You might not immediately be able to put a face to the name ‘Laura Linney’. And you wouldn’t be the only one, since despite a prolific film career spanning over a decade, and a wide range of prestigious award nominations, she rarely appears in the press unless in connection with her latest film or character. You’ll have a hard time trying to find Linney gracing the gossip pages of Heat magazine. Perhaps this is why I don’t instantly recognise her when introduced to her amongst a small group of people having a civilised cup of tea at the Randolph. Those who are unfamiliar with Linney’s filmography will most likely recognise her as “that American one from Love Actually”, or as Frasier Crane’s girlfriend, if you were still watching Frasier by 2004.
Linney’s career thus far has seen her working with some of the most well-respected artists in Hollywood, in a host of highly influential films, and yet she remains surprisingly level-headed and approachable. Interviewers in the past have noted how Linney frequently makes sure to introduce herself personally to everyone present, and our interview does not prove an exception. Standing to shake hands with each flustered student that arrives to meet her, she remains unwaveringly friendly and, much to my relief, wholly unpatronising. We begin with small talk about malfunctioning Dictaphones, as I attempt to set mine up, before I enquire whether she’s managed to visit some of the more picturesque Oxford Colleges – ‘I would have’, she says sadly, ‘but they’re closed to the public, so I sort of peeked in through the gate and tried to get a sneak look in’. I consider pointing out that she’d find it relatively easy to use her celebrity status to get a private tour, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that such antics wouldn’t be her style.
A brief glance at the films Linney has featured in over the last decade reveals real variation in the projects she chooses to take on. From the unnerving thriller ‘The Mothman Prophecies’, to quirky blockbuster ‘The Truman Show’, or even the Edith Wharton classic ‘The House of Mirth’, Linney refuses to restrict herself to one genre, no matter how successful she may prove to be within it. She denies sticking to any sort of overall ‘game plan’ when selecting roles, believing that having such a fixed career path and setting out to prove oneself to the public is often counterproductive. ‘When actors choose their own material, I think it’s a little dangerous because there’s some personal agenda there that’s at work that isn’t necessarily very good for the material’. She may well have a point. It’s often painfully obvious when actors take on a particularly controversial role merely for the sake of publicity (‘Eyes Wide Shut’ anyone?), or veer towards films they believe have ‘Oscar winning potential’ (think gay cowboy dramas and the like). This is a technique which can go horribly wrong, with actors choosing parts which they simply can’t pull off. ‘You can see some people choosing something that just doesn’t work, and you can tell they did it because they wanted to be sexier, or there was some need to prove a side of their personality…’
Yet Linney seems to avoid falling into this trap, genuinely choosing projects based on their artistic worth, or how much they interest her. Such an attitude certainly involves making sacrifices – for her role in the low-budget film You Can Count On Me, released in 2000, she received the union minimum wage of $10,000, but was rewarded in return with her first Academy Award Nomination for Best Actress. She received a second nomination a few years later, this time for Best Supporting Actress, for her role in Kinsey, in which she played the eponymous sex psychologist’s wife, opposite Liam Neeson. This approach to her career may explain why she’s been involved in such a wide range of different films, and successfully avoided being typecast.
So what persuades her to take on a new project? Unsurprisingly, ‘nine times out of ten it’s the script and what potential the script holds. Then there’s director or actors. There has to be one of those three elements. If there are two of the three then that’s pretty good…’ So has she ever been involved in something with all three elements? The response is instantaneous – ‘Yes. Mystic River, because that had a great script, Clint Eastwood and Sean Penn. Didn’t take long to figure that one out.’
Her immense enthusiasm for these films, evident in the warmth with which she talks about them, undoubtedly results in intense dedication to the project in hand. Listening to Linney describe how she manages to cope with the disjointed way of filming a movie, out of chronological order, gives you a particularly clear insight into her approach to acting. ‘A lot of times, I’ll take a big piece of cardboard and I’ll make charts and lists and graphs, and I do all sorts of “mad scientist” things so if I do a scene, I can see where it falls in sequence.’ This science metaphor seems appropriate here, since Linney’s approach to the development of her character seems almost mathematical – ‘if I know something in scene five has to hit in scene sixty, I need to set it up properly. If I’m, doing scene 59 and there was something that I did in scene 7 that relates to that, I have to remember what happened.’ Award shows and glamour aside, Linney clearly takes each role very seriously.
As an actress, she doesn’t like to anticipate, in the long term, where her career might take her, preferring, as she puts it, ‘the unexpected things in life – that’s just the life of an actor.’ As such, when I enquire as to what her dream role would be, she is adamant that she can’t bring herself to try and imagine it. ‘You know, I can’t answer that, because I don’t think that way. I wish I did. I really wish I could think that way. It would make my life, and probably my agent’s life much easier, but part of the fun for me is not knowing what’s around the corner’.
Indeed, her career has been far from one-track, with Linney eager to switch, at least temporarily, from film to television when given the opportunity, most notably in a recurring role on Frasier, for which she won her second Emmy award. ‘The thing that was so interesting, and the reason I did it, was that I know absolutely nothing about the sitcom’. The experience, she says, was completely different to any of her previous projects, and highly liberating – ‘you have to be willing to be very flexible, because things change constantly… you really have to be as free and as easy as you possibly can be, and not let yourself be thrown by anything. You have to go into sitcoms with a real sense of joy.’
On the other end of the spectrum, Linney’s appearances on Broadway have seen her tackle highly serious dramas, most noticeably Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, in which she and Liam Neeson, in their roles as Elizabeth and John Proctor, created an “emotional temperature that leaves you weak”, as one enthralled critic put it. When asked whether she’ll be gracing the boards of London’s West End in the near future, she insists that ‘anywhere I’m invited to in theatre I would pretty much show up’, (take note, budding student directors) and admits that she’s hoping to make a return to the stage before long.
Linney genuinely seems to revel working within a large cast of characters, be it on the stage or in front of the camera. Speaking about ‘Love Actually’ she admits to finding the experience a hugely positive one – ‘I loved being around all those people, I loved the ensemble feel, that one producer would do something and then pass the baton to the next producer. It was this sort of collage of little things, and you were just a small part of something much bigger.’
As the interview draws to a close, I ask her what she’s going to be talking about at the Union, and the reply is unsurprisingly modest – ‘mostly it’ll probably be more Q & A, just where I think I can be more helpful… just seeing what students are wondering about’.
At this she stands once more to greet her next eager visitor. One presumes she must get rather tired of this process, after a decade in the spotlight, but if she does then she certainly doesn’t let it show.