Linney Mines 'The Big C' For Serious Laughs
From a young age, Laura Linney knew what she wanted to do with her life: act. There was no question.
She was a drama nerd in high school, and went onto Juilliard to study theater. But film acting was never the dream, and movie stardom definitely wasn't the goal.
"I was always completely intimidated by film," she tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "I was not the sort of person who grew up thinking, 'Oh, I want to be in the movies.' I loved movies; I just didn't think I particularly belonged there."
Linney, however, does belong on film — at least as much as she belongs on stage. She made a mark on TV in 1994, when PBS broadcast a well-received adaptation of Armistead Maupin's classic San Francisco novel Tales of the City -- but her big break came with the small 2000 film You Can Count on Me, in which she played a single mom in a small town. Linney's performance earned her the first of her three Academy Award nominations.
Since then she has steadily earned the respect of critics and audiences alike for her work in movies such as Mystic River, Kinsey, The Savages and The Squid and the Whale, written by her acquaintance Noah Baumbach.
These days she stars as Cathy Jamison, the terminally ill cancer patient at the center of Showtime's dark comedy series The Big C, on which Linney is also an executive producer. Her own father, the noted playwright Romulus Linney, died of lung cancer after she began work on the show, as she was struggling with questions about life and aging.
"The show came to me in a period of time ... when I was having real existential moments ... thinking about time, and the time that we have, and that it is limited," she says. "It just is.
"It's human nature to — thank God — not have [death] be the first thing you think about every single second, but there is a reality to it. And as I've been aging, and parents are dying and I've unfortunately lost friends who were way too young to go — you realize what a privilege it is to age. And that's not a message we hear a lot in the United States."
The show is now in its fourth and final season; Jamison's disease is beginning to take a physical toll on the character, and Linney has consciously changed her appearance — cut her hair, lost substantial weight — to reflect that reckoning.
"It was important to me that you actually see what's happening to her, that you see the cancer, and you can see how it changes people," she says. "There is something about what happens to the soul of a person as they are battling with an illness; the days when they're feeling weak, the days where they're strong, how that shifts and changes, what happens to the voice, how the body moves. Breathing. And ... more than seeing the disease, you see the life that's there, and how the life is coping with the challenges that are happening with the body."
On learning moviemaking on the set of Michael Crichton's Congo
"The acting was not terribly complicated, let's face it. There was not a whole lot to play there. So I thought, you know, I could learn what it is to be on a set. ... I was a bit of a pest, but I would go to the sound department and say, you know, 'Can I watch you guys for the next three weeks when I'm not on set? Can I sit with you? Can I see what you do? Can I see how this all works?' And then I went to the camera department, and then I went to special effects, so I would have a sense of what arena I was working in. And it made me realize what was my job and what was not my job as an actress, and how there was an entire army of people helping me out — and that I could take advantage of that, and lean on what they were offering."
On getting to know Noah Baumbach
"Noah's father and my father knew each other and would both go to MacDowell and Yaddo and writers' colonies together, so they were from the same sort of culture and the same sort of world. So we had that. I knew that world pretty well.
"When you're growing up in the '70s and you have parents who are artists — and you know how difficult it is for them to be parents and be the sort of artists that they were encouraged to be during that period of time culturally, it was not an easy mix."
On fame and how it influenced her version of Abigail Adams on HBO
"I'm well-known. I'm not the sort of person who walks out onto the street and people scream my name, but ... I don't have a purely anonymous life, so I can understand a little bit. And I have some friends who are very, very famous, and I certainly see how they, what they encounter on a daily basis and the moments where you sort of lose reality about your size in the world and how that can change your thinking and, consequently, your behavior. So I was really interested in discovering those dynamics about [Adams]."
On the sex scenes in John Adams
"What makes historical drama accessible are those moments of, 'Well, what do you do? What would anybody do? And then that connects you very quickly. You know, what do you do with the wig? And what happens when people who really love each other have been separated?
"You know, you go to bed. You do. That's what people who are passionate do. When they've been longing for each other and missing each other and the relief of being in each other's presence, you — you know — jump in the sack. So those sort of things that were truthful to us, that we were then able to work into the story."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest is actress Laura Linney, who stars in the Showtime series "The Big C," now in its final season. Linney caught the eye of critics and earned an Oscar nomination for her role as a single mom in a small town in the 2000 film "You Can Count On Me."
In the years since, she's steadily built a career of interesting roles and well-received performances in films including "Mystic River," "Kinsey," "The Squid and the Whale," "The Savages" and as Abigail Adams in the HBO miniseries "John Adams." Linney now has three Oscar nominations and three Emmy Awards.
Since 2010, Linney's taken on the challenge of playing a terminally ill cancer patient in the dark comedy series "The Big C" on Showtime. "The Big C" is now in its final season, which consists of four one-hour episodes. Here's a scene from Season One, in which Linney's character, a suburban mom, has learned she has a serious case of melanoma but has decided not to tell her friends or family about it.
Instead she resolves to spend more of her time enjoying life and less worrying about conventions and the demands of others. Here she's in a restaurant with her husband, played by Oliver Platt. Their relationship has been on the rocks, and he's living at his sister's house.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "THE BIG C")
LAURA LINNEY: (As Cathy Jamison) Do you think I'm boring?
OLIVER PLATT: (As Paul Jamison) Just please tell me what I have to do to get back in the house.
LINNEY: (As Cathy) You do. You think I'm boring.
PLATT: (As Paul) I do not. It's just the way that our personalities break down. I like to do certain things that some people might categorize as fun, and you like to do other things that people might consider less than an optimal good time.
LINNEY: (As Cathy) Like what?
PLATT: (As Paul) Well, like organize stuff and clean stuff and put things in containers.
LINNEY: (As Cathy) I wanted to be the fun one. I wanted the house with the pool so I could teach Adam the banana split and dive, but you wanted to be closer to your job so you could Vespa to work.
PLATT: (As Paul) And you said it was a better idea because so many people die in pools.
LINNEY: (As Cathy) People die everywhere. I said it was a better idea because you threw a tantrum in front of the realtor.
PLATT: (As Paul) I made my point in an emotional way.
LINNEY: (As Cathy) You made your point in a childish way.
PLATT: (As Paul) Well, maybe I wouldn't act like such a kid if you didn't ask me if I need to pee every time I leave the house.
LINNEY: (As Cathy) Maybe I wouldn't treat you like such a child if every time I made you a sandwich you didn't ask me to cut the crusts off the bread.
PLATT: (As Paul) Oh sue me, I love a crustless sandwich.
LINNEY: (As Cathy) Well, I love onions. I haven't had an onion in 15 years because you say they're stinky poo-poo.
PLATT: (As Paul) They are. Come on, Cathy, are you honestly telling me that I'm sleeping on my sister's couch because you want to start cooking with onions again?
LINNEY: (As Cathy) Yes, Paul, that's it. I want onions to be a major part of my life in the next year.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Are you ready to order?
LINNEY: (As Cathy) I'm just having desserts and liquor.
DAVIES: Well Laura Linney, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Boy, it's as funny as melanoma's going to get, I guess.
DAVIES: I mean, what's one of the wonderful things about that scene is that, you know, you're carrying this profound secret, and he's just being himself. I've read that when you get a script, you like to ask why. You go over it carefully and ask why does the story unfold this way, why does this character do that. And you get to the truth of it somehow.
And so an interesting question must have been: Why does your character, Cathy Jamison, not tell the people she's closest to in her life that she has cancer?
LINNEY: Well, I think it's a variety of reasons, but in this situation, I think: A, she's afraid, you know, she's just scared of how it will change her relationship with everyone. She doesn't want her identity to change in that way. I think she wants to grow, and I think she wants her personality to change, and the circumstances in which she lives her day-to-day life, but I don't think she wants people to look at her, and I don't think she wants to see on their face, the concern, the fear, the confusion that people have sometimes when they're looking at someone who they love with cancer or with a life-threatening illness.
So I think it's that she wants to improve her life first and then tell people.
DAVIES: Right - she's a suburban mom and kind of lives a pretty constrained life, as we heard in that scene. She likes to organize things.
LINNEY: Her life has become sort of calcified. She's done all the right things. She's done everything she thought she should do. She's been alive, but she's not living, and she sort of became a function. She functioned really well, but she wasn't living. And, you know, some - unfortunately sometimes it takes the realization that our time is limited to realize that oh, I haven't been taking advantage of what I have to give to the world and what the world has to give to me, that I've somehow gotten myself stuck in a groove that isn't healthy.
DAVIES: Right, and so she orders liquor and desserts when she goes to restaurants, and she's going to do - and that is certainly going to change the way people perceive her, which is what...
LINNEY: Well, I think at this point, at this point in the story she's just acting out. You know, I think it's all been, you know, blown apart. Her whole world is upside-down, and she's trying to figure out what her geography is. So the desserts and liquor are, you know, pacifying more than anything else, I think.
DAVIES: Apart from being the lead in the series, you're an executive producer. Is that a role that you sought?
LINNEY: It was. It was part of the reason why I took the show on and was interested in doing it was to learn that whole area of the business, and I learned a lot. You know, I've been involved and close to a lot of directors who I've worked with in film, and they've been, you know, encouraging to hear my input and maybe suggestions here and there.
And I've always sort of had a mind for the production end of things. I can look at a call sheet and I can see where they're wasting 20 minutes. I'm good that way. So I was - more than anything, while I knew that I wouldn't have much to do with the overall arc of stories or the writing, which I really left to the experts there, but I did have an influence, I hope anyway, on the set and how the set was run and who was cast and, you know, just wanted to create a nice place for people to work.
DAVIES: You know, I know that your mom was a nurse at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
LINNEY: Yes, yes, so I was aware of cancer from a very, very early age.
DAVIES: And I think as "The Big C" was being made, your father, Romulus Linney, died of cancer, didn't he?
LINNEY: He did, he did.
DAVIES: I mean, and that's a devastating thing for anyone. Did that experience inform your performance in any way, do you think?
LINNEY: You know, I'm sure it did. It was such a blur, and it was so unexpected, and he died very, very quickly from lung cancer. So from, you know, diagnosis to death was I think five weeks. So it was a very tough time, and I'm still, you know, sort of trying to assimilate, you know, all of that.
And it just proves the point that, you know, it's not far away from anybody. And it also proved the point, you know, it made me feel - I was aware of how absurd so many things were happening around my family while he was dying, just the crazy things that were happening. (Laughing)
Just - you go through something like that, and you're so vulnerable, and you're so scared, and you're dealing with doctors and insurance and just craziness. And absurd, crazy things happen. It becomes very surreal. So it made me realize some of the stuff that people thought were perhaps farfetched on "The Big C" were really not farfetched at all.
DAVIES: I want to move forward and play a clip from the final season. This is from the first episode of the final season, where your condition is now much more serious, and you've decided you're going to stop chemotherapy and let the disease take its course. In this scene we're going to hear, you've decided to finally quit your high school teaching job, and you want to say goodbye to your students.
The principal is not really keen on that. So you make a quick decision and dash into the office where the school PA system is operated, lock the door and turn on the PA and say your goodbye to the school over the PA system. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "THE BIG C")
LINNEY: (As Cathy Jamison) Good morning, good morning everyone. This is Mrs. Jamison, the history teacher. And I just wanted to say goodbye to my personal students as well as to the entire student body of West Hill at large. Today, today is the day that I say goodbye to teaching.
Many of you may know that I have cancer, but that's not why I'm leaving. I think much of what we're required to teach you is just a bunch of useless information that you will never use again. But that's not why I'm leaving, either.
I'm quitting my job today because I recently had a conversation with someone who really loves their job, and I realize I don't love mine. I never even really wanted to be a high school teacher. It's something my dad pushed me into because he thought it was a low bar I could clear, but the truth is it's a high bar, and I'm falling short.
And you may never remember the battles I told you about, the facts, the dates, the wars, but maybe by my quitting today you will remember to be your best self. You find something you love doing. You do not take the easy route like Mrs. Stanley(ph), who has told me countless times that she only became a teacher to have summers off.
You know, I've always really cared about my students. I really love you guys. But I'm going home. I'm going to spend more time with the young person whose adorable cheeks I just, I want to squeeze every time I see them, my son. And I'm going to go do things I love. I'm gonna finish learning how to play "The Entertainer" on the piano, which I was doing until my dad stopped paying for lessons because he didn't like to hear me practice.
And I'm going to eat a lot of my favorite pie from Kowalski's(ph) because life is too short to have weird food rules. And I'm gonna finally finish writing an appropriate epitaph for a lovely dog. Ha! So, here I go to do my thing. I think my antidepressants just kicked in.
DAVIES: And that is our guest Laura Linney, starring in the Showtime series "The Big C." It's in its final season, on Monday nights. What a wonderful piece of writing that is.
LINNEY: Yeah, it was fun to do.
DAVIES: We see you change physically this season. Do you want to talk a little bit about that, how you got there?
LINNEY: Well, it was just, it was important to me that you actually see what's happening to her, that you see the cancer and that you can see how it changes people and then consequently how people respond to the change. So I cut my hair, which is something I've wanted to do for a very long time.
LINNEY: So I liberated myself from my youthful locks. And so I cut my hair, and then I lost a lot of weight. You know, and there is something about what happens to the soul of a person as they are battling with an illness, you know, the days where they're feeling weak, the days where they're strong, how that shifts and changes, what happens to the voice, how the body moves, breathing.
And you can see - more than seeing a disease, you see the life that's there and how the life is coping with the challenges that are happening to the body. So it was important to me that we not be afraid of that. Our hair and makeup people were wonderful, and there was a lot of work done there. And then, you know, I had the extreme privilege of washing it off.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Laura Linney. She stars in the Showtime series "The Big C." Its final season is underway. It airs on Monday nights. We'll talk more after a short break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This FRESH AIR. Before we get back to our conversation with Laura Linney, let's hear a clip from "The Savages," the 2007 film she starred in with Philip Seymour Hoffman. They played a brother and sister grappling with how to care for their aging father. He'd abandoned them as children and was now suffering from dementia. In this scene, the siblings are arguing in a bar.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SAVAGES")
LINNEY: (As Wendy Savage) Maybe dad didn't abandon us. Maybe he just forgot who we were.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Jon Savage) I'm going to give Brian Deener(ph) a call.
LINNEY: (As Wendy) Who's that?
HOFFMAN: A friend of mine, teaches in the English department. He just put his mother in a nursing home near campus. Can we get some more nuts?
LINNEY: (As Wendy) Nursing home?
HOFFMAN: (As Jon) Yeah. What?
LINNEY: (As Wendy) I wasn't thinking about putting him in a nursing home.
HOFFMAN: (As Jon) What were you thinking?
LINNEY: (As Wendy) I don't know, but I wasn't thinking that.
HOFFMAN: (As Jon) Where else is he going to live, Wen? I mean, really, what's the alternative? You want to change dad's diapers, wipe his ass?
LINNEY: (As Wendy) He doesn't need diapers.
HOFFMAN: (As Jon) I don't - what do you think that catheter was?
LINNEY: (As Wendy) He's in the hospital.
HOFFMAN: (As Jon) Look, even if they did let Dad stay here, he'd still have to have somebody take care of him. We can't afford that. You heard the nurse. Dad falls. He's disoriented.
LINNEY: (As Wendy) He hasn't fallen once since we've been here.
HOFFMAN: (As Jon) Don't make me out to be the evil brother who's putting away our father against your will. All right, we're doing this together, right? OK.
DAVIES: And that was from the 2007 film "The Savages." Now let's get back to my conversation with Laura Linney, now starring in the Showtime series "The Big C." You know, I recently watched, in getting ready for the interview, "The Savages," the film you did with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
LINNEY: Oh you did? Yeah.
DAVIES: Which is, of course, folks will remember that was where you - he's your brother, and you're dealing with your father, not a lovely guy, but who is getting old and demented and they have to put him into a nursing home. And, you know, you confront mortality.
And then in this, you know, for this long series, you've seen your character deal with this. Does you make you think about your own life and mortality?
LINNEY: Oh of course. I mean, the show came to me during a period of time, when it was first offered to me, where I was, you know, having real existential moments of thinking about time and the time that we have and that it is limited. It just is.
LINNEY: You know, it's human nature to, you know - thank God - not have it be the first thing that you think about every single second, but there is a reality to it, and, you know, as I've been aging, and parents are dying, and I've, you know, unfortunately lost friends who were way too young to go, you know, you realize what a privilege it is to age.
And it's not - that's not a message that we hear a lot in the United States.
DAVIES: You grew up in Manhattan. I know that your parents divorced early, and you lived with your mom. You had a relationship with your dad, who was the playwright and poet Romulus Linney. And it sounds like you got into acting really early, school, graduate school at Julliard. Did you always know you wanted to do this?
LINNEY: I did, I always knew, and I actually, you know, started - never professionally. My parents wouldn't let me work professionally, which was - I so appreciate that decision now. And it was something that I really had to earn and respect. But I was always in school plays. It was always my interest. I was a theater history major in college. I went to drama school after that.
So I was in school for a long time, and I loved it. I loved being in school. I mean, I would still be in school if I could be, I think, and in many ways I sort of conduct myself that way. I see work as kind of just a continuation of school. So it's something - I've been very lucky because I had a sense of, you know, not just a profession but a vocation early on, and it's never boring.
DAVIES: Right, I think your first job in theater was actually working in production at a theater in New England that your dad got you.
LINNEY: Yes, the New London Barn Playhouse. I worked there for a few seasons as a very underage technical apprentice. So I worked backstage for, you know, hours. I broke every child labor law there is, I'm sure, and had the time of my life. I loved it.
DAVIES: And your dad thought you would get bored of it. Instead, you couldn't get enough.
LINNEY: Oh yeah, oh yeah. No, I begged him. We were staying in New London, New Hampshire, and he had worked as an apprentice in the early '50s at the New London Barn Playhouse. Norman Leger, who ran the theater at the time, was an apprentice with my father in the '50s there. So my dad went to him and said look, Norman, my daughter wants to - you know, can you work her really hard for two days, and then she'll - you know, she'll come home.
LINNEY: And I worked really hard for two days, and I never left.
DAVIES: Did he want to keep you out of a career in the theater?
LINNEY: No, I don't think he wanted to keep me out. I don't think he - you know, they left me alone. Both parents were very, very smart about realizing that they had a child who was just crazy about the theater, and I was, just obsessed and crazy. I was a complete theater nerd. And they were very good about letting me have my own relationship with it and not being - they never discouraged me ever, but they didn't fast-forward my interest into a professional life.
DAVIES: I know you did theater for a long time and then got into film.
LINNEY: Still do.
DAVIES: Right, and I read that one of your early films, "Congo," the Michael Crichton film...
DAVIES: That you had a lot of time on location and that you used that time. You said you liked to - you always liked to be in school. You kind of went to school on the movie-making process.
LINNEY: I did. Well, I was - you know, I was always completely intimidated by film. You know, I was not the sort of person who grew up thinking oh, I want to be in the movies. I loved movies, I just didn't think I particularly belonged there, and I didn't understand it. So I was really intimidated.
So when "Congo" came along, you know, as sort of wild and what a crazy adventure movie with a bunch of monkeys, I realized OK, this would be my experience, my, you know, opportunity to be on a film set for six months. You know, the acting was not terrible complicated. Let's face it, it was not a...
LINNEY: There was not a whole lot to play there. So I thought, you know, I could learn what it is to be on a set. And I spent three weeks sort of with - I rotated from department to department. I was a bit of a pest. But I would go to the sound department and say, you know, can I watch you guys for the next three weeks. You know, when I'm not on set, can I sit with you? Can I see what you do? Can I see how this all works?
And then you - and then I went to the camera department, and then I went to special effects, and then I was - so I would have a sense of what arena I was working in. And it made me realize what was my job and what was not my job as an actress and how there was an entire army of people helping me out. And then I could take advantage of that and use - and lean on what they were offering. So it was a terrific experience. I loved it for that.
DAVIES: I wanted to talk about "The Squid and the Whale"...
DAVIES: ...the film that you did in 2005.
DAVIES: Noah Baumbach was the writer and director. In this - we're going to hear a scene. You and Jeff Daniels play a couple in New York in a failing marriage. He's sort of a pompous writer and professor and your writing career is taking off, and you have two sons, played by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline. And in this scene you and your husband have separated, and I guess you're greeting the boys after school. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SQUID AND THE WHALE")
OWEN KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) Hey, mom.
LINNEY: (as Joan Berkman) Hey, honeys.
KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) What are you doing?
LINNEY: (as Joan Berkman) Just changing things around a bit.
JESSE EISENBERG: (as Walt Berkman) I've come by to tell you I'm not staying here anymore.
LINNEY: (as Joan Berkman) Why?
EISENBERG: (as Walt Berkman) You know why.
LINNEY: (as Joan Berkman) No, I don't.
EISENBERG: (as Walt Berkman) Frank, do you know why?
KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) No.
LINNEY: (as Joan Berkman) Why don't you tell me, Walt?
EISENBERG: (as Walt Berkman) Because you cheated on Dad.
LINNEY: (as Joan Berkman) How'd you hear that? Your father told you.
EISENBERG: (as Walt Berkman) Yeah. He told me. Why did you, Mom?
LINNEY: (as Joan Berkman) I was having a hard time.
EISENBERG: (as Walt Berkman) Where were we during all this? Did you bring men home?
LINNEY: (as Joan Berkman) Not while - not - not when your father was in town. You actually met Richard, both you boys. He came over for takeout once. He talked about The Stones.
EISENBERG: (as Walt Berkman) Oh god, under our noses like a brothel, men coming in and out.
KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) Walt, shut up.
LINNEY: (as Joan Berkman) If you want me to explain, I will.
EISENBERG: (as Walt Berkman) I don't want to hear about it.
KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) I do.
LINNEY: (as Joan Berkman)Well, Walt doesn't, so I'm not going to say anything.
KLINE: (as Frank Berkman) Walt can leave.
EISENBERG: (as Walt Berkman)You disgust me. You weren't even a writer until recently. You just bailed on Dad because he's not as successful as he used to be and hasn't gotten the recognition he deserves.
LINNEY: (as Joan Berkman)You sound like your father.
EISENBERG: (as Walt Berkman) Well, I'm glad I sound like him. You disgust me.
LINNEY: (as Joan Berkman)You're being a (bleep) Walt.
DAVIES: The laughter is not in the film. It is from our guest, Laura Linney, who is listening...
LINNEY: It's just such terrible parenting. It's just...
DAVIES: Yeah. Not the way you'd want to respond when you hear that kind of thing from your son, is it?
LINNEY: Yeah. No, let's overshare and then let's punish them.
DAVIES: Well, to remind our audience, that's "The Squid and the Whale," the 2005 film with our guest, Laura Linney. She's there with the kids, Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline. Did you love the script the minute you saw it? This...
LINNEY: I loved it. Oh, I read the script and I, you know, there's a wonderful thing that happens every once in a while where you open a script and three pages in, your sort of actor brain turns on and you start working on it and you don't even realize you've started working on it, you're not even just reading it. And it was just so good. But it took a long time to get made. So Noah, who I had known socially, you know, came to me and wanted me to be in it. I was just thrilled that he would want me to be a part of this. And then we had to wait for a long time to find the right partner, and Jeff Daniels, thankfully, came on board. And you know, it was made for the right reasons, it was made very modestly. I mean we were sitting on the sidewalk most of the time. It was during the spring and summer so it was really pleasant. We just had a great time.
DAVIES: And I think a lot of it was based on Noah Baumbach's own kind of experience with this, a kid of divorced parents, right?
LINNEY: Yes. Part of it was. And Noah's father and my father knew each other and were both - would both go to MacDowell and Yaddo and writers' colonies together, so they were from the same sort of culture and the same world. So we had that. I knew that world pretty well.
When you're growing up in the '70s and you have parents who are artists - and you know how difficult it is for them to be parents and be the sort of artists that were - that they were encouraged to be during that period of time culturally, it was not an easy mix.
DAVIES: Two of the actors in the scene we just heard are kids.
DAVIES: Did you get surprises from them?
LINNEY: Oh, all the time. You know, someone can show up who's just so fresh. And they're open and they're, you know, smart and they're curious in a way that you can only be at that age. All the young people who I've been able to work with, you know, I've learned a lot from and so appreciate the time that they've given up to work professionally a little bit.
DAVIES: Can you think of something you've learned - particularly with the Jesse Eisenberg character. There's a lot of anger between you.
DAVIES: You slap his face at one point.
LINNEY: Yeah. Yeah. That's never easy. When you have a child actor and you're in situations that are either, there's a scene that, where violence, there's violence or there's sexuality or there's, it's - I feel responsible, you know, for that even though it's, you know, probably not my full responsibility; it's - they signed up to do it, but I do feel - my sort of maternal instincts do come out. (Laughing)
So I just try and make sure that, you know, time is spent and that everyone is comfortable and everyone knows what's happening and when it will happen and how it will happen and - because children want to please. They just want to please, and eventually someone has to step in and be an adult and say OK, I think we can do this in a different way or let's see what's the best way to proceed.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Laura Linney. She stars in "The Big C." It's the series on Showtime that's now in its last season and airs Monday nights.
You played Abigail Adams in the "John Adams" series on HBO - won an Emmy for it. Fascinating relationship and a fascinating woman. How did you prepare for that role?
LINNEY: Oh, I loved it. I had such a good time. Well, there's not, you know, there's, of course there's her writings and the letters that she wrote - you know, the famous letters between her and John Adams - and then there's not a whole lot about her. There are a few biographies which are pretty good and, you know, mentions of her in the biographies of Jefferson and other notables. So I sort of had to go to the sort of universal truths about just the dynamics of certain realities, such as what it's like when you become famous. You know, here was a woman who had grown up on, you know, grown up in Massachusetts and then she and John had their farm and she worked her farm very hard and she grew up in a hard-working, you know, the work ethic was incredibly strong, and then she went to Europe.
LINNEY: And what happens when you go to Europe for the first time? And then she came back from Europe and she was famous. And when you come off - when she came off that boat, they were famous. And what does that do to a person? How does that change you? And you know, she got a little blood in her mouth and I found that fascinating. I was like, oh, look at what's happening there. So while that has never been written about, those are just the things that you can see from history, actually what happened.
DAVIES: And did you identify with that experience - becoming famous?
LINNEY: A little bit. I mean I'm well known. I'm not the sort of person who walks out on the street and people scream...
LINNEY: ...scream my name. But there is, it's not a, I don't have a purely anonymous life, so I can understand a little bit. And I have some friends who are very, very famous and I certainly see how they - what they encounter on a daily basis, and the moments where you sort of lose reality about your size in the world and how that can change your thinking and then consequently change your behavior. So I was really interested in discovering those dynamics about her and just the reasoning of what her behavior would be like. You know, she had a son who was a terrible alcoholic and died of the disease and he was her favorite child. And there was a scene that we put in that we sort of came up with about the dynamic of how furious she would be with him. She goes to his home and she literally slaps him and says, you know, you get yourself together, in the way that a New England person would. So those were the more, it's asking questions about that kind of behavior and that sort of motivation that I find really interesting.
DAVIES: You know, it's a relationship she - Abigail and John Adams - as you see in the series, I mean she was his intellectual equal and partner, but it was also a real - there was real passion between them.
LINNEY: They loved each other. That was a...
DAVIES: They were truly in love, right.
LINNEY: Well, and they were the best of friends, and I think they trusted each other and they grew together, you know. And also, you know, he married up. She was the daughter of a minister and he married up.
LINNEY: I think you never really get away from that.
LINNEY: I think he always felt grateful to have her. I don't think he ever took her, he probably did take her for granted. It's a marriage, and you know, people, you know, swing in and out of that during the course of a marriage, but she grounded him and he knew it. He was smart enough to know it.
DAVIES: You know, I wanted to recall a moment. Paul Giamatti was on the show and we talked about the series.
DAVIES: And I hope this doesn't make you uncomfortable. But I asked him about the scene where you and he - that is to say, John and Abigail Adams - had been apart for many months while he was in Europe.
DAVIES: And then you are reunited...
DAVIES: Oh, was it years? OK.
DAVIES: And so they're reunited and there's a scene of physical passion.
DAVIES: And I asked him about that.
DAVIES: You know, you're wearing all these period clothes.
DAVIES: And asked him what was it like portraying 18th-century sex and he said, well, yeah, it was middle-aged 18th-century sex.
LINNEY: That's right. That's right.
DAVIES: And then he went on to explain. So let's listen to what he said.
LINNEY: Oh boy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PAUL GIAMATTI: Yeah, you know, originally that scene, we were supposed to walk in, and it didn't go really beyond us just kind of kissing, and Laura and I talked beforehand about it and said why don't we just kind of keep going, and hopefully they'll keep going. And so we did. And we didn't know what we were going to do, really.
I had sort of talked to one of the - they had sort of historical consultants around, and a lot of those people did have sex with all their clothes on. They didn't remove - I think the French were the people who took all their clothes off, for the most part, but I don't know that Americans did at the time - at least this one person said to me.
So I had that in my back pocket, and I went yeah, we can - we'll keep our clothes on. The toughest thing was, what do you do with the wig? What is - how do you sort of - what's the deal with the wig? And we thought, well, maybe that's a kind of - Laura said maybe, you know, the bald head is a sort of erotic thing for the woman. So she does this kind of wonderful slipping of the wig off and rubbing my bald head.
You know, I don't know, we imagined a lot of it. We kind of made it up. But we really kind of just went for it without telling them we were going to do in the first take of it.
DAVIES: And that's where Giamatti, talking about a scene from the "John Adams" series on HBO, which he did with our guest Laura Linney. So did you come up with the baldy thing on the spot?
LINNEY: Yeah. We did. You know, that was part of the fun was seeing, you know, even though, I mean what makes historical drama accessible are those moments of what do you do. What would anybody do? And then that connects you very quickly. You know, what do you do with the wig?
LINNEY: And what happens when people who really love each other have been separated for - you know, you go to bed. I mean you do, that's what people who are passionate do when they've been longing for each other and missing each other and the relief of being in each other's presence, you, you know, jump in the sack. So those sort of things that were truthful to us, that we were able to then work into the story, was, you know, it was terrific.
DAVIES: Yeah. I mean I really love historical characters shown as real people in ways that...
DAVIES: ... that ring true and are believable, and that's one of many...
LINNEY: Well, because they can be terrible.
LINNEY: I mean those things could be terrible, like ye old buckle shoes and ye funny speak and, you know, they can be really awful. So it was, you know, and we did a lot of work on the script as the show was evolving and going, so it was a creatively exciting experience, it was adventurous. It was, you know, we had to reach, we had to really reach, you know, and stretch and work quickly and efficiently but creatively and it was, you know, it was really one of the most, you know, satisfying experiences I've had.
DAVIES: Yeah. Well, we've enjoyed having you.
LINNEY: Thank you.
DAVIES: Thanks so much.
LINNEY: My pleasure. Thank you.
DAVIES: Laura Linney stars in the series "The Big C," now in its final season. It airs Monday nights on Showtime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.