Never mind that she can’t speak above a whisper. Forget that what little is left of her voice sounds like a scratched-up old vinyl recording of Tiny Tim. Laura Linney won’t cop to being even the slightest bit under the weather. Not today, not ever. ”My entire life, I’ve never been someone who succumbs,” rasps the stage-trained actress, a surprisingly perky presence for someone who woke up this morning with severe laryngitis. ”Theater people just don’t get sick. There’s no time for it.”
And there’s certainly no room in today’s schedule to stay home and convalesce. A few hours from now, the American Film Institute will pay tribute to Linney’s movie career. She’s being honored alongside Catherine Deneuve, a bona fide icon with a sprawling 50-year body of work. It’s an association that underlines how quickly Linney, 43, has established herself as a formidable performer in the seven years since her Oscar-nominated breakthrough role in You Can Count on Me, as Mark Ruffalo’s buttoned-up big sister.
The event is also doubling as the premiere of her new movie, The Savages, a funny-sad saga about a pair of smart, emotionally stunted siblings (Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose ailing father is suddenly foisted upon their cloistered lives. (Read the review) After its first screening earlier this year at Sundance, The Savages started generating Oscar chatter for its unexpected performances, especially Linney’s tender-hearted rendering of the kind of self-sabotaging sad sack usually played by Hoffman. ”She’s manic, narcissistic, self-obsessed, and lies like a 6-year-old,” says Linney, getting more excited as the list of Wendy’s personality flaws grows longer. ”I was like a kid in a candy store.” And with a shopping list, no less. Remembering back to the first day of rehearsals, Savages director Tamara Jenkins says, ”She pulled this big piece of cardboard paper out of her purse. It was this huge chart of her character’s emotional beats, line by line. Phil looked at her and went, ‘Jeez, I didn’t bring my chart.’ It was adorably nerdy.”
Until now, Linney hasn’t had much opportunity to devour a flashy, high-calorie role like this one. Instead, she has dependably brought depth and nuance to the kinds of stable, sensible characters that might otherwise be easy to overlook. In 2005, she scored a Best Supporting Actress nod for the bookish, wounded wife she played in Kinsey. That same year, she won critical raves for her portrayal of a formerly long-suffering spouse in The Squid and the Whale. Even looking back as far as her early roles in Primal Fear and The Truman Show, there’s hardly a shrew or freak show among them. But Linney has recently started to explore her inner nutjob, first with the sadistic, slave-driving mom she played in this fall’s The Nanny Diaries, and now with The Savages. ”Laura reminds me of actresses of the 1970s,” says Jenkins, referring to talents like Ellen Burstyn and Jill Clayburgh. ”The protagonists were often antiheroes, and the actors playing those parts weren’t your traditional stars. They were character actors who became leading players.”
Times have never been tougher for an actress who doesn’t trade on her sex appeal. But, against all odds, Linney has forged a movie star’s career without any of the fame, pandering, and image peddling that goes along with it. ”I’m really comfortable with where I am right now, and I would not be if I was an übercelebrity,” says Linney, choosing her words carefully. ”If you just want to be an actress who makes hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial films, it’s not gonna last.” She pauses for a swig of tea. ”This is where I belong, and fortunately I didn’t lose my way.”
Oddly enough, she never would have predicted her passion for acting would lead to a life in front of a movie camera. As an actor trained at Brown and Juilliard, and the daughter of celebrated playwright Romulus Linney, her first love was the theater. ”I know people who have blood in their mouths about their movie career, but I’ve never been one of them,” insists the veteran. But in addition to eight Broadway plays, she’s churned out more than 30 movies over the course of her career. ”Work was my entire life for huge periods of time, which isn’t healthy,” reflects Linney. This year alone she has two projects in the can, James Ivory’s City of Your Final Destination and an HBO biopic of Founding Father John Adams, and she’s signed on to star in a Broadway production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, due to start rehearsals soon. But she’s recently made strides toward balance, splitting her downtime between New York and Telluride, Colo., where she lives with her fiancé whom she met while attending the film festival. ”My life took a huge turn three years ago when I fell in love. It’s good for me to be around people who don’t strive the way us film/theater people do. I still need to be around my artistic, crazy carny folk. I am one of them.”
Right now, Linney’s eager to watch those two worlds merge at tonight’s tribute. And she does see some other unexpected benefits to being canonized when she’s just hitting her professional stride. ”What’s nice is, if I never work again, I’m good, done,” she jokes, throwing her hands up in the air. And her point is undeniable: ”There’s a lifetime of work there.” Maybe so. But right now, Linney’s ready for another run at the candy store.
Linney often plays the (re)marrying kind. Just look at her string of serial husbands.
1. Liam Neeson They were a couple under siege on Broadway in The Crucible, and then on the big screen, with gusto, in Kinsey. Off screen their (platonic) devotion runs so deep, Linney says, ”I’d break my arm for him.”
2. Gabriel Byrne Winning the prize for the most remarriages, their series of unhappy unions includes A Simple Twist of Fate, P.S., and Jindabyne.
3. Paul Giamatti He was Mr. X to her Mrs. in The Nanny Diaries. Up next: They’ll play the second First Couple in John Adams for HBO.
…and the one that got away — Richard Gere Their characters circled each other in Primal Fear and The Mothman Prophecies, but their on-the-job attractions were never consummated. Laughs Linney: ”There’s no kissing with Richard. Just flirting.”