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Sense and Sensibility

You may recognize Laura Linney's name or face. She has, after all, played significant roles in such popular films as Primal Fear, Absolute Power, and The Truman Show.

Or you may not recognize her. Either way is fine with the New York-born-and-bred actress, as long as the work keeps coming her way. Since graduating from the Juilliard School in the late 1980s, Linney has acted practically nonstop and has, in more recent years, successfully managed to bounce among film, television, and her first love, theatre.

She appeared on Broadway in Hedda Gabler (which earned her a 1994 Calloway Award), The Seagull, and Six Degrees of Separation. She won a Theatre World Award and a Drama Desk nomination for her performance in Sight Unseen. Two years ago, she returned to Broadway in Gerald Gutierrez's Tony-nominated Honour with Jane Alexander, and, most recently, Linney co-starred with Derek Jacobi in Uncle Vanya. Her television work includes PBS's Tales of the City, Showtime's follow-up More Tales of the City, and the Hallmark Hall of Fame's Blindspot.

Currently, she can be seen in writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's accomplished feature You Can Count on Me, in which she stars as a single mother in a small town whose life is turned upside down when her estranged brother (played by Mark Ruffalo) returns home. If you want a lesson in great acting, witness the performances in this movie, which co-stars Matthew Broderick, Jon Tenney, and Rory Culkin.

Linney's fine work can also be seen next month in Terence Davies' adaptation of Edith Wharton's 1905 novel, The House of Mirth, opposite Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd.

As Linney will tell you in the interview that follows, she never imagined that her pursuit of acting would lead to film and television work. The 36-year-old performer grew up in theatres. Her father, Romulus Linney, is a highly respected playwright (Two, The Love Suicide at Schofield Barracks, Heathen Valley), and Linney spent most of her childhood summers working backstage as a tech hand, before acknowledging her desire to act. In addition to training at Juilliard, she also studied acting at Brown University and the Arts Theater School, Moscow.

Back Stage West: One of the complaints I hear often from actresses is A, it's hard to find a great script, and B, it's difficult to find strong female characters to play. You have been rather fortunate in both respects. Do you attribute this to just luck or have you made a conscious effort to seek out such strong material?

Laura Linney: I'm just lucky that I'm able to work in the business at all. The fact that I'm able to have a life as an actress is nothing to be taken for granted. So I try to take the best things that I possibly can, and it's usually about a fantastic script or there's someone with whom I really want to work. The script might not be so great, but the actors involved or the director [interest me]. There's always a reason why I do something.

And then every once in a while you have to take something just for cash. That's not fun to do, and you never feel great about it, but it's just part of it. You have to do it every once in a while.

BSW: Why do you think there aren't more richly written, character-driven scripts like You Can Count on Me being made these days?

Linney: I think because the business is fairly blockbuster-oriented at the moment, and they don't feel that a simple yet complex story about human beings dealing with one another will be interesting to people. I think they're wrong, but it's a business that's based on money.

BSW: Is that part of the reason why you continue to work in the theatre—because better material and stronger female roles can always be found there?

Linney: Sure. That's part of it. But, also, I grew up in theatre. It's what I know the best, and I've been doing it much longer. And I love it. And yes, you can go from ingénue to either character actress or leading lady. Theatre carries you through a long time.

And as much as I love doing film, I know that I can't take it for granted at all. I know that it might not be there for me when I want to be involved in it, but the theatre is a constant for me. Films will come and go, but stage, for me, is always there, and I'm not willing to give that up.

BSW: I know that your father is a respected playwright. Was the theatre part of your earliest memories?

Linney: Certainly the theatre permeated my life. Absolutely. My parents were divorced when I was very young. So I grew up with my mother and not with my father, but I would visit him on weekends. I worked backstage in summer-stock houses—at the New London Barn Playhouse in New London, N.H. I started as a techie.

It took a while to actually admit to myself that I wanted to be an actress. For some reason, I was embarrassed by that. It took me a while to come clean about my real motivations.

BSW: I'd imagine you'd say that you didn't choose acting; it chose you.

Linney: I do sort of feel that being in the theatre is somewhat of a vocation—more than just a profession. You are drawn to it for inexplicable reasons. And then there are some deeply personal reasons why people do what they do, and my reasons have changed about why I work in the theatre or why I work in film or television—why I continue to stay in this world. Your reasons change as your age changes.

BSW: What is it now that sustains you as an actor?

Linney: Now I just really relish the challenge of it. I've gotten to a point—and I still have a long way to go, but I have more experience now—where I'm able to do things with a little more ease than I was able to before. I'm not as afraid of things. So your mind tends to work in a different way, and I just really relish the challenge of all of it.

Knowing, also, how difficult it is for any good film to ever be made or any good play to ever come together, I am more and more excited about the challenge of actually doing it, and I'm hopefully getting a little better each time I do something.

BSW: I want to ask you about your time spent at Juilliard. What did your training there arm you with as an actor?

Linney: I went for a very specific reason. I used to go with my father to regional theatres across the country, and I'd see these amazing ingénues who were filled with life and insight and instinct. They were just magnificent. And I watched them grow older, and they sort of dried up and consequently couldn't really quite make the leap to leading lady or leading character actress. I tried to figure out what that was about. How is this great ingénue all of a sudden dried up inside?

I think what happens is that when just pure instinct starts to run dry, there's not much left there. So I wanted to go to drama school so that I would have a lifetime in the theatre, and I'd be able to make that transition and not get bored or not know how to help myself, because that's basically what technique is. It's, How do you help yourself out when you don't know what to do or things aren't working?

And that's what Juilliard certainly gave me, and it's not right for everybody. Drama school is really right for some people and totally wrong for others. It was very right for me, but I certainly don't judge people on whether or not they've been to school or had formal training or not. You learn very quickly that that just doesn't apply to everybody. I've worked with people who I think are brilliant, and they've never had an acting class in their life.

BSW: I was speaking to Kenneth Lonergan a few weeks ago about You Can Count on Me, and one of the things he told me was that he really admires actors who can act well with other actors. That sounds so obvious and simple, but there are plenty of actors out there who do not place absolute importance on connecting with their co-actors in a scene. Those actors are more concerned with how they themselves look, as opposed to how well the scene is working with the other actors. How important is that connection with the other actor for you?

Linney: That's the fun for me. But you can make a movie and actually connect with no one, and you won't be able to tell as an audience member sitting and watching the film. But onstage you have to, and, for me, that's the most gratifying thing. It's always a group effort, and when each individual gets lost in the group, for me, that's when it's really working.

I think this movie is a good example of that. There are five actors who are working very well with one another, and, consequently, the pride that we all feel as a group about this movie is that much more gratifying because it doesn't really rest on one person's shoulders. We did our best, and so I think we're all especially proud because of that.

BSW: Would you agree that Sammy [in You Can Count on Me], is the most fully realized character you've played on screen?

Linney: She has the most depth. There's just room to do more within this script than there has been in the others. I'm also really enjoying Mary Ann Singleton from the Tales of the City series. I really enjoy that part. The role in The Truman Show was great fun, as well. But this one is the most realistic, and there's a range within the character. There was more breathing room within this script than others that I've done.

And because it was truly an ensemble, my job wasn't to make someone else look good. My job was to make the story look good, and that's fantastic.

BSW: What piece of advice would you give an actor entering this profession?

Linney: Have a life outside of it. I think, more than anything else, it's important to balance your life as best as you possibly can, because everyone has peaks and valleys in this business. And when things are not going as well as you would like, if you put all of your energy into it you'll be devastated. And it's just part of the package. You're going to have to have periods of time when you don't feel so great about yourself, and if you don't have a real life to lean on, it's not fun. So I think it's about giving yourself time and space to concentrate on things other than this business.

BSW: Did you make a relatively smooth transition into working as a professional actor once you graduated from school or did you have a tough time getting started?

Linney: I actually was extremely lucky. I graduated from Juilliard and then was an understudy for Six Degrees of Separation, and then work followed. But I didn't rush it, and I was never impatient. I was always really happy to be where I was. I loved being an understudy. I think I was the happiest understudy ever.

But, for example, The Truman Show came out, and work for me stopped. It just stopped. That was odd. Here I was having done probably the biggest movie of my career—having probably the best reviews I have ever had—and then I didn't work.

BSW: I also hear this about actors who get nominated for Best Supporting Actor. It's so strange the way that happens.

Linney: It's a completely unexpected and bizarre business. Still, I've been very lucky. I've also been lucky in that I don't work in one medium. I work in all three, and that's been helpful, as well, as far as work being available and my being considered for things.

But I just go back to having a life, so that your entire identity isn't wrapped up in whether or not you have a job. Just because you don't have a job doesn't mean you're not worthy as an actor.

BSW: Do you mind the uncertainty of being an actor and the insecurity of this life?

Linney: That's never fun, but you just learn to let it go if you can, and realize that you're going to have ups and downs. You're going to work and not work. You're going to feel frustrated. You're going to have to do some jobs that you don't want to do, because you have to make some money.

It's certainly never boring, that's for sure. But it does test you, and you can learn a lot about yourself in the process—about your patience level, about your self-esteem, about how you view others, about what you need as a person—all that sort of stuff. So you can certainly learn a lot, as long as you don't let it consume you or warp your own sense of self.

BSW: When you began getting work in film, did you seek it out, or did it seek you out?

Linney: I didn't seek it out at all. I had a very small agent whom I adored, who unfortunately died a few years ago. When I first got out of school, I wanted just to do theatre. I had no thoughts about film or television—not because I looked down on it but because I just didn't know anything about it and didn't think I'd be any good at it. I'd been in the theatre my whole life at that point, and that's what I wanted to do.

When I look back on it, I realize I was downright intimidated by [film and TV]. It just scared me. I don't like getting my picture taken. At that point, I was not comfortable in front of cameras. It was a world I knew nothing about. And I felt completely unprepared for it.

So my very wise, fantastic agent gently nudged me toward very small parts in movies. I was a day player in movies for a few years, and he was so smart to do that with me, because it gave me time to figure out what it was all about and learn and not feel too much pressure. So I had a tiny part in Lorenzo's Oil. I had a tiny part in Dave. I had a tiny part in Searching for Bobby Fisher. Very slowly, the roles got a little bigger. If I had gotten out of school and gotten a large role [right away], I could never have handled it. I wasn't ready.

BSW: What about the fame game? It is why some people get into acting, and I'm not saying there's anything wrong with wanting to be famous, but it certainly seems like a crapshoot to reach that goal. It is much more realistic to just want to be a working actor, as difficult as that can be. Is fame a perk for you, or would you rather stay more obscure?

Linney: I'm very lucky because I'm not that famous. I think I'm seen as a good actress who works consistently, but I'm not a famous person. I have people who recognize me on the street every once in a while, but I don't have the problems that a lot of my more famous friends do. So that whole world hasn't really affected me. I've been very lucky that way. I have the best of both worlds, actually.

BSW: I won't ask you if acting is a life profession for you. I know the answer to that, but what do you hope for as you get older?

Linney: I think you just hope that you get to work with really fascinating people on really good things. That maybe I'll surprise myself every once in a while. And that I'll get to do as much as I can under as many different circumstances as possible. And also have a life at the same time! BSW

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