Laura Linney, “The Actor’s Actor” by Paula Ewin
“The Actor’s Actor”
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center
in collaboration with the
League of Professional Theatre Women
in conversation with
March 6, 2017
Last night, the audience at The Bruno Walter Auditorium at The Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center had the great opportunity to commune with two of the finest actors working in the business today, Laura Linney and James Naughton.
Clearly comfortable with each other, the hour flew by as we listened to the lovely and engaging Laura Linney respond to the pointed and enlightened questions and comments by her interviewer, the amiable James Naughton. Thanks to the hard work and efforts of the League volunteers led by Co-Chairs Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma, the Library’s Producer Betty Corwin, and Theatre on Film and Tape Director Patrick Hoffman, another successful evening will live on in our memories and in the Library’s archives! Every one of the Oral History programs is a treat and has memorable moments, but this evening managed to capture the essence of what the program strives to be: an educational, entertaining and uplifting experience at its best!
Daughter of esteemed playwright, Romulus Linney, and Memorial Sloan Kettering nurse Miriam Anderson (Leggert), Laura spoke of her love of her two “wonderful parents” and the influences their intelligence and character had on her. She grew up with her mother, as her parents divorced when she was an infant, but she spent a great deal of time with her father, often sitting in dark theatres while a play of his was in rehearsal. She absorbed the atmosphere, and although she had reservations about going forward in a career in show bus iness, when she reached 17 and was working in summer stock in New Hampshire she realized that this was her calling.
Education was key to her success and she studied theatre history at Brown University (James Naughton’s alma mater as well). According to Laura, her big break came when she was accepted at the Julliard School and spent four years learning her craft. Like her father who studied at Yale School of Drama, Laura wanted to learn from the teachers who were “on her side” and was “desperate to be told what to do”. She felt that her instincts would serve her only so long, and since she was “in it for the long haul, I felt I wanted training that would help to carry me from ingénue to leading lady to character roles, as I got older.” It was an arduous schedule and she learned a great deal about herself during that time. Her solid training and years of experience both on stage and in film and television have taught her to “self-diagnose what I need to be at 100% of my ability. I need quiet, preparation, and good coffee! Most good writing will give you the information you need, but you must ask very specific questions of the who, what, where, and when of a character and all the surrounding details. This leads to the next thing.”
After appearing in several Broadway productions (Sight Unseen, Hedda Gabler) she starred as Mary Ann Singleton in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, a miniseries set in San Francisco. Entertainment Weekly proclaimed Laura “a breakout star” and she revised her role in two subsequent sequels. Proud and grateful for this opportunity, her young son bears Armistead as his middle name. In addition to numerous other television and film roles, opposite such celebrated actors as Paul Giamatti, Sir Ian McKellan, Olympia Dukakis, Clint Eastwood and Richard Gere, Laura has appeared on stage with Joanne Woodward, among many other accomplished women of theatre. Next up: her clever idea of sharing the roles of Birdie and Regina with Cynthia Nixon in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at Manhattan Theatre Club opening April 19, 2017. Working with Cynthia and one of her favorite directors, Daniel Sullivan, she said, “ I trust Danny” and convinced him, to agree to the role swapping idea. (I saw the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternate roles in True West in 2000 and I think Laura’s idea to do this with Cynthia is wonderful. I will be buying my tickets tomorrow to see both performances. This is a treat!)
There are so many pearls that Laura gave us last night about her approach to acting and her technique of dealing with her fear of the camera: “The camera crew is human, although the camera is huge and imposing. The key for me is to watch the ‘focus puller,’ and know that they are capable of articulating to me how a scene went in their body language alone. This helps me relax knowing I can humanize this experience.” Her greatest lesson from Clint Eastwood (“who has no rehearsal and shoots in one take”) was his work ethic, which is rooted in preparation and relaxation: “I found if I was nervous, it was because I had not done what I needed to do to be relaxed. Learn my lines, do my research, fulfill whatever I need to, so when I am shooting I am ready and relaxed. I have done everything I could do.” Her training and her theatre experience have served her well, and when challenged with difficult scripts dealing with situations like cancer (The Big C) and humor, she says…”comedy is a survival technique and there is truth in chaos.”
Laura, a new mother at 50, is not afraid of aging. In fact, she looks so forward to playing all the great roles into which she will eventually age. James Naughton, in his brief opening remarks declared Laura Linney “versatile and without vanity”, and is an obvious admirer. Laura does not think of herself as a star, but in my eyes she is one. She is a mentor to students at Julliard and loves sharing her thoughts and experience with students. She is fun and funny, and not at all unapproachable. She is respected and admired in the business, and has been the recipient of numerous awards and nominations. Yet, she told me she can ride the subway unnoticed- and likes it that way! In my opinion, Laura Linney is The Actor’s Actor. One can always expect a solid and often thrilling performance from her, and she will continue to strive to be the best she can be.
By Paula Ewin
League of Professional Theatre Women