Voices: Laura Linney starts over (again)

The Emmy-winning actor reflects on family, her career and the healing effects of humor

WORDS Jeanne Wolf
July / August 2019
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I’ve loved Tales of the City since I played Mary Ann in the first series in 1993. The new show on Netflix brings her back 20 years later and I came to the set feeling very much as I did then because [author] Armistead Maupin gave Tales this infectious, wonderful quality. It is so relatable to what we all go through with our families—the good, the bad and the awkward.

What has been a big surprise is that I ended up acting in film and television because I’m so camera-shy.

I’m a bit of an introvert so I’m not all that comfortable in those red-carpet situations. I dress to respect the event. You don’t show up at a wedding in a T-shirt.

The biggest difference in my life is that, thankfully, I now have a little boy. A lot of people have asked if it’s changed me. There’s no doubt it has, but only for the better. I lived a very full life before I became a mother so I was not plagued by some of the things that many women can feel if they have a child too early. Fortunately, my son is a very good traveler. At five, he’s been all over the world with us already. I do worry about him but he could care less. He and my mother get a real kick out of each other and they just laugh together.

It’s a bit ironic that on Ozark I’m part of a family that is so very different. Jason Bateman and I play people of real questionable character. It’s interesting that a lot of people see an ambitious, aggressive woman like Wendy as being a little like Lady Macbeth. I’m not defending Wendy. She’s immature and impulsive. But I do have a feeling viewers judge her more harshly than Jason’s character. I worked hard to make her more than “just the wife” and viewers have reacted to that.

Next I’ll be coming to Broadway in something much more personally traumatic, My Name Is Lucy Barton. It’s about a woman at a low point recovering from a serious illness who kind of plays back her life with her mother. It was my London stage debut in a one-woman show and is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It is just pure fear. I knew it was going to be a challenge and I’m still amazed at what it takes to pull it off. And my husband wasn’t there to help. He wouldn’t dare be anywhere near me at a time like that.

Of course, The Big C dealt with a traumatic subject, terminal cancer, but we wanted a series that had a sense of humor about it. My mother was a cancer nurse at Memorial Sloan Kettering. I grew up watching her come home from work every day and I could tell it wasn’t easy. The pilot script came to me during a period when I was really in a quandary about time and how we use it, and about the privilege of aging. So I was like, Oh, here’s a way for me to continue that conversation with myself. I thought to deal with it in a humorous but respectful context was totally appropriate. For me comedy is a survival technique. When things get really chaotic and difficult, often something absurd happens.

As a woman I’m very happy to see that a younger generation is having an allergic reaction to some of the things that my generation just accepted. It’s a slow, gradual process, but people have had great incentives to make a lot of noise about it recently.

I remember when Ms. magazine arrived at our house for the first time, what a big deal that was. I’ve always remembered what it imprinted on me at that moment: These were female journalists who were expressing themselves in a magazine with a different perspective. It gave me the sense that you can do what you want.

And so I went on to become an actress—which I hadn’t even admitted to myself I wished for. The greatest lesson that I’ve learned over and over in anything creative is that nothing is ever what you think it’s going to be. I must need some uncertainty in my life because every new project is like starting over.

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