What’s eating Laura Linney? What lurks beneath that trademark sunniness? Anxiety? Passion? A robot? After I meet the celebrated actress for a coffee in Manhattan—where alongside her television and theatrical work she’s promoting not one but two new films (Bill Murray’s FDR portrait, Hyde Park on the Hudson, and Tobey Maguire’s indie-comedy The Details)—I’m tempted to say it’s dedication to her craft. Or maybe dedication’s not-too-distant cousin: workaholism.
Linney has made a career playing willful, professional women so high-strung you worry they might snap at any second. But because her roles are rarely attention-grabbing—she has been almost typecast as the supportive pillar to brilliant, complex men—the actress has been able to build an enviable body of work (and several Oscar nominations) without acquiring the same trappings of stardom you’d expect from an actress of her stature. When we get to talking about her work, she sounds more like a devoted artisan than a coddled starlet.
Your career didn’t start with one breakout success. It’s been a steady build from the 1990s.
And that’s been a really good thing! [Laughs]
How would you describe the place you are right now?
You know—I get to work. I’m a working actor person. I’ve benefited from the consistency of work. And I haven’t had a backlash from being too successful or too famous too early.
And you’ve emerged as one of our great actresses.
That’s nice of you to say. My career came to be what it is over time. I just didn’t go away, I guess! [Laughs]
Is there something now you look for in a role that you didn’t starting out?
There has to be the basics: a good script, a good director, a great actor to work opposite. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also developed an eye for practicalities. Where are we filming this? And what time of the year is it? You want me to be outside in the freezing cold? Do I really want to be in the water, at night, in October…in Canada? [Laughs]
You have this knack for picking amazing costars—and especially amazing male costars: Liam Neeson, Jim Carrey, Richard Gere, and now Bill Murray.
Oh I don’t get a choice; I’m just lucky! Liam and I had done The Crucible in New York together. I was attached to Kinsey first and recommended him for the role. We work so well together and we’re such good friends. That was a great situation, because we had just spent nine months working as husband and wife on stage, and we were able to take all of that shared experience and pour it into the film.
And Bill Murray? Is he a goofball on set?
He does make a lot of jokes; but there’s the other side of him which I think people would be surprised by—and that’s how hard he works. I don’t know why people think comedians don’t work hard, because they do. He worked so hard. Hyde Park on the Hudson was important to him. And that’s just a gutsy thing to do—to play FDR. I was impressed by his bravery to do it.
That film really brings out this role you can play like no one else. You can both be your own person, but also be a bulwark for a man—and usually a serious, somewhat troubled, somewhat insecure man. What do you give to these male figures?
Oh my! [Laughs] You’d have to ask them! I really don’t know.
For Hyde Park, for example, you play FDR’s mistress and confidante during a crucial time in world politics. It’s such a complex role to play. How did you talk about the character on set?
To be honest, the more I work the less I talk on set. I do a lot of script-based work, then I show up and let the environment and the dynamic inform what I do. You can talk yourself into a soup about a particular scene. Or you can just do it a few times and your answer will probably come.
Did you always know you wanted to do this?
I knew when I was really young. I had no idea I was going to do film and TV. But theater, I knew. My father was a playwright. I grew up in the city and was always entranced by it. I’m sure there was some sort of DNA in me.
Is your heart still in the theater?
Oh yeah. I did a run for about a year and a half last year in between different shoots. I just miss the theater if I don’t do it.
What do you miss?
I miss being home. I miss the routine in it. But really what I miss is the time. You get an element of time that you don’t get in any other medium. You can’t force it. It can’t be faked. Time will just deepen things in a way that film or TV doesn’t allow for.
What about your role in The Details? This was a new direction for you.
You know independent movies are very intense, you have to go in like a kamikaze. But I loved this part. I loved playing someone with no boundaries at all. She’s deeply crazy. And dangerous. It was really a fun thing to try and balance. And Tobey [Maguire] was incredibly generous and a great sport about letting me maul him completely.
We got a glimpse to a crazier, more unhinged side of Laura Linney here. Is this totally different than who you are in real life?
I certainly hope so! [Laughs] It was just something different. Something totally wackadoo—but not frivolous.