Laura Linney doesn't believe in demonic possession.
Except wait. That's her "instinctive" answer. If pushed, the actress -- who plays a hard-boiled, hard-drinking agnostic lawyer defending a Roman Catholic priest accused of negligent homicide in the death of a possibly possessed, possibly epileptic college student under his spiritual care in the legal/supernatural drama "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" (see review on Page 36) -- says she really doesn't have an answer.
"Certainty is seen as a strength these days, but who can really say?" she says, explaining that her preparation for the character of Erin Bruner consisted partly of using the research she did for her role as a lawyer in "Primal Fear" almost 10 years ago and partly of going to Amazon.com, typing in the word "exorcism," and then buying and reading as many books as she could find on the subject. "I'm fascinated by it. At times, I think absolutely not; other times I just don't know. What I do believe in is storytelling."
About that one thing she's certain.
Except that, in her case, it's not just one thing. Known for the kind of nuanced performances that garnered her Oscar nominations for 2000's "You Can Count on Me" and for last year's "Kinsey," the Juilliard-trained performer segues easily from film to stage and television roles, earning a Tony nomination for her part in Broadway's "The Crucible" in 2002 and, in the same year, winning an Emmy for her tour de force in the TV movie "Wild Iris" (not to mention another one last year for her recurring role as Frasier Crane's love interest on "Frasier.") Less well known, perhaps, might be her recent turn in the recording studio, where she sang a little ditty called "Please Can I Keep It?" on last year's Grammy-nominated children's album "Philadelphia Chickens."
"I don't know if I would call that singing," laughs Linney, modestly assessing her vocal work alongside fellow Hollywood heavyweights Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, while noting that she would nevertheless "love to do a musical some day. You know I have a bit of a dance background," she says, reminding a reporter that she "grew up with summer stock."
In the coming months, Linney will be seen in October's "The Squid and the Whale," a brilliantly acted downer of a divorce drama co-starring Jeff Daniels. Later this year, she'll appear in "Jindabyne," a film based on "So Much Water So Close to Home," one of author Raymond Carver's stories previously adapted for the screen as part of Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" and which Linney describes as a kind of "ghost story, but not the apparitional kind." Also listen for her to make a guest appearance on the upcoming season of Fox's animated television series "American Dad." (Yes, actresses just want to have fun sometimes too, Linney says. Not everything can be "Kinsey." That would explain "The Mothman Prophesies.")
"My job," Linney says of her more overtly serious work (such as 2003's anti-death-penalty "The Life of David Gale"), "is to make movies that are about ideas as human as possible." To that end, she sees her role not as a prima donna but as the simultaneous fulfillment of "the goals of the character and of the larger narrative."
"I'm forever saying to directors and screenwriters I've worked with, 'We don't need this part; let me act it.' "
Never shy about suggesting dialogue cuts and additional takes of seemingly straightforward scenes, Linney explains that, in film, there is often a misguided tendency to want to play the entire movie in every scene. "You don't always need to say it. See, filmmakers have this fear: 'But she has to be angry here.' I say, 'Let it be a part of the situation, in the interaction of the characters.' You have to let the audience absorb it, not blare it. If you blare it, you'll have a reaction, not a response."
To Linney, every character she has played, and every scene in which those characters have appeared, can be "mapped out" -- is this a bridge scene or something else? -- in terms of a film's "topography."
Sounds like the actress might be thinking of adding "director" to her resume soon. "I'm not ready to make that leap," Linney says, giving the lie to the old cliche about every thespian's not-so-secret desire.
So far, the most important lessons she has learned from the directors she has worked with (who include Peter Weir and Alan Parker) have had more to do with her craft than with theirs. Linney credits Clint Eastwood, her director both on 1997's "Absolute Power" and on 2003's acclaimed "Mystic River" with teaching her a little something about the value of doing the necessary research and preparation -- and then forgetting all those things once the job begins. After all, there's a reason -- and it's apparent in everything Linney does, even the schlock -- that acting is alternately referred to as both "work" and "play."
"The way Clint works, you have to be very relaxed," Linney says. "And he teaches you to come rigorously prepared, and then to just let it go. He teaches you that it can be easy. Do a lot of work and a lot of preparation, and then relax and let it go."