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Laura Linney and Kerry Washington on Their Theater Roots, Telling Tales of Family and the Power of Producing

Laura Linney and Kerry Washington Emmys
Nino Munoz

Laura Linney and Kerry Washington are no strangers to multi-tasking.

The Emmy-nominated performers (Linney with her second consecutive lead drama actress nod for Netflix’s “Ozark” and Washington entering the lead limited series/TV movie actress race with Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere”) not only starred in multiple projects this past television season, but they also pulled double duty on them with key behind-the-scenes titles (Linney is a co-executive producer on “Ozark,” while Washington executive produced “Little Fires Everywhere,” “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” and “American Son,” in which she also starred).

Their shows take hard, emotional and sometimes downright dark looks at the family unit, especially in regards to wealth, class and status in a community, and both women play matriarchal heads of the family who will do anything to protect their own.

Both New York-born women have been acting for decades, effortlessly move between theater and screen and even share a film credit (2011’s “The Details”), so needless to say, there was a lot to discuss when Variety reunited them.

There was a line in “Little Fires Everywhere” about making good choices versus having good choices, and it feels relevant for “Ozark,” as well. What helps you understand or get into the mindset of these women who haven’t always had good choices and therefore could be stuck in a morally complex place?

Kerry Washington: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve been thinking about how there is something about the artist that requires compassion. I can’t stand in judgement of my characters — I have to understand them — and that exercise in empathy is necessary to becoming her, and I’m grateful that that’s part of my practice as an actor because I think it’s good for me to be tasked in life with understanding how and why people do things that may seem questionable to other people.

Laura Linney: Absolutely. And to ask yourself why. I always ask myself why my character is doing this — “Why, why, why, why?” And you try to get to the very heart of something or to the heart of someone, and then that will then, at least for me, help inform everything else. My dad, who was a playwright, always used to say to me, “The talent is in the choices.” And I think there’s something really true to that: It is about taking the time to really thoroughly think through something, and making really specific decisions — and then throwing it all out the window and letting life and connecting to your fellow actor and the material and the project take you on its way. But I think Kerry’s absolutely right in that it’s about getting inside your character, and no one else has to know the decisions that you make, but the more decisions you make, the more specific the work will be.

Washington: I really agree. And it’s so beautiful because I love watching your work because I see that. There’s a level where an actor has made so many choices that then the freedom exists to just be. If you’re just being without making any choices, then that could be a really great improv class and there’s space for that, but when there’s enough that you can then let go and trust that when you’re face with something you can react to it out of your character’s life choices, that is always in your work, Laura.

Linney: Well right back atcha. But freedom for me only comes when I’m relaxed. And for me, I can’t be relaxed unless I feel I’m prepared — unless I feel I’ve earned my way in. I’m not one of those people who feels like I’m completely instinctive. There are those people, I wish I was one of them, I’m not.

Washington: I’m not either.

Linney: I can’t just rely on my instincts because I know I’m overseeing something that the writer put in, I’m not seeing how I fit into the narrative [or] how my character moves plot forward, and so then I’m not really in service to anyone else, which is where all the joy comes from for me. But Kerry, I have to say, as we gush over each other’s work, I cannot get over what you accomplished this year. And I have so many questions for you about “American Son!” How long was the run of “American Son” on Broadway? And then, did you film it while you were doing it?

Washington: Maybe it was four months because we did a month of previews and then we ran for three months — over 100 shows. And what we did was, once we closed we ended our run, we did not extend, and we took about five or six days — I flew my kids home to L.A., the construction crew got the set built on a soundstage in Brooklyn, and then we came back and we just did it. We shot a 90-minute film in five days — because we had been rehearsing it for months.

Linney: Did you change the blocking at all?

Washington: A little bit. We added the fourth wall, which was the audience. We built that fourth wall, so we completed the room, so we did shift a little bit of the blocking to shake off the proscenium.

Linney: Were you a little disoriented?

Washington: No. The play is so much about this private moment of these four people, and so it felt like we were finally, really private — finally the secret was ours. And you know how on stage it’s all choreography, so we just had to figure out how to fold in a sound guy and a camera guy, and that was it. And these guys were doing 30-minute takes — boom operators holding that mic for 30 minutes. They really got into the mind of the play. The camera operators, they’re so brilliant, they really studied, and they were in the dance with us, they really were.

Linney: I love how with theater, as opposed to any other medium that we tend to work in, what time will do to our work. Only by doing a play 100 times does it take you to a place that you never expected it to go and does it breathe a life into it that you cannot do on your own. And then to film it at the end of that, it must have been an amazing experience.

Washington: I know. I think you about your performance in “The Crucible” and I want to go back and be able to right next to you. I was not far, in the orchestra, when I saw that performance and it changed my life, seeing you in that role. But I wish that we had the tight shot of it for all eternity.

Linney: And what I love playing with, and I’m sure you do as well, is figuring out, how big can I be on screen and how small can I be in the theater? When you’re able to go from medium to medium, you figure out where the sweet spot is, in terms of how to communicate something. And I love trying to figure out how to use the theater or film or television — because they are slightly different, all of them — and how do you adjust the flame of your performance? It’s such a luxury to be able to go from stage to film to TV as we have, and there are not many people who do it. And then to move the same work from one medium to the next, I’ve never been able to do it.

Washington: We brought the same furniture.

Linney: If it didn’t smell the same I think it would unnerve me.

Washington: I even had the same rituals. I had to have the same tea that I was having every night. And my warm-up routine, I had to do the same stretches.

Linney: Of course!

Washington: And it was really good because in my seven years at “Scandal,” doing the one-hour drama is so athletic in a way because it’s these 16-hour days. And theater is athletic in a different way because there is no amplification — close-ups or a microphone — so you have to do all of the communication of a story. But it is just really exciting for me to brush off different tools in my toolbox and keep them all shiny.

Linney: And have them evolve, like, “Oh I couldn’t have done this scene four years ago.”

Aside from calibrating for the different technical demands of the medium, do you find you shift your performance greatly, letting go more or less, depending on who you are opposite?

Linney: For me part of the joy is doing all of the work, throwing it out the window, trusting that the work I’ve done will bleed through and having the joy of working with someone else. Absolutely everything is based on the other person, always, for me, as long as we’re still responsible to the script as well. And there’s real freedom when you trust each other. And also working with different people from different backgrounds — people who have done a lot of work in the theater and people who have not, who have only worked on television. I learn equally from both groups of people. And you adjust because you’re all telling a story together, so you’re all trying to tell a story the best way you can, but I always love being surprised by someone else. And Kerry, Lexi Underwood was so good — the two of you were so good! It’s like your hearts were talking to each other.

Washington: That’s how it felt! I’m pinching myself to hear you say these things. I feel like if I could work with Reese Witherspoon for the rest of my life, it would not be enough time. On camera we were each other’s nemesis, but in between takes, we were like a married couple and this was our baby, and we would talk about, “We need more options for the scene” and push each other and encourage each other and talk about budgets at lunch. To be able to be really in a collaborative sisterhood as producers but then in the scene work get to just be bitches was so fun.

Linney: You also get to the artists that you are. And the thing I love about producing is that I don’t have to keep my mouth shut. That’s really what it is: We’re given permission to be a part of the conversation — and are expected to use our own experience and our own sense of taste and make our own contributions. And particularly for a woman, I think, to be able to do that when you have experience at your back, I find I’m so much more relaxed when I’m working.

Washington: Yes, because you’re no longer “difficult” or “ambitious,” you’re just doing your job. In fact, that was my experience in “Live in Front of a Studio Audience”: I wasn’t a producer on the first special, but there was a lot that happened in that first special where I wanted to be of service. I love Norman [Lear] and I love Jimmy [Kimmel] and I wanted that first special to really work, and I worked my ass off in a lot of ways to help make that first special a success — and what I love about that group of producers is, rather than call me ambitious or difficult, they invited me on as a producer for the next one. It was like, “Oh there’s value,” not “she’s being too big for her britches.” And I was so moved by that — by this bunch of guys who were like, “Oh yeah, it’s important to have this female voice, this voice that was a person of color in this process.” Did you know you always wanted to produce?

Linney: No, not at all. And I talk to fellow actresses who are my age [about this but] it would have never entered our minds that it was possible when we were younger. It was not an option. The whole concept of “create your own work” did not exist when I was a student at Juilliard, nor when I was working for the first 10 years. It just wasn’t in our minds; it’s recent, and it’s so encouraging to see. What happened for me was I’m not great with script stuff — I’m not a writer and I try to stay out of that — but just through years of experience, I can look at a shot list and I can be like, “You’re going to waste 45 minutes there.”

Washington: I never would have thought that, Laura! I would have thought the exact opposite: I would have thought with your playwriting legacy and your Juilliard training, you would have been like, “Don’t show me a shot list; let me talk about story arc.” I love that.

Linney: No, it’s, “That scene shouldn’t happen after lunch. It’s too emotional and that actress is tired after lunch” or “There’s a 45-minute hair change there, you can’t put that scene there, bump it or pull it up.” I’m good with that stuff, so I love the technical stuff of producing, not so much the development. I haven’t really thrown myself into that arena yet, and I don’t know if that’s just the subliminal messages to my generation of “You can’t do that” or just being on set to set to set for 35 years, all of a sudden you just have skills you can’t deny — you can’t pretend you don’t know.

What makes you say yes to a project in which you’d be acting but not also producing?

Linney: It’s about the people for me.

Washington: That’s a good answer.

Linney: You’ve got to really trust them. You might not always agree on things, but there’s got to be some common understanding of taste, really. There’s nothing more painful than being on something where people have completely different levels of taste. Both sides will be hurt and offended as the project goes on.

Washington: That’s right. I have to really, really love something to be an actor and not [also] producing at this point. Years and years and years — millenniums ago — I was a guest star on a TV show and I was in a rehearsal with an actor and I said, “I was thinking,” and the actor said, “Yeah don’t do that; don’t think.” And I don’t want to be in that situation again. But I just did “The Prom,” with Ryan Murphy, which was a no-brainer because it was Ryan Murphy and Meryl Streep and a musical I already love. So sometimes the party’s already happening and you’re happy to be invited. But mostly I like to be at dinner parties where I like to contribute to the menu choices.

What does that love look like for both of you: How personal does the story have to feel to you and how important is it that it touches upon bigger societal issues, such as race, privilege and status as your recent projects have?

Washington: It’s very difficult to separate this idea to separate out saying something for the world or just a great piece of writing for me because the reality is, because I’m a woman and because I’m a woman of color, if it’s a great piece of writing for me, then it is saying something important in the world. I’m a part of two marginalized communities that are not often given voice or listened to or centered, so I think when we center stories about women and allow them to be fully three-dimensional — or when we center stories about people of color or portray them about being three-dimensional — that is good writing, and it’s also good for the world. But there’s no algorithm for the love for me: I read it and it’s like dating: You either want a second date or you’re like, “This person is not for me.” It’s that kind of a feeling.

Linney: For me, it’s always when I’ve started working on the script before I’ve finished reading it. If my actor brain turns on and I’m already seeing connections and if I have some slight spiritual connection to the script before I’ve finished reading it, then I know I have to take it seriously. But if all I see are words on a page and I don’t hear voices or feel the rhythm or energy of the language, then I’m the wrong person for that job.

Washington: I love that because it’s almost like I’m not thinking about how to say the lines, the lines are in my body — they are living in me.

Linney: Yeah, it comes up off the page. And then there is also, who are the people involved and where is it filming? As we get older and we have families, that’s important.

Family is so important in your shows as well.

Washington: Reese talks about how she became a mom really young and somebody was like, “Don’t take Mommy roles because once you take Mommy roles your career is done.”

Linney: I remember being told not to tell my age. And it used to piss me off. And I never understood that; it just really infuriated me.

Washington: But now there’s a whole catalogue of storytelling and narrative about motherhood and parenting that we’re getting to explode. There wasn’t an investment in the complexity of family in this way.

Linney: And all great drama is about family in one way or the other. Anything that has a beating heart to it is about family, sex, religion — family, however you define that; sex, however you define that, and religion, however you define that — but those three things in constellation with each other. So family’s kind of it with a capital I and a capital T. And then it’s not just family but what’s behind family, which is connection and a sense of longing.

And in both of your cases some pretty big secrets and challenging relationship dynamics — some of which you likely don’t know the full extent of when taking on a role. How do you feel about how much to seed in a performance so that when the audience sees the reveal it’s an “aha” moment instead of an “oh surprise” moment?

Linney: I’m from the school that I don’t need to know everything, but the big stuff I want to know — and I want to know it so I can craft it so that when it does hit the impact is as strong as it can be. I [want to] put a tiny hint in Episode 3 of the first season that will hit really hard in Season 4. And there’s a weird thing in television, which is just cultural, which is a reluctance to share a lot of information with actors. I find that really frustrating — it makes it almost impossible for my work. So I’m very lucky that on “Ozark” Chris Mundy, our showrunner, has been extraordinarily good with me. I don’t need to know everything and I don’t push it, but he trusts me — at the end of the day, that’s really what it is — to hold the information and to use it for the benefit of everybody and for the benefit of our show. I’m not going to totally marry myself to it, but it will feed all of the choices that I make and then hopefully make everything better. And I think that’s true of actors who come from theater and come from film and migrate into television.

Washington: I come from theater and so, like Laura, even at the end of “Scandal” I had my Post-its and my tabs and I would have my cheat sheet of the emotional line of the episode. That’s how I work. But I had to learn how to be more flexible because with that show, it wasn’t that they didn’t want to tell us, sometimes they just didn’t know. And sometimes they knew — when Joe Morton was hired for “Scandal” he knew, and Shonda [Rhimes, creator] knew that he was going to be my father, but I did not know that he was going to be my father until that episode. And I used to walk into the table reads and say, “God Joe, I really hope we get some scenes together!” I really had to learn how to be more flexible, but I prefer to know what my beginning, middle and end is, so I love the limited series world because we got to treat it like a complete story because the novel is a complete story.