Laura Linney Goes Crazy for 'The Details' and Remembers Her Wild-Child NYC Past
A triple Emmy winner and three-time Oscar nominee, the New York native dissects her next film, the future of "The Big C" and the state of Hollywood.
Laura Linney can hardly contain her laughter.
“Someone once wanted me to play Mother Teresa,” she giggles, working the words out just before cracking into hysterical reminiscence. “It was a long time ago, actually, after The Truman Show. It was a television movie. I just laughed, I laughed for a half-hour. I mean, c’mon. I’m almost 5-foot-8 and very blond. It’s hysterical. They were going to put prosthetic makeup on me. I just had this image of me, you know – she was like 4-10 or something. Tiny, little … it was just so funny.”
To be fair, by her own admission, Linney is hard to pigeonhole: She has done costume drama, playing Abigail Adams in HBO's John Adams, for which she won one of her three Emmys; foretold the future of reality TV as a Stepford-style wife in The Truman Show); and has come to represent a new generation of cancer survivors via her Showtime dramedy, The Big C). And this winter, the New York native’s résumé will only become more varied.
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She co-stars in the upcoming Hyde Park on Hudson as Daisy Suckley, the distant cousin, companion and maybe-mistress of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, played by Bill Murray. That film, a Focus Features release set for December, will earn plenty of buzz on its own, but on this late-fall afternoon in a hotel just a 6 train stop from her childhood home on the Upper East Side, Linney is doing her part to drum up attention for an indie comedy she made three years ago, The Details.
It’s one of those films that somehow gets stuck waiting for release, despite a big profile out of Sundance, a high-caliber cast and edgy approach to the modern bourgeois American affliction of suburban angst -- a subject matter that never goes out of style. Linney plays the crazy, hypersexual cat-lady who lives next door to a handsome couple (Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks). A shut-in who develops a crush on the one-time Spider-Man when he comes over to sweet talk-her into allowing him to tweak her yard in a fight against raccoons (and is anything more relatable than that?), she suffers a meltdown as the story goes on. She is equal parts deranged and seductive, with a wide-eyed smile masking the imbalance in her chemical equilibrium.
It’s hard to pinpoint when, if at all, Linney has taken an unsatisfying role for the money, reading assigned lines to cash a check so she can pursue her more artistic ventures; her IMDb profile is remarkably clear of such summer clunkers. But working on an indie film as small as The Details gave her even more creative control than she’d be afforded normally, which meant reworking -- and spicing up -- the character to her own specifications.
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“I wanted her to have a little sort of fantastical sort of appeal,” she recalls. “I wanted a little Nancy Sinatra. So opposed to being more toward bag lady or just depressed indigent agoraphobe, I wanted her to be someone who had an active, active imagination. And someone who was alone and lonely and agoraphobic and a germophobe and all of that. And who had an imagination that just wouldn’t quit. And had an adolescent, innocent, penchant toward idolatry, but at the same time had a rabid, carnal sexual need that had to be filled.”
It’s a tall order, creating a vulnerable predator, but one she dived into with relish, using the 10 days she had on director Jacob Estes’ set -- “good old independent filmmaking, it’s difficult and you roll up your sleeves and you get to work” -- to create a character Linney calls absolutely unique from anything else she’s ever done.
That it’s taken so long for the film to screen in theaters -- it’s now in limited release and available on-demand -- is one of the more frustrating aspects of devoting oneself to an independent production. It’s an all-hands-on-deck type of effort, from helping to secure financing to forgoing fancy accommodations to shoehorning interviews into a busy schedule that had been set long before a last-minute promotional blitz is thrown together. It is symptomatic, she says, of Hollywood’s increased devotion to franchise, tentpole events rich in explosions and spandex.
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“There’s always something -- it seems that people aren’t satisfied with just having a good return,” Linney laments, sighing. “Now it has to be the biggest return. People aren’t satisfied with just doing something that’s really terrific, that you contribute something really nice to the world, and you make a little money in the process.”
Yet here she is, undaunted, in Midtown, defying the uphill struggle.
“The ones that were really worth it, the ones that I’m the proudest of, take time,” she says. “And they take people who want to stand by you and keep you in it, even though maybe a financial person will say, ‘Well, I’ll make it if you make it with this person.’ ”
She will have much more time to devote to films, whether studio flicks or slow-moving indies, after The Big C wraps in the spring. Showtime in July gave the series an order for four hourlong episodes to finish the story of cancer-stricken suburbanite Cathy Jamison, who swam away from her divided family in the season three finale. When the episode aired, the show's producers did not know if they’d be back but were willing to roll the dice.
“I think it would have been sort of womp womp womp,” Linney says of whether she would have been satisfied with the season-three ending serving as the story’s final word. “I just don’t think it would have. I mean, it could have ended there -- and I think it was sort of intentionally designed that if it had to end there it would have ended there, but I don’t find it terribly satisfying.”
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And if Linney knows anything, it’s a good story. Chalk it up to genetics; she is the daughter of the prominent late playwright Romulus Linney, and grew up attending his shows and aspiring to take the stage herself. And when she’s not working on a TV show or film, she does just that, having starred in nearly a dozen plays during the past two decades and earning a Tony nomination for her most recent, the 2010-11 run of Time Stands Still.
“It’s very much an actor’s medium, and there’s something about the routine of it that’s very comforting,” she says of the theater's appeal. “But more than anything else, what you get on stage is time. You don’t get time doing television or film. And part of the challenge is the lack of time. With theater, time is an element that influences everything you do. And you can’t fake that, and you can’t generate it, and just time will work on things.”
It also helps to be in her comfort zone. She lives in Stamford, Conn. (where -- at her insistence -- The Big C shoots), which is a quick commute into Manhattan. This hotel room looks out onto Park Avenue, about 15 blocks south and five west of her childhood home on 64th street between 1st and York Avenues -- her mother was a nurse at nearby Sloan Kettering. Linney could peer out the window here and see the urban playground of her youth.
“There was a bowling alley, on like 82nd or 83rd, between York and East End. It was great. I went there a lot. Movie theaters, museums, Central Park, bouncing around. We were all sort of wild childs; children had much more freedom than they do now. Much more,” she recalls, memories of ragtag 1960s and '70s flooding back. “We were all running all over the place, in ways that would be shocking to people today. So yeah, bowling. There was a gymnastics class I took at a gym that doesn’t exist anymore, over by New York Hospital. Central Park, the Frick Museum. We were running around the Frick a lot; I’m sure we drove them all crazy.”
It’s a city she still frequents, for work and play -- Linney flashes her New Yorker creds by listing Brooklyn as her favorite new place to explore -- and for an always-busy actress, doesn’t spend all that much time in Los Angeles. Tax incentives and location shoots have taken production out of Hollywood backlots and cast them from Vancouver to New Orleans to New York, a less-than-regrettable development.
“I find New York to be sort of brutally honest: If someone’s pissed off, you know it; if someone’s annoyed, you know it,” she says with a laugh. “If they like you, you know it. And in Los Angeles, that’s sort of all up in the air. You have no idea what’s going on. Everyone’s scared. Everyone’s very scared out there. Everyone’s afraid. It’s just business-oriented. It’s just a business town. And art and business are very strange bedfellows, and always have been. They’re co-dependent, but they’re very different, and you need different types of people to do each one, and they need to respect each other.”
Few handle that balance as well as Linney.