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Laura Linney Explores the Art, Artifice of Acting

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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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The actress Laura Linney seems to disappear into her movie roles. She's played a protective single mother in "You Can Count on Me," a scheming, malevolent Bertha Dorset in "The House of Mirth," and many others. This year alone, she appears in five movies, including "Breach" and "The Nanny Diaries."

Here's what she has to say about her deliciously flawed character in her latest film, "The Savages."

Ms. LAURA LINNEY (Actress): She steals, she lies, she's having an affair with a married man. She is fraudulent and she applies for grants that she doesn't deserve and — or isn't even really, you know, eligible for. She's a mess. She's like an out-of-control 11-year-old.

BLOCK: Well, 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.

In this scene, the siblings would fight over which of them will spend Thanksgiving with their father.

(Soundbite of movie "The Savages")

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Jon Savage) Wendy, I'm working.

Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage): I'm working.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Jon) I didn't know that you are. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. It's just - see, I got a lot of writing on this book and, and, your life is much more affordable than mine.

Ms. LINNEY: (As Wendy): What is that supposed to mean? What, like a toilet? Or like a Porta-Potty?

BLOCK: When Laura Linney came by our studios, I asked what appealed to her in the story.

Ms. LINNEY: It wasn't just that the part was so terrific, but it was also that the entire script was in perfect condition. My experience - that's rare, that you have a script that is ready to - that is film-ready, what they call film-ready.

BLOCK: Well, what does that mean? What would it be…

Ms. LINNEY: It means…

BLOCK: …if it wasn't film-ready?

Ms. LINNEY: If it wasn't film-ready, either it's too long, it's too short, but more than that, it's the structure, it's the scenes, it's the dialogue, it's the topography of a script, if that makes sense?

BLOCK: Hmm.

Ms. LINNEY: Because it really is - a script is just a blueprint. It's like and architect's rendering of a house. And for those of us who read scripts all the time, we can sort of look at it and see how it will translate onto film. And a lot of times, scripts are written - and they have to be in this day and age - they're written not to be acted. They're written to be financed. They're written to be green-lit. And so the agenda behind the writing is to explain, as opposed to give a, you know, cues and hints to an actor to act. Does that make sense?

BLOCK: What would be an example be?

Ms. LINNEY: Well, things are just overwritten, you know, really overwritten, you know? And a lot of times, we'll strip the dialogue down, down, down, down, because you don't have to say things all the time. You can act them. Otherwise, you have a character that doesn't connect to anything because they talk too much.

BLOCK: Can you think of something you saw in the script for "Savages" that made you think, this is exactly right, this is the topography that I'm looking for?

Ms. LINNEY: Well, I think because she is so - and this is what also made it so interesting - is how contradictory her character is. 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 childlike, and yet capable of recognizing the wisdom of a moment and being extremely sympathetic. It's a script, I think, that if you didn't - if you're someone who doesn't read scripts a lot, you would think it was very down. But to those of us who read it, we just saw just enormous, wonderful humor that came from the deepest parts of humanity, which, consequently, for me, I think was the most fun.

BLOCK: How much of a help or a burden do you think it might be, for you as an actor, to bring your own experience into a part like this?

Ms. LINNEY: Well, I - people have very different opinions upon this. For me, I have always believed that my personal baggage, my personal pain, my personal happiness, my sense of joy, doesn't belong to the character. And it's somewhat unfair of me, and sometimes just downright inappropriate, to put my stuff on someone else. It won't fit a lot of the times, which is at least my theory about why there are a lot of times I will watch actors and they will be emoting up a storm, they will be screaming and crying and all this emotion, and I feel nothing. I feel nothing because that emotion doesn't coincide with the situation or that character.

Now having said that, I also know that whatever experience I have that may intersect with Wendy Savage, or any of the other characters that I played, it's going to bleed through anyway. So I don't worry about it. If there is a parallel situation that we have both experienced, I will certainly recall smells and, you know, walking around the corner of a nursing home, which I have done, leaving someone at a nursing home, which I have done, things like that. 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.

BLOCK: I remember reading something you said once that I'm now been unable to find again. But you were talking about fame and the downside of having your own personal story and preferences known to audiences.

Ms. LINNEY: Right.

BLOCK: In other words, that you don't want them…

Ms. LINNEY: Right. Yes.

BLOCK: …thinking as they go to see you, oh, Laura Linney always wears this designer…

Ms. LINNEY: Correct.

BLOCK: …or…

Ms. LINNEY: Correct.

BLOCK: …like eat this kind of food.

Ms. LINNEY: No. Hmm-mm.

BLOCK: Why?

Ms. LINNEY: Well, you're absolutely right, because it takes them out of the moment, and they're not fully engaged in the story, the character, the movie. And, you know, a lot of what is, you know, publicized now, you know, is really pretty trivial stuff. You know, what I eat for breakfast, where I have my pedicures, you know? Questions that I just cannot, for the life of me, understand, who would want to know that?

BLOCK: So you just not answer them?

Ms. LINNEY: No, you know, I - there were times where I wouldn't answer them and then I tried to, you know, ease up a little bit about it because, you know, what are you going to do? But I think you have to be careful with stuff like that. You know, I think there are some actors who are really wonderful actors, but they've become so famous that you don't see their work. You see them playing the part and then - and you think about who they're dating or, you know, I do it. Well, I mean, I…

BLOCK: Do you find that happening to you?

Ms. LINNEY: Of course, I do, which is why I don't want it to happen to me because I'm so guilty of it.

BLOCK: You're reading People magazine?

Ms. LINNEY: I do, occasionally. It has been known to be on my lap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINNEY: It has - I go to the dentist. I take trains, so sure. No, it's impossible in this day and age to cut yourself off from that stuff which is sort of, you know, it is.

BLOCK: Do you ever wish you were an actor in a different time?

Ms. LINNEY: I do, actually. Sometimes. Sometimes, I do. But, having said that, that's just sort of a romantic view probably filled with just as many conflicting feelings as all of us go through today. I mean - but there are many things that I have as I'm able to do now that I know would not be possible 20 years ago, 30 years ago. And for that, I'm really grateful.

I'm able to work in a gazillion different mediums, you know, different forms of TV and stage and Broadway and off Broadway and film and independent film and big-budget film and radio and radio plays and narrating documentaries. I mean, the net is pretty widely cast now. And I have in my bathroom an old print that I found at one of those carts in London, where they have all the great old engravings. And it's a horizontal newspaper ad, and there's a picture of Ellen Terry, one of the great famous actresses of her day. I think it's Maude Adams, a famous American actress, great dames of the stage, really famous, you know, the women who I wonder about and what their life was like and they all played shaw(ph) and they were, you know? And it's an advertisement for cold cream.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LINNEY: You know? And there they all are, you know, talking about how their skin is so soft and how much, you know. And I'm like, well, see, there you go. It's been going on for a long time.

BLOCK: That's the golden age.

Ms. LINNEY: That's the golden age of cold cream, yeah.

BLOCK: Laura Linney, thanks so much for coming in.

Ms. LINNEY: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Laura Linney's latest movie is "The Savages. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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