Laura Linney knew she had to play Manhattan neurotic Wendy Savage for writer-director Tamara Jenkins when her “actor brain” flicked on three pages into reading the script.
“There’s something so ripe about the material, so ready to go that you can’t help yourself, you start working,” says the two-time Oscar nominee. “You see dynamics of scenes, images start coming at you. It wasn’t just about the character. It was how rich the context was overall.”
Wendy in “The Savages” is one half of a pair of intellectual but emotionally stunted siblings — she’s an aspiring playwright; Philip Seymour Hoffman plays her academic-world brother — who must figure out how to care for their estranged father (Philip Bosco) when he starts suffering from dementia. And Linney’s characteristically astute portrayal is a primal force in the film’s close-up of adult disappointment and unresolved family issues.
“She’s really in arrested development,” says Linney of Wendy. “They both are. She’s sort of 11, and she provokes people like a not terribly well-behaved 11-year-old would provoke someone. But in some ways, she behaves really badly to watch other people behave well, creating dramatic situations to see how people behave within it.”
As the siblings take turns judging each other’s lives and bickering over what to do with their father, Wendy comes off a whirlpool of bitterness, folly, sadness and love. Getting the tone right was challenging.
“It was a razor’s edge with the seriousness of the subject matter, and yet the comedy that comes out of that vulnerability,” she says. “You have to anchor it all so that it will bring the audience to the story and give you the freedom so you can behave very badly.”
Although it was only a 30-day shoot, the schedule required stops in the boiling sun of Arizona and the sleety cold of Buffalo.
“These are the things they don’t teach you in drama school: How do you act at 4:30 in the morning, or in the freezing cold, or in the heat? But it’s just part of filmmaking. You have to take care of yourself, because it can blow your concentration.”
Especially heavy was the time spent filming in nursing homes.
“No question those places are haunted,” she says, “with everything that’s happened in them — the pain and grief.”
Favorite film: “I love ‘Dodsworth.’ Ruth Chatterton’s deep portrayal of a very superficial person is amazing to watch.”
Young actor you admire: “It does my heart good knowing Ryan Gosling is out there working.”
What you want in a director: “Capability, willingness, understanding, good humor.”
Vice: “Reality TV. It’s interesting to watch people perform.”