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True To Herself

By Brennen Matthews

Photographs courtesy of Nino Munoz/Netflix

In 2010, The New York Times published an article dubbing actress Laura Linney as “every woman’s Meryl Streep.” And it may well be true. Linney has forged a well-deserved reputation as an intelligent, humble, and hardworking actress, nominated for and winning dozens of awards for her stellar theater, television, and film performances. But in person, the real Laura Linney is even more remarkable. Born in New York City on February 5, 1964, Linney came from a distinguished family with a background in politics and theater. Her great-great-grandfather served in the American Civil War under the legendary Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson, and was a congressman from North Carolina. Her paternal grandmother, Maitland, was an amateur actress and won a gold medal for drama and elocution in 1921. Linney’s father, Romulus Zachariah Linney IV, was a noted playwright and author. Both had a profound impact on her deciding to pursue a career in theater.

One to appreciate the importance of a good education, Linney attended Brown University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theatre arts in 1986. Afterward, she studied at the famed Juilliard School in New York, immersing herself in the acclaimed Arts Theatre School, graduating in 1990. Following appearances on Broadway, she made her first film appearance in Lorenzo’s Oil (1992). Her big break came in the film Primal Fear (1996), alongside Richard Gere. Director Clint Eastwood was captivated with her performance and recruited her to play his estranged daughter in Absolute Power (1997). Since then, the 55-year-old actress has been nominated for three Academy Awards – You Can Count on Me (2000), Kinsey (2004), and The Savages (2007) – six Golden Globes, and four Tony Awards, continuing to mesmerize her audiences.

Most recently, Linney is starring opposite Jason Bateman on Netflix’s hit series Ozark, which will return for season three later in 2019. She is also appearing in a second Netflix drama, Tales of the City, which will debut in June 2019.

Laura Linney is sincere and straight to the point, reserved and wisely cautious with her words. But in this interview with ROUTE, we get a lovely opportunity to really meet one of the finest actresses on-screen today.

You studied at Brown and Juilliard, two very reputable institutions. How important do you think those institutions were in shaping you to be the actor and the person you are today?

An enormous amount. People ask me a lot, ‘What was your big break?’ For me, it was getting into Juilliard. There’s no question. Education was very important to me — it was important to my family, [and] it gave a structure and focus to my life that I needed and craved, and particularly then, when I knew that I wanted to be an actress and wanted to spend my life in the arts ... Juilliard completely enhanced and enriched my life in ways that I [couldn’t] imagine. My life would be very different if I hadn’t been able to have those four years there. So, for me, my education is a real linchpin to everything: my friendship, my work ethic, my interests, my ... all of it.

When you were at Juilliard, were there any other people in your class that went on to have noted careers?

Oh sure, yeah. A lot of people ... Jeanne Tripplehorn is one of my best friends, and she was in my class at school, and she is the godmother of my child. We are great, great friends, and we talk three or four times a week (Laughs). Tim Blake Nelson — I went to both Brown and Juilliard with Tim.

He’s a Tulsan ... both of those are Tulsa people!

Your late father was a playwright and novelist, and he passed away from lung cancer in 2011. Were you guys very close?

We were close. I mean, my parents split when I was an infant, so, I didn’t live with him — I didn’t grow up with him — but we were close. He was a wonderful, complicated man, and I learned a great deal from him. He was a successful playwright and a real man of the theatre, but I didn’t grow up with him. I didn’t live with him on a day-to-day basis, and I saw him sometimes consistently and other times not. But he was huge in my life. There’s no question.

Did you ever consider becoming a writer with that influence?

No. No! (Laughs). No. (Laughs). I figured that was his world and I would stay in mine. I love to write, but it’s not my calling.

Is writing then, more therapeutic for you?

I’m sure that there’s a therapeutic aspect to it, but I think it’s also just a creative outlet, and a way to communicate, you know? I’ve been able to give some speeches here and there, some commencement speeches, and those are great fun to write, and it’s a good way for me to sort of refocus. You just sort of sit down and think, ‘What do I want to say, and what do I believe, and what do I have to give?’ So, I enjoy writing from that standpoint.

With your dad being a playwright, and you growing up in the culture of New York theater, do you feel that you were naturally pulled more to the stage than TV or film from early on?

Oh sure. Oh sure. Absolutely. Film and television were not my priorities (Laughs) at all. I was very intimidated by television and film. Anything with a camera sort of scared me, so I really ... my original intent was to just be a stage actress. That’s where I wanted to be, and much to my surprise, I got very small parts in a few movies, and that led to larger parts, and then all of a sudden, I found myself having opportunities in two other mediums that I didn’t know anything about. I had to learn quickly, and now, I love them equally. It’s the big surprise for me that I work in film and television.

As a theater actress, did you ever have any times when you forgot your lines?

Oh sure, everybody does. Everyone does! We’re not machines. We mess up all the time. I mean, it’s what you live in fear of, but it happens all the time, and the older you get, the more forgiving you are with yourself, and you realize that it’s okay. You know, if you’ve done all the work you can possibly do, and you mess up, you mess up, and then the wonderful thing about the theater is that there are hopefully other people onstage who can help you through it.

How do you handle nerves before a play or shooting on-camera?

Grin and bear it (Laughs). I mean, you just try and focus on the work, really. You just try and focus on the work, and get out of your own way, and sometimes that’s easier than others.

Your mom was a nurse at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and you’ve credited her, in many ways, for keeping you on the straight path and helping, in your words, turn out to be okay. What was that relationship like, and why was she so important?

Well, you know, my parents split when I was very young, so it was just the two of us, and she did everything she possibly could. It’s not easy to be a single mother, particularly in New York City, and she worked long hours at the hospital, and she worked really hard. [My mom] did not have a whole lot of fun when I was young because she had to work and provide for me and take care of me, and I will forever be grateful for that.

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She taught me ... she was kind, she was very kind and had a good sense of, you know, just of ethics of right and wrong, and she’s fun (Laughs). You know, my mother is very funny and staggeringly beautiful. She’s beautiful and she’s fun to be around.

Was your parents’ divorce, when you were so young, something that you feel impacted you throughout your childhood?

No, I never knew it to begin with, so there was no loss. It wasn’t anything that I experienced, and then didn’t have. I just had a different experience, and it was so clearly obvious to me that they could not be together (Laughs). It wasn’t anything I fantasized about. It wasn’t the sort of thing where I wished my parents were back together. NEVER. NEVER. That would have been a disaster and was a disaster, so it was nothing that I had [any] grieving about.

You are very professionally accomplished and seem quite well grounded. Where are you on the emotional journey with your professional life right now?

I think that it’s a relationship that each individual person has with the profession and whether or not the profession is a profession for them or a vocation and how those two things communicate with each other. There are times where it is a business, and then there are times, where for some of us, it really is not — it’s something very different. So, you have to learn to negotiate that with yourself. Sometimes, there are days that’s easier to do and some days where it’s not.

I’ve been consistently working since I got out of school, and that’s more than I can ever have hoped for. I’ve worked with wonderful, wonderful people. I’ve learned an enormous amount, and hopefully, I’ll be able to continue to do that as I get older and older, and the fact that I’m the age that I am and able to still be working is ... I’m deeply grateful for that. Do I have rabid ambition? In some ways, but not in the ways that I think people would associate that with. I do not have to be the most famous person in the world, you know, but good work is important to me, and I hope to do that. It doesn’t always work out that way. You can have the best intentions and the best people in the world, and sometimes, you know, a play or a movie or a television show just doesn’t work.

Are you comfortable with being famous and with your celebrity?

Yes. I’m sort of just comfortable being where I am, and I don’t think I really know what that means to be a celebrity anymore.

I think I have a stereotypical idea of what that means, and I certainly know I don’t live my life that way. You know, would I rather go to a party or stay at home? I’d rather stay at home. Would I rather have dinner with friends or go to a big brouhaha? I’d rather be with my two or three friends. I just sort of focus on my work and focus on the people who I love and who love me and just sort of move forward from there. Fortunately, now, I’m older, so I’m not expected to do that.

When do you begin to film season three of Ozark?

We start Ozark in May.

How is Jason Bateman to work with as a costar and as a director?

He’s fantastic, and he’s an enormous part of why that show is as good as it is. He set the template for the show, he directed the first two episodes, [and] he directs every season. Our set is happiest when he is directing. Our cast and crew are happiest when he’s the one who is leading the way, although we have many other wonderful directors. It’s just — it’s his show, and we all love being a part of it.

It’s a great experience, but television can be tricky. Television can be very hard, and it’s a very good situation, and we are all so grateful and so happy for Jason because he has worked so hard.

Had you known Jason before joining the show?

We knew each other socially a little bit, but not a lot. But I’ve just always liked him. I just always really liked him, and so, when I went and sat down with him, I was just excited that he was taking this on because a lot of people, particularly with Jason’s success — they can just stay in their one lane, and just ride it. It was a big step for him to move into more dramatic work, and take on this sort of ... you know, guiding an entire series.

When you first got the script, you requested that they rewrite your character Wendy Byrde to have more depth to her. In what way?

I think it was obvious to everyone that the part needed a little help, as is not unusual, and I think they knew that if I was going to come aboard, that I needed something to do, so they were wonderful about doing that.

What direction do you want them to take Wendy in on the show?

I’ll go wherever they want me to go. (Laughs) I am happy to run in whatever direction they want me to run. It’s not just about my part — it’s a mobile. The whole thing is an ensemble piece, and we all influence each other. So, it’s what’s best for the story, and we’ll see where that is and what that is.

The story takes place in Missouri, but it’s filmed in Atlanta, Georgia. Did you spend much time over in Missouri around the Lake of the Ozarks, to get a better understanding of the people and the culture that you’d be representing?

We were there for a little bit. We filmed about a week there, but we didn’t do ... I know the writers certainly did more extensive research, but we didn’t have the opportunity to do that. I understand there’s a bar now called Marty Byrde’s on the Lake of the Ozarks, and they all have their drinks — they’re all named after all of our characters (Laughs).

You became a first-time mom at 49 — like, wow! Did you find that waiting to have children shaped motherhood at all for you?

Sure. You’re a very different person at 29 then you are at 49. I wish that I had been able to have children earlier, but it just was not in the cards for me. So, I just had to wait. (Laughs) It’s been wonderful, but sure, you know, the nicest thing is that you don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything. I think I heard a lot of people have regrets that they weren’t able to pursue something or do something, or they feel they are missing out, and I remember everyone saying to me, ‘Your life is going to change. Your life is going to change.’ And I was like, ‘I hope so. I’m all for my life changing.’ I just felt like I gained everything and lost nothing.

What have been the greatest joys so far in being a mom?

The greatest ... oh, that’s impossible. It’s all of it. It’s just all of it. I think it’s the intimacy and responsibility and what you learn on a daily basis — what they teach you, hopefully what you’re able to teach them. It’s not for everyone, but I’m grateful it finally came my way. It’s a different kind of love, and it’s incredibly nourishing.

Bennett is five now, right?

Yeah, he’s five.

Living in Manhattan, and obviously working in Atlanta, do your days get busy with regular parenting activities like arranging playdates with other parents?

Yes! When I’m filming Ozark, I commute. So, they were good enough to give me an extra day off a week. So, I’m in Atlanta three or four days a week, and then I’m home. And actually, I realized when I was doing a play in New York, I saw Bennett more when I was commuting to Atlanta then I did when I was doing a play in New York.

Are you guys road trip people at all? Do you guys ever hit the road and see the country?

We haven’t yet, but it will be fun when it happens.

You need to get out on Route 66.

Yeah, no kidding. You need to talk to Jeanne Tripplehorn because she did that trip with her son, and they had a wonderful time. So, I’ve heard all about it. I look forward to doing that [trip], I really do. But I have to wait for Bennett to get a little older, but then it will be fun.

Do you still need to audition for roles at this point in your career or have you passed that requirement?

(Laughs) It doesn’t quite work that way. You know, I’m lucky because I’m booked now for a long period of time, so that just cuts down the whole audition thing enormously, and I haven’t had to audition in a while, but I’m certainly never adverse to auditioning. I’m on these series, so it sort of takes that out of my life a little bit, which is a relief, I must admit. But I don’t mind auditioning.

As you’ve gotten older, have you found pressure as an actress to stay young looking and beautiful and fight for ‘leading lady’ type roles?

I don’t even think about it. It’s a total waste of my time, and if people don’t want what I have to offer, then they don’t have to work with me. It was never what I led with anyway. I’m not a staggering beauty, and I’ve never been considered one, nor do I consider myself one. I think I’m a perfectly good-looking person who can look really good sometimes and can also look really bad sometimes, and that’s how I prefer it to be. I’ve sort of just gone about my business and focused on the work itself and just hoped that the rest of it would take care of itself, and fortunately for me, that was the right way to go.

I know that’s not right for everyone, but it certainly has been for me. I don’t know how or why, but thank God that it has, and it’s kind of a miracle that it has. So, you know, I don’t want to be any other age than I am, you know, I really don’t.

We are living in some uncertain times in America right now, where the political divide is only widening. What can be done to take the country back to being a place where people talk to each other with more respect and love?

I don’t have an answer. I just know that it’s terribly off course for everybody, and it’s not doing anyone any good. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m terribly worried and terribly upset about it, but I have to have faith that we’re going to come out on the other side. But I worry that if the sweater is stretched out so intensely, can it come back? I don’t think it can, so I think we all have to move forward in a way and find something in the future that neutralizes all of this horrible, horrible feeling that everyone is having. But it’s certainly not respectful, and it’s certainly not decent, and it’s certainly not ethical. So, we’ll see.

In this climate, is there even room to dialogue?

If people are decent to each other, if there is a basis of respect, I think people can talk about anything. It’s when that step is skipped, then it all just goes haywire, you know? But people should be able to discuss things without being vilified. I have friends who are activists, who are very intense activists, and they have a very strong opinion and a real line that is not to be crossed, and I respect them for that. I think right now, no one knows how to deal with this, no one knows how to talk about it, [and] no one knows how to navigate through it. It’s all completely beyond what any of us ever thought we would be living in and living with, and it has affected everyone’s waking hour, so I think it is uncomfortable. I think people get hurt, and it’s ugly. It’s not an easy time for anyone.

Do you have any fears or phobias?

I get nervous with heights a little bit — not all the time, but sometimes, and I don’t like to go into aquariums (Laughs).

Why aquariums?

I don’t know. I’m just not comfortable there. I don’t belong in there (Laughs).

What historical person would you love to meet?

I wouldn’t mind having lunch with [Alfred and Lynn] Lunts.

Funniest actor you’ve ever worked with?

Robin Williams. He was so quick and so generous. He was just so generous of spirit, and that’s what made him even funnier — that’s the thing that made you light up even more, as it was coming from such a place of generosity. You know, he was just delightful to be with and be around and just hilariously funny.

Is there a moment or a time that you would like to share?

No. I think I’ll keep that to myself, but he was just wonderful.

If you were not an actress, what would you do?

God only knows.

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