Laura Linney: The great pretender

After years playing second fiddle to Hollywood stars, Laura Linney is finally receiving due recognition, says James Mottram
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The Independent Culture

When Meryl Streep decides to retire, Hollywood need not panic. There is a natural heir and ready-made replacement in the shape of Laura Linney. Like Streep, she's a meticulous actress hailing from the East Coast; everything - from her long, blonde hair to her aura of intensity and earnest nature - makes you dwell on the comparison. In the past four years, the 41-year-old Linney has received two Oscar nominations - as the strait-laced sister in the sublime You Can Count On Me and as sexual research pioneer Clara McMillen in Kinsey.

As one might imagine, she has the utmost respect of her peers. Liam Neeson, who played Kinsey opposite her after they appeared together on Broadway in a revival of The Crucible, calls her "one of America's great actresses". Clint Eastwood has hired her twice, for Absolute Power and Mystic River. "I'm a Clint groupie," she says, blissfully unaware that she has her own mini-fan club. Playwright Kenneth Lonergan repeatedly asked her to be in his productions, until he convinced her to take the role in You Can Count On Me. "I've always admired her acting," he says. "She's a very warm person."

Such acclaim leads one to expect a little more flamboyance upon meeting her. Instead, it's rather like sitting down with a teacher to discuss your essay. It's not that she's dull, far from it. She has a warm, almost raucous laugh, and an endearing habit of repeating phrases three times in quick succession to emphasise her point. The Spencer Tracy film Inherit the Wind, for example, is "a great movie, a great movie, a great movie". Yet there's also something quite prim and proper about Linney. Maybe it's her polite, plastered-on smile that recalls her fake spouse in The Truman Show. Or her dressed-for-the-office style: today it's skirt and jacket, with a white blouse for contrast. Or the fact that she often plays "the brainy person", as director Dylan Kidd, who cast her as an academic in P.S., puts it.

With playwright Romulus Linney as her father, she is first and foremost a star of the theatre. "It's why I became an actress," she says. "I love the lifestyle. I love the community." It's no surprise to learn that she has received Tony nominations for The Crucible and this year's Sight Unseen. Nevertheless, this autumn Linney has finally become a major Hollywood commodity, after her new film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, took $75m in the US. While previous films The Truman Show, Mystic River and Congo have been bigger hits, Linney was merely part of an ensemble cast. This is the first time she has led from the front.

A hybrid of courtroom drama and supernatural spook story, The Exorcism of Emily Rose sees Linney play Erin Bruner, a lawyer hired to defend a Catholic priest (Tom Wilkinson) after an exorcism that he performed caused the possessed girl to die. Think The Exorcist meets Witness for the Prosecution and you're some way to finding the film's pitch. "That was the thing I was most interested in," admits Linney. "I had no idea if this was going to work. Just on their own, they're really hard genres to pull off. Courtroom dramas can be boring. And films about the supernatural can be stupid. They're such different kinds of tension. I wondered, 'Can the tension of one be used to escalate the fear of the other? Can the fear of the other make the tension more intense?' I had no idea if it was going to work while we were doing it."

Neither of her previous forays into either genre was particularly successful. As it turned out, the paranormal story, The Mothman Prophecies, was the boring one, while courtroom drama Primal Fear was, well, stupid. But as Linney points out, the two genres feed off one other in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, as her agnostic high-flyer begins to experience demonic encounters. "I think she moves from being a disrespectful agnostic to a respectful one," says Linney. "I think what shifts her more than anything is meeting someone who has pure integrity. It does make you stop and rethink. By the end of the movie, she sees it all from a different way. Her own moral inventory has been re-evaluated."

It has left Linney needing to re-evaluate her own moral codes, as the success of the film will automatically elevate her further up the studio chain. She seems relaxed about playing the game. "You can't just go, 'Oh, Hollywood'," she says. "You have to engage. You have to be a part of it. You just have to take care of yourself along the way. You can smell the bullshit. You can. You know when someone's over-flattering you in a way. You smile but you can't believe it." Would she ever consider following the Jodie Foster path, brandishing a gun as an ass-kicking heroine? "Su-re," she says, stretching out the word. "If the character is good. Depends on who's holding the gun."

Somehow, this doesn't seem the sort of part Linney thrives on. Her women are intelligent, self-possessed, sometimes neurotic, but rarely heroic. When she has drifted towards more mainstream fare, it's not been to raise our spirits - notably Richard Curtis's Love Actually, where she was "the one loser of the group". After The Truman Show - her biggest hit to date, it grossed $125m in the US - she was touted as a huge star-in-waiting. It didn't happen. "You learn a very good lesson: do not expect anything," she says. "I've always been very good at that. I've never expected much. The Truman Show, because it was so big and was so successful, there were great expectations for what I would do next. But it just didn't happen. It was disappointing as the hype was so big."

No doubt her take-it-or-leave-it approach to a Hollywood career stems from her bohemian middle-class New York upbringing, where the glamour of the movies was obscured by the buzz of live theatre. Raised by her mother, a nurse in a cancer hospital, after her parents divorced, Linney admits that acting was "something that I was always attracted to", an inevitable consequence of being fathered by a playwright. "I'm sure my father had more to do with my career than I would like to give him credit for," she says. "I would love to think it was all me! I have an instinct to want to be part of a group of people. I feel safe there. That's why I was in school for so long."

Graduating from Brown University in 1986, Linney studied acting at Julliard and the Arts Theater School in Moscow before heading to Broadway. While she acted in her father's play, Childe Byron, during her college years - "it was my one opportunity to do something [of his] in case the career didn't work out" - Linney has rather disassociated herself from his name since then. The first role she was offered after graduation was also in one of his plays. "Given who we both are, I didn't think it was the right thing to do," she reflects. "I just wasn't comfortable with it. I didn't want to be identified as Romulus Linney's daughter, who's got into the business because of him. I had worked very, very hard. I was independent." While she recently recommended a small part for her father in Kinsey, she says she doesn't discuss her own career choices with him. "He doesn't ask me what he should write either!"

Since making her film debut in Lorenzo's Oil in 1992, Linney has barely stopped. A self-confessed workaholic, it's not uncommon for her to shoot four films in a year. When I met her for Kinsey last November, she was feeling the strain. "I need to have the time to enjoy life, to be able to go out with friends and do normal things, and not just work all the time," she said. Unwinding was not easy. "It sounds terrible but there hasn't been a whole lot of relaxing. Honest to God. I don't remember how I did it. I'm going to have to learn how."

So what does she do? Go out and shoot back-to-back movies, including "coming-of-age" comedy Driving Lessons and the much-anticipated Jindabyne, an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story. "I have taken the summer off," she protests now. "You get to a point where you just don't have a choice. You have to stop or else everything is going to suffer. Everything." How has she spent her free time? "I've been home, and seeing friends. I have a boyfriend in Colorado, so I've been there."

By Linney's standards, the admission that she has a partner is tantamount to a major scoop. Married to actor David Adkins for five years, Linney divorced him in 2000. Since then, her only reported suitor has been Eric Stoltz, her co-star from House of Mirth. She will, of course, tell me nothing specific about her new man, except that "he's not in the business". When I ask whether it's difficult to keep a relationship on the boil as a working actress, she broadens it out. "It's tough to be away from family. It's difficult to be away from friends, to not have day-to-day contact with the people in your life who are truly important - the ones who really deserve the time." Mention children - she's just played the matriarch of a fractured family in the forthcoming drama The Squid and the Whale - and whether it concerns her to have them, and she's equally vague. "I think everybody should be concerned about being a parent. I think everybody should take that seriously."

So good is she at deflecting questions, it's surprising that she hasn't played a politician yet. But if she comes across as reserved and guarded, it's because she has no wish to peddle herself as a celebrity. Admitting she is surprised when people stop her in the street, she is constantly striving for a normal life. "I try and keep my feet on the ground," she says. Not easy when the next three weeks will see her in Toronto, Los Angeles (twice) and New York on further promotional duties. "With all the travel, it's hard to feel centred. I don't really live anywhere at the moment; that's part of the problem." The curse of success - it's something that Linney is going to have to learn to live with.

'The Exorcism of Emily Rose' opens today