Interviewing Laura Linney, the female lead of The Savages, brings back the feeling of talking about plays or books with the keenest girl in the drama club.
Over the phone from New York, she laughs easily when describing and analyzing acting. She's able to view even her own roles with a bracing, selfless objectivity that increases her enjoyment of her work.
Bring up a recent favorite moment - the dance she falls into with Robin Williams in Barry Levinson's Man of the Year - and she proclaims, "That was fun." Then she swiftly moves on to extol the virtues of Williams as a humorist, a man and a disciplined performer, and of Levinson as a "great director," flexible, inventive and inspired in the notes he gives his actors.
The New Yorker film critic David Denby has written, "A wonderful actress like Laura Linney, working at the mid-budget levels, can play anything, but her roles don't exist in the big-budget movies that would make her a star."
But Levinson says, "What makes her so good is that she doesn't have the 'star material' that in many cases gets in the way of the work. She is such a chameleon that she is able to find all the small moments in a character that contain and express humanity. Sometimes a star can't really address that stuff. I think 'star' is a bogus term anyway, as if a great actress can't be a star. When someone does the work and is fascinated by it, being a 'star' is immaterial in terms of what someone can do."
Could Linney chance upon the role that would make her a big star in the way critics and pundits use the term? "I think it will happen," says Levinson. "Remember, she came late on the scene: She didn't seem to be around when she was 21 and then suddenly, a dozen years later, she was just there. She has a real love of the craft, she is not driven by what is commercial or thinking, 'What will it get me if I do this?' But by the nature of the work she does she will come across a role that will suddenly define her."
She played the lead in the flop gorilla movie Congo (1995) and had sizable roles in Primal Fear (1996), Absolute Power (1997) and The Truman Show (1998), but Linney was in her mid-30s before she won a movie role worthy of her when she played a single mother with a troublesome sibling in You Can Count on Me (2000). It earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress.
Before that, you could find Linney at her best on stage. She graduated from Brown University in 1986 and Juilliard in 1990 and was soon winning praise for her acting in both contemporary pieces such as John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation and classics such as Ibsen's Hedda Gabler.
For Linney, one key pleasure of The Savages was teaming up before the camera with other stage-trained actors such as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Philip Bosco - or, as she calls them, "the Phils."
Writer-director Tamara Jenkins, a former performance artist and actress herself, steeps the whole piece in theater. Linney plays Wendy Savage, an unproduced playwright; Hoffman plays Jon Savage, her brother, an academic laboring on a book about radical playwright Bertolt Brecht; and Bosco plays Lenny Savage, their bullying father, whose fall into Parkinson's dementia triggers a reluctant family reunion.
Linney says that being around theater all her life - her father is playwright Romulus Linney - didn't help her define the character of the aspiring playwright in the movie. But it did mean Linney got all the inferences and references that filmmaker Jenkins cunningly put into her scenes.
When Wendy writes a grant application during a temp job, she calls her new play semi-autobiographical and subversive, and says it's "inspired by the work of Jean Genet, the cartoons of Lynda Barry and the family dramas of Eugene O'Neill."
"I've known a lot of Wendys in my life," confesses Linney. "Eccentric though she seems, there are a lot of her out there. She's 11 years old in a lot of ways, but at the same time, she can be very mature. She can be spastic or manic, but she's also capable of moments of great stillness. She's both narcissistic and very empathetic - a real pushmi-pullyu."
A new view of Wendy
What's moving about The Savages is that you finally see Wendy as a woman of quality. It's a tribute to Linney, Hoffman and Bosco that the film becomes warmer and more accessible as it moves from an Arizona retirement community deep into a gloomy winter in Buffalo, N.Y.
Working with Bosco made it easy for Hoffman and Linney to convey, without speaking, their characters' knowledge of their father's past.
"Phil Bosco is a giant, a legend, in New York theater," Linney says. "I heard him talked about so often that when I was 6, I didn't ask for Bosco and milk - I asked for Phil-Bosco-milk. And because I had watched him for 30 years as an actor, I had some of the feeling of a daughter watching the aging of her father."
Taking characters who "read" one way to audiences into entirely opposite directions has become a Linney specialty. Virginal Mrs. Kinsey in Kinsey (2004) becomes sexually voracious in Linney's second Oscar-nominated performance (for best supporting actress). The more likable half of the divorcing couple in The Squid and the Whale (2005) can't resist blurting out the history of her love life to her appalled adolescent sons.
And Linney loves disequlibrium. "You have to admit, that's kind of fun to play," she says, with a giggle. "But I think no one is one thing, including me! Every once in a while, it's fun to play someone who's wholly good or purely evil, but for me it's most interesting to see how much the material can hold."
For Linney, it's liberating to play "a character who does the unexpected, because if you set the boundaries far apart, you can do everything between." But in The Savages, it was essential for her and the Phils to "understand the pitch of everything; you must have complete trust in the odd mood swings of the material, or else you'll fall into melodrama or farce that's a little hollow."
A shift to maturity
Ever since the film played at Sundance last winter and Telluride last fall, people have told her the movie captures what they've been going through with ailing parents, without sentimentality. The acclaim this movie has received, with its 40-something protagonists, suggests Levinson might be right about Linney's future.
"We're about to see a bit of a shift in moviemaking because you can only appeal to 16-year-old boys for so long," says Levinson. "There's a big older audience out there, and she should be the recipient of a lot of these roles being written now for women. She's so adaptable; there are so many things she can do. And she can light up the screen."