Thursday 23 November 2017

Laura Linney: Matter of life and death

Julia Molony

IT'S a freezing day in London and Laura Linney has flown overnight, through terrible turbulence, to be here to promote her latest project. Yet if she's tired, she's not showing it. On screen, her ability to absorb and convey emotion with the sensitivity of a tuning fork has won her a reputation as a virtuoso of her craft. In person, she's similarly disciplined -- perfect posture; a porcelain sort of presence; her gestures, just so.

The new role is, a little surprisingly, in a television series. Laura is a classically trained theatre actor, and a darling of independent film. She's won Golden Globes and has three Oscar nominations under her belt. She's best known for doing small films that punch above their weight; You Can Count On Me, The Squid And the Whale, The Savages -- all projects that turn an unsparing eye on the human condition. Now, in The Big C, she's making a comedy out of the subject of cancer.

In it, Linney plays Cathy, a suburban housewife whose life is turned upside down when she's given a diagnosis of terminal melanoma. Faced with her mortality, she begins behaving in a whole new way, acting on impulse, indulging every whim and generally overhauling the way she has lived. "She's someone who has functioned her whole life, but she hasn't lived," Linney explains.

"She doesn't know what she likes or doesn't like. She's been so busy her whole life doing, doing, doing, doing, and suddenly she realises she has a limited amount of time left and she doesn't really know who she is."

This is the theme of the programme, how confronting death changes the way that we live. It's a subject that is personal to everyone, of course, not just because cancer affects all our lives in some way, but also because mortality is the one truly universal theme.

"Cancer is a reality, and people get cancer all over the world," Laura says. "Everybody comes into contact with cancer at one time or another. But what cancer also is, is something that threatens someone's life, that prematurely robs you of time ... So really this show is about a woman who has cancer. And it's an examination of what happens to someone who doesn't know herself well when she realises she has a limited amount of time left. And then what happens?"

For Laura, these themes and ideas had very much been on her mind when the producers approached her about the show. Just a matter of weeks before we meet, her father, the playwright and academic Romulus Linney passed away at age 80 from lung cancer. So it's fair to say that "the big c" is a subject which has lately invaded every aspect of her life.

"Watching older people who you love pass away," Laura says of the life experiences that surrounded her decision to accept the role as Cathy. "And seeing people go who have gone too young,."

Life and death have lately been very much on her mind. This, she thinks, is a function too of the stage of life that she is at, having turned 47 this year. "There is something about this age that does that. And I think it's healthy and I think it's necessary. I think it's a good thing, as uncomfortable as it is, to figure all that out. So I feel like my work on this show is, in some ways, very selfish. I'm able to do the show and all that, but it's helping me with all of my stuff as well."

She checks herself, keeping things light. "Not that I'm doing therapy while I'm doing the show," she clarifies. "But it gives me things to privately think about. My own private stuff that I can then take away and be like: 'Oh'. Or the stuff that I privately think about, if I think that that might be good for the show I can whisper it in the ear on the writer and maybe it will show up."

Such meditations on mortality might not be typical weeknight primetime fare, but the real challenge of The Big C for Linney lies in the fact that it's a comedy.

"It seemed like an impossible challenge, and that made it an irresistible challenge," she says of making The Big C. "Because I knew that if the comedy was used in the right way, if it was used for the right reason, then it could really be illuminating. And it could really be precise and a fantastic tool to tell a story with. But if it was used in the wrong way it would be dismal."

There's a clear message in the show about a crisis being the catalyst for personal redress. Cathy's cancer prompts her to reconsider the way that she has lived. Did Laura absorb that lesson, or take it on in her own life?

"It was something I had been thinking about," she says. "Life and time, and my time and the choices I've made in my life and what do I really want and what I do not want, and why am I doing this and why am I not doing that. I was in that full-fledged mode when this show came to me, which is why I said yes, that I would do it. I'm not someone who takes work home, I'm not someone who... a job changes my life, or puts me on a new path. I love my work, but I'm not that -- people are always like: 'How has this character changed

you?' and I'm like: 'Well, it's a really nice job. I had a really nice time.'

"But this show is different in that it allows me the room to think about this stuff in a way that I probably wouldn't have otherwise. It gives me the permission, and the safety in which to really think it all through."

She doesn't mention her father directly when talking about this, but it's possible to intuit the impact of the experience of losing him behind what she says, and behind the questions she admits to asking herself recently, such as: "How do you die? And how do you prepare for your own death? And how does your death affect other people. There's living well and there is dying well. I think about the people I know who have died really well. My grandmother died really well. Not everyone is able to do that because of dementia and pain and this and that. And then there are people who don't die well. Go all egomaniac, crazy. It's fascinating to think about that period of time in someone's life that just isn't examined a lot."

A Manhattan animal born and bred, Laura cut her teeth in the city's theatre scene. She ascended to Hollywood the classical way, through training at Juilliard and roles on Broadway, before her break playing Mary Ann Singleton in Tales of The City.

One of a small group of actresses whose careers have been characterised by longevity, fame came to Laura Linney relatively late, and perhaps it's been beneficial to her that she was never the starlet, or the ingenue. Even after all the plaudits and the recognition she's won, her presence in Hollywood has always been low-key. .

What we do know is that she grew up suffused with the arts and theatre, thanks to her father's influence. Her parents separated when she was very young, and as a child she spent a lot of time hanging out backstage. "When your father is in the theatre, it's everything and everywhere, from the songs you sing as a little kid to where you spend your downtime," she has said.

At Juilliard, she met her first husband David Adkins, and from there, threw herself into theatre, building a career as a respected stage actress. She and Adkins divorced in 2000 and since 2009 she has been married to real estate agent Marc Schauer. At their wedding, Liam Neeson walked her down the aisle.

The boundaries between her public profile and private life are closely guarded. As a result, she has managed to strike an artful balance of being known and respected within the industry without being paparazzi-bait famous. It's a privileged position, the benefits of which she acknowledges. "I'm well known, but I'm not famous," she says. "And there is a difference. I've been very lucky in that I've been able to live my life, and it's all balanced. It's all OK."

Whatever the complex psychological processes underlying her portrayal of Cathy, and whatever the personal cost to Laura herself, these things have added up to a typically excellent performance. She picked up her third Golden Globe early this year for The Big C.

As John Benjamin Hickey, her co-star in The Big C (he plays her brother) and long-time friend says: "People want Laura in their living rooms. We've known each other a long time. We were drama students together. We've worked together in those years."

Both had done a lot of theatre and come from the theatre -- truly come from the theatre. "It's in Laura's DNA ... but I mean, she's sublime."

But though critics and colleagues can't fault her, Laura herself keeps a keen check on any attempt to overstate the significance of what she does. Perhaps this is because she knows now, more than ever, that while TV might deal in life and death, it is neither of those things.

"At the end of the day, none of it's that important," she says. "At the end of the day, what I do or what I don't do is not that important. If I do it well, hooray ... I'm not that important. Some of the themes in the show are important, some of the things it touches on are important. The rest of it is, you know, we are lucky to be there, we'll do the best we can, and then we'll move on to something else."

'The Big C' continues on Fridays at 10pm and 10.35pm on RTE Two

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