Laura Linney visits Ten Chimneys

Laura Linney, star of "The Big C," has a history with the Lunts. She spoke at Ten Chimneys Friday night.

By - Aug 26th, 2012 09:46 am

Linney with the principals of Showtime’s “The Big C.” Photo courtesy of Showtime.

Laura Linney told the sold-out audience at Ten Chimneys that for many years she thought the Lunts were members of her family. The award-winning actress is the daughter of playwright Romulus Linney, a friend of the Lunts.

For nearly two hours Friday evening, Linney — who was born in New York and grew up in the theater — shared wide-ranging personal anecdotes from her stage, television and film career and generously responded to audience questions with self-deprecating wit and comfortable candor.

Linney’s conversation took on added relevance in the historic setting of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne’s estate in Genesee Depot. The Lunts were celebrated actors from the 1920s through the 1950s. They toured the nation with popular theater productions but always returned to the Wisconsin home they called Ten Chimneys. It became a retreat for actors and writers, including Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier, Katherine Hepburn and Helen Hayes.

Linney and Ten Chimneys Foundation vice president Kristine Weir Martell sat in armchairs on a raised stage, in the fashion of Inside the Actor’s Studio. They shared the stage with an easel-mounted charcoal portrait of the Lunts. Linney said the picture had always hung above her father’s desk. When he passed away last year, she thought it should go to Ten Chimneys.

“You have a remarkable piece of history in your backyard,” Linney told the audience. “All of us have benefited from the Lunts’ life and work.” After touring the estate for the first time last year, she wanted to return this summer while visiting family in Lake Geneva. “I wanted to breathe the air here…they gave so much. Traditions that they started in the theater are still passed down, things like discipline, problem-solving and respect for the work.”

With engaging grace, Linney spoke of her career and the choices she has made. She offered a fascinating glimpse at how she prepares for a role. “It’s usually based on the text—one line jumps out, sort of twinkles a bit, and then the Chinese puzzle of the character unlocks.”

She learned her craft backstage and in summer stock productions. She graduated from Brown University and went on to study acting at the Juilliard School. Linney had planned a career in regional theater, but that changed when she was offered the understudy for Stockard Channing in Six Degrees of Separation on Broadway. She went on to movies and a recurring role in the series Tales of the City on public television.

Linney said one of the best stage experiences of her life was the 2002 Broadway production of The Crucible. She had the opportunity to work with playwright Arthur Miller and actor Liam Neeson and was nominated for a Tony Award.

She told of how she prepared for her role as Jim Carrey’s wife in the film The Truman Show by looking at old Sears & Roebuck catalogs and mimicking the artful poses of the models. She talked about working with director Clint Eastwood in the film Mystic River and gave a gentle imitation of his directing style. ”He trusts you and is totally secure. He doesn’t need to talk much.”

Linney won a third Emmy for her role as Abigail Adams in the HBO miniseries John Adams. She told of her research in creating the role, most of it gleaned from the couple’s letters. Linney found out that Abigail was pigeon-toed and came from a wealthy family. But she wasn’t educated, which was a source of frustration for her. When the Adams returned to New England from their trip to Paris, Linney said, “Abigail was suddenly famous – and that changes you.”

What makes Linney choose one project over another? “It has to have one element—a great script, director or actor,” she said. “You know, you develop a little more business savvy as you get older.” And then, showing her deep dimples, she smiled: “Like Alfred Lunt said, ‘We can be bought, but we can’t be bored.’”

How did she end up in an Aimee Mann music video? Linney said she’s been a huge fan of the singer-songwriter for years and couldn’t say no when Mann asked her to play a robot in the music video for Charmer, from Mann’s new album.

Linney is currently starring in and is executive producer of Showtime’s The Big C, which she called “sort of a sitcom about terminal cancer.” She remembers hearing her mother talk about her work as a private duty oncology nurse at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She draws on her mother’s experience for the series.

She said that she had entered a period of “deeply thinking about time and how limited it is.” At 48, she has watched close friends die and has come to realize that “it’s a privilege to age.” She said she is disturbed when people complain about the aging process. “It’s very hard, but then again no one is entitled to a long life.”

Since 2009, Linney has hosted public television’s Masterpiece Classics. She said she was honored to be on the set once occupied by Alistair Cooke. “Now I’m associated with Downton Abbey, and I’m as big a fan as anyone.”






Categories: A/C Feature 2, Theater

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