Laura Linney on making her British stage debut | Culture

Laura Linney and Jason Bateman in Ozark.

id-morning in Brooklyn, New York and grey clouds are scudding across the sky above St Ann’s Warehouse – a state-of-the-art performance and rehearsal space that was once a tobacco warehouse. Inside, a fabulous model of an angel is suspended from the ceiling, and beyond its windows the East River is getting on with its day. Laura Linney is said to be running late and when she arrives she walks in briskly without any diva-esque hauteur. She is all apologies, smiles, grace. She sits down on a circular leather banquette in the foyer and tucks her knees beneath her. She is casually dressed but with a black-and-white scarf for extra flourish. She looks comfortable in her own skin. At 54, there is a much younger woman visible in her face and not because of cosmetic interference but because she is spirit itself –you see that at once.

She is in New York, but the next opportunity to catch Linney will be in London, at the Bridge theatre. She is about to star in an adaptation of the American novelist Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, long-listed for the Booker in 2016, adapted by Rona Munro and directed by Richard Eyre. It is a first-person narrative of Quakerish composure, slightly reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s work, about a woman who is a born writer, who carries the burden of the unspeakable: her childhood. It is about writing and what cannot be written. It centres, movingly, on an encounter over Lucy Barton’s New York hospital bed (she is recovering from an operation) with her mother – this offers a chance to revisit her childhood and, possibly, to redeem it. The play is not, as you might predict, a two-hander, but more dauntingly, a monologue, a 37-page marathon – Linney will be carrying more than the burden of her character’s childhood, she will be carrying the show.

Sometimes, in life, things are meant to be: Laura Linney and Lucy Barton seem to have been intended for one another. This was, however, far from clear at the outset: “I received a call from my agent, who said Elizabeth Strout wanted to meet with me about the possibility of playing Lucy Barton. We met in a cafe on the Upper East Side. We had a wonderful lunch but there were these weird, awkward pauses during which we were staring at each other across the table.”

At one point, Strout broached it: “So you want to play Lucy Barton?” Linney responded: “I’d love to.” But no further discussion developed. Linney discovered only later that there had been “some confusion” – each woman had expected the other to be doing the pitching. “I fell in love with Liz at that lunch, she was amazing. But I thought: oh well, this was not meant to be.”

It was months after that first meeting with Strout, while Linney was in Atlanta shooting Ozark (the Netflix crime series in which she plays the unfaithful wife of Jason Bateman’s drug money launderer), that she got a call from Nicholas Hytner, director (and co-founder of London’s Bridge theatre), saying he had optioned the novel and wanted her to do it.

“I asked: ‘Have you spoken to Liz?’ He said: ‘No.’ I said: ‘You’re kidding me.’” She could not believe that Lucy Barton had come back to claim her from a new direction. The show would be with Eyre directing, whom she “adores”, and Bob Crowley designing (ditto) and an overseeing Nicholas Hytner, whom she reveres, and in this “brand new theatre”. She cocks her head to one side, bird-like, and smiles.

Laura Linney and Jason Bateman in Ozark. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

You can understand why more than one person thought her ideal casting for Lucy Barton. Receptive, damaged, contemplative, the character is perfectly suited to Linney’s talent for nuance – for splintered emotion. It was the television series of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City that made her name in 1993 – Linney was the ingenue that 1970s San Francisco took under its seductive wing. In 2003, she excelled as the amorously diffident Sarah in Love Actually, and her role as Abigail Adams, wife of the second US president, in the HBO mini-series John Adams (2008) won her an Emmy. Yet in most – if not quite all – of her films, Laura Linney is caught up in dysfunctional families.

In You Can Count on Me (2000) – for which she was nominated for an Oscar – she played sister to a delinquent brother. Her expressive face is brilliant at conveying ambivalence, with her piercingly warm smile an unexpectedly powerful accessory. By 2005, in The Squid and the Whale, she was a wan, tormented neurotic. And in Savages (2007) she evolved – or devolved – still further (“That character was a hot mess,” says Linney). A pathological liar, she kept her brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman) company visiting their demented father – two siblings at sea.

At one point in Strout’s novel, Lucy Barton considers life in contrast to fiction: “When you write a novel, you get to rewrite it, but when you live with someone for 20 years that is the novel.” To what extent does Linney see her own life as a story? “It depends on the age you are when you look back – your perspective changes.” Her eyes shine: “I guess we can all tell our lives as stories – but it is whether or not you want to.” She laughs – a peel of a laugh. And do you? “No!” she exclaims. Life, she suggests, is not docile enough to coax into a shape: “Life is mysterious and unpredictable and exhilarating and painful.”

Would she agree that what Strout is suggesting is that it is impossible ever to know anyone? “Yes – the novel asks questions I’ve been asking myself filming Ozark recently, particularly given the political climate of my country right now. Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? What do I believe in? What – who – do I love? And why? How do I choose to spend my time? What helps me evolve? What do I need?” Hearing her restlessly interview herself in this manner, one thing is obvious: Linney will never be accused of complacency.

What’s more, in a recent interview in W magazine, she says that what she particularly loves about Ozark is how, within the family, none of them know each other – or themselves. How well does she know herself? “I know parts of myself. The joy about getting older is that you learn a bit about yourself. But I believe that being too knowing can be a problem. If you’re too knowing, you limit yourself from the get-go. There is a Chinese expression: I only know enough.” She maintains there are “people who have known me for a long time who know my behaviour better than I do, who have watched me change and stay the same. For there is a core in all of us that does not change – not at all.” Linney speaks with pinpoint precision – as if in italics.

She sees My Name Is Lucy Barton as “truth unadorned”. And if Strout offers us a further moral insight, it is that it is wrong to judge others. Lucy Barton observes that people “find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it is the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.” Linney says: “Hmph…” – a favourite response, almost Mary Poppins-ish, it makes me laugh – “One thing I know is that no one is one thing. That I know. Judgment has become entertainment – easy and unhelpful. Judgment is about selling, it is not meant to change anything.”

Laura Linney as Mary Ann in 1993’s Tales of the City.

Laura Linney as Mary Ann in 1993’s Tales of the City. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

There is one judgment I am keen to hear from her – of Richard Eyre as a director. Linney always claims in interviews that, in spite of her film and television success, she is instinctively a theatre person. She was directed by Eyre in a 2002 production of The Crucible, for which she received a Tony nomination. (More recently she was nominated for another Tony for her performance in Little Foxes on Broadway in 2017 with Cynthia Nixon). “Richard is a man of the arts,” she says. “He is beautifully balanced as a director – his attention to narrative, design and acting.” And then she comes up with a surprising word: she describes him as an “unbelievable host”. Does that extend to how he makes her feel when directed? “Yes,” she says. And she reveals that Elizabeth Strout and Rona Munro are welcomed into rehearsals too.

How does she feel about making her London theatre debut? “You always hope it will happen but never know how it might be, and the fact that it is this – [laughter]. It is wonderful but it is a lot to learn… I am terrified. Lucy Barton has a line that goes: ‘I was terrified but not as much as I was excited.’ That is a pretty accurate description of how I feel.”

Understanding family is Linney’s forte but it was late in life, at 49, that she became a mother herself. It must have changed her work, I suggest. “I am sure it must have, but I’m not sure how – I was very, very fortunate to be able to have a child. I had to wait much longer than most. Bennett [his middle name is Armistead – no prizes for guessing why] is four now. The reason I was late this morning is I had to go to his preschool to attend an opera for four-year-olds.” She laughs at the absurdity of it: “It was glorious.” She maintains that, as an older parent, she has “an overwhelming sense of gratitude”. She explains that “the stuff you normally hear everybody complain about” never troubled her: “I remember being awake at 4am with my son when he was an infant. We were tired but it was that deep, sacred, quiet time – I couldn’t believe I was finally in that situation.” She adds: “You give up and then you try, give up and try…” When I ask about pastimes beyond acting, she says Bennett is her pastime. They are keen consumers of children’s books and although he doesn’t watch a lot of television, they adore the British TV show Sarah and Duck. “I’d recommend it to anyone – adult or child.”

It is Linney’s upbringing that has perhaps given her the greatest insight into family and its challenges. She is the only child of a single mother, Miriam Anderson “Ann” Perse, who worked as a nurse at Memorial Sloan Kettering, a cancer hospital in East Manhattan. Linney grew up in a one-bedroom apartment: “My mother was balancing so much, she was remarkable – she did not have an easy time. She was working 12-hour shifts at the hospital. And she was so young, she had me at 24. I often think of what it must have been like for her. She is still alive – very much so – and loves being a grandmother. I think she had given up on it ever happening. Bennett is a great gift to us all.”

Her father was a playwright, Romulus Linney – winner of two national critics awards. She has described him in interviews as a wonderful but “difficult” man. When I ask whether her love of acting began with him, she replies: “I’d love to tell you it had nothing to do him, that it just came from me but that would be completely ridiculous. It had a tremendous amount to do with him.” She then adds that it might also have been in the genes: “His being a man of the theatre came from his mother – an amateur actress. My great-great-grandfather was a senator and congressman for North Carolina and known as an orator.”

Linney was privately educated (relatives helped with fees) and studied theatre arts at Brown University before getting into the Juilliard School in New York. “I’m very lucky because I always knew what I wanted to do and have been able to continue to work.” But to be an actor you must have the “right disposition – it is hard work and does not always feel good. The lesson I have learned, over and over, is that you have to sit in discomfort – physically and psychologically. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. In a world that does not value time or the patience required for something to develop, things do not always go well. Sometimes work has to be terrible before it gets better.”

I’m very self-critical. I’m better with other people than I am with myself. I always feel my work could be better.

I think of Linney playing opposite Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. She is an artificially perfect wife, shiny as her kitchen appliances, a new-improved cipher with a just-add-sugar smile. That must have been a task and a half. And now she confesses that she predicts it will only be at the end of the Lucy Barton run that she will feel “ready to do it”.

You can’t watch Laura Linney without thinking about her technique – that incredible ability to cry at will in front of cameras: “It is about doing all your work before you get there and then throwing it out the window, knowing it will bleed through. I do a lot of prep – then surrender.” She adds, with italicised precision: “You just have to get out of your own way.” She sees becoming Lucy Barton as getting out of the character’s way. “I see myself as a medium,” she adds.

What keeps coming up in our conversation is Linney’s willingness not to be an expert on herself – and this hugely influences her acting. “It is important not to be too knowing and not to be afraid of the characters you are playing.” As Strout’s Lucy Barton reflects: “I learned that work gets done if you simply do it.” She has never played anyone for whom she had no sympathy.

Linney’s first marriage was to the actor David Adkins and lasted five years. Her second husband, Marc Schauer, is a real estate agent – they met at the Telluride film festival in 2004 where he was a VIP host. I wonder how much real estate – her surroundings – matter to her? “Very much so but I must be careful about telling you where I live because of crazy stalker people who show up.” It is only subsequently, from a story in the New York Times, that I discover she is not being fanciful. Linney was stalked for several years, bombarded with unwanted bouquets at every turn. The situation became so extreme she had to involve the police to put a stop to it.

But now she is conjuring the necessary props of her life: “Books – too many. I have a book problem. Art. A really good bathtub. I like to soak in hot water. I like light when it is there. I don’t want to live in darkness. I like texture. But the things I love do not always go together.” She laughs. “And then you have a child and everything is turned upside down and you are stepping on Lego. My husband keeps saying: ‘A dog is coming.’ And I keep saying: ‘Not yet, please!’”

It would be easy to get away with a sense of Laura Linney as all sweetness and light – but she is, I think, complicatedly earthed. When I ask what her greatest fault is, she says: “I’m very self-critical. I’m better with other people than I am with myself.” She adds: “I always feel my work could be better.” A show that particularly exposes the mix of light and dark is The Big C, the TV series in which she stars as a woman living in suburban Minneapolis with terminal cancer, putting a pretty face on calamity and deciding against treatment in favour of living (she even offers us a cartwheel or two). The Big C stood for comedy as well as for cancer and won Linney an Emmy in 2013.

Laura Linney in The Big C.

Laura Linney in The Big C. Photograph: c.Showtime/Everett / Rex Feature

“My father died of cancer while we were making The Big C. For me, it confirmed that absurd things happen where the only thing you can do is laugh. My father had to go from one test to another and came out of one procedure not at all lucid. He was speaking in this Appalachian accent and pretending to box somebody. We had to travel miles with him through the hospital, through elevators and down hallways – and it was just insane. And there was a Christmas party going on with Santa Claus saying ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’” Comedy, she now asserts, is “a survival technique. It comes to you when life is chaotic and has a way of going right to the truth. There is such relief in the recognition of the truth that you laugh.”

She is one of the least self-pitying people I have ever met, most of all on the subject of age: “Ageing is a tremendous privilege. I lose my patience with people who complain about getting old… it’s a slap in the face to everyone who has not had the privilege of ageing. I find it incredibly disrespectful. I get really upset.” I ask if she is thinking of people like Natasha Richardson with whom she was friends. “Yes – and of anyone who died of Aids early, anyone who has been in a tragic accident, anyone whose life was cut short.”

Yet she is not saying that getting older is a breeze: “We’re human. Ageing is not easy. There are times when I don’t know why my body isn’t working and don’t like what I see. All of a sudden, you don’t recognise yourself in the mirror or it is hard to get out of a chair.” I say it is difficult to believe that it is ever hard for her to get out of a chair. “It can be! And all of a sudden, you don’t remember with the clarity and alacrity you used to… but what matters is that this is where you are.”

What would she say her inner age was? She hesitates: “I have twins.” I tell her that sounds like cheating. She persists: “I have an older and younger person dancing together in me.” Does she fear becoming older still? “No, I find it a relief. And there is something about the responsibility of getting older, there are people coming behind us who need us to get out of the way. And honestly – I’ve had my time, thank you.”

Only she hasn’t, as My Name Is Lucy Barton is sure to prove. On the way out, I greet Richard Eyre and Elizabeth Strout, waiting for her like workers in an engine room – Strout looks up at Laura: “You look lovely.” And I leave them to it – it is only a matter of days now before Linney’s Lucy Barton introduces herself to London.

My Name Is Lucy Barton starts previewing at the Bridge theatre, London SE1, on 2 June and runs until 23 June

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