Laura Linney: Staged Entry

How does a classically trained New York theater veteran make the transition to Hollywood leading lady? By keeping her head down, according to Laura Linney, star of last summer's no-brainer Congo and this spring's psychological thriller Primal Fear.


If you saw last summer's colossally silly smash Congo but don't remember the name Laura Linney, join the club. The job of the actors in that film was to avoid upstaging the animatronic gorilla star. Amy. Not much of what Linney may have learned during four years at Julliard came into play. Still, her pale attractiveness made her convincing as a scientist capable of quantitative thinking under fire, and she was equally authentic as the naive Midwesterner Mary Ann in the 1994 PBS miniseries Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. Now Linney, whose impressive stage resume includes a starring role in last season's Broadway production Holiday, finally has a choice role in a substantial film project: she plays the tough prosecutor opposite Richard Gere's showboat defense attorney in the thriller Primal Fear. If audiences didn't quite buy Cindy Crawford in Fair Game as someone who could pass the bar (or anything but the hairspray), Linney might just come as a welcome relief in Primal Fear.

DANNY PEARY: Your recent breakthrough in movies as the female lead in Congo and the new Primal Fear must be surprising to those who read a year-old magazine a major dramatic movie?

A: [Director] Greg Hoblit worked very hard for me to do that film when he could have gotten many better-known actresses. I knew there was resistance, and that was a hard position for me to be in. I felt it was a very nice thing he was doing for me and didn't want to let him down. When I screen-tested, my biggest concern was not to get the role but to avoid embarrassing him.

Q: For your prosecutor, did you study Marcia Clark?

A: Of course I watched her during the O.J. Simpson trial to see what she was doing in the courtroom, but I would watch other women in positions of power or control to see how they functioned under pressure. In Chicago I spent a lot of time with the assistant state's attorney and went to court and watched murder trials. I was fascinated by how dramatic it was and how attorneys exhibit a dramatic flare and try to control the courtroom.

Q: Your first appearance in movies was in Lorenzo's Oil. Did you have to audition for such a tiny part?

A: I auditioned to play a larger role. Then the director, George Miller, who is a very sweet man, said, "She's not good for this, but see if she'll be interested in doing something else." They called and asked, "Would you consider playing the school teacher?" A day with Susan Sarandon on a movie set? Absolutely!

Q: You have the wholesome look--fair complexion, dimples--that helped you get the part of the quintessential Midwesterner, Mary Ann Singleton, in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. One wrongly assumed that Mary Ann--a former member of "The Future Homemakers of Ohio"--had a normal childhood. How about you?

A: I didn't either. My father was a playwright and my mother was a nurse, and I was the only kid in my class with divorced parents. I was a nice girl, but I was a little eccentric. I created a fantasy world for myself, which included a "sister" who did all the bad things. I have memories of being hyper and running around the apartment and bouncing off the walls. I knew that I had more imagination than most people and could understand things at a very deep level, but in the basics I was far behind. I was the worst reader in the lowest reading group. I was the verbally articulate child who couldn't read or write. That made me very insecure.

Q: Did you relate to Mary Ann's idealism, which is a characteristic of most of the women you play?

A: I hadn't thought of that, but it's true. I am also idealistic and have even been criticized for being that way. Another thing we had in common is that we were both naively trying to play a new game with different people and rules. It was great fun to play a character who is going through extreme discovery, to see how she assimilates information into her consciousness. That's what I was doing on the set. Working in front of a camera was certainly different. It was done fast and the six episodes were done completely out of sequence. I had a little bit of trouble adjusting to that, but I learned tricks to help myself. I realized that's what film acting is all about--going your own way.

Q: Tales gave you your second and last "sex" scene to date. In this case, the male adulterer turned away from you because he couldn't get it up. In Dave, the adulterer President lay unconscious on top of you after having had a stroke.

A: I don't do too well in bed, do I? I suppose that for Dave I could have spent hours practicing my two words of dialogue for that scene--"Mr. President?"--but I was in denial that I was going to fly to Hollywood and go to bed with Kevin Kline. I couldn't quite visualize it. But it was great. 

Q: Tales was pretty much the last time you have had the chance to do intimate one-on-one scenes with other actresses.

A: I have been thinking about that. I have worked closely with a lot of great actresses on the stage and on television, but I've been in a lot of boy movies. The formula calls for all these guys and one girl. That's just kind of where I am right now. Unfortunately, most good roles for women are in lower-budget, independent films, and those filmmakers tend to work with the people they know.

Q: Congo sure wasn't a low-budget movie. And it had you on an African safari with a lot of men. How did you get that part?

A: From just three days work on a pilot, Class of '61. I got both Congo and Primal Fear. Amblin, [two of whose producers] would make Congo, produced that pilot, and Greg Hoblit, who would direct Primal Fear, directed it. "Class of '61" was shown to Steven Spielberg, and he remembered me and called me in to test for the lead in Jurassic Park. So I flew out to California to test for Steven. From that, I was remembered for Congo and I did a test in New York for the director Frank Marshall, producer Kathleen Kennedy and the writer John Patrick Shanley, who knew me because I had been in his play Beggars in the House of Plenty. Dylan Walsh and I were like Ping and Pong. We were unknown actors who lucked out and got this huge job and we went through this whole adventure together.

Q: Did you worry about being the lead in an expensive extravaganza?

A: Of course. But I can't believe that I'm the pivotal reason for how a picture does financially--it's always chemistry, everybody working together, and sometimes the cake rises, sometimes the cake falls. That one rose.

Q: Your character, Karen Ross, is defined by her own words: "Just give me a gun and a flashlight."

A: Put together that laser gun, baby! I worked hard to learn how to put that gun together. You should have seen me. When I got that role my friends were rolling their eyes and laughing hysterically that Laura was an action adventure person. I liked saying, "Amy--good gorilla."

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