Laura Linney: Having Desserts and Liquor

In recent years, premium cable channel Showtime has provided meatier roles for women than either Hollywood studios or network television offer, especially for actresses in their 40s or 50s.

But Showtime has built its brand on the very idea. The main characters in Weeds, Nurse Jackie, and United States of Tara—all women—are layered, complex personalities that are not clearly good or evil.

It’s newest black comedy, The Big C, stars 45-year-old Laura Linney, who plays a wife, mother, and teacher who has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

In a recent New York Times profile on Linney, Showtime’s Robert Greenblatt is quoted: “For us, it’s more: who are the extraordinary actors whom the critics like and who will garner awards? All of that is good publicity for us. And our audiences respond to so-and-so with an Oscar nomination or an Emmy.”

Greenblatt, formerly president of entertainment, kept a list of actresses over 40, which included the likes of Catherine Keener and Frances McDormand. Until recently, Linney was on the list as well.

Like Keener, Patricia Clarkson or Allison Janney, fellow actresses of her generation, Linney’s career did not start gaining speed until her mid-30s.

Educated at Brown, then Juilliard, and the daughter of playwright Romulus Linney, many probably assume that Linney's career was an easy climb. However, her parents divorced when she was only six months old, and she grew up in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother, who worked as a nurse in New York.

After she completed her graduate studies at Juilliard, she started her acting career in the theatre, with parts in Six Degrees of Separation and The Seagull. She had minor roles in several films, such as Dave, and spent several years acting on public television, in the miniseries Tales of the City. Her performance in The Truman Show as Jim Carrey's hired actress wife caused critics and audiences to notice her.

"What gave us all an additional challenge was that those of us who were cast to play the actors, we were playing an additional role. So we did all this elaborate back-story. So I made up my actress name Hanna Gill, who plays Meryl Burbank, who is married to Truman Burbank. So we did all this double layering of character work not really knowing what was going to come through. I'm glad that some of the people who have seen the movie can say that they can actually see it in all of us,” Linney said of her role.

In 2000, Linney received her first lead role, in the smaller indie film, You Can Count on Me. She played Sammy, a single mom, whose life is complicated by her new boss and her aimless brother's (Mark Ruffalo) arrival in town. She was nominated for her first Academy Award.

Her success over the past decade has not been limited to one medium, however. She returned to the stage for Uncle Vanya and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. She received a Tony Award nomination for the latter as Elizabeth Proctor.

Director Clint Eastwood, who cast her early on in his 1997 thriller Absolute Power, worked with her again in 2003’s Mystic River. Her role in Love Actually is what the majority of pop culture consuming population would remember her as. Recognizable to many, Linney’s diverse career and wide expanse of roles has allowed her to reach a certain level of fame, but not be an A-list star. Linney prefers it that way, saying she’s often mistaken for Helen Hunt or Laura Dern, and citing that theater fans are more likely to recognize her than movie-goers.

“All I wanted was a life in theater. It is the big surprise of my life that I also work in film and television. It is all much bigger than I ever imagined it would be,” Linney said in response to a New York Times reader’s question in June 2010.

A part in Kinsey (2004) garnered her another Academy Award nomination, as did her role in 2007’s The Savages, in which she co-starred with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

But, Linney adds, those nominations have been invaluable. “It’s helped to keep me working, quite frankly.”

Back on the boards, Linney received two more Tony nominations, for Sight Unseen in 2005, and most recently, as a war photographer in Time Stands Still, a role she will reprise in the October at the Cort Theatre.

Reviews are already coming in for Showtime’s The Big C, which premiered Monday night, and many of them praise Linney for being pitch perfect. Not surprising, considering she has three Emmy Awards for her work in Wild Iris, Frasier, and John Adams.

Linney fits well into Showtime’s stable and hopefully by displaying this wealth of great actresses—no matter their age—studios and networks will take note. Showtime’s formula of strong female characters is working.

But Linney says it the best herself: “A lifetime of work, particularly where you get to see an actor grow and change, is better than becoming a rock & roll movie star.” 



The Age of Laura Linney - NY Times
IMDb - Laura Linney
Internet Broadway Database