many opportunities to keep trying,” she says.
“I always worry, what if I let my fear get the better of me and I miss an opportunity because I was scared I was going to fail?
“It sounds trite, but if you aren’t willing to push yourself to the brink of what you your limits probably are – especially in a creative endeavour – how are you supposed to expand? How do you grow?
“I think more than anything, Ryan’s given me an opportunity to consistently grow and if I am any good, it’s only because he gives me so many opportunities to keep trying.”
Sophie Okonedo has perhaps the most complex part of all.
We meet her as Ondine Duqeutte, a world-renowned musician having an apparent breakdown on a college campus. In the next scene, she’s Charlotte Wells, a broken woman who turns up at Lucia State Hospital, then Apollo, then Baby Taffy.
We come to understand that the character has dissociative identity disorder, meaning Okonedo has perhaps the tallest task of all.
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“I didn’t really go into the mental health aspect of it, I just created each character separately, and made sure I could make a gear change really quickly,” she explains.
“You kind of have to be prepared, you have to know it inside out.
“The writing’s really good, so I just had to fill them out as these living, breathing characters.”
It’s not much of a spoiler to say the end of season one leaves the door open for Charlotte’s return, but Okonedo is coy when asked if she’ll be back
“One thing I’ve learned from doing Ratched and working with Ryan is whatever way you think it’s gonna go, it’s gonna go a different way.”
Ratched is streaming on Netflix globally now. Read the first part of PinkNews‘ interview with the cast here.