Whether she's playing the neurotic aspiring playwright with a penchant for telling lies in "The Savages," the caring mother with a cringe-worthy narcissistic streak in "The Squid and the Whale," or the devoted mom and sister who sparks an affair with her married boss (among other rebellions) in "You Can Count on Me," Laura Linney has mastered the art of bringing to life flawed women — flawed, endearingly human, acutely familiar women.
Wendy Savage, of the aforementioned "Savages," is one of her most inspired creations yet, scoring her a third Oscar nomination. As Wendy strives to foster a renewed relationship with her Brecht-scholar brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman), she can't help but deceive him about a prestigious grant she claims to have won, carries on an unfulfilling affair with her married neighbor, and hysterically obsesses over a pillow that's gone missing from her father's drab nursing home room.
But despite their foibles, contradictions and sometimes maddeningly self-destructive behavior, you always leave the theatre with a profound affection for Linney's characters. That's because she imbues them with so much humor and humanity they invariably ring true.
To Linney, it simply comes down to finding multiple layers, shadings and subtleties within each of these complex and contradictory women. "I think it's always a more interesting choice that no person is just one thing," she explains over the phone from Milan, where she's wrapping up a shoot on "The Other Man" with Liam Neeson, her co-star in the 2002 Broadway production of The Crucible. "For me, I try not to make any decisions about who a character is, really, until it's all over. If you predetermine everything, you're going to limit yourself. I think that characters will develop and grow while you're working on them in ways that you can't anticipate. So by leaving yourself open, hopefully there's more than just one or two colors there."
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Despite her considerable talent, Linney admits she's got her work cut out for her as she prepares to return to the stage in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the first revival of the play on Broadway since the original production captivated New York audiences in 1987. It won't be easy portraying a character as seemingly irredeemable as the Marquise de Merteuil, a vicious, cunning power broker of deceit who seduces her former lover, the womanizing Vicomte de Valmont (Ben Daniels), into a predatory game of carnal revenge and manipulation, with the stakes raised to increasingly debaucherous and menacing heights. [The Roundabout Theatre Company production began previews April 12 at the American Airlines Theatre toward a May 1 opening.] Adapted by Christopher Hampton from the scandalous 1782 epistolary novel, the play spawned the multiple-Oscar-winning film of 1988 starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close. Shifting between shimmering farce and wrenching tragedy, Liaisons gleefully skewers the narcissism, maliciousness and immorality of an aristocracy run amok — a theme that has contemporary resonance in a time of widening disparity between society's haves and have-nots.
Linney caught the original Broadway production when she was a drama student at Juilliard and has loved it ever since. "I think any of us who saw it were all intensely affected by it. It was one of the best evenings at the theatre I've certainly ever had," she says. "So I'm now appropriately terrified."
Although Linney has played icy schemers in the past — the devilish Bertha Dorset in "The House of Mirth" and Sean Penn's Lady Macbeth-like wife in "Mystic River" come to mind — none have been as ruthless as the willfully destructive Marquise. Still, the actress is ready to embrace the challenge. "Technically, it's really demanding. It's nothing you can walk through. But whenever I get nervous about a project, I always try and tell myself that plays are meant to be performed — no matter what ghosts of a past production are there. So you just have to throw yourself into the fire."
Linney finds herself in the fire frequently these days. She's a bona fide movie star, shifting comfortably between offbeat indie fare and smart, big-budget thrillers like "Breach." But she remains an unequivocal creature of the theatre — one of the few major movie actresses who returns regularly to the stage. "Everything I truly value I've learned from theatre. There's an attachment to it and a responsibility towards it that all of us feel when you've grown up in the theatre and it's given you such pleasure and a sense of family. But you certainly don't go to it expecting victory. You always humbly go back to the theatre because there are no guarantees that a production will be successful. But you also know it's worthy of your time and attention. I don't feel that way about many other things."
|photo by Kent Eanes/HBO|
Still, Linney doesn't deny the thrills and rewards of making movies. Even the madness of awards season doesn't raise her ire. "It gives me a good giggle. It's particularly gratifying when it happens for films that have struggled to get made and be seen, because it gives the film a little more of a life," she says. "But you have to keep it in perspective. I choose to look at these evenings as an opportunity to celebrate and be proud of the work. So you just have to go into it with a sense of fun." While Linney has been forced to cope with the trappings of fame and its attendant expectations, she's grateful to be able to choose her own path — and to be offered challenging fare like Liaisons or the recent HBO miniseries "John Adams," in which she played First Lady Abigail. "You can certainly never forget it's a privilege. It costs a lot, but it's a privilege. And as the decades roll by, I hope I'm still in there somewhere."