Features

Campus to camera: Laura Linney ’86

By
Features Editor
Monday, November 8, 2010

“I’m living the dream,” says Cathy Jamison, the main character of Showtime’s “The Big C.” The line comes at the end of the first episode of the dark comedy about a woman dying from terminal cancer. Sitting on a couch in her backyard with only her neighbor’s droopy-eyed basset hound for an audience, Jamison is bathed in highly theatrical lighting, reciting a soliloquy more suited to the stage than the television screen. “I’m here all year, performing at stage four!” she shouts before breaking into a tear-filled laugh.

For Jamison, the moment captures the crossroads between the humor and sadness that define her life post-diagnosis. For Laura Linney ’86, the actress who plays her, the scene reflects a different kind of life juncture.

If she had said, “I’m here, performing eight shows a week at the Cort Theater!” the line would have accurately described the current phase of the actress’s life.

The announcement earlier this fall that “The Big C” was renewed for a second season, coupled with critical praise for her current role in Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still” on Broadway, means Linney is riding high in a very fruitful period of her career. Having worked in theater and film for over 20 years, Linney is currently in a juggling act between the lights of New York’s stages and the gaze of Hollywood’s camera lenses.

For many performers, this attention might be intimidating. Show business is littered with stories of entertainers cracking under the pressure of success, and of oversized egos that manage to supersede standout talent.

But for Linney, a New York native whose career has taken her from College Hill to Juilliard, from Broadway to award show stages, the work is more important than the hype.

 “I don’t really think about it a whole lot,” she said of the white-hot spotlight currently directed at her career. “I’m so concentrated on the work part of it, which is where I get my sense of satisfaction — I’m just really happy and relieved that it’s going so well.”

The star student

Over the phone, Linney’s voice is deep and rich. Her voice radiates authority, but is blended with a relatable sense of warmth. No condescension enters her tone, and one gets the sense that she is listening intently. This down-to-earth quality has defined Linney since her time at Brown, according to Senior Lecturer in Theatre, Speech and Dance Barbara Tannenbaum.

Tannenbaum first met Linney when she taught an introductory acting course during the actress’s first year at Brown after transferring from Northwestern University.

For Tannenbaum, Linney’s empathy for others and sense of poise stood out in the classroom just as much as her acting talent.

“She cares about people, and there’s nothing phony about her, and she’s very smart,” Tannenbaum said.

“I remember, even at an early age, that Laura had, and still has, a sense of grace — a sense of intellectual curiosity. She has this grace and power, and there’s a gentleness and sensitivity at the same time,” she added.

Tannenbaum said Linney brought an incredible work ethic to the course, effectively collaborating with her classmates while always raising the bar high for herself.

“As a student, she was bright and natural. She was delightful to work with, and she pushed herself,” she said. “I don’t think anyone’s quite like Laura … She always had a clear focus and wonderful energy that touched everyone around her.”

It is this energy directed to her craft that has provided the 46-year-old actress with the career longevity that many of her peers only hope for.

Trained for the stage, Linney emerged as a screen actress in the early 90s, with small supporting roles in films like “Lorenzo’s Oil” and “Dave,” which preceded her breakout television turn in the miniseries “Tales of the City,” which first aired on PBS in 1994.

Four years later, her performance opposite Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show” put her on Hollywood’s radar, leading to a period of almost non-stop success throughout the last decade. Her performance in 2000’s “You Can Count on Me” ushered in the first of three Academy Award nominations. Her talent has shined just as brightly on Broadway — in “The Crucible,” “Sight Unseen” and, most recently, “Time Stands Still” — with Tony Award nominations matching her Oscar recognition.

Back to Broadway

Linney’s latest Broadway appearance provided her with the rare chance to revisit a stage character. “Time Stands Still” originally opened last January for a limited run. In a rare move, producers announced in May that the production would reopen in October, with the original cast returning, except Alicia Silverstone, who had a scheduling conflict.

Like “The Big C,” the play handles dark subject matter with naturalistic humor. Linney plays Sarah Goodwin, a photojournalist returning home from Iraq after suffering an injury from a roadside bomb.

In his review of the latest mounting of the play, New York Times theater critic Christopher Isherwood wrote that Linney’s characterization “is now an even more formidably commanding mixture of steely resolve and suppressed feeling” than it was in the play’s initial run.

When the subject of reviews came up, Linney immediately said she does not pay attention to the critical notices that come her way. Instead, she focuses on the ever-evolving nature of live theater performance.

“That’s the thing about theater, you get the luxury of what time will do,” she said. “You know that things, just by the nature of chemistry and physics, will grow with time, and that’s something that you can’t force, you can’t generate — it’s something that has to happen on its own.”

For Linney, the prospect of revisiting a character months after moving on to other roles was not jarring, since it reflects the normal process of acting for the stage.

“You approach it every night like it’s new,” she said. “You act as if you don’t know what happened in the past 24 hours. It’s not enormous change, but it’s a growth.”

Dual roles

There’s a link connecting Linney’s two current characters. Both are women facing difficult hurdles abruptly thrust upon their lives, while dealing with changes that comes with the passage of time.

“There’s a strand of similarity, which is that they are both dealing with how they spend their time,” she said. “Other than that, they are very, very different women.”

When asked whether or not the two characters would like one another if they were put in the same room, Linney answered with a decided “no.”

“I don’t think they would like each other at all. Maybe Cathy would be sort of fascinated by what Sarah did for a living,” Linney said. “I think she would just admire her courage.” She added that Cathy would “just bore Sarah.”

Perhaps the clearest connection between the roles is that they are quirky, flawed and utterly human. The two fit naturally with the actress’s gallery of past roles for both theater and film.

Never a larger-than-life movie star, Linney has always slipped into realistic characters effortlessly. Though stage and screen work are decidedly different, Linney said playing these eccentric roles while switching from medium to medium is an exciting challenge.

“I just love to adjust and readjust, and figure out ‘how does this material suit the medium?’ ” she said. “I’m just a lucky person to do both. It’s not that I get to pick and choose, I’m just lucky enough to be asked — that’s something that I never lose sight of.”

‘The triumph of grace’

Off screen and away from the stage, Linney plays just as many roles, including wife and friend, as well as executive producer of “The Big C.” She cultivated this need to multi-task and experiment during her years at Brown, she said.

“I learned how to question at Brown. I learned how to think at Brown. I learned how
to have really good friendships at Brown,” Linney said.

“You learn so much about yourself there. You have the opportunity to strip away any preconceived notions you have about yourself, and you have the opportunity to figure it all out,” she added.

Citing Brown’s welcoming atmosphere for artists to “experience and explore,” Linney said she has learned to apply that same sense of exploration to her career.

Tannenbaum said Linney’s fearless approach to interesting roles made her stand out during her undergraduate years. “At Brown, whenever she was in a production, everyone knew it would be successful.”

For Tannenbaum, watching her former student’s success is exciting. Watching Linney’s performances, she said, is a “wonderful celebration of seeing the power of hard work pay off, and the triumph of grace.”

When selecting her roles, Linney does not think from a business or career standpoint, she said. She often does not know if they will work, or even if the projects themselves will be successful, she added.

“Probably 80 percent of the stuff I do is stuff where I question, ‘will this work or not?’ But it’s worth a go even if it’s just fostering a director,” Linney said. “So much of it is having a life and not having a career.”