Director/screenwriter Tamara Jenkins and actress Laura Linney accompanied The Savages when the film screened as the opening night feature for the 30th Mill Valley Film Festival. I welcomed the opportunity to spend time with one of my favorite actresses, and likewise with one of my favorite film writers Omar Moore of PopcornReel.Com. I'm not a great fan of roundtables; but, when it's just me and Omar and visiting talent, I'm not only enthusiastic but at ease. I was immediately struck by just how beautiful Laura Linney is in person, in contrast to some of her less-than-attractive screen personages. I was smitten! A bit flustered, I let Omar start off.
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Laura Linney: They all help me. I'm fortunately one of those people who's able to work and then go home. [Though] I keep working at home. When you're working on a film it's non-stop because you're constantly simmering, ideas are constantly coming to you, you're daydreaming and fantasizing about the character and circumstance, maybe something technical or maybe something about their background; but, I think I learn from all of them. The joy of being a perpetual student, which is what I treasure the most about what I get to do.
Guillén: I'm a great fan of your work and have watched nearly every movie you've been in since Tales of the City. These characters that you've embodied as an actor, do you carry them around with you? They're such real people. It sounds like you have the professional skill to detach yourself from your assignments, but I was wondering if they don't pop up while you're shopping for produce in the grocery store?
Linney: [Laughs.] No, they don't actually. It's fun to think back on the work and try to remember what [was involved]. Claire from Jindabyne is so completely different from the girl in Love, Actually, who's so completely different from the Mystic River woman. It's fun to think back on them. They're like people I've met in my past.
Guillén: I ask because—knowing you were returning to San Francisco, the setting for Tales of the City—I was wondering if Mary Ann Singleton was coming up?
Linney: If there is a character and an experience that I carry around with me, that I enjoy carrying around with me, it's that one. A lot of that has to do with that [being] an extremely important experience for me. It was the first thing I did on film in front of the camera [where] I was on from beginning to end. I learned an enormous amount. The friendships I made during that are lifelong friendships. I consider Armistead [Maupin] one of the most important people in my life. My dear friend Stanley DeSantis—who played Norman Neal Williams and who, unfortunately, is no longer with us—was one of my best friends in the world. It was an extremely important very happy time and I loved playing her. There was a sense of joy and excitement about it and a lightness, which I treasure. Tales is something that I don't want to let go of.
Moore: In The Savages you play a writer who, I guess, undergoes a certain sense of self-delusion and perhaps also tries to find herself in many different ways but does so through a variety of unfortunate circumstances with some characters that she deals with….
Linney: She's a mess. She's not your typical protagonist.
Moore: Do you try to find different ways to look at this character? You might look at a script—of this film for example—but how many different ways do you try [out a character] before you even rehearse? Conceptually, as you read the script as an actor, and you look at your character jump off the page, are there any things prior to rehearsal that you do in order to really gear yourself up for this character?
Linney: Oh, of course. There's an enormous [amount of preparation]. In this situation there was. There's not always in every movie. With films that have spectacular scripts, those are the ones where you sit with the script the most because you know there's so much in there and—like a really good detective—you've got to find it. You know it's in there somewhere. It's maybe not in the script but it's in you somewhere and through the script [you'll be prompted] to think about things and you'll follow a line of thought and then you'll get to an answer, which will illuminate a lot about a character.
Also, I had this script for a while. It didn't get made right away and there was a time when we all thought Phil [Hoffman] and I were going to be replaced by other people. Thankfully, for us, the movie then went to another company and Tamara [Jenkins] stuck by the two of us. I'm extremely grateful to her and to the producers because they could have had it made by other people.
It's almost one of my favorite parts of the process, that sort of hunting and finding the answers. You're like, "Why? Why does this happen? Why?" And then really finding an answer. Not the why of just because she does this; but to find the real origin of behavior.
Guillén: I'm glad to hear you say that because it's such a well-written script, there are so many great lines in it, but what was really expressive to me was the behavior of these people. Your exercising in front of the television speaks volumes about your character's aspirations, how she's always trying.
Linney: Isn't that funny?
Guillén: So this eloquent behavior, these behaviorisms, did you work them out with Tamara? How do you come to those bits?
Linney: No. That's my own work and it develops over time. It's influenced by the other actors. Certainly my relationship to Phil, he'll say something that will affect you and you respond to it physically in a way and the characteristics will develop. There's different phases. There's the script stuff, which I sort of love because it's private and you usually have time and it's your own personal connection to the script; the real intimate work that you do just with your self and the script. Then, there's the phase where you're putting everything together. Decisions are being made about costume, look, design, those things, and that's another layer that will influence you. Then, there are the other actors, which is the greatest of all. Everything will contribute and effect. Everything will have a cause and effect. Everything that comes into will add on; they'll be another layer and another layer. Hopefully, you get to a point where the script starts to work on you. You are no longer working on the script. The script is working on you. And it's a fantastic moment. It happens in theatre a lot; the moment where it lifts off and the play will work on you. Then things start to really gel and deep connections are made that you're not generating, that just sort of grow and happen. That's difficult to do on film sets because you just don't have the time if you're working with an actor and a script that is accessible and rich and giving and complex. That's when the pinball machine really starts to go. [Laughs.] Things start clicking and flashing….
Guillén: [In my best impersonation of a pinball machine] Ding ding ding ding!
Linney: Yeah, it's just fun. It's a team sport in many ways. While I was certainly never an athlete, I can sort of imagine that there are those moments in soccer, in basketball, in football, in synchronized swimming, whatever, where there's a collective moment that pushes everybody forward.
Moore: Philip Bosco and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in this film are both tremendous as well. There is one scene that's really remarkable—without giving it away—where you're all in the car and there's a fight going on between you and Bosco where he does this thing….
Linney: Yes, isn't that wonderful? It's a beautiful moment, isn't it?
Moore: Talk a bit more about your collaboration with Philip Bosco and how that all came about for you and how much time you had to spend with him?
Linney: Philip Bosco is a legend in the Broadway theatre. He is a colossal figure for actors in New York. You can't say enough about Philip Bosco. When I was growing up, I saw him. I grew up in Manhattan and I went to the theatre a lot as a kid and I saw him in a lot of plays and he was just this bigger-than-life character, even to the point where—I don't know if you remember there was a chocolate syrup called Bosco?—and I called it Phil Bosco milk. That's how much a part of my life he was without even knowing him when I was little. So it was wonderful to get to have him play this larger-than-life imposing figure who I knew very well but was very distant. I didn't know Phil Bosco from Adam. As a human being I'd met him maybe once or twice but I had seen him for years and I was a fan. Phil Hoffman would probably feel the same way. So both of us had this sense of this man who has impacted both of our lives and for whom we have tremendous respect but don't really know. Bosco was fantastic. The man is happy to be there. He's always in a good mood. We were three theatre actors hanging on set. It was fun. There was the occasional dirty joke.
Guillén: I was just telling Omar before we came in here that I had just seen the film a few days ago at a press screening and I had just come in from Boise, Idaho where my sister and I had just put our mother into an assisted living facility and—though I had heard of the success of The Savages at Sundance—I had not yet researched the reviews and didn't really know what the film was about. So I came into the movie thinking, "Oh good, I'll be taken away from my family issues…"
Linney: And there it is.
Guillén: There it is; but, what I wanted to say was what I appreciated so much about the film—having just gone through this fire myself—was the film's strong humor. I phoned my sister up after watching the film to tell her about it. The jokes we made about our mother during the process….
Linney: God bless, you have to! It's to take the curse of the dread off it. Doing this film, and also my age, it's made me think a lot about what's ahead and what I'm responsible for. There are several people who I will be responsible for, helping them through the end of their life, and it's a privilege.
Guillén: There was some commentary after Sundance that several of the films featured at Sundance addressed the theme of parental aging, intimately linked to an aging process among the filmmaking community.
Linney: I think so. Yes. Absolutely. It certainly made me think about getting papers in order for everybody so we can do it now while everyone can still….
Guillén: Crack a joke?
Linney: Yeah, crack a joke and honestly just prepare for it. I don't want to feel guilty. And I don't want them to feel unloved or deprived. I don't know what will happen with my parents or where they'll end up or even if they'll be lucky enough to reach that age where they'll be put into [a facility] like that. A lot of people just drop dead out of nowhere. So it's sort of the blessing of being able to live that long and the curse of the reality of the world in which we live, where people live far away from each other and lives are not intertwined the way that they used to be. They're difficult issues and people don't really talk about it. There is that unspoken thing when someone says, "I just had to put my father in a home." That's all people say and it reverberates intensely throughout the room because people know how difficult that is. And then the things you find. I don't know if you'd had to clean out a house but the delicious things you find that were left behind! Whoo-hoooooooo! [Laughter.] It can be so funny. The things you learn; it's just delicious and fantastic.
Moore: Within the context of your question, Michael, in American society there really is a much more cynical and, unfortunately, a more unpleasant outlook towards people as they age. When you go into other cultures in Africa or Asia, the elderly are respected on high. In this film there's a certain sensitivity and it's textured. The film is not being played in the way that a lot of films might look at the elderly. It's something that's really very very refreshing and even for the characters—the character you play and the character Phillip plays—there's a sense of hope that these characters are trying to travel towards. Was there anything in the collaboration with Tamara [Jenkins] that dictated this? Was there something in the script that was different from the way it felt at the end? When you first read the script, was there anything in the drafts that you read that changed from the actual finished product?
Linney: The script was almost in word perfect condition when we started and almost in word perfect condition from the time I was handed the script, which was almost a year and a half before we started filming. She had been working and working and working on that. It's also an unusual situation because it's also these people who are going through this experience. It's not like normal people going through this experience, which would then make it a Lifetime movie. It's these people. It's this trio. This wild trio of people going through this experience. And with a parent who did not treat them well. What do you do with that? I find that topic really interesting. How do you handle that? How do you handle a parent who didn't treat you well who you then are responsible for? There's that line where Phillip says to me, "Y'know, we're taking better care of him than he ever did of us." They have to for their own sense of self and for their sense of character. It's interesting when you treat people better than they deserve. What is that instinct in someone's character to do that?
Guillén: That hit me because I actually said that about my mom. But it also brought into focus this process of family crisis where you get pulled back into the family to do the things you need to do that actually betters you as a person.
Linney: And it's interesting to find yourself sliding back into a fourteen-year-old mind. Or you become twelve. Where you're surrounded by certain people where the dynamics and the relationships that are calcified at an early age that you try to break out of and grow out of but the core of it never really changes.
Guillén: One of the things I admired about Tamara's script was how she inferred commentary without voicing it. For example, that final scene where your character's play is on the stage and you're mixing the magical realism with the literalism, the audience realizes that obviously Phil's character had been beaten by his father as a child and that his strategy for survival was to disembody himself. It enrichened our understanding of his behavior throughout the movie.
Linney: That's right. That is, in some ways, the result of someone who's been working on a script for a long time. There's not one moment that hasn't been obsessed over and thought of and cared for. There are connections in this movie that I'm not even aware of yet. People will bring things up to me and I'll think, "Oh God, I didn't even think about that." When clearly it's all there.
Guillén: You've mastered these portrayals of siblings. You Can Count On Me hit us by storm and then you've followed suit with The Savages, which only highlights that you don't see complex portrayals of brother-sister siblings that often. Do you come from a family of many brothers and sisters?
Linney: No, I don't have a brother. I have a younger sister who I adore. She's my half-sister. We didn't grow up together but we're very close.
Guillén: All the more remarkable that you've skillfully captured that dynamic.
Linney: These two jobs [You Can Count On Me and The Savages], as far as the quality of the work is concerned, are two of the things I'm proudest of. Certainly my relationship with Mark Ruffalo and Phil Hoffman are two that I absolutely value.
Guillén: The best brothers you've never had.
Linney: Best fictional brothers. It's funny because a lot of people were like, "Well, do you really want to do another brother-sister movie?" I thought, "What does that mean? I can never be another wife in another movie? I can never be another girlfriend? I can never be another lawyer in a movie?" It was so funny for people to say that to me. I was like, "What are you talking about?"
Guillén: Boy, am I glad I didn't say that! [Laughter.]
Linney: I understand it in some viewpoint but then I was like, "Well, if you really think that logic through, it's absurd." Besides, they're totally different relationships.
[At this point the publicist stuck her head in and signaled we had a couple of more minutes and Laura smiled and cooed, "Give them ten more minutes. I like them. Give them ten." We all laughed.]
Moore: I wanted to ask you about Jindabyne. It's a tremendous piece of work.
Linney: Thank you.
Moore: When you're in a different location like Australia and you have these kinds of things going on in the film and you tap into these dynamics, what are you driving into? The whole racial aspect of the film, what kind of things do you as a performer draw upon? Real life? Your own experiences? How do you mine that as a performer in a film like Jindabyne?
Linney: That's a very good question in relationship to that movie. There are many different currents to that film. There is the place itself, southeastern Australia, which is an incredibly powerful place. I had never been to Australia before. I had never felt nature that was that powerful and I lived part of the time in the Rocky Mountains. I'm not just a city girl although I grew up in Manhattan. The power of that country. The vibrations of the nature. It's a whole other thing. So there's that element, number one.
We were also shooting in a location where the town was submerged in water. Just that can give you pause to think about. That character, I found her really interesting. A woman who had postpartum depression to such a degree that she left. What must that be? If you have to ask, that was a situation where I had to ask, "Why?" Other than just accepting a generalized reason, I really had to look at what is postpartum? What does it do? How bad does it get? What is it? And why would she leave? Then I realized she left because she was scared she was going to kill her kid. She was scared she was going to hurt her child. Just exploring all of that and being a foreigner in a foreign land, marrying another foreigner, it was so layered and everyone was so haunted. It was all so visceral and thick and another script that was beautifully written. So where I "got it" was from all over the place really, I guess, but it was very deep, emotionally it was very demanding. It was very murky.
But, at the same time, it was a one-shot film. Everything was in one take. There was only natural light. Days went fast and easy and breezy. Ray Lawrence was fantastic and we all had a jolly good ol' time doing this very intense film that dealt with murder and race and home and emotional politics and disappointment and shattered expectations and youth. Those children were just delicious. I loved those kids. My God, did I love that little boy. Looking at that little face and thinking [about] coming back and the guilt of knowing whatever was possessing her at the time that scared her so badly that she had to abandon them and then have no one understand what she was going through. For Americans, mental health is here if you need it. It's accepted. Should be required. I just found the whole thing so interesting. It was a fecund script. It was teeming with stuff.
Guillén: Viscerality is clearly an adjective that can be applied to many of your performances. Do you have a meter when you're reading a script? Is it viscerality that appeals to you? The idea that you can take an unattractive figure and find what will physically make them acceptable to an audience, perhaps even loveable? Can you tell that when you're reading a script?
Linney: What I clue into first and foremost is: "Is this actable?" I've said this a lot but many scripts are not written now to be acted. The agenda behind the script is to be greenlit, to be financed. They're written for people who are not trained to read a script. That's not a criticism; that's just a reality. When those scripts get to actors who are trained and are looking for certain things, who have requirements of scripts to help them, and it's not there, [then] you have to do an enormous amount of work and 90% of the time the movie's not going to work. It might work financially but it's not going to be a satisfying experience. It's going to be hard.
So if you have a script that's actually actable, then you know there are places to go, there's things to unearth, dynamics that are there, the narrative's going to work, you can see it. It's the equivalent of an architect looking at a blueprint. They can see the angles of the house and it's just on the paper. They can feel the wood even though it just says, "This will be cedar." It's like a chess player who can see five steps ahead. There's something that actors have, who work in this way, and we can see it or we can tell, "This scene is off and I need it to be different so that the scene down there will make sense." That's fun. Tinkering that way is really fun. I just did this huge mini-series for HBO and we were constantly figuring out how to reshape and what did we need and—if we do this in episode two—will it pay off in episode six?
Guillén: Those are the brilliant bits in The Savages. I loved the scene in the airplane where you're guiding your father back to the bathroom and his pants fall and it's your fault because, earlier, you took away his suspenders!
Linney: That's right.
Guillén: And you had that guilty realization on your face: "I'm trying to help and I'm completely messing things up."
Linney: That's Tamara. That was all Tamara.
Guillén: Well, you had a little something to do with it too….
Linney: Well, you're aware, but you have to place it, you have to pitch it. It has to be the correct pitch. The right note has to be played. You can't do it too high or too low. A perfect example, Mystic River. It was a small part with this thing in the end. In some ways it was like, if you envisioned the thing at the end as being a blob of paint, I had to take the paintbrush and go, "This way." So that it would build. You'd see more and more paint as you got into it. There had to be hints throughout the rest of the movie so that when that monologue hit, the audience was prepared for it subconsciously and then it would hit hard. It couldn't just come out of nowhere. It had to be set up. The fun for me was, "Okay, how do I set this up?" I'm in the first scene of the movie or one of the first scenes of the movie and you don't know who the hell she is really until that scene and then it all becomes exposed. But how do you set it up that way? That's what's fun.
Moore: But is that always going to be in a subtle fashion that you have to set it up?
Linney: You can't tip your hand. I mean, you could tip your hand if you wanted to. You could tip your hand from the very first scene but then that monologue's not going to land the way it's supposed to. It's not going to have the sense of surprise.
Moore: But in any situation—whether it's Mystic River or any other—you would obviously have to do it in a subtle way as a performer, would you not? Or would that depend on the character, or the situation that you want to lead to at the end?
Linney: It depends on what story you're telling. Story first. That's the first priority.
Guillén: Here's a broad question for you then: in telling the stories, what varies between telling the story on stage and telling a story on film? Because you're adept at both.
Linney: They're completely different. The most important difference is just the sense of time. You have much more control in the theatre. It's much more intimate. There are things that will only happen in the theatre because of time. You can't push it. Only time will deepen a relationship. Only time will let language fly in a certain way. Only the ritual and the repetition will make something grow. It's like a slow cooking stew. Eat it at day two and it ain't going to be as good as at day seven. It's just not. There's nothing you can do. You can't force water to boil. You have to earn it. That really has to be earned, gently and consistently in a very focused way and then it will start to go.
With film, you're never really going to get that. You can get a semblance of that and at times—if you connect with your actors and if you connect with the script—then you can go deeper than most films. But a lot of times you feel like you're sliding on ice.
Guillén: So you would prefer to remain a stage actress?
Linney: No. The answer used to be yes, by the way. The more film I've done—which is a big surprise to me….
Guillén: Not to me.
Linney: Well, it was to me—the more I enjoy it because of everything we've discussed; the challenge of it is huge. It's amazing to me when any good movie gets made. It's miraculous.
Guillén: Would you say your theatre training helped you develop the ability to come onto a film set and go deeper quicker? In contrast to an actor, let's say, who's not had the benefit of stage training?
Linney: I don't think so because I've seen actors who have only done film who are unbelievable.
Guillén: They just go right there?
Linney: Oh yeah. Look at someone like Jodie Foster. I know that Jodie Foster knows things in her bones about film that I will never know just because it's what she's been doing since she was small. Her whole professional life has been about film and, similarly, there are things that I know about theatre that other people will never know, just because I grew up in it and I've been around it my whole life. I'm fluent in the language of theatre. [Laughs.] But as the years go on, the more film I do, the more I enjoy how challenging it is and I'm hoping that I'm getting a little better at it. I still feel like I have so much more to learn. There are things I still struggle with that I know I need to work on and the only way you can work on it is by doing it.
Moore: You talk about struggling, and you talk about how you don't necessarily take all these characters home with you, but do you find yourself being more critical about your own performances on film vs. theatre?
Linney: Well, in the theatre I don't watch myself. When you're bad, you just feel bad, no matter where you are. It doesn't matter if you're on TV or the radio. When you feel bad, you just feel terrible. And then there are these wonderful moments where you realize, "Oh, I've outgrown a bad habit." That's really nice. Then there's another bad habit, but you've gotten rid of one. You've outgrown one and maybe grown into another one.
Guillén: Could you be specific about that? What was a specific bad acting habit you've grown out of?
Linney: Fears or blocks. There was a time when I was still a student in school when emotional access was not easy for me. I would force it and it was terrible and I knew it was terrible and I felt like a fraud. Something clicked at one point and now it's not an issue.
Guillén: From my perspective that's one of the things I love about your performances, or your choice of roles: you're fearless. You aren't afraid of how fallible some of these people are that you're portraying. It's not like you—as an actress—have to be loved for the characters you play.
Linney: No. That's one of the tenets of the theatre. Correct. I don't feel that's my responsibility. I feel my responsibility is to tell the best story that I can tell and to fulfill the desires of the writer, the director, and what I feel the character wants. The likeability thing is just a different way to go. I don't find it interesting. For me, I find it boring. There are some actors who have whole careers built on that and they're wonderful at it and I love to watch them do it. I find it refreshing and delicious and sparkly. I love it! But I wouldn't know how to do that. I wouldn't be any good at it either.
Moore: Wouldn't likeability compromise you as an actor?
Linney: Absolutely. It can. If that's what you're thinking about. I can remember that there was a movie I did early on and I was so shocked because the director came up to me at the end of the movie and said, "Y'know, she's not going to be liked. She's not likeable." I was like, "What do you mean? She wasn't likeable from day one and now we're at the end of the movie and you want her to be likeable?! Are you insane?" I was like, "Don't worry about it. It's okay. She doesn't have to be likeable."
Guillén: The only reason it even crosses my consciousness is because Mary Ann Singleton was nothing but likeable. She was like a beloved sister.
Linney: But she should have been!
Guillén: But by contrast, I didn't like you very much in Jindabyne.
Linney: Understandably. That's complex.
Guillén: In The Savages, I think you're so messed up but I love you. [Laughter.]
Linney: She's so fun because she's so narcissistic but she has great empathy. She flipflops back and forth. This topic came up in an interview with Tom Wilkinson who I've worked with several times. I was reading the paper and there was an article about him and he was talking about the exact same thing. He was saying, "With parts that are supposed to be likeable, I'll play as likeable. But if they're not supposed to be likeable, I'm not going to [be likeable]." Besides, it doesn't work if you go against the grain or the truth of what something is trying to be, if you try to manipulate it and change it, it just doesn't work.
Moore: Can I ask you the question that you've probably been asked a thousand times?
Linney: A thousand and one. Which one is it?
Moore: What might you be working on next?
Linney: Oh, that's not a bad one, that's easy! There are two things that have been completed: City of Your Final Destination—which is a Merchant Ivory film—and then I've just done this huge HBO series on John Adams. Next, I'm going to sit down for a bit and hopefully do a play in the Spring.
Cross-published on Twitch.