An Actress Who's As Great as the Sum of Her Parts

Laura Linney stars in the film
Laura Linney stars in the film "The Savages." (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007

On-screen, Laura Linney rarely enjoys the more obviously transformative roles that so many actresses clamor for -- the kinds that require wigs or prostheses or bulletproof bracelets. She's the nameless prosecutor, the cool FBI supervisor, the long-suffering wife, but never Marie Antoinette, Virginia Woolf or Wonder Woman. And in "The Savages," opening Friday, she's a lowercase being again, an emotionally immature daughter trying to find a nursing home for her estranged father.

But even though Linney's characters tend to show up for grunt duty in the real world rather than blaze a path through it, they're transformative in other, equally powerful ways. Story details that may sit indifferently on the page become -- in Linney's hands -- defining moments. In her subtly transcendental way, Linney embodies Thoreau's "quiet lives of desperation."

Her subtleties are hard to capture in words, but on-screen they're writ large. Listen to her tremulous cadence as Sammy Prescott -- the tightly wound single mother having an extramarital affair in 2000's "You Can Count on Me" -- as she asks her priest: "What is the church's official position on fornication and adultery?" And as the soon-to-be-divorced Joan Berkman in 2005's "The Squid and the Whale," there's her flustered but determined sense of purpose as she stashes her favorite books under her son's bed, determined her husband won't take away those aspects of her identity.

Asked about her methods, Linney seems to default to a familiar playbook in her answers. It's a matter of researching the characters, she says, then being improvisationally available to her fellow performers, no matter what they do.

"You don't know where it's going to go," says Linney, 43. "You have no idea. And that's exciting and that's fun."

If Linney is short on self-explication, her colleagues are more effusive. Those who have worked with Linney -- and with a tally of some 30 films in 15 years, there are many -- point to her hard work, enormous range and a quick-thinking ability to surprise. They will tell you, almost unanimously: There's so much more to Linney than that nice-girl-from-Connecticut mien.

Barry Levinson, who directed her in last year's "Man of the Year," says: "In very small increments she can become someone else. It's not like she has to totally change her hair to be a different person."

His example: While playing a frazzled whistle-blower, Linney "went to order this cappuccino and you sensed this anxiety around her. There's a moment when she spilled the coffee and someone tried to help her, and she exploded with a level of anger that made you go, holy God, that was an almost frightening moment. And I thought, she doesn't need a change of wardrobe or makeup but, within herself, there's a wide bandwidth to play with."

"Savages" writer-director Tamara Jenkins says, "Her pores are so open to the little details." Pores. Jenkins recalls a scene in which Linney's character "clicks on a bedside light and steps back and admires the glow. On this particular lamp, there are these cheap little dangling beads. And she pats them so they jingle and she steps back. There's something so girl-like about it. She's a little bit self-satisfied, a little charmed. It was sweet. And all of it in that one selection of a gesture."

Laura Linney is the actress who makes viewers remember movie minutiae. The patting of those beads. The rising pique in her voice in "Breach," when she asks a fellow FBI agent, "What's the trouble?" And the way she slaps her son's cheek with such delicate surprise in "The Squid and the Whale."

Linney, her associates agree, delights in the acting process with an academic, almost Talmudic intensity. This is hardly surprising, given Linney's background. Daughter of prominent playwright Romulus Linney, she was the hardest-working student in her Juilliard class, according to former teacher Michael Kahn. ("She wasn't always the flashiest but I think she absorbed and profited the most.") And even now, she carries recordings of acting guru Michael Chekhov on her iPod, ready to access anytime, even handing over the ear buds to a reporter, encouraging a listen.

That excitement for things thespian is clear in Linney's dramatic posture changes as she jaunts into the Studio Theatre, where she has agreed to be interviewed one recent weekday morning.

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