Television: There's a new girl in Tinseltown

She's Mary Ann in `More Tales of the City' and Jim Carrey's wife in `The Truman Show'. Dennis Lim meets Laura Linney
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The Independent Culture
IT'S ONLY August, but so far this year, Laura Linney has already appeared in a prestigious Broadway production, in the much-anticipated follow-up to a beloved television mini-series, and in one of the most celebrated Hollywood movies in recent memory. On stage, Linney attracted attention with her portrayal of a home-wrecking journalist in Honour. For television, she reprised her career-launching role as transplanted Midwesterner Mary Ann Singleton in More Tales of the City, based on Armistead Maupin's San Francisco stories. And, for the movies, she has scored her highest-profile assignment to date, playing Jim Carrey's wife in Peter Weir's The Truman Show.

For the 34-year-old actress, the past few months have also called for more self-promotion than she'd like. "I'm sick of the sound of my own voice," she jokingly confesses when we meet one afternoon at her local diner in Manhattan's Upper East Side, the neighbourhood where she grew up and where she still lives. This interview, she announces, is her final commitment of the summer; that very evening, she's off with her husband, actor David Adkins, to spend a leisurely couple of months with family in Connecticut. "It's my first free summer in about 10 years."

The route Linney has taken to Hollywood has been anything but typical. Her father is the respected playwright Romulus Linney; as a child, she spent her summers working backstage in New England theatres. She graduated to acting in her late teens, at which point she also became "academically interested in the theatre", obtaining a degree in theatre arts from Brown University and then studying acting for four years at New York's esteemed Juilliard School. "It's certainly not for everybody," she smiles,"but for me it was imperative. I knew that if I wanted a long acting career, I would need to `learn' how to work." Linney broke into Hollywood at a later age than most of today's It Girls. "I wouldn't have made a good Gwyneth Paltrow," she says. "That really wasn't for me, and besides, I didn't even think it was a possibility. I was never the kind of actor who fantasised about being on screen. I actually went to graduate school in the hope of being a regional theatre actress."

Bizzarely then, for her first major movie role, Linney found herself in the 1995 summer hit Congo (based on a Michael Crichton novel), in which she played a feisty scientist on a nonsensical mission in Africa. She didn't embarrass herself - a more difficult task than you might imagine, considering that she had to perform opposite an animatronic gorilla. Linney's post-Congo filmograph, however, has been notably solid (and simian-free). "Got myself out of the jungle quickly enough," she laughs.

As Richard Gere's no-nonsense ex-girlfriend and courtroom adversary, she more than held her own in the legal drama Primal Fear; in Absolute Power, she made the most of her screen time as Clint Eastwood's estranged daugher. Before Congo, Linney had bit parts in Lorenzo's Oil and Searching for Bobby Fischer; in Ivan Reitman's Dave, President Kevin Kline suffers a stroke while in bed with her (she had two words of dialogue in that scene: "Mr President?").

"It's a good thing I was eased into camera work," says Linney. "I wouldn't have responded to it well at all if I'd gotten a big part right away - I was intimidated by the medium, I didn't understand it. At first, I tried to apply everything I knew about the theatre to film, and it just doesn't work that way. Since I knew so little about film-making, Congo was a great opportunity, because it was a role that required no acting. I was on a movie set for a hundred days, and I got to see how it all happens. I learnt a lot technically, and when Primal Fear came around, I'd gone through it all before ... with the monkeys."

Monkeys are one thing; leading men like Gere, Eastwood and Carrey, surely, another. But Linney says she reacted to each potentially intimidating situation with "deep curiosity". "It was fascinating to see how differently fans deal with each of these men. With Richard, it's women shrieking all the time. With Clint, everyone's really respectful. And Jim, he's like everyone's long-lost cousin; people just come up to him and grab him. "

In The Truman Show, Carrey plays a man whose life, unbeknownst to him, has been televised since birth. All his life is a sound stage. Big Brother (who writes the scripts) is watching - and he's joined by a worldwide TV audience. Linney plays the actress who plays Carrey's wife. She says Truman was "a great actor's-homework movie. We came up with all these elaborate back stories for our characters."

For the Seventies-set More Tales of the City, Linney "raided my mother's closet. A lot of the outfits that I wear on the show are actually hers." Though Maupin's breezy, coincidence- filled stories - populated by homosexuals, heterosexuals, and the odd transsexual - are more quaintly bohemian than they are sexually explicit, 1994's initial batch of Tales attracted religious-right ire in the US, and American producers PBS quickly decided against a sequel. Now the cable channel Showtime has salvaged the franchise. Linney claims she had no reservations about returning to the same role after four years. "Mary Ann is a fantastic character to play because she's growing so fast. I think everybody can relate to Mary Ann: everyone's had a first day at school, been in a situation when they might look like an idiot even if they're not. She's not dumb by any means; she just doesn't know the rules of the game. I certainly felt that way when I first got to California and walked on to a movie set ... It's all so disconnected. There's not really a sense of knowing the people you're working with, yet you're so dependent upon everybody else. For every one person you see on the screen there's 35 people standing behind that you don't see."

She plans to continue balancing her movie career with theatre stints: "It's very easy to get lazy in the movie business. The thing about working in the theater is that you sort of have to earn it. Film people can be rewarded overnight. Everyone tells you you're terrific, you're great, and people just stop working. Every once in a while, you can spot a really famous, overpaid, bored actor on screen. You can't miss it - they're bored stiff."

Linney still seems taken aback by her first taste of stardom. "The other day, my husband and I were going to see a movie and I called the Moviephone information line. When they said, `The Truman Show with Jim Carrey and Laura Linney', I couldn't believe it. I still have moments like that."

! `More Tales of the City': C4, Saturday, 10pm. `The Truman Show' is released on 23 October.