SAG Awards Preview: Laura Linney

6:12 PM PST 11/17/2010 by Randee Dawn
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At first, it's a relief to  be let in from the gray chill of Gotham's early-November streets, into the steam-heated warmth of the nearly 100-year-old Cort Theatre, just off Broadway. But next comes the ascent up floor after floor of ringing metal steps, higher and higher until there's nowhere else to go. Then, at the end of the climb, down a narrow hallway, a familiar dimpled, heart-shaped face framed by loose blond wisps of hair leans from an open doorway.

Laura Linney looks as if she's just done battle with a raptor.

Wine-red marks spray across her upper cheek and forehead, and she gestures briefly at them. "Tattoos," she says offhandedly, rolling up a pant leg to reveal further false gashes and tears on her calf.

She's about 15 minutes out of a Saturday matinee performance of Time Stands Still, a drama in which she plays a photojournalist disfigured by a roadside bomb.

When she's not making TV series or movies, it's easy to find Linney nestled in the tiny rooms and thin corridors of a theater -- where she finds sustenance between the hurly-burly of closed sets and cameras. With her scars on, Linney is prepped for the 8 p.m. performance but can't leave the theater. In theory, she could remove the self-applied stickers -- there's a fresh stack within arm's reach in the small meeting space, close to a drinking cup marked with her alma mater's seal (Brown University) -- and go outside. Instead, she curls up on a worn but comfy sofa, tugging a sweater around her, feet lost in oversized socks. She looks like your slightly older babysitter, ready to share confidences.

"Time," she says first. That's what the theater gives her that television and film roles can't. "Literally, the power of time. Only time lets you sink into a character or deepen a relationship; only time will allow something to grow and take on a life of its own. I can't tell you how many times I've finished a movie or TV thing, and on the last day I'm like, 'Oh, nowI know what to do.' "

Inasmuch as anyone can be said to live with a personal theme, Linney has identified hers: time. From the title of her current play to the undercurrent that propels her Showtime series The Big C, on which a woman diagnosed with terminal cancer shuns treatment to live out her remaining days by her own rules, the 46-year-old Linney is quite aware of the ticking clocks all around her.

"My age is a great age, but you're at the point where just by human nature you begin to think about time in a very different way," she says. "And the value and privilege of time. We just lost Jill Clayburgh yesterday." (Clayburgh survived leukemia for more than 20 years before succumbing Nov. 5.)

Cancer diagnosis as a catalyst for learning how to live is a strange and potentially facile concept for a series; Linney admits as much. "There was a concern that it was going to be reckless in its use of comedy," she says. "There's been a bit of relief about that now. It's not a comedy about cancer; it's a comedy about a woman with cancer, a very unusual woman."

But if Big C works, it's in large part because of Linney, who as star and producer is marshaling her two decades-plus of experience in the business to make it soar. She insisted on keeping the production near New York (Big C films in Connecticut) to capture "East Coast light," make use of the local acting pool and to capture the true change of seasons, which is how each of the show's seasons will advance.

"I wanted a specific feeling of place," she says. "We're dealing with seasons and the passage of time, so it was important to be able to see them. The show takes place in Minneapolis -- I didn't want it to look like Pasadena."

As she speaks, Linney's hands wave about like wings then settle in her lap, where she occasionally turns her laurel-leaf diamond wedding band (she married real estate agent Marc Schauer last year). Deep in the bowels of the Cort, a chime rings once, twice, three times. She takes her time and isn't afraid of long pauses as she comes up with the right words. There's a graceful silence as the radiator hums and sirens wail on the street outside.

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Linney hasn't arrived at this stage in her career by chance, though to say things were plotted out might be an overstatement. When she finished at Brown and Juilliard, the daughter of playwright Romulus Linney and nurse Miriam Perse had one burning desire: to act in the theater as much as possible. She wasn't keen on cameras and felt intimidated by that branch of acting. But her agent gave her a nudge: Go out for day-player parts, dip your toe in different waters. That led to small parts in features like Lorenzo's Oil and TV series like Law & Order. But Linney wasn't sold on nontheater media until the 1993 miniseries Tales of the City.

"It was one of those magical jobs," she says. "I made some of the best friends
of my life on it. It was the first time I connected to film work in the way I connect to theater work."

Not that it all came easy from there: Linney endured six months working on 1995's Congoin a role that required "no real acting," during which she spent free time hanging out with the crew, learning how they did their jobs. Then there were the various ignominies of low-budget films -- like the chicken coop from 2000's You Can Count on Me, the film that would earn Linney her first of three Oscar nominations. It was arguably the first time non-theatergoers sat up and took notice of the pale yet complex and steely presence Linney offered. On that set, there was no place to sit, and Linney and other actors were doing costume changes behind sheets and practicing lines while sitting on the grass. Linney complained to producers, and a recently vacated chicken coop was located nearby. After a major cleaning, it became the actors' holding.

"That's where we worked," she says. "I still remember looking around and seeing chicken shit hanging from a cobweb."

Over the years, Linney has evolved into a quiet, graceful, utterly reliable presence on stage and screen. In addition to those Oscar nominations, she has three Emmy wins corresponding with each of her nominations (Wild Iris, Frasier and John Adams) and three individual SAG Award nominations and one win (Adams). She may not be showy enough for Oscar voters, but she's a much brighter light than most audiences expect when they flip on the TV. With Big C, she's also taking on the first regular series of her career.

"It's done nothing but make me healthier, this show," Linney says. "I think of my life in a very different way because I'm dealing with someone who is thinking about their life in a very urgent way. Life is a little richer now because I'm aware that it's not to be taken
for granted."          

The SAG Awards
Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
Sunday, Jan. 30

The 17th annual SAG Awards nominations, selected by the guild's eligible members via online balloting, will be announced at 6 a.m. PT Thursday, Dec. 16, from the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. For the first time, the awards ceremony will be simulcast live in all time zones at 5 p.m. PT Sunday, Jan. 30, allowing West Coast viewers their first opportunity to watch the event as it happens. Ernest Borgnine will receive SAG's 47th Life Achievement Award for his career and humanitarian accomplishments.

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