I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
It is wonderful when an actress becomes a real artist, bringing to life the nuances and mysteries, the delights and absurdities, the joys and sorrows, the surfaces and depths of many women. It is doubly so when her abilities are recognized by stage and screen, and she is given good and challenging roles opposite fine actors. It is a hundred times more so when she is the daughter of a playwright, who knows the difficulties she has overcome and the extent of her achievements.
Laura Linney’s genuine artistry is evident to anyone who has seen her in films or on stage. It makes her theater father very happy. That’s fine. But it is the dignity of her person and the warmth of her concern for others that makes her writer father most proud. She is held in high esteem by many famous colleagues, and for good reason. She is a great partner for any actor or actress, bringing to their work a selfless support as well as a brilliant performance. She has won many awards and been nominated for many others in the hurricane worlds of theater and film, but she keeps her balance, remaining sensible, modest and, often, very funny about herself and the life she leads. This dialogue between a daughter and a father, an actress and a playwright, was fun for us both. We tried to do it well, with proper concern for the work we both love, but lightly too, aware, as Laura always is, of the frailty of human beings, ourselves included. That awareness, I think even more than her beauty and skill, makes her the woman who so commands her father’s admiration and respect.
Romulus Linney This is an interview with the actress Laura Linney (laughter), conducted by her fond father, on a rainy afternoon in New York City.
Laura Linney (laughter) Oh, God help me.
RL You are doing a play that you’ve done before.
LL Yes. The original production in New York of Sight Unseen, by Donald Margulies, was done in 1992. It started at the Manhattan Theatre Club and moved to the Orpheum, where it had a nine-month run. It’s a four-hander, two men, two women, and in the original production I played a German journalist named Grete who has two small but very powerful scenes, one in the first act, one in the second. So now fast-forward 12 years. They are doing the first major revival of the play, and much to my delight Lynn Meadow from the Manhattan Theatre Club called to say that the revival’s being done at the Biltmore, which is their new theater, and would I entertain the idea of playing Patricia, which is the role that was originally played beautifully by Debra Hedwall. And it does take a while for the ghosts to go away.
RL I should think so.
LL Not only the ghosts of production but of that time in your life. It was 12 years ago, and it was the first—I had worked professionally before that, but it was the first production that had a long run, that got attention, that I was profoundly proud of. It was a very satisfying time in my life, and I was so young! (laughter)
RL Everybody had a good time, including you. So what got you—
LL You’re looking so serious.
RL Give me a break. (laughter)
LL Okay, what do you want to know, Dad?
RL What got you started as an actress?
LL I think that’s something I’ll leave in my therapist’s office.
RL Okay, you don’t want to think about it.
LL No, no, I think everyone goes into this for deeply personal reasons, and everyone has a different need from a life in the arts. It’s personal for everybody. I have tried never to define for myself what that life would be, whether this way or that way, or if I’m supposed to just work in film or just work on stage. I’ve also tried very hard not to let anyone else define success for me.
RL You have gotten some very flattering comments recently for Mystic River, from Sean Penn—
LL He’s amazing.
RL Oh God, yeah. And I know that Richard Gere and Clint Eastwood, all these really good people, have a lot of respect for you. So does that have something to do with not defining success, not letting success be something that you’re going after? Am I being coherent? No.
LL No. What do you mean?
RL Well, let me put it this way. There is a moment that comes in your life when you know that you’re not going to live without this.
LL I didn’t have an epiphany or anything of that nature. You can do yourself a lot of injury if you have a narrow view of success. I really believe you have to love the work more than anything else.
LL Really and truly.
RL You’re happy at work, aren’t you?
LL Not always. It depends—
RL Well, work is work.
LL It always depends on the people, and where you are. It’s always a balance between life and work, and if you like your director or you don’t, if you like your leading man or you don’t. It’s always a combination of things. But the work I do like.
RL One time I was on the set with you and spent the day. You don’t know the way people talk about you to me. They all said the same thing, that you contribute not just artistically but emotionally, I don’t know, some nameless thing that the theater family needs in order for the show to be good.
LL Well, you can either have an experience or just go and do your work. There’s a big difference.
RL Well, I can remember—I’m talking too much here, Laura.
LL No, you’re not.
RL Well, you called me from Northfield Mt. Hermon. I’d never seen you on the stage, and you called me and said, Come up here and see me in this play. It was Lu Ann Oberlander by Preston Jones.
LL I can’t believe you’re bringing up high school.
RL I came up, and the stage was about the size of a coffee table. You played Lu Ann Oberlander.
LL Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander.
RL Okay. You were very young, in high school, but you were up there making good choices. Stella Adler said that the talent is in the choices. So what I said was, You got everything you need, go.
LL It took me sort of a long time to—I always felt it was not something that I was just necessarily entitled to.
LL I would hear a lot of young actresses, in high school or even in college, just blurt out that they wanted to be an actress, and it would almost scare me. I thought it was something that you sort of had to earn, it wasn’t something that you just— Now I think it’s a combination of those two, I think it’s both. But I certainly didn’t fall to the ground and say, I want to be an actress.
RL You earned your working place. Um …
LL Yes, Father, yes?
RL Well, I’m thinking. After Northfield Mt. Hermon it was a year at Northwestern, and then you got yourself into Brown. I’ve never understood how you did that, but you did it.
LL I went to the library every night. I was determined.
LL Northwestern, though it’s a great school, was not the school for me. I was hell bent on getting out of there. (laughter) And I was basically a nun for a year. I went to the library every night. I knew that in order to transfer my grades had to be very high, and I’m a good student but I’m no scholar.
LL So I used to tape record every single class, and then I would go to the library and transcribe the tapes, so I wouldn’t miss a thing. So then my grades would be high and I could get out.
RL Well, that would prepare you well for preparing a part.
LL Patience is part of it.
RL Okay, so then you got to Brown.
LL Loved Brown. Loved the people, loved the school. Loved it.
RL Everybody was great there and you were in all the plays.
LL Did all that stuff.
RL Then Juilliard.
LL And then Juilliard.
RL And I watched you at Juilliard. You had been playing big leads and you sort of had to start from the bottom again.
RL I remember seeing you kind of shaky.
LL The thing that worked to my advantage was I knew that going in. I really did understand what that program was going to be. I don’t know how I understood it, but I just did. And I sort of had a rough time there, as everybody does, and it was absolutely essential for me, and by rough time I mean challenging. It’s not the right school for everyone, but it was the perfect drama school for me. And I loved it and miss it.
RL Then the work itself becomes something else.
LL Well, there’s the business. You get out of school. I really thought I was going to go to Louisville and be a member of the company there, or something equivalent to that. I wanted to, you know, go live on a farm and have a family and be a member of the company.
RL Uh huh.
LL Much to my surprise I got a job right out of school, understudying for Six Degrees. And then even more to my surprise—
RL You’re talking about John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation.
LL I was the understudy in that show for almost a year. And then I got tiny parts in film, which was a shock.
RL The first one was a film with Susan Sarandon.
LL Lorenzo’s Oil.
RL So then suddenly you were in the movies.
LL A little bit, yeah, and lucky for me, I was exposed to it gently, in small bits, because otherwise I don’t think I could have handled it. I was terrified. I just didn’t know it; all the rules were different. It was just so unexpected. And the parts just got a little bigger over time.
RL I watched you learn. Congo—
LL Ah, great film, Congo. (laughter) Congo was fun. It was actually very important for me, that movie. There was no acting required for that. There was no great work on the script; you didn’t really have to do a lot except run from gorillas and hold a gun, but what it allowed me, because it was such a long shoot, it was six months—
LL Yeah, because I really didn’t know much about film and it was my first time on a movie for such a long period of time, I went from department to department. I spent like three weeks hanging out with each department just to learn what everybody was doing. So I’d hang out with the camera department and then I’d hang out with props and then I’d hang out with sound. I just loitered. Just so I could see how all the pieces fit together. And then you learn what’s your job and what’s not your job.
RL See, that’s very interesting. Not everyone would do that. I did notice while I was on the set with you how well you knew the prop person and all the different people and they knew you.
LL I find the focus pullers fascinating.
RL The what?
LL The focus pullers. That’s the guy next to the camera. When a camera’s rolling there’s the camera operator who looks through the lens; he’s the guy who’s actually sitting on the chair behind the lens. And he can move the camera up and down or side to side. That’s all he does; he frames the shot. Then there’s someone called the dolly grip, who’s behind the camera, who moves the camera backward or forward or around. And then there’s the focus puller, who literally focuses the camera while not looking through the lens.
RL How can you focus a camera without—
LL Estimate. They do it by eye.
RL Good Lord.
LL That’s why there are marks on the floor and people coming up with tape measures that they put in front of your face.
RL You have to hit a mark.
LL And focus pullers are sort of Zen masters. They literally have to feel you while they are focusing the camera.
RL Uh huh.
LL So you can develop a relationship with them. And cameras have always scared me, as you know.
RL I know. Every time I tried to take a picture of you as a kid you’d—
LL I’m not happy with cameras. It’s taken me a while to get over my fear of cameras.
RL I always wondered, How’s she going to be an actress? She gets mad when I try to take a little snapshot of her.
LL My way in was really once I realized who those people were behind the camera, then it becomes easy.
RL It’s not your father anymore.
LL No, but I mean, there’s nothing coming at you. It’s hard to describe, actually. Also, I don’t think it’s my responsibility to have an audience like me.
RL If the audience has to like you, if that’s what you’re out there for, then it’s going to show, one way or another.
LL Performances get thin.
RL So then you really do have to be willing to be disliked. That’s fun.
LL The thing is also that no one is one thing.
LL No one is one thing. Sometimes it swings to one side or the other to a greater extreme, but you have got to let characters breathe a bit.
RL What a great thing to say. How do you let a character breathe?
LL Well, everybody works differently, and I tend to work differently from piece to piece, whether it’s film or theater, but you sort of try to let the piece tell you how to work. I think there’s phase one, where you work on the script, and then there’s phase two, where the play works on you.
RL Fantastic thing to say.
LL That’s when the character starts to breathe, when you’ve done all the preparation, and then you have got to throw it all away. You throw it all away and the play starts to lift off a bit and takes on a life of its own. And within that if you’re not afraid of it and let that start to happen, if you trust it, nothing you can do will be wrong. It was fantastic when I did The Crucible watching Richard Eyre direct—my admiration for him just went sky high. I would watch him watch actors and choose not to tell them things. He could tell they would get there on their own. And that’s what a good director does. A good director makes you feel like you got there on your own and that makes you a better actor.
RL That’s wonderful. Yeah. That’s a very important thing that you’ve said.
LL But it’s true: you could hand someone the answer, but they’re always going to know that the director handed them the answer. The really good directors don’t get in the way of your personal development as an actor, so you leave the experience being a better actor than before.
RL We’ve left out one thing, which is that in the summers you would work in summer stock theater. You did that for three summers.
LL Two summers backstage, one summer on.
RL That first year you were just having a great time. You built a door that didn’t work and you fell down, so you learned your lessons. The second year you were doing lighting; you were climbing up that ladder in the barn theater in New London, New Hampshire. And I remember you had everything neat and tidy and you knew what you were doing and the way you were moving around that theater physically, you were just eating that place up.
LL I loved it.
RL You were swallowing the whole thing.
LL I just loved it.
RL So that later if you’re in a play and there’s something wrong, the play doesn’t work and the director’s not right, or the other actors, you can get through it okay.
LL You can get through it.
RL What parts do you want to play?
LL I think you’re asking for trouble if you think that way, I really do. Because there’s some agenda there. There are certainly playwrights that I’d like to do something with, I don’t even care really what, but I think it’s sort of ass backwards if you work that way. Very rarely do you see an actor who puts a show around themselves and it works. The parts that I’ve gotten the most out of are the roles I wasn’t terribly interested in playing to begin with.
RL You’ve now had 20 years of solid work?
LL Argh! Not quite, almost. Fifteen.
RL I watch you with awe on stage and screen, and I see you do all these absolutely wonderful, delightful things. I’m very happy, and I wonder how in the world you would ever be able to do such a thing if you tried to plan that out. If you were not able to live in the moment, I guess. But it’s deeper than that. It’s not just living in the moment; there’s something more to it.
LL I don’t choose what I do; no one has that power. It chooses you. You really just have to go with it.
RL And then you say, Oh boy!
LL This is what it’s about.
RL Thank God I didn’t do anything else with my life.
LL And then there are the experiences that happen that are as fulfilling as you’d hoped they’d be when you were a student. And that’s great because it reconfirms your faith that it does exist.
LL Because you can go for years and it’s not there and then you start to lose faith and then you think this stinks and the business and the—And then you’ll meet a director or you’ll work with an actor or you’ll work on a piece of work and you’ll go, Ah.
LL I’ve done a lot of television, but—
RL But sitcoms.
LL It’s its own thing. It really needs to be respected as its own thing. Now there are a lot of bad ones so people don’t always take them very seriously. But there are a lot of really good ones. Sitcoms have a rhythm, the rhythm of the writing. I think a lot of sitcoms are written the way people think sitcoms should be written. And the really good ones are not written like that. They don’t get caught up in a rhythm that they can’t get out of.
RL I do remember one play, which will be nameless, that I remember you suffering through. You wouldn’t let me come see it.
LL Ohhh, it was terrible, oh, God, it was so bad. And you really feel like you’re injecting the play with a deadly poison. (laughter) Especially if it’s a classic. You feel like you’re just killing it. Thankfully nothing you can do will kill a great play that’s a classic; there’ll always be another production and it will be better.
RL Do you love the ritual of theater?
LL It’s the routine of it. It’s very comforting. I love it because I travel so much and I’m always somewhere else. It’s always about readjusting. When you work in three-month slots back to back to back to back to back you go into a time warp; the days are so long and you don’t know what day it is because you work on weekends and there’s no—
RL You mean on movie sets.
LL On movie sets or in the theater. No one recognizes holidays and you’re not outside enough to see the seasons and there’s nothing to hang onto to mark the passage of time and you go into these weird—Juilliard was like that as well. You can get really sort of lost and you’re just disoriented.
RL But then in a long run—
LL And then you look back and things are a bit of a blur. But in a long run it’s the same thing: the anxiety of things changing all the time is not there.
RL From seven to eleven you know exactly what’s going to be happening.
LL That’s right, and there’s an undertow. The one mistake I always make when I’m doing a play or about to start doing a play is that I think, Oh, I’ll have my days free. Well, you don’t mentally have your days free; the minute you wake up there’s a slow undertow that’s pulling you toward the theater and that part of you is always stewing, simmering, very slowly throughout the day, so no matter what you do you’re not free.
RL When are you free, as an artist, as an actor as a writer as a whatever? When are you free?
LL Well, free from the work, free from yourself, free from what?
RL Maybe free from faults in your character, in your nature, so that you are able to somehow temporarily or briefly—not escape from them, but put something better in their place. You can be a better person than you are.
LL It depends on what you’re trying to get free from. People want to get free from different things.
RL There’s also a whole lot of personal stuff that we could get into, but I rather think not. You are a much nicer person than I am. You know Byron said that for him the greatest nonsexual pleasure was watching good acting.
RL What goes on in our heads as we do this acting, writing? I know that it’s our better selves. Otherwise I couldn’t live with myself. I know that it’s my better self doing these things. It’s the only excuse, paltry and miserable that it is, that I have. I’ve been a selfish artist all my life. I’ve never really felt that bad about it, because of this, you know? It’s the same thing: you look at great actors drinking their lives away, making wrecks of themselves, the stuff that makes them wonderful onstage, uncontrolled in their personal life, blows it up.
LL See, I don’t buy that.
RL You don’t. Why not?
LL I think it’s a really good excuse. Not always, but it’s an easy way out.
RL I think with somebody like John Barrymore, who evidently suffered all sorts of psychological problems, his last wife, who everyone thought was an airhead but really, I have a book she wrote, she says, People don’t know what terrible nightmares he had, or what awful things went through his head.
LL Well, that’s mental illness.
RL Okay, so that’s a little different.
LL I mean, honestly. God knows we all have a little of it, but it’s what you choose to do with it that’s important. I don’t know if Barrymore was mentally ill or just profoundly stressed, but I don’t think you should suffer for your art. I think it costs, and it costs a lot, but I don’t think you have to suffer for it. If you suffer for it, you’re doing that to yourself. You can become masochistic. You see actors put themselves through things for no reason. There’s a better way, a less painful way, to get a better result. You’re not exploiting your own pain for a piece of work that might not want it. That’s another thing. I’ve always been very careful not to exploit my own pain. Because it doesn’t belong there. That’s my pain. And it will bleed through anyway. There’s nothing I can do about that. But if I’m going to unload my stuff onto some other story, as opposed to my own story, it’s not going to hold it. Or it’s going to mutate it, or the balance will be off. So you see these young actors, and sometimes older actors, who whip themselves into an emotionally masturbatory state, and you just look at them and say, Oh, you poor thing, don’t do this to yourself.
RL What begins as self-indulgence becomes something more dangerous. In this whole interview I think this might be the most interesting thing we’ve gotten into.
LL You have to personalize, people misunderstand what that means, really. I think personalizing is having a very specific relationship with something. But it has to be appropriate to the situation. People will over-personalize and then it gets crazy. “I have all this love, I have all this anger, I have all this pain.” Well, it’ll come out anyway, don’t worry.
RL What was the play that you did, the old play that Katherine Hepburn was in?
RL You liked that.
LL I loved it. That was fun.
RL That was a good show. A good old play. You could tell it was old, but it wore its years well.
LL Yeah, yeah. It was a good production. I had been in so many bad ones prior to that one; I was so relieved to be in something that was good. (laughter)
Romulus Linney is the author of three novels and more than 30 plays produced throughout the United States and abroad. He has received numerous awards and is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which has honored him with its Award in Literature and its Award of the Merit Medal for Drama.
Originally published in
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee