"This is not about hitting it big," Laura Linney insists. "This is about a life of work. " Yet she seems to have quietly managed both. Her name may not...
NEW YORK — “This is not about hitting it big,” Laura Linney insists. “This is about a life of work.”
Yet she seems to have quietly managed both.
Her name may not have the immediacy of some stars — Julia! Nicole! — and the nominations she’s received haven’t led to Oscars … yet. But Linney’s done Broadway, hit TV shows and major movies. She’s acted with veteran stars like Richard Gere and Clint Eastwood, and great actors like Sean Penn and Edward Norton.
If she hasn’t hit it big, she’s certainly come pretty close.
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And then there’s the work itself. Name some of the smartest indie movies of the last decade — “You Can Count on Me,” say, or “The Squid and the Whale” — and she’s had a central part. Look at the some of the more ambitious studio pictures over the last dozen years — from “Primal Fear” to “Mystic River” — and she’s there in the ensemble.
“It’s all about having the opportunity and the privilege to be able to work for a long period of time,” says the 43-year-old actress, sitting in a New York hotel room. “So you’ll do a small part because it’s interesting, or it’s a chance to try something new. Everyone does this for very different reasons and finds happiness in different places. But I feel very, very, very lucky to be able to work the way I do.”
Wild about the work
Nothing explains the way she works better than the work itself.
On the indie front, currently she’s promoting “Jindabyne,” an Australian drama, and looking forward to the autumn release of “Savages,” a dysfunctional family story with Philip Seymour Hoffman. “Jindabyne” is based on a Raymond Carver story populated with secretive characters, and contains the kind of challenge — complicated story line, a hectic shooting schedule — that only a pro like Linney would pronounce “great fun.”
“I mean, this is the sort of material that an actor just loves, or certainly which I love, anyway,” she says. “Every single line, you have to think — what is this line telling me? What is in this line that looks back to what happened to them in the past? You have to figure that all out.”
On the bigger-budgeted side of things, she’s working on a huge HBO miniseries about John Adams — she plays wife Abigail — and looking forward to the September release of “The Nanny Diaries,” in which she’s the sitter’s erratic employer. “She’s just a mess,” Linney says about the woman. “Neurotic and vain and terrified and swinging between low self-esteem and high self-esteem — just a whirling dervish. And great fun to play.”
Fun is an important concept to Linney. And it’s one she brings to every project she takes on — even when the subject is as serious as the shattered marriage of “Jindabyne.”
“Laura was just a joy to be around,” director Ray Lawrence says. “She’s very dedicated, very professional — she did her homework, you know — but she’s a regular person. It was a pretty rough shoot, but we had a good time.”
A life of learning
Linney grew up in New York, where her mother was a nurse and her father was Romulus Linney, a busy off-Broadway playwright. But her parents divorced while she was young, and while Linney remains close to her father and describes his influence as “huge,” she insists her path to acting was her own.
“Yes, fortunately,” she emphasizes. “Certainly my father was an enormous influence — as was my mother, who would take me to museums and plays. But their real influence was that they gave me permission to explore the arts. I found my own way there, luckily. Because if your whole career is going to be about trying to get the attention of somebody else, it’s not going to be terribly fulfilling.”
Linney started doing plays in high school and summer stock, and even though she was privately amazed by people who had the audacity to declare they were going into acting, the dream was already there. She went to Brown and did more plays, then enrolled in Juilliard to study drama.
“And it was fantastic,” she says. “It was hard, sure, it was overwhelming — I hit a wall at one point that I didn’t think I’d get over. There were tears and all that sort of stuff. But I always had a sense that these people really wanted me to be better, and I wanted to be better. … It was very intensive, but there’s a sense that when you go through Juilliard, you leave it as prepared as you could be. Of course, then you leave, and you realize there’s still an enormous amount to learn.”
Linney learned. She was an understudy in the Broadway production of “Six Degrees of Separation” for a year, then began getting small parts in movies like “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” Her big break was playing opposite Gere in the legal thriller “Primal Fear,” which led to Eastwood casting her in “Absolute Power” (and, years later, remembering her for a crucial part in “Mystic River”). She added a recurring role in the various “Tales of the City” miniseries to her resume, as well as a co-starring part with Kevin Spacey in “The Life of David Gale.”
“I was thinking about this the other day, just the unbelievable people I’ve gotten to work with,” she says. “It’s gotten to the point where it almost feels like it’s not quite me. I mean, I look at that list and I think, ‘Wow. Wow.’ “
Not every part was quite so challenging — she once spent six months running away from apes in “Congo,” while “The Mothman Prophecies” didn’t offer much beyond a chance to work again with Gere. And although she seems perpetually upbeat and alert and joyful — Linney is the sort of person who uses words like “wow” and “thrilling” a lot — she’s more than once found herself on sets where the director was worrying only about the next setup, or the next coffee break.
“Sometimes you have directors who are cool, who get it, and then everyone works together,” she says. “And then there are the ones who don’t want to hear from you. They do not want to hear from you. You talk to them, and it’s as if you’re speaking Mandarin. They just have no idea what you’re saying. Their eyes glaze over. And I realize, I have to shut up now. I’m just scaring them.”
A little fight in her
Still, she admits, she’s scared a few, when she’s had to.
“You have to know what you can fight for, and what you have to let go, but I will really, really fight for the work,” she says. “I don’t care if I have a big trailer, or I have to sit on the sidewalk, if someone drives me to the set or I have to take the subway. I don’t care. But I will really fight for the work. I can be very stubborn, believe me. I think I’ve given some directors a real headache.”
Her agents, too, probably.
“It drives them crazy,” she says with a smile. “There are lots of times when I’ve not taken a big-money job and gone for some small little movie instead. But this works for me. It’s the kind of stuff I should be doing, and I’m happy. And I think they know that by now. We just look at things from different perspectives. … There are parts that are actable, and there are parts that are written solely to be green-lit. And I can see it on the page.”
Often it’s all a gamble, even the most obviously commercial projects. And, as Linney would say, that’s what makes it all such great fun.