The daughter of playwright Romulus Linney, and a Julliard graduate, Laura Linney had extensive experience in the theatrical world before finally making a name for herself in film. After taking a number of bit parts, Linney broke through with a series of substantial roles in thrillers like Congo, Primal Fear, and Absolute Power, the first of her collaborations with director Clint Eastwood, who cast her again six years later in Mystic River. But Linney's remarkable performance in 2000's You Can Count On Me put her (and co-star Mark Ruffalo) on the map, earning her an Oscar nomination and a near-sweep of the major critics' awards. Linney earned another Oscar nomination for her work in Kinsey, and has appeared to great acclaim in such films as The Squid And The Whale, P.S., The House Of Mirth, Love Actually, and The Nanny Diaries, among many others. She also won Emmys for the lead role in the 2001 TV movie Wild Iris and for a guest appearance on Frasier.
In The Savages, the new film by Slums Of Beverly Hills writer-director Tamara Jenkins, Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman star as siblings whose lives undergo major upheaval when they're forced to take care of their ailing, irascible father (Philip Bosco). Linney recently spoke to The A.V. Club about grown-up children's responsibility to their parents, her methods for getting acquainted with characters, and the choices involved in fashioning a career.
The A.V. Club: How did you get involved in The Savages?
Laura Linney: It's sort of a boring answer: The script was sent to me, I read it, and I loved it. I just loved it. Not only because the characters were so terrific, but because the script was in perfect shape. Perfect. Which is unusual, because most of the time, scripts are still works in progress, and this one needed nothing.
AVC: But the actual process of getting it made took time.
LL: No one wanted to do it.
AVC: Reportedly, Focus Features wanted to make the movie, but not with you and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead roles. Did you feel like the film wasn't going to get made?
LL: No, I knew it would get made, but I'm very grateful to Tamara [Jenkins] and the producers for sticking with us. They could've dumped us and had the movie made with twice the budget or three times the budget, with other actors. The thing that was the most puzzling… [not casting] me, I can understand. But Phil was about to win the Oscar. The man was going to win the Oscar. It was so obvious, and the fact that they wouldn't… I just didn't know what to say. And there was a part of me that was a little like, "Oh. Hmm. That hurts a bit. It stings a bit." It's more of a bruise than a sting. But at the same time, what gets me is that the priority's not to make the best movie that you can make. The goal seems to me at times just to be business first. There's time for that. It would be nice if people thought the other way sometimes. And there's some people who do.
AVC: Nearly all grown-up children face decisions at some point about what to do with their parents when they're no longer self-sufficient. Yet movies stay away from that, for the most part. Is it something people are just ashamed or afraid to think about?
LL: I think it's just dread. I mean, the idea of losing a parent is really inconceivable. I think there's just an undertone of dread about the subject, so people don't talk about it and don't prepare for it.
AVC: And a certain element of guilt as well, of "How do you do right by them?"
LL: And particularly, how do you do right by one who hasn't really treated you very well, with this movie as an example of that. What's your responsibility as a child to a parent, and one who hasn't treated you well? What do you do?
AVC: In this film, your character's in the position of trying to persuade her brother to do the right thing, because if he had his way, maybe things would go differently.
LL: I think what she's really trying to do—she has this false hope that somehow she's going to have the relationship she always wanted with her father, but it doesn't really change. Wendy's really, in a child-like way, thinking if she decorates the room and gets him the nicest nursing home, he will have a bond and a revelation and a love for her that isn't really there now, and one that she hasn't felt.
AVC: It's so common for people to have mortgages, families, careers, and lives of their own that caring properly for a feeble parent can be impossible. Is it a luxury to have that ability?
LL: I think you have to have the disposition for it. You have to take the responsibility of it. You have to know what it is, and you have to want that to be a part of your life. You have to value it. And our society's lost complete contact with that, because people just don't live together any more. People really don't know what's happening, and it turns into people seeing it as a burden as opposed to an essential part of life that no one is exempt from, unless you go before a parent.
AVC: How much preparation was necessary for you to pull off this role? LL: When the writing is good, it's always easier. Having said that, there was also an enormous amount to figure out about her—who she was, why she was the way she was, what was she really doing, what was she reacting about, what were her triggers—and the thing that was fun about that part was that the boundaries of her character were really far apart. She could be unbelievably narcissistic, and yet very giving and empathetic. She could be manic and she could be very still. She could be like a 5-year-old, and then she could have moments of great wisdom. So it gave me a lot of in-between space to play with. A lot of room. If you play just the extremes, it wouldn't have the impact that hopefully it does. So there was a lot of script work that I did. A lot.
AVC: Script work, as in consulting with—
LL: No, time that I spent alone with the script. You read it and read it and read it and read it, and it sort of tells you how to start working on it. And then you go through every single line and make sure you know what you're saying, and what it's referencing, and then your imagination kicks in, and you start fantasizing about periods and times of that person's life, or what they're thinking. And your mind just starts to go, and it's a way you bond with the script; you get to know the story. So I did a lot of that. You do all that and then you throw it away. You walk on a soundstage or on set, and you just respond to what's there.
AVC: That process is similar to what Mike Leigh tends to do: He comes to his actors with an outline, and it's really up to them to create their characters. Is that a situation you would like?
LL: I love to work in all sorts of different situations. I think you learn a lot, which is why I try not to approach something the same way, because it might not be appropriate, and then you can get lazy just out of boredom. So I love any approach. But Mike Leigh is a director who I admire, and those performances always have a depth and richness that most others don't, because of the time they spend in prep before they go on set.
AVC: That level of creative involvement isn't something you necessarily associate with actors. It's something you tend to think is in the filmmakers' hands.
LL: Well, in theater, it's common, and there are a lot of people who approach it this way—who create the world themselves so they know. It also just helps you. You do whatever you can to help yourself.
AVC: How far do you usually go in researching a role? Do you need to spend time among the Upper East Side set to do The Nanny Diaries?
LL: It depends. It depends on the script. It depends on… I grew up on the Upper East Side, or around it, so I knew that area a little bit. I didn't grow up in that milieu, but they were all next door in the nicer apartment down the street. [Laughs.] When I did Primal Fear, I sat and watched a lot of lawyers in Chicago. There are certain films that you will go and watch for manual stuff, to see how bodies are affected by what someone does. So it really depends.
AVC: Did the nature of your sibling relationship in The Savages call to mind You Can Count On Me a little? When you enter into a screen relationship where two people know each other that well, does a lot need to happen between yourself and that other actor before the cameras ever roll?
LL: I didn't really think of You Can Count On Me while I was making this movie at all. I see them as so different. The fact that they're both sibling films, and that sibling films are unusual, I think will make people make the connection. And there were a few people who were like, "Do you really want to do a brother-sister movie again?" And I thought, "Well, can I never play a wife again, either?" [Laughs.] The dynamics in the relationship are so different. I loved being the younger sister in this situation. It was fun. We're just really lucky in that Mark Ruffalo and I fell into it very easily, and the same thing with Phil Hoffman. I've had fantastic fictional brothers. A girl couldn't have better fictional brothers.
AVC: Is there much rehearsal, or do you just arrive on the set and go from there? Would you prefer to have more time?
LL: You always want more time. I think it just helps. It's difficult with film, because you're not on the set, you're not in the clothes, so rehearsal, in film terms, is really about going through the text and asking a few questions. A lot of people use it as a good excuse to change the dialogue. "Rehearsal" means "I want to change it." [Laughs.]
AVC: But for you, the rehearsal process doesn't make things stale?
LL: No, absolutely not.
AVC: Is that because you have a stronger theater background?
LL: Probably. And there are people who are afraid they won't be able to re-create it. They bottle it up and then they let it go, and I have the opposite viewpoint. However, when I work with someone like Clint Eastwood or [director] Ray Lawrence, who did Jindabyne, it's one take, and that's it. So that's working in a very different way. You can learn a lot. Any situation, if you open yourself up to it, no matter how difficult or tedious or uncomfortable or anxiety-producing it may be, you just let it go and say "What can I learn here? How can this situation make me better? What do I need to do so that situation will help the movie?"
AVC: You say Ray Lawrence and Clint Eastwood are one-take guys. Could you be equally comfortable doing the David Fincher, 100-take school as well?
LL: Yes, I think so. You get on board with how a director works, and that's what you do.
AVC: If it's an emotional scene, does it become difficult to access that emotion again and again and again?
LL: Not if you continue working. It does if you stop working. And sometimes, of course, you get to a point where you're just exhausted. People don't usually cry all day long—unless you're in crisis or you're grieving, that doesn't happen. So when you're working, you can get really tired.
AVC: Do you have techniques for getting into a character's headspace?
LL: Do you have five hours? [Laughs.] Yeah, sure. And it's not instant pudding. It doesn't just happen. I hope it looks like it just happens, but it's layers and layers of different kinds of work. There's the text work, there's basic research you can do about the time and the place and the situations that you're dealing with. The environments. All that stuff.
AVC: But when you're on the spot, do you need to be left alone? Are you temperamental in a certain way when you're actually shooting?
LL: When I'm actually shooting, I can be temperamental occasionally if things are more difficult than they need to be. I'm noise-sensitive. It's always better for me if things are quiet, so I can concentrate. Most actors will get irritable if they're tired, and they're vulnerable, and things are more difficult than they need to be.
AVC: If they're not directed properly?
LL: Yes. The best directors that I've worked with, they create an environment in which you can do your work. That's really what they do. And they're sort of like an invisible hand that somehow guides you through. Clint Eastwood is amazing, though. You only do one take, but he so knows what's going on. And a really good director will make you feel that you've come to every decision on your own. I've worked with directors, particularly in theater, where I've seen them watch a scene, and I've watched them watch an actor, and I've seen them clock in their brain that they need to be told something. They need their actors to get to a certain place, and they won't tell them—they'll let them get there on their own. They will somehow guide them. They won't give them the answer; they'll guide them there, and the person doesn't even know it. That's a wonderful thing for a director to do for someone. But it takes great restraint for many people, and it takes great faith in what an actor is capable of.
AVC: Does it take time, too? You've worked with first-time filmmakers. Does it take time for them to figure out what they're doing?
LL: Oh, of course it does. Particularly writer-directors. They have a very hard time, because they've been so close to the material for so long, and they have it in their brain exactly what they want, and they think they have to be very efficient. So they skip steps as far as something coming to life, giving something a little time or a little air. And they also have to let go of the balloon, you know? They have to let it go, and it's hard. Understandably hard. So you have to get to a point where a director will trust you, and be like, "I have your story's best interests at heart. Any decisions I'm doing are based on my experience as an actor on what works and what doesn't, and I promise you that I'm building to where you want it to go, but you have to let me get there. You have to let me craft this part of it." And that's just about experience.
AVC: You work very frequently and in a lot of different roles, presumably up and down the pay scale. What's your philosophy in terms of how you navigate your career?
LL: I don't navigate it. I would love to tell you that I was that powerful, but very few actors are that powerful, and I don't think it's anything that can really be navigated anyway.
AVC: Well, you can select what you want to do.
LL: Yeah, basically I select the best stuff that comes my way, or stuff where I feel I'll be able to contribute and help make it come alive, and also things that will teach me something in the process. So I tend to think about that, and hopefully a good career is the result of those things. A good career isn't generated, at least in my mind. A good career is the result of good work piling up. And then someone can go, "Oh, that was a nice career." [Laughs.] I see a career as a result of things, not as the beginning.
AVC: What's the most rewarding part of the process for you? What is it that you like about acting?
LL: I think the connection. The connection to the people, to the material, and the creative process.
AVC: Does it matter to you how it's received?
LL: You know, it's really nice if it does well, and if you like it. And it's certainly vitally important to producers who put in all their money. You always want them to make their money back, and then some. But for me, it's really the process of all of it. I love being a student. I get to be a student for the rest of my life, and fortunately, I have a good disposition for this. I'm always curious, but I'm learning things I never thought I'd learn. I get to travel to places I never thought I'd go. I made a movie in Argentina! I went to Budapest! It's fantastic that way.
AVC: You're only part of a movie—have you ever been surprised by how differently a movie has turned out than you might have envisioned?
LL: You usually have a general sense of what it's going to be. If you think it's going to be bad, it's going to be bad—but you don't know how bad it'll be. When you think something has a chance to be good, it'll be good—but you don't know how good it will be. Like, "Oh, this is not gonna work," but you don't know on the scale of bad where it's going to fall, whether it's just "Ah, this didn't work" or atrocious. And it could be anywhere on that scale. Or a movie that you think is gonna be good, but it could be like "Oh, that's a good movie," or a movie that's really spectacular. You just don't know.
AVC: Have you ever finished a movie thinking "This is going to be great," and then you were disappointed by it—or the reverse?
LL: Oh, sure.
AVC: Were you surprised by how good something was?
LL: I think it's delighted more than surprised when something works out well. And if a movie turns out really well, a lot of times it has absolutely nothing to do with me. It has to do with it being beautifully produced, and editing is unbelievably important, and they've chosen the right music, and they've paced it the right way. All of that stuff.
AVC: Are there any actresses you model yourself after?
LL: No. I mean, certainly there are many, many actresses whom I admire and love to learn from, whom I love to watch and see what they do. That's fantastic. But I think everyone's journey through this crazy, weird, wild, wonderful area of work is really their own. And if you're going for something that isn't yours, you're wasting time. You could be focused on your own work instead of thinking about somebody else.