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Q&A: Laura Linney

An online exclusive interview

Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages

(Fox Searchlight)

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Q&A: LAURA LINNEY

By Patrick Z. McGavin

In Tamara Jenkins’ second feature, The Savages, a 39-year-old woman is increasingly undone by the tawdry assignations of her affair with a married neighbor from her New York apartment building. “I have an MFA,” she protests during one fling at a downscale hotel. Given expert, exquisite reading by Laura Linney, the line conveys in an instant everything necessary to divine about her character.

Brown-educated and Juilliard-trained, Linney is one of the finest American actresses working today. In her best work, in films as diverse as You Can Count on Me, The Squid and the Whale and The Truman Show, she is fearless, funny and explosive, unafraid of revealing a wanton desperation or casual cruelty.

Linney has the ability to rehabilitate even the most unfortunate or ill-conceived projects, such as the recent adaptation of The Nanny Diaries. She has the versatility and range that mark the best of chameleons. In Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, a film that showcases several powerhouse performances, Linney’s turn as Sean Penn’s devoted and secretly ambitious wife achieves a stunning ferocity with her late soliloquy about man and destiny.

In The Savages (opening on November 28th), Linney and Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman play a sister and brother whose already rough-hewn, unsettled professional lives are further destabilized by the appearance of their dementia-impaired 75-year-old father (sharply played by Philip Bosco). The sins of the father wreak their own emotional havoc, and their reconciliation unleashes a torrent of buried resentments and awakens harsh childhood traumas.

In a recent interview with STOP SMILING, Linney discusses her art and métier, and the professional wonder and personal discovery of working opposite the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sean Penn.

Stop Smiling: When you’re working with a writer/director — going through very autobiographically shaped material — do you feel that you have to mine that material?

Laura Linney: It’s nice to always have the primary resource right in front of you, so you can ask questions. In my experience, you really have to let it be its own thing. That also goes whether you’re playing a character that’s biography-based. I based everything on the script more than [anything] because it’s basically the same thing. It’s important that it is connected to the script and the story.

SS: The Savages is visually predicated on a series of doubling actions. In the same way, the sister and brother that you and Philip Seymour Hoffman play are iterations of the same character.

LL
: They come from the same origin. It’s fantastic to see two characters who are living 20, 30 years after moments that have defined them, that all have to do with Phil Bosco’s character or another character you know nothing about. They’re living with the repercussions of their childhood in such an intense degree.

SS: What’s really interesting about the film is the family dynamic, specifically the expressiveness of the body and the physical transactions between you and Philip. It seems so natural.

LL: Yeah, it does. None of that is anything that is planned or plotted — it’s just reaction. A lot of acting is just reacting, knowing who you are and then being prepared and reacting to whatever is thrown at you. When you’re lucky enough to have a relationship with another actor who you’re working with intensively — as I did with Phil on this movie — I don’t know where the work is separated. It’s not separated. My work is so tied into him and his work is so tied into what I did, it dictates everything. He formed a lot of my work, because I’d respond to what he gave me and vice versa. Then it really starts to fly. When you feel that safe with someone, you get very liberated. And consequently, the result becomes very specific.

SS: That’s the subtext of all of John Cassavetes’ films — everything is about acting. Everyone is playing parts, and the tension is derived from the extent the actors play into or fight against those assigned roles.

LL: And who they are. One of the fun things when you have a role that’s large enough that you’re interacting with a lot of different people is to see how one character is different than the other character;

SS: Delivery is something you either have or you don’t. Your line, “I have an MFA,” is one of my favorite lines of the year.

LL: [Laughs] I like that line, too, actually.

SS: It reflects a lot of what’s interesting about the movie. The tone is very precise; there’s a lot of painful material here — about aging, loneliness, the breakdown of the body — but it’s connected through some very lacerating humor. How do you find the right tone and balance emotionally?

LL: I think it’s just being clued into the character of the script. It was all there, and giving yourself permission to not feel obligated to feel funny or sad. It’s about not being result-oriented and just letting things unfold as they do. If you put someone in this situation, that’s just what it is going to be. There have been instances where I’ve been in films where a scene has been written, the director or the producer thought the scene was going to be hysterically funny — and we get there on the set on that day, and it ain’t funny. It’s something completely different; it’s its own thing. It wasn’t a conscious choice on my part to be one thing or the other. It’s just who she was, and what I knew about that character and how she would respond in that situation.

She’s neurotic and needy and flawed and somewhat endearing and creative; she’s so desperately searching for something and doing it in a really bad way. She makes one bad decision after another. It’s the childishness of her, I found really fun to play: the petulance, the stubbornness, the manipulation — she lies like a child. Absolutely, like a spoiled child.

SS: There must be something very liberating about being an actor. It holds the idea of being someone completely different than who you are.

LL: What I love about it is that you’re a student forever. I like that. I feel like I start over every single time. I feel like I know absolutely nothing every time I start a movie. It takes you to places you never thought you’d go — not even locations, but characters, jobs they might do, things you find yourself learning about — and that makes it very exciting.

SS: Does acting fulfill a need you have to express yourself?

LL: It’s not about expressing myself. I think it’s a need for connection. Whether that’s to the other actors, to the material, to the place that I’m in, I think it’s about that and I like to reach outside myself. I like to sort of test myself in ways, to see whether I know what this material needs, and whether I can execute it. That is never boring.

SS: What Keats called “negative capability,” talking about Shakespeare and his almost preternatural ability to get inside the skin of his characters. Is that applicable to what you do?

LL: I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s what I try to do. I’m not quite sure what it is I try to do. I have no answers for anything. I don’t know what’s going to happen the day I show up on the set. I’ve done all this work, I delve into the character all I can, intellectually and emotionally. Then you get on set, I have no idea what’s going to happen. You threw it up into the air. Do I try to get into the skin of the character? Sure, I guess so. I try to have the character try to tell me what to do, if that makes sense. You can learn a lot about someone from the rhythm of the language, by how they speak, how they move. It can trigger your imagination of how they move, what they look like, how they hold themselves, just through the rhythm of language.

SS: Film acting is often about moments of being and consciousness, the way your hair is caught in the light. It’s about the relationship of the performer to the camera. Is that something you think about?

LL: I will rarely look at the monitor. Only if I need to see if I’m blocking someone or if I need to physically see the camera crew. I might adjust in ways I’m not even aware I’m adjusting because I’ve made several movies at this point. I have an understanding of what has to happen technically. I am still testing that, how little can I do, how much can I do, what of the work or research of the character I’ve done will bleed through.

SS: I think a truly astonishing moment came at the end of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River. You have your Lady Macbeth moment, where you convince your husband (played by Sean Penn) of his historical destiny. It’s a riveting, extraordinary moment.

LL: That was really fun. It was a gem of a part. I realized it was a gem of a part because unlike a lot of other roles, if you imagine there’s the story and then imagine a blob of paint at the end of it. You’re taking the paintbrush and marking it this way, so that you give little hints throughout the way so that when that scene hits, it really lands. You have to be really careful about what you expose about her leading up to it. There has to be some things, so that when you do that moment, it hits hard. I knew that was my challenge.

The challenge was: Does it make sense? It makes complete sense. All of a sudden there’s a revelation and an understanding of what was already bubbling underneath, but you didn’t know about. It was really fun to figure that out.

 

 

 

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