Laura linney has played many conscientious, responsible, levelheaded, sometimes reproving characters. She plays them exceptionally well, better than perhaps any other actress in America. So exceptionally, in fact, that the actress has essentially disappeared into her characters, making Linney herself seem a little … dull. And maybe she is. Her biggest vice, she says, are Swedish Fish.
But more likely, Linney just can’t be bothered with perception. She’s of the “it’s the work that’s important” school of celebrity. She would sooner staple her hand to a wall than tweet about picking up a grande peppermint latte at Starbucks. Ask her what people don’t know about her, and she responds, looking slightly stricken, “A lot, a lot. And we’re going to keep it that way.” The intention is to allow the audience to suspend disbelief, but the truth behind the 46-year-old actress’s breathtaking performances—in the HBO mini-series John Adams, in films like You Can Count On Me and The Squid and the Whale, or the plays The Crucible and Time Stands Still—is very dull indeed. “The boring answer is, she’s just very, very good,” says Oliver Platt, who co-stars with Linney on The Big C.
The Showtime series (premiering next month) finds Linney playing another one of those women. Cathy Jamison is a Minneapolis high-school history teacher who has been diagnosed with stage-IV melanoma. “She’s a mother and wife who just wants to live a conventional life and be in control of things, and she’s given an extremely bleak prognosis,” Linney says, wearing the shorts, plaid shirt, flip-flops, and barrettes of her character. The twist is that the show tilts heavily toward comedy. “I read the script and I wondered, Can I pull this off—a show that has a comedic perspective with an undertone that deals with these kinds of questions, this anxiety?”
“It’s risky material,” says Platt, who plays Cathy’s endearingly feckless husband, Paul. “The sweet spot is pretty narrow, tone-wise. I mean, you could screw this up very easily. But it’s not the movie-of-the-week cancer show. It has this absurdist, very ironic but truthful take on the way people behave.”
Cathy never shares the news with her family—one reason the show successfully leapfrogs bleak. The other is that Linney gets to indulge in some rampant exhibitionism. Cancer turns out to be a great emancipator, both for Cathy and the actress. The chance to see Linney unbound, says Platt, “is one of the real joys of the show.” Bill Condon, who directed Linney in both the 2004 film Kinsey (for which she received her second of three Academy Award nominations) and The Big C pilot (thanks to Linney, who is an executive producer on the show), says glimmers of her “anarchic spirit” have been there for a while: “In a lot of her roles, it’s under the surface, chafing against responsibility. That all gets liberated here.”
Linney grew up on the Upper East Side, the daughter of Romulus Linney, the playwright, and Anne Perse, a nurse at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; they divorced when Linney was an infant. The actress didn’t consult her mother about The Big C—“I’m pretty private about my work”—but Perse’s work certainly informs Cathy. “When I was growing up, I would become friendly with some of her patients, people who kept in touch with her, and when they would die it was very, very hard.”
After graduating from Brown, Linney studied acting at Juilliard, nearly quitting after a bout of stage fright during a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House. “Something happened, and I just didn’t want to be there anymore,” she says. “My concentration was shot, and I became horribly self-conscious. I had a real crisis of faith, I mean, like, Maybe I’m not meant to do this.” The cloud lifted during a few weeks at Moscow’s Arts Theatre School. “Everything that had rusted shut started to move again,” she says. “My actor brain woke up.”
Once Linney finishes shooting the first season of The Big C and before she returns to Broadway for another run playing an emotionally scarred war photographer in Time Stands Still (beginning September 23), she’ll take her first long vacation in years, for which she credits Cathy. “I’m not usually one of those people who take work home,” says the actress, who married Colorado real-estate agent Marc Schauer last year. “And not to say that I’m ‘spiritually realigned’ by playing her or anything, but I am kicking up my heels a bit and being a little more hedonistic than I normally am. But no, I won’t be going to an opium den in Bangkok—nothing like that.”