December 01, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Laura Linney’s future

”Just because you’re not famous,” says Laura Linney, ”doesn’t mean you’re not good.” The actress is speaking from experience. Despite delivering standout turns in a string of major movies — most notably playing Jim Carrey’s cheery wife in The Truman Show — Linney is not a celebrity. She has a flawless complexion but no endorsements for beauty products. Her cell phone rings only twice in 90 minutes. And her recent split from her husband of nearly five years registered zero on the tabloid Richter scale. Shrugs Linney, ”People say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry it hasn’t happened for you yet.”’

Well, it’s happening now. With her quietly moving performance as Sammy Prescott, a small-town single mom coping with the sudden return of her troublemaking younger brother (Mark Ruffalo) in You Can Count on Me, Linney is for the first time driving a feature film — and finding herself buzzed about for a Best Actress Oscar nomination. ”You’re always afraid that your big scenes are either going to go over the top or not be deep enough, and there are a lot of scenes for Sammy that require serious emotional depth,” says Kenneth Lonergan, the film’s writer-director. ”To have every single one of those scenes be hit like a bell ringing is astonishing.”

Given her pedigree, it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise: The New York-born daughter of playwright Romulus Linney (Tennessee) and nurse Ann Perse (Laura’s parents divorced months after she was born), the actress dabbled in summer stock as a teenager and studied theater at Brown University. After drama school at Juilliard, she toiled on stage before landing one day’s film work in 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil. ”My first shot was walking down these stairs and crossing a street,” she says. ”It was the first time I ever acted outside.” Three years later, while Linney was traipsing through the jungles of Africa filming the goofy gorilla caper Congo, her old Juilliard roommate Jeanne Tripplehorn was in Hawaii for Waterworld. ”We would call each other,” remembers Linney, 36. ”She’s like, ‘Today I jumped off the mast of a ship and dove into the water.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I fell out of a tree and ran from a monkey.”’

The low-budget You Can Count on Me, filmed in upstate New York, provided its own kind of culture shock: It was, for Linney, an atypically no-frills movie. ”There was no holding space for the actors,” she recalls, curled up in her trailer on the Toronto set of the domestic drama Black Iris. ”There was a chicken coop that we cleaned out and it became home base. Chickens had not left that long ago. It was really eau de chicken. It was pretty disgusting.” The close quarters, along with the characters’ intense relationships, produced strong bonds off camera as well. Says Linney of costar Ruffalo, ”I nearly burst into tears every time I see him.”

After wrapping, Linney flew directly to Scotland to shoot the Edith Wharton adaptation The House of Mirth (out Dec. 22) with Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz, which didn’t help her fragile mental state. ”I had one day of filming immediately and then I went to bed for four days,” says Linney, who plays wicked society wife Bertha Dorset. ”I found out later that the whole cast was wondering what was wrong with me.”

Her exhaustion wasn’t just work related. Just before Linney left to shoot You Can Count on Me, her house burned down (she declines to say where); earlier this year she separated from her stage-actor husband, David Adkins, and moved into her own apartment in Manhattan. ”It’s been a big year,” she says, smiling wearily. ”In many ways. And I don’t know what it all means.” She’ll kick off 2001 by reteaming with Primal Fear costar Richard Gere in the thriller The Mothman Prophecies. Before that, however, she’s got more pressing plans. Says Linney with a sigh, ”I’m going to go to bed for a while.” Famously.

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