The three-time Oscar nominee chats about Tom Ford, how mothers know best, and her term of endearment for 'Truman Show' costar Ed Harris
Halfway through Tom Ford’s slippery thriller Nocturnal Animals, Laura Linney appears on screen — accompanied by a blonde helmet of hair that would make Debbie Harry in Hairspray jealous — in a flashback scene as Amy Adams’ mother. She is warning her daughter not to marry her college boyfriend. As you can hear in the trailer (below), Linney’s character says, in a honeyed, moneyed Texas accent, “Don’t do this. You’ll regret it.”
Ford explained to EW his choice of Linney for the role. “I wanted someone who, first of all, was already known to the whole world as a brilliant actress,” he says, “so right away there’s that respect that the audience feels towards Laura. And I also wanted someone who would play really well opposite Amy.” (The actresses are merely a decade apart in age, though Linney explains below why that small gap in fact benefits the scene.)
Regarding the content of the scene itself — and specifically, the line where Linney taunts “We all turn into our mothers” — Ford adds, “I’m very aware of that from a few years of psychotherapy. There’s a book from the 1970s called My Mother/My Self and it’s about what it means to fall back on how you’re raised. I find myself, with my own son, saying things to him that I can hear my father or mother saying to me. And I realize that I’m just a link in the chain.”
Linney’s performance in Nocturnal Animals lasts only three minutes and 15 seconds, but it’s a one-scene wonder. Actors have received Oscar nominations for about the same screen time or less. British actress Hermione Baddeley was nominated for a two-and-a-half minute role in Room at the Top (1959) and so was the legendary Ruby Dee for the same amount of concentrated screen time in American Gangster (2007). Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting Actress for one scene in Network (1976), as a wife who’s furious about being dumped for a younger woman. (Spouses and ex-spouses in the Academy could no doubt sympathize with her character’s rage.)
And though she’s not exactly in the awards conversation this year, Linney’s been Oscar-nominated three times before (for You Can Count on Me, Kinsey, and The Savages) and has won four Emmys. And as she described to EW on the phone from Georgia (where she’s shooting the Netflix series Ozarks), size doesn’t matter when preparing for a character, especially in a Tom Ford movie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Hello Laura, where are you calling from?
LAURA LINNEY: Actually, it’s very ironic. I’m in a dressing room at the Tom Ford Shop in Atlanta. I just had a fitting for an event that’s coming up. And I’m wearing a dress of his.
Had you worn him before?
No, I’d never had the opportunity to.
How does it fit?
Beautifully. And it takes on such a different meaning to me now. If I didn’t know him, I might ask, “How do you have quality control like this?” But that’s Tom. He’s in every department, thoroughly involved. Anybody who calls him a “brand” is pretty lazy. He’s a global force. And I don’t know any fashion designers at his level who have successfully made a film. Not to mention two films.
Had you ever met him before Nocturnal Animals?
Not at all. I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard that he wanted me to do this. I so admired A Single Man. There’s no one like him, really, in the world, so I was unbelievably flattered. There’s a rich passion to him that’s not overwhelming but it’s very embracing. You can see his mind going from one evolving thought to the next.
I was interviewing Tom and I referred to your performance as a small part. And he got tongue-in-cheek defensive, saying “That is not a small part!”
[Laughs.] You know, I had such a wonderful time. There’s something about being in one really well-written scene and playing a very self-contained character. You can do an enormous amount of detail work and then you hope that it gives a potent punch. And this woman was just terrific to work on.
Did you shoot this scene in a day?
Oh, yeah, it was less than a day.
Because the movie has such a great style, there’s a temptation to think of your scene as camp.
No, no, no. I think anybody who’s grown up in the South knows it’s not camp. [Laughs.]
What was your reaction to first reading it? The movie is based on a book, Tony and Susan, but your scene is a total Tom Ford invention.
It read wonderfully. And writing like that is not easy to do. That’s the thing I’ve been telling a lot of people when we talk about Tom. They talk about “style, style, style” but with Tom, behind the imagery, there is a symbol. You might not even be aware of it. And then behind the symbol there’s meaning. And then behind the meaning, there’s something primal. And I find that that’s his unbelievable talent. And he can do all that without you fully realizing it.
Did you realize all that when you saw Nocturnal Animals?
When I saw it for the first time, it kind of washed over me in a very unusual way. I felt almost the way you do when you’ve been sleep deprived. You float in and out of conscious thinking and then all of the sudden you might have these Proustian memories and dreams come to you. But as the next few days went on and I kept thinking about the movie, it started to sink into me.
How much were you in communication with Tom before filming the scene?
We had been emailing each other. I thought that since he’s such a visual man, that maybe I should start talking about the character with him in a visual way. I went on the internet to a real estate website from the area of Texas where my character was from. I picked out listings for four or five big expensive houses, all of them a different style. And I sent them all along to Tom in an email, with a note saying, “Please indulge me here — I know this seems actor-y but I’ll get a lot of information from what you tell me.” And then I asked him, “Which house would she live in?” And he told me — and a lot of the questions were answered.
And then what about the character’s accent? It’s definitely upper-class Texan.
My family is from southern Georgia, so I had some background with a Southern accent. But Texans have a different way of speaking. I didn’t want any southern Georgia stuff to sneak in there. I talked to a friend of mine who grew up in Dallas and she recommended — for a very specific Texas accent that isn’t twangy but sophisticated and moneyed — Lady Bird Johnson.
Yep. I went and listened to lots of Lady Bird Johnson. And I didn’t copy the rhythm or the cadence of her voice particularly, but just the ease with which the words fall out of her mouth. A sentence isn’t spoken — it unrolls.
Once you got on set and met Tom, how involved was he in discussing wardrobe and hair?
Oh, he was right there. It was amazing. Most directors don’t know how to speak that language and they don’t fully understand what a particular color or piece of jewelry will do to the experience of someone watching.
Now, the hair in the scene —
That is my hair! I was very offended when I heard someone say it was a wig. [Laughs.] It is not a wig, that’s my hair.
Do you know that everybody thinks it was a wig! How did they achieve that?
They sprayed it. They teased it. There was some assistance in the back. But that’s the way that my mother wore her hair and the way that Tom’s mother wore her hair. That’s a typical look from that era, which is almost an era before the character. She’s still stuck in a look from a previous, sort of conservative time. Which is also helpful to understand her.
I was surprised to realize that you and Amy Adams had never been in a movie together before.
We hadn’t, no. We had encountered each other at awards shows and this and that and she’d worked with a lot of friends of mine. But we had a blast. Lots of laughter that day.
And there’s the fact that you’re not far enough apart in age to actually be mother and daughter.
No, I’m nine years younger. I mean, she’s nine years younger. [Laughs.]
But credit to Tom for thinking of you. Because of the flashback structure, it works.
I don’t know how he got to that decision. I wondered for a second whether it was going to work. But how fantastic that it did. And I totally agree. Amy is playing much younger for that scene and I’m playing older, so my casting fits. There’s a shift of energy and a shift of physicality, which you’ll often experience on stage, where something that shouldn’t work works.
Your character says to her daughter, “We’re more alike than you think.”
Yes, that’s right.
And then, with a smile, she says, “We all turn into our mothers.”
Well, listen, there’s something very powerful about ancestry. And mothers know best. In certain situations, particularly with who you’re dating. It’s completely annoying and infuriating and horrifying and insulting, but they tend to be right about that stuff. My mother was always right. And it pissed me off!
This performance reminded me a little bit of your incredible role opposite Gillian Anderson in The House of Mirth (2000), which is also very potent with very little screen time. Is there something great about popping in for a cameo?
It’s like a spectacular piece of delicious candy, like a rich, dark piece of chocolate. It’s the same thorough work as a larger part, but just on a smaller scale. And you don’t get to work with people as unique as Tom Ford very often in your career — so I got to have my experience in one satisfying bite. The world that he lives in, beautifully, is not a world that I’m accustomed to.
Also in 2000, you were the star of Kenneth Lonergan’s first film, You Can Count on Me. He’s on top of the world right now with Manchester by the Sea. Does he compare to Tom Ford?
Absolutely. They both understand their own writing in a very profound way. That’s a whole other level of skill and instinct and intuition. Kenny is a writer first, Tom is a designer. But I’m so impressed with people who can apply their talent in one medium to another.
Is it thrilling for you to see Lonergan receive such universal acclaim now?
I saw him at the Telluride Film Festival and I just burst into tears. That’s where I saw [Manchester by the Sea] for the first time and we did a Q&A afterward. I could barely keep my thoughts together. I was so proud of him and the movie is just so stunning and human. When there’s that combination of your friend and that type of success, it’s overwhelming.
What are some of your favorite small, one-scene-wonder type performances in movies?
Lynn Redgrave in Kinsey. I know I was in that film but, I mean, come on. Try not to cry during her one scene. That was so deeply beautiful, what she did. There’s something about watching her face. You know, watching Lynn, that that’s a lifetime of experience in film and in the theater and in life. And she gave the performance, all of that in a few minutes.
And that was one of her last movie roles. It’s amazing.
Incredible. And while I’m thinking of movies I was in, how about Ed Harris in The Truman Show? He has more than one scene, but I was there and witnessed it. He only shot for the last two or three days of the film. And he turned in that performance! I called him on the phone and I was like, “Motherf—er!” I said, “I was on that movie for six months, you motherf—er, and you come in for three days and you do that?”
Well, perhaps he owes you a similar type of call now.
[Laughs.] That’s nice of you.
Nocturnal Animals is now playing nationwide.