Laura Linney tells Tom Dawson why she jumped at the chance to take on her most complex role to date, as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s troubled sibling in The Savages
Breezing into a Soho hotel room on a sunny autumn morning during the London Film Festival, a smiling Laura Linney exudes a patrician charm and confidence. One of her fingers is encased in a splint, the result of a bathroom accident that very morning, but she’s not going to let this minor mishap get in the way of her promotional duties. ‘We’ll just ignore the pain,’ she says with a self-deprecatory laugh.
Linney’s conversation is full of language like ‘wonderful’, ‘absolutely’, ‘you bet’ and ‘I loved it’. She praises London as the ‘only place other than Manhattan where I could live and be very happy. I’ve shot a couple of films here, Love Actually and Driving Lessons and I always jump at the chance to come over.’
In the past, interviewers have been critical of what they consider to be Linney’s prim manner, suggesting that her external politeness is designed to keep questioners at arm’s length. One journalist described meeting her as ‘rather like sitting down with a teacher to discuss your essay’. Today, however, her cheerful optimism does not seem calculated: what comes across is just how passionate she is about her work.
Since her breakthrough role a decade ago as Jim Carrey’s seemingly perfect girlfriend in The Truman Show, Linney has amassed an impressive body of work. She has moved between more commercial projects – including two films for Clint Eastwood (Absolute Power and Mystic River), the Working Title romantic comedy Love Actually and the biopic of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey (for which she was Oscar-nominated) – and more independent fare. She excels at playing flawed women on the verge of implosion: think of her self-serving matriarch in The Squid and the Whale, or her emotionally troubled wife in the Raymond Carver adaptation Jindabyne.
Paired opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages, an unglamorous-looking Linney delivers another outstanding naturalistic performance. Directed by Tamara Jenkins, this ambling, tragi-comic film concerns two adult siblings, Wendy and John (Linney and Hoffman), who, while struggling with their own unfulfilled lives are suddenly forced to care for their father (Philip Bosco), who is suffering from dementia.
‘It’s unusual to receive a script that’s in perfect condition before you start,’ says Linney of her involvement in The Savages. ‘Tamara and I had met previously on a movie that didn’t materialise for either of us, so we already knew each other. The hard part was getting financed. I’ve made a few of these smaller films – I tend to be attracted to them – and they always get made. You have to be very patient, but if the material is really good, it will get made. I realise I’m not an enormous draw for film financiers, and I’m grateful to Tamara and her producers for sticking with me and Phil when they could have got the movie made with bigger-name actors.’
So, what was it that attracted her to The Savages? ‘Well it was the whole idea of what you do with a parent who is ageing and who never really loved you,’ she replies. ‘Particularly when the child is already challenged, as Jon and Wendy are. They’re both a mess in their own ways. What I liked was that Wendy isn’t a typical protagonist. She lies, cheats, steals and is adulterous. She’s also a kaleidoscope of energy – she ricochets all over the place.’
Wendy, in other words, is exactly the sort of troubled female character Linney gravitates towards. ‘For an actress Wendy is so much fun to play,’ she agrees. ‘The borders of her character are very far apart: she’s narcissistic and yet she’s very giving and empathetic. What’s interesting is how you make somebody with such extreme colours seem feasible and not ridiculous. You don’t want to turn it into farce, you want the material to move you in a different way.’
Born on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1964, Linney grew up immersed in the theatre as her father Romulus was a playwright and drama professor, although she lived with her cancer nurse mother after her parents divorced. Following an undergraduate degree, she studied acting for four years at the prestigious Julliard drama school in New York and in Moscow, before heading to Broadway. While acknowledging her love of theatre, Linney admits that she now appreciates ‘film for the sake of film. I find myself enjoying the film community and the work they do, and that’s why I love coming to festivals. Through film a very different element has been added to my life, which I never thought would be there.’
Currently engaged to Marc Schauer, having divorced her first husband David Adkins in 2000, Linney has already completed filming on The City of the Final Destination in Argentina, alongside Anthony Hopkins. She also stars opposite Paul Giamatti in the forthcoming HBO mini-series about the president John Adams, one of America’s Founding Fathers, and the first ambassador to England after the War of Independence. The busy actress is also returning to Broadway later this year to play the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons.
Whatever the project, Linney’s acting credo remains the same: she’s there to serve the story. ‘You know, sometimes you watch an actor in a big emotional scene,’ she says. ‘You see the tears and hear the shouting, but you feel nothing. To me that’s because the acting is not connected to the story. I remember one first-time film director in a panic, telling me that my character was supposed to be upset, and I said, “We’re only on page two, she’s still going to be upset on page eight, we’ll get there.” Sometimes you don’t play every emotion in one scene, because you want people to get to know your character over a couple of hours. It’s always more powerful if you can build up to it.’
The Savages is out on Fri 25 Jan.
Mad Bad Dads
Linney’s new film The Savages features a nonchalant and neglectful father figure in the form of Philip Bosco. Paul Dale savours some of cinema’s other bad dads
Grandpa Edwin Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine Alan Arkin’s supporting turn as the porn-loving, drug-taking father of Greg Kinnear’s frustrated family man was one of the celluloid joys of 2006. When he gets inveigled into a pageant road trip as the dancing coach of his granddaughter the old fool gets the last laugh.
Bill Cleg in Spider You really don’t want a dad like Bill Cleg (played by Gabriel Byrne) who casts a shadow over David Cronenberg’s superb 2002 psychodrama Spider. Not only does he like a drink but he’s pretty handy with a spade when it comes to trading in one Miranda Richardson for another. No wonder Spider (Ralph Fiennes) builds webs in his mental institute dormitory.
Jack Torrance in The Shining Jack Nicholson becomes the maddest baddest daddy of them all when the snow bound hotel he is caretaking turns him into a psycho.
Faderen in Festen It’s Faderen’s 60th birthday and he’s invited the whole family to his Danish country estate for a huge slap up party. Unfortunately for him some painful truths are about to be outed and Daddy, brilliantly played by Danish screen and stage actor Henning Moritzen, is soon going to wish he hadn’t bothered.
Bernard Berkman in The Squid and the Whale Intellectually snobbish, bullying and wholly unequipped to be a father, college professor Bernard (Jeff Daniels) shows his true colours following his divorce from his writer wife (played oddly enough, by Laura Linney) in 1980s New York.
Royal Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums Some daddies just forget about their responsibilities and do whatever the hell they want. But when Gene Hackman decides to re-enter his children’s life with the help of a little white lie or two in Wes Anderson’s feature all hell breaks loose.