Laura Linney on turning cancer into an award-winning comedy
The Big C, won Linney a Golden Globe last year. She stars as a suburban high school history teacher who, at 42, is diagnosed with stage-four melanoma. "There is no stage five," says Linney.
Laura Linney is talking seriously about the business of being funny. "I think the role of comedy and comics is to help deal with situations when they are overwhelming," asserts the award-winning actress and executive producer of The Big C. "And when comedy tickles the truth, that’s when – at least for me – it’s the funniest." Still, it’s hard to imagine many situations more overwhelming, or topics less likely to lend themselves to comedy, than cancer
Cathy spent series one deep in denial, keeping the news from her family. Spurning treatment, the former stick-in-the-mud instead cast off her inhibitions, embarking on an affair with the school handyman, Lenny (Idris Elba), taking ecstasy, and generally living fast and loose, figuring she might as well go out with a bang.
Cathy settles down but retains her newly sharpened tongue for series two, which finds her finally trying treatment, along with her new “mole mate”, fellow stage-four melanoma patient Lee (Hugh Dancy), a rather smug and irritating marathon-running Buddhist.
I meet Linney in a draughty studio in Stamford, Connecticut, masquerading as Minneapolis, Minnesota for the purposes of the series. Perched on a hard plastic chair in Cathy’s classroom, Linney, by contrast, could not look more wholesome or healthy. At 47, she is perkily pretty, with dimples and a thick thatch of strawberry-blonde hair.
She becomes more sombre when explaining what drew her to the small-screen role after establishing a cast-iron Hollywood CV that includes Oscar-nominated roles in You Can Count on Me, Kinsey, and The Savages. “I’d been thinking a lot about the privilege of ageing, when the show came along,” she says pensively, her hands neatly folded in her lap. “More and more, people are ashamed of their age and they dread ageing. But it’s becoming clear to me that it’s a privilege to age… because not everybody gets to age.” Was there any one incident which ignited this issue for her? “Yes, mmm,” she nods, looking sad, but will say no more on the matter.
It’s possible that the sudden, tragic death of actress Natasha Richardson in a skiing accident in 2009 caused Linney to reflect on mortality. The pair were very close – Richardson’s widower Liam Neeson gave Linney away at her second marriage, just months after that devastating loss. But Linney is far more reserved than her character Cathy, and clearly reluctant to talk about her private life.
Genteel and polite, Linney even comes across as a little prim, but in spite of her head-girl persona, she’s not from privileged stock. Her father is the playwright Romulus Linney, her mother a nurse, whose experience in a cancer centre informs her Big C performance. “I was very aware of cancer from a very early age,” she says. “And I became very close to some of my mother’s patients.”
“But I think the way we talk about cancer has really evolved,” she continues. “I remember the way my grandmother used to talk about it, like a death sentence, no one would even mention the word.” Linney mouths: She has CANCER. “I don’t think this show would have been possible five years ago – it’s barely possible even now.”
Linney undoubtedly makes it possible, marrying comedy and pathos in a performance typical of a decorated career now boasting two Globes as well as three Emmys. But while the didactic, seize-the-day sentiment behind the show is clear, Linney is grounded enough to know that it’s still entertainment. “It’s not going to change people’s view of cancer,” she shrugs. “People’s view of cancer will change when they have their own relationship with cancer, which everyone will, at some point,” she says briskly. “Cancer is so much bigger than a TV show.”
‘The Big C’ begins on Thursday 19 January on More4 at 10.00pm and contiunes on RTE2 on Friday 9 pm.