The Latin proverb “art is the concealing of art” applies to no one more than it does Laura Linney. Her pitch-perfect sense of how a character fits into the greater scheme of a film (or play or TV show, for that matter) can make her appear a dependable utility player who does nothing spectacular, but executes with consummate skill.
Unless you watch her for a second or two more than you think you need to. It’s only then that you realize how subtle she is, how fully she mirrors a situation and holds it together and how, once caught, your eye keeps drifting back to her to see how she does it.
“If I’m watching an actor emote and I feel nothing, it’s got to be the actor’s fault,” says Linney, who is the subject of an AFI Fest tribute Nov. 9. “You can’t let yourself get trapped in technique. Technique is only where it begins. You have to trust that all the information you have about a role will seep into the performance.”
In “Kinsey” (2004), she portrayed the idolatrous student of that modern Diderot of sex before she married him and wised up to the world of scientific libertinage, maturing afterward into a great, spirited, Indiana lady. A single scene in “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) tells volumes about her drawn, inward novelist as she meets her snarky ex-husband at her front door with the raw expression of someone riven with guilt, hope, dread and unhappy conviction.
In Tamara Jenkins’ upcoming “The Savages,” being screened as part of Linney’s Friday-night fete, she plays an aspiring Manhattan playwright who, with her college professor brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman), must relocate their elderly, increasingly demented father (Philip Bosco) from Sun City, Ariz., to a nursing home in dreary upstate New York. “The Savages” has movie-of-the-week written all over it, except for the unsentimental rigor of Jenkins’ script and the uncompromising performances of Bosco as the callous old man and Linney and Hoffman as adult children who have to live with the bitter knowledge of duty as a poor substitute for love.
None of those performances is categorical. Linney’s neurotically wired New Yorker is so uptight that sex only inflames her catalog of grievances, yet she’s constantly goaded out of self-absorption by the even more irritable need to do the right thing.
“Compulsive, childish, petulant, but capable of moments of grace, a whole sweep of behaviors and moods,” as Linney describes her.
The role caps a year in which Linney has shown remarkable range: from her no-nonsense CIA agent Kate Burroughs, whose job is her life in “Breach,” to her Manhattan trophy wife Donna Murphy in “The Nanny Diaries,” a mix of patrician steeliness and rueful self-awareness.
Surprisingly, her immersion in character doesn’t come from the painterly embellishment of what the Actor’s Studio crowd would portentously refer to as the inward journey. Instead, it comes from the script.
“If it’s good, everything is there,” she says. “Sometimes you can find other things, like I did with Clara McMillen in ‘Kinsey.’ There was biographical evidence of who she was. Photos, tapes of her voice where I could hear her rhythms and humor. They called her Mack. She was crisp. I thought of biting into a Macintosh apple.
“But a good script has its own architecture and topography. I scribble notes all over it. I make charts. I’m not saying it happens all the time. Sometimes parts aren’t so good. When they are, it’s a lot like music. You can go in a flow. But the story comes first. An actor is only a storyteller.”
Most actors, even the great ones, don’t like to conceptualize, which is why so many of their autobiographies make for a surprisingly dull read. But Juilliard-trained Linney is the daughter of Romulus Linney, a professor and playwright whose works “Sight Unseen,” “Childe Byron” and “The Sorrows of Frederick” have played Broadway and American regional theaters. She grew up seeing how the magic is pieced together out of vague speculative ideas, mock-ups, unexpected discoveries. And for her, too hard to write.
“I don’t want to be alone, and that’s the writer’s life,” she says. “I like to be part of a group of people with a common purpose, helping each other. Together you’re finding layers of experience, places you didn’t know before. We all fail. You have to be willing to expect that. But we learn more from failure than success.”