LAURA LINNEY: LESSONS LEARNED

I’m not going to put it lightly when I say that Laura Linney is one of my favorite actresses. Actors with her level of versatility and authenticity are few and far between, which makes watching each and every one of her performances all that more exciting. On top of her incredible talent, she also has to be one of the nicest and most gracious people I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing. So, to alter my words a bit from what I told her when I “stage doored” Time Stands Still on Broadway two years ago, “Your performance interview was really inspiring!”

MC: When did you catch the acting bug?

LL: I think I was just born with it.  [Laura laughs] If there was any school assignment that I could turn into a theatrical performance, I would do it. My love for the theater was not just about being attracted to what happened on stage, but also what happened off stage. I loved stagecraft, and I loved stage management; I was really fascinated by the buildings (the theaters) themselves. Also, growing up in New York I had the benefit of the great theater there. I would see as much as I could and grab any book about the theater that I could. Having a father as a playwright certainly gave me resources that I know that other people wouldn’t have. I could always go up to him and ask a question, and he would tell me where the best book stores were to look for certain plays. So, all of that was really helpful. But I always loved the theater. I don’t remember a specific moment where I didn’t want to be near it, or around it, or learn something about it.

Did anyone/anything in particular inspire you to become an actress?

You know, I think New York, weirdly. I was always attracted to the history of the theater and I just wanted to be a part of that in a very small way. I loved the rich history of the evolution of acting, and the evolution of stagecraft, and the plays, and playwrights, from generation to generation, how the theater was sort of passed down and then you would have the opportunity to pass it down. There was something about the tradition that I deeply wanted to be a part of. It felt so much bigger than me, anything that I had experienced in my life, I just felt safe there.

You have a B.A. from Brown and an M.F.A. from Juilliard. How did those schools help set you up for a successful career?

I got my B.A. in theater arts (which is like theater history) so I got to really geek out on all that stuff. [Laura laughs] The evolution of acting, American theater history vs. European theater history, I just got to totally be a theater nerd. Then I went to Juilliard, to really get trained.

People ask me a lot, “What was your big break?” and for me it was getting into Juilliard. It’s different for everybody and training is right for some people and not right for others. I needed that time to concentrate that deeply on technique and learning how to help myself in certain situations, learning about my voice and my body, learning about what I was good at and what I wasn’t good at, how to be a problem solver as far as creating something in a three dimensional way. I loved it, it was really the right place for me.

Was your intention to do Broadway rather than film/tv or did you just want to act?

Oh sure! My dream was to be a company member at the Actors Theater of Louisville. When I went to Brown, when I was out of High School, that’s what I wanted to do… I wanted to be part of a regional theater company. In the eight years between when I was in college and at Juilliard, the regional theater system changed drastically. The resources were cut, and that world that I was so attracted to, kind of didn’t exist anymore, in the way that it did prior. I got out of Juilliard and everything was very different. Times change, things change, and my life just took a very unexpected turn.

Did you have any odd jobs while trying to break into “the biz” or were things pretty quick to pick up?

Fortunately for me, things were pretty quick. I certainly waited tables and did all of that, but when I first got out of Juilliard, my first job was as an understudy for Six Degrees of Separation right across the street from school. I loved being an understudy in that. I like to watch, observe, and absorb things before I actually jump into something. [Laura laughs] I’m a little cautious that way, which I’m not proud of. But, consequently, being an understudy gave me that time to not get into something that would be overwhelming, or that maybe I couldn’t handle… even thought I’d had all that training at Juilliard. It’s one thing to train and it’s one thing to execute in a professional environment. What that did is it really let me stick my toe in and see how everyone behaved, see what the challenges were, and see what it’s like to do eight shows a week and the demands of that. Because at schools you do plays for a weekend or two weekends. You don’t do eight shows a week, 52 week a year! [Laura laughs] So, for me to watch that company come together and see the rhythm of what a long run was like was really invaluable to me.

I’ve read that the way you tackle a script is by asking “Why?”.  When did you come up with this method and what do you think made it successful?

Well, I think that it’s just what I’m most interested in. [Laura laughs] I think it’s my own curiosity. I think that being a daughter of a playwright certainly influences that. But I also believe, or I hope, that I approach everything differently. I’ll sort of read the play, and read the play, and read the play, until the play will tell me how to approach it.

But text work, when a play is really well written, text work is just a dream. And there are so many hints in there that playwrights will give actors; there is just a wealth of information. But, you do have to be patient, and you have to be detective-like in mining what’s there for you and figure out what is actable and what’s not actable. You know, you can’t act themes. [Laura laughs] I love when people make you figure out the theme of a play (which can be helpful in some cases) but it doesn’t help me as an actress really. The theme of a play is sort of the result of all the other stuff that comes before it, a theme is a result of things that have been layered, and layered, and layered, and then you get the theme. So, I like to work the opposite way. I think for a director that’s very, very helpful, and certainly can help an actor in some form. But, if you get too academic in your approach to things, you can’t act that stuff. Hopefully, you lead an audience there, but you can’t actually act it.

You’ve done so much in your career! For you, what roles do you think defined your career?

God, I have no idea. I have no idea. I sort of can’t even think that way. I think people know me for different things. There’re some people who know me purely from the theater, some people know me from all the independent movies that I’ve done, some people know me just from the television work. So, I have no idea. I hope it’s a whole bunch of different things. [Laura laughs] Hopefully, I’m not that easy to pigeonhole.

What role has meant the most to you?

There are a bunch of them. I think early on, Tales of the City was certainly one of them because it was the first time I really thought, Oh, wow. I might be able to really enjoy doing film and TV [Laura laughs] because it was such an exotic world to me. I didn’t know if I’d be any good at it, if I’d enjoy it, if I had any instinct for it. That was the first time I thought, oh, I might really like this. And a lot of the friends that I made on that job are still very, very close friends. So, that was an important one.

LAURA LINNEY: LESSONS LEARNED
Laura Linney (center) and her Tales of the City cast mates

It’s an embarrassing assortment of riches for me, actually, because I’ve loved so many of them that I feel a little guilty pointing one over the other. I’ve loved the people that I’ve worked with and I’ve loved the places that I’ve been able to go to. (That’s a big shock, all the travel. I never thought I’d travel as much as I do. And seeing how people work in different countries, that’s all been fantastic.)

You have also received a lot of recognition for your work. How do you think the positive responses have helped your work, if at all?

Well, it’s certainly a nice pat on the back. [Laura laughs] But, I think you have to keep that stuff very much in perspective. It’s certainly nice when it happens. I don’t always agree with them, to be honest.

Really?!

Yeah, I mean, there’s some work that I’ve been surprised had been recognized. Then there’s been other really good work, that I think that I’ve done, that’s been completely ignored. So, be really happy when it comes, and I get really tickled when it happens, but you do have to keep it very much in perspective.

This may be a silly question-

Go for it!

But I must ask, what is it like to be nominated for an Academy Award?

[Laura laughs] It’s wild! It’s very surreal. It’s really nice. There are literally still times when I’ll walk down the street and it will hit me, Oh my god! I’ve been nominated for an Oscar! [Laura laughs] I still, kind of, can’t believe it. It’s veryvery nice.

The Big C is in its final season with only two more episodes to air. Has it been difficult to say goodbye to a character you’ve been playing for the last three or so years?

I loved doing it and I learned a lot about a whole other medium. (Episodic television is something I’d never
done before. I’d done a lot of TV but not a series.) So, I learned a lot and I worked with a lot of really wonderful people. I will certainly miss that.

LAURA LINNEY: LESSONS LEARNED
Laura Linney as “Cathy Jamison” in The Big C finale

It’s always sad to say goodbye to something, but it’s the nature of what we do. They’re all these encapsulated experiences. You learn how to be completely committed when you’re in it and you learn how to let go of it. It’s just the nature of our business and if you mourn the loss of work too much, you won’t move on. It’s a bit of a skill, to learn how to put the work in the appropriate place so that you love it and you’re sustained by it, and it gives you great fulfillment, but at the same time, it’s not all of who you are and it doesn’t dictate your entire mood throughout the day. The work has to compliment your life and not your life complimenting your work. That’s a very tricky thing you have to learn how to do.

For you, how was it different working on a regular series vs. a mini series like John Adams?

It’s the number of people involved. There were sooo many people involved. That was the biggest change of anything I’d ever been involved with before. Maybe just because I was producing I was exposed to those people more than when you’re an actor and you got to set and just do your work. There is an army of people involved in every television show. That can be incredibly helpful as far as resources are concerned, but it can also be challenging because everybody has an opinion. It’s just a different way of working.

A lot of the films you have been in have been Indies. What do you enjoy about those vs. studio productions?

With the bigger scale ones, you have the support of a great studio and a network, or whomever you’re working for. So, the resources that are there (if used well) can be terrific. Like, John Adams is a perfect example of that. That was a production that had tremendous support from HBO and Playtone, and their resources were used beautifully. It was funded in the healthiest way I’ve ever seen [Laura laughs], and in the right hands it was translated into gorgeous work. I was so proud to be a part of that.

But then, with the Indies, it’s very raw and there are not a lot of resources. You can feel very close to the work because of it; everything is sort of stripped away. So, they’re very different. And it all just comes down to good people. If you have good people, you can work in any system, under any circumstance, and it still will be a terrific experience and hopefully produce good work. At the end of the day, it’s really about the people.

LAURA LINNEY: LESSONS LEARNED
Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti in John Adams

Are you planning on returning to the theater world soon?

I probably will. You know, I can never really stay away too long! [Laura laughs] Right now I’m able to go to the theater which I LOVE doing. I’m sort of bouncing around being a tourist in my own hometown. [Laura laughs]

Now that you have achieved so much in your career, what criteria do you have for the projects you participate in?

It usually comes down to one of three things: a great script, a great director, or a great actor to work with. One of those things has to be there. Then sometimes you’ll get a script and it will intersect with some aspect of your life that is particularly meaningful or is very much awake and alive in that period of time. Something about the material will compel you to want to be close to it. Also, if I’m reading a script and I start to work on it before I’ve finished it, [Laura laughs] when I can’t help myself, if all of the sudden I’m making connections and I start to work on it, then I really have to pay attention to that. When your “actor brain” turns on, and you can’t help yourself, and something starts to grow, then that’s a pretty good indication.

What kind of role would you like to play next?

I have no idea. I wish that I could have a forethought like that, but I’m not that way. Something will come. Also, very few people have that power, even if I did have a sense of what I wanted to do. [Laura laughs] I’m still an employee; I’m still an actress for hire like everybody else. Those things don’t change. So, who knows? We’ll see. You never know what’s around the corner.

If you had the opportunity to be miscast into any theater role, what would you want it to be?

I would want to be a Musical Theater star! [Laura laughs] There’s only one problem, I can’t sing! [Laura laughs] But, I love musicals, I LOVE them. So, I would want to be in a musical. It will never happen, but it’s a nice dream.

What advice do you have for aspiring actors?

I think it’s just, get involved. Whether that’s in a local environment, Community Theater, at school, just get involved and see what’s there.

What was something you learned early on in your career that you still live by today?

If you’re relaxed, you can be precise. If you’re precise, you can be fierce. My father always said that to me. ♦

Photo Credit: Listal, Ronald Grant Archive, IMDb, Kent Eanes
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