Laura Linney broke through as Mary Ann Singleton on the PBS adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. Roles in Primal Fear, The Truman Show, You Can Count On Me, Mystic River, and Love Actually followed. This fall, Linney headlines two films: Dylan Kidd's P.S. and Bill Condon's Kinsey. I spoke to Linney on October 8, 2004 at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: So I spoke to Dylan Kidd—
Laura Linney: Yes.
G: And first of all, he had mentioned that it was only when you read with Topher Grace for the first time that Louise really made sense to you, or the film really made sense to you.
LL: Yes, absolutely.
G: Can you explain what that meant?
LL: Well, I mean that relationship has to be—that has to be a real relationship. There has to be a true connection there, or else it just doesn't really make sense. Then it's just sort of silly. Or not silly, or it's just sort of—y 'know, it's an event in her life that doesn't really permeate. It was just so clear to me reading with Topher. I mean, immediately, I just knew. I was like, "Oh, okay. This is making far more sense to me now than it was before."
G: Do you think that the appeal of Topher's character, F. Scott—
G: Who obviously reminds you of an ex-boyfriend from the past or a first love perhaps—
G: Is that something, you think, everybody secretly harbors a desire for?
LL: Probably. Well maybe, maybe not, I don't know. I think she is desperate for that sense of fulfillment again. She is desperate to, y'know, to feel that she's not alone. And I think she felt at her most vibrant and was connected to herself in a sort of a life-force way with that first love as most people are and have been. And I think she's been so lonely for so long that, all of a sudden, she meets this young man, and it just comes back. Y'know, memories of it, and what it meant to her, and what she wanted from that. I think we're all—all of us are haunted in some very, very good ways and maybe in some not so helpful ways by the first person who you really fall in love with and who you are that intimate with and that close to.
G: It struck me that what she is revisiting in her past is at least as much, if not more, about who she was then as than opposed to who Scott was.
LL: Right, well, as you learn as the movie goes on, he was not the nicest guy in the world. (Laughs.) I mean, he wasn't necessarily worthy of all of that she gave him. Y'know, this F. Scott is a much better human being, a much better human being.
G: Obviously, as you say, the character of Louise is very isolated before F. Scott comes on the scene. Her support structure is not very comforting. Specifically, I want to ask you about the friendship between the women, between your character and—
LL: Marcia Gay Harden?
G: Marcia Gay Harden's character, right. What do you think has kept them together when she is so untrustworthy?
LL: Right. It's a very, very interesting relationship. These are two women who have not treated each other terribly well. However, they have a long, enduring friendship, and they honestly love each other. And they know what they have in each other. So there's safety in that. It's not healthy, but they're safe there, 'cause they know each other very, very well. And I think, y'know, it's part of the process of this movie and what this character is going through to sort of really see what she's been participating in for the past thirty-some-odd years of her life, and realizing that it's time to—things have got to change.
G: Right, and there is a specific betrayal.
G: She passes it off as "Well, you understand. I needed to do that." So maybe they're more alike than they might care to admit.
LL: I think they—I think they just—they just know each other really well. I mean, I have friends who are impossible. I mean, they're impossible. Now, I don't trust them all the time, but I love them, and I adore them, and I know that the goodness within them outweighs their faults and their flaws, and you just learn how to negotiate that. But it's an interesting relationship. Yeah.
G: Your father, of course, was a famous playwright, and you had classical training at Juilliard. So much of your structure is ingrained, but what practical approaches or techniques do you bring from your stage work to a film set?
LL: Oh, well. Do you have four hours?
LL: (Laughs.) It's more in the preparation. It's more about learning how to prepare for each particular job, and making decisions on what that preparation is. I mean, I sort of—I do a lot of different kinds of work for different kinds of movies. I sort of really try and let the script tell me what to do, and so there'll be some jobs that I'll do an enormous amount of work on—prior, and during, and while filming—and then there are other things that I'll not go near, like really leave it away. And that's part of the fun is, and hopefully part of the talent, over time, is figuring out how to—what do I have to do to make this the most effective storytelling I can?
G: And I would imagine a lot of it is protecting your mindset. With the schedule of film. There's so much "hurry up and wait."
LL: Well, it's not so much "hurry up and wait." You know, not that I've—I've never had that experience. I would love to have a "hurry up and wait" experience!
LL: I have—y'know, P.S. was twenty-five days, and it's an unusual situation 'cause I'm in the entire movie, so there was not a minute to waste. And it was very fast. But you do make allowances for—you do sort of have to—know where you are in the movie. And one thing I do do consistently, regardless of the films: I'll get index cards and, y'know, each scene is numbered. And I'll put them all up on a wall, so I can look at it and see what day I'm filming it. I'll write down the scene number, the day it's being filmed, hopefully if I know what I'm wearing that day, and where it's being shot, what actors are in it, and maybe a little bit about the scene, so that I can somewhat, y'know, sort of follow the story in my mind. Because the more—with film, you just have to know the entire story; you have to know what story you're telling. And sometimes you don't. I mean, sometimes it's not possible to do that. But preferable, helpful, if you do. Helpful for me, when I do.
G: So P.S. is about the abandon of love, and the irrationality of love, and all those things. Kinsey deals with the irrationality of attitudes about sex, and the repression, or not, of desire. I had to think during the movie, at times, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. How do you see the film as a commentary on today's sexual attitudes?
LL: Well, it's really interesting. I mean, it's surprising to me how—what little people know about Kinsey, but how he has impacted all of our lives and our culture. Whether people are happy about that or not is a whole other conversation, but y'know, I think people have forgotten what it was like before sex education and the sexual revolution hit this country. And really sort of how important—to what's going on today because, y'know, sexual behavior and sexual understanding impact someone's own self-esteem, their relationships with other people, their family dynamic, their dynamics within a community, the whole influence—I mean, it's just a huge, essential part of any human being, and to deny, suppress, ignore, criticize—y'know, this is just my personal belief—just does not lead to a healthy society.
G: Was there, in your research for the film, a particular aspect of Claire Kinsey that you latched onto as key to your understanding of her?
LL: Claire was—it was from listening to the tapes of her talk. She had a boisterous, refreshing, fabulous manner. She was like a cool breeze. I mean—or at least that was just the instinct that I got. She was forthright and presenced and positive, and I just loved listening to those tapes. She had a great sense of humor and a big, booming laugh. And she was, you know, a remarkable woman.
G: The best actors learn something about themselves with each role—What, if you had the time to reflect on it, did you learn from playing her?
LL: God, I don't know. I mean—I think I learned, you know, just a lot about marriage from her, really. From looking at their marriage. And how, though I'm sure challenging, they were devoted to each other. They were completely devoted to each other. They loved each other deeply and had a profoundly successful marriage. And a very, by all accounts, wonderful, y'know, home and family. So it was interesting, yeah, looking at that.
G: I have to say I think my favorite of your films is You Can Count on Me...
LL: Thank you.
G: And I just want to touch on that. What was that process like to get into that story and to live it every day?
LL: Um, can you be a little more specific? (Laughs.)
G: (Laughs.) I'm curious about what the atmosphere was like on the set.
LL: Frantic. Y'know. Twenty-five days and no shooting and no place to sit down, and it was tough. It was really hard, actually. I mean, we loved the material, and we all got along very well. But it's not easy making low budget movies. There's enormous stress; there's enormous pressure. You're losing the light, there's no place to sit down—y'know, it's not comfortable. And it's, in some sick way, I think, part of what we all enjoy about it because the challenges are so high. Everything is stacked so heavily against you that there's like this iron will to make something of this.
G: From your perspective as an actor, what can a director offer you to best support you to get your best work?
LL: Create a great environment.
G: Can you define that environment a little bit? What makes—
LL: Well, there are actor-friendly environments, and then there are non-actor friendly environments. Y'know, it's providing the basics, not enormous amounts of things, but the basics that should allow things to happen. Quiet, on the set. I mean, basic little things. Good coffee. Y'know, conditions that are—where things can happen. And it sounds very basic, but not easy to achieve with so many people and so much going on and equipment and this and that.
LL: And Clint Eastwood's the best at creating that environment, that I've experienced so far.
G: And you've worked with Clint twice. Most people seem to say, yeah, that there is an easygoing quality to his sets.
LL: Mm-mm. Deceptively so. I mean, it's not deceptive, but there's been an enormous amount of effort put in. Y'know, there's an enormous amount of effort and a lot of work that happens. And then he creates this wonderful environment, and then you just step into it, and it makes everything so much easier. [The publicist enters with the one-minute warning.]
LL: (Hums the "Final Jeopardy" theme.)
G: (Laughs.) Right. I guess I'll return, to wrap up, to P.S.. Art has a core function in the film—
G: How did you see the function of art in the film? What did that do for Louise, and how do you see the function of your films out there in the marketplace?
LL: Oh, Lord. I—my films? I have no idea. I don't know what they do or what they don't do. I don't know. That would lead me to an insane asylum, if I started thinking about that stuff. But I think more than just art, it's about creativity and what creativity can lead to. I think that's a big part of the story, y'know, where—the extension of someone and where that goes, and what people can do with it.
G: Alright, thank you very much.
LL: You're very welcome.
G: It was a pleasure.
LL: Nice meeting you—thank you so much.