Laura Linney Explores the Art, Artifice of Acting



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Laura Linney seems to disappear into her movie roles.

She has played a protective single mother in You Can Count on Me, a scheming, malevolent Bertha Dorset in The House of Mirth, and the wife of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey in Kinsey, among many other diverse characters.

This year alone, she appears in five movies, including Breach and The Nanny Diaries.

In her latest film, The Savages, Linney portrays a deliciously flawed character.

"She steals. She lies. She's having an affair with a married man. She is fraudulent, and she applies for grants she doesn't deserve —or isn't even really eligible for. She's a mess. She's like an out of control 11-year-old," Linney tells Melissa Block.

Linney's character is Wendy Savage. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays her brother. And together they confront a scenario that will resonate with many viewers.

The Savages have to put their estranged father in a nursing home when he develops dementia. The film doesn't romanticize the ordeal: It is dark, but with a healthy dose of the absurd.

The role of Wendy Savage, which Linney calls "terrific," was one thing that drew Linney to director Tamara Jenkins' project. The other, she says, was that the script was in "perfect condition."

"My experience is that's rare — that you have a script that is ... what they call 'film-ready,'" Linney says.

It was neither too long nor short, and it made sense as a script, which Linney likens to a "blueprint" or an "architect's rendering of a house."

These days, Linney says, many scripts are written to be financed, not to be acted.

"And so the agenda behind the writing is to explain, as opposed to give cues and hints to an actor to act."

As a result, Linney says, many of the scripts she sees are overwritten. Her tendency is to strip the dialogue down, "because you don't have to say things all the time; you can act them."

"Otherwise, you have a character who doesn't connect to anything because they talk too much," Linney says.

The role of Wendy Savage — and the character's contradictory nature — exemplifies what Linney found appealing about The Savages script.

"She is someone who is frantic and manic, and yet has moments of great stillness. She is someone who is incredibly narcissistic and emotionally immature and child-like, and yet, capable of recognizing the wisdom of a moment and being extremely sympathetic," Linney says.

For many people, The Savages would seem very "down."

Instead, Linney said she saw "enormous, wonderful humor that came from the deepest parts of humanity," which for her is "the most fun."

Linney explains why she thinks it's not right for her to apply personal baggage to a character — although if she has had an experience that parallels that of a character she is playing, her memories will "bleed through."

Like Wendy Savage, Linney has had the experience of walking around a nursing home and leaving someone there.

"But it has to be the character's experience. I don't think you should exploit your own pain. My own pain is my pain. And most of the time it's not appropriate for the situation at hand," she says.

Linney says she is leery of another aspect of a career in Hollywood: revealing too much about her private life.

That's because she believes it takes audiences "out of the moment, and they're not fully engaged in the story, the character, the movie."

"A lot of what is publicized now is really pretty trivial stuff — you know, what I eat for breakfast, where I have my pedicures, questions that I just cannot for the life of me understand why someone would want to know that," Linney says.

"I think you have to be careful with stuff like that. I think there are some actors who are really wonderful actors, but they become so famous that you don't see their work, you see them playing the part and ... you think about who they're dating. ... I do it, which is why I don't want it to happen to me."

Linney admits that People magazine has been known to land in her lap.

"I go to the dentist. I take trains. It's impossible in this day and age to cut yourself off from that stuff. It just sort of is."

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