For Cynthia Nixon, "World Without End" was a world away from the series she’s best known for, "Sex and the City."
The medieval miniseries premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showcase.
Forget slipping into a pair of Manolo Blahniks, says Nixon. "World Without End" is set in the 14th century, "before buttons were invented."
"We're all so modern nowadays and technological and all that stuff," says the actress on the phone from her home in New York City. There was nothing modern about the medieval world where "World Without End" was recreated. While it is set in England, the miniseries was shot on location in Hungary, with additional scenes shot in Slovakia and Austria.
The period sets "gave you some insight into what living in a village like that might be like," says Nixon, 46. "Of course, just a tiny little insight. We had trailers to go back to and they didn’t."
Based on the Ken Follett novel of the same name, the historical drama is set in the 14th century, 150 years after another Follett adaptation, "The Pillars of the Earth." England and France are locked into the Hundred Years War, and the world is bracing for the Black Death.
Nixon plays Petranilla, ever scheming to raise her station in life. "She just gets nastier and nastier all under the cloak of seeming innocence and sweetness," says Nixon. "Finally, at the very end, she really reveals herself in all her horror which is a great thing to build up to."
Petranilla was a minor character in the book but screenwriter John Pielmeier wanted to create a real nemesis for Charlotte Riley ("Wuthering Heights"), who plays visionary named Caris who stands up to the Crown and the Church.
The miniseries features an international cast, with Canadians Megan Follows and Carlo Rota ("Little Mosque on the Prairie") joining American Nixon and English stars Miranda Richardson, Ben Chaplin, Peter Firth and Tom Weston-Jones (now starring in "Copper").
Nixon plays the sister of Rota’s character and the two traded parenting stories. Nixon and partner Christine Marinoni have a young son and Rota and wife Nazneen Contractor are expecting their first child.
She and Follows also had fun trading theatrical stories. "She obviously is so beloved for 'Anne Green Gables' and other things and people were constantly coming up to her."
Canadian-based Take 5 Productions, as well as Tandem Communications and other international partners, produced the miniseries, principally shot at the same studio where "The Borgias" is filmed.
All the actors had to adopt an English accent, "always a little daunting to try when everyone around you is actually English," says Nixon, a New York native. A dialect coach was on set at all times and helped Nixon and even the English actors find the right accents.
Nixon is no stranger to period roles. A two-time Emmy-winner, she was nominated for another for her performance as Eleanor Roosevelt in the 2005 HBO TV-movie 'Warm Springs," and is gearing up to play Emily Dickinson in an upcoming feature film.
"I do think it's always fun to play people different from you," she says. Not having, as she says, a "heavy, discernable accent or a particularly modern way about me," helps her get cast in these period pieces.
As to why dramas based on ancient times such as "Game of Thrones," "Camelot" or "Spartacus" seem so suddenly in vogue, Nixon feels it goes beyond just the audiences' quest to be brought out of ourselves.
"I sometimes think we're living in scary, seemingly apocalyptic times," says Nixon. "So it's interesting that, you might be scared about the economy, you might be scared about the environment, you might be scared about nuclear war, but this is nothing new for human beings. Imagine living through the bubonic plague — there can be nothing more apocalyptic than that."
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.