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Laura Linney interview: ‘There’s nothing more dangerous than ignorance and arrogance’

Laura Linney interview: ‘There’s nothing more dangerous than ignorance and arrogance’
The stage and screen star talks to Patrick Smith about the final season of ‘Ozark’, falling in love, ‘Love Actually’, and why suppressing the LGBT+ community does a disservice to everyone

Midway through our conversation, Laura Linney flashes the kind of smile that can’t be faked. Big, dimpled; a dazzling sunrise of warmth. The triple-Oscar-nominated star has begun telling me the story of how she met her husband. It was 2004, the year after Love Actually, in which she played the pining office worker, Sarah. Linney was flying to the Telluride Film Festival, where her latest film, Kinsey – about the pioneering sexologist Alfred Kinsey – was to be unveiled.

When she landed, she was introduced to a local real estate agent who was helping out with the festival. His name was Marc Schauer. “He was assigned to make sure I got from point A to point B on time and in one piece,” remembers Linney, who had brought her mum along for the ride. “I was like, ‘This guy seems like a nice guy.’ I was just relieved he wasn’t awkward or needy or nervous, which can happen with people who are assigned to you.” There was a frisson. “At one point, I remember thinking, ‘Am I attracted to my handler?’ And I was like, ‘Oh Laura, stop, just stop it.’ I had been single for a while and I thought, ‘Well, how nice. You’re attracted to someone? How sweet.’”

After that weekend, she emailed him. “There was no torrid affair,” she says, eyes widening, but they were in touch regularly. “Then we both started to get a little confused.” He asked her where they stood. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t know if we’re friends, or if we’re more than friends. You’re my handler; what do I know?’” They agreed to meet in Chicago, the next city on her Kinsey publicity tour. “And that was that,” she says. “Sixteen years later, with a child and a home.”

Talking to Linney, you get a sense she’s always like this. While so many film stars hide their real lives and feelings, Linney does not. Beneath a pair of black, thick-rimmed glasses, the 58-year-old is breezy, uncontrived; conversation flows. From the amount of times she says “I love”, you might conclude she’s a bit of a luvvie. She’s not. Even on a laptop screen – she’s Zooming from her home in New York – she has an air of kindness and self-contained confidence. When I bring up how little we see women in their fifties with young children represented on screen, she stops me dead in my tracks. “I don’t care,” she says, laughing disarmingly. “I don’t feel a desire, you know, for the voice of the older mother to be heard.”

On screen, Linney has mastered the nuances of women under stress; characters who seem cheerful, even disconcertingly over-bright, but slowly reveal inner turmoil. There’s the artificially perfect wife opposite Jim Carrey in The Truman Show (1998). The tormented divorcee in The Squid and the Whale (2005). The uptight single mum in You Can Count on Me (2000), and the troubled playwright squabbling with her brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in The Savages (2007), both of which earned Linney Oscar nominations. Her other nod came for Kinsey, in which she played Clara McMillen, the famous sex researcher’s wife. It’s the film of which she’s most proud. “I love everything about that movie,” she says.

The role we’re here to discuss today, however, is Wendy Byrde, the noxious matriarch in Ozark, a Netflix drama that has grown in reputation with each series. What began as an apparent hand-me-down from Breaking Bad, revolving around a middle-class accountant tumbling into a life of crime, is now brilliant in its own right: a twisty, propulsive thriller, drenched in moody-blue darkness and leavened with sharp humour. For the uninitiated, the first season followed Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) and his family – wife, teenage daughter, younger son – after they were forced to uproot from Chicago to Missouri, specifically the serpentine Lake of the Ozarks, to find a way to launder $500m for a Mexican drug cartel. There were culture clashes. Murders. Affairs.

By the midway point of the fourth and final season – the show returns for its last seven episodes on 29 April – the Byrdes had become a full-blown criminal enterprise, stockpiling money in their newly built casinos and dealing heroin with the Kansas City mob. Wendy’s transformation has been the most radical. Where once she was simply Marty’s disillusioned wife, now she’s the icy, unpredictable villain of the piece. Look beyond that spoonful-of-sugar smile and she is evil incarnate, a modern-day Lady Macbeth capable of killing her own brother or offering up her son to the FBI.

<p>Jason Bateman and Laura Linney in ‘Ozark’ </p>

Jason Bateman and Laura Linney in ‘Ozark’

“There’s a lot that I love about this character,” says Linney. “She is constantly changing, going deeper and deeper into a vulnerable place where a survival instinct hijacked her entire being. Which I think fuelled her intellectual decisions, her emotional outbursts, her strategy. She is very shrewd but makes terrible decisions. She’s immature; she’s not wise. And then, as the series goes on, you learn about her mental illnesses and her family: that allowed me a wider berth in which to veer out into more impulsive behaviours.”

When Linney first saw the script, however, she thought Wendy needed more depth. The role, she told The Guardian in 2017, felt “typical” of “a female character in a male-driven show”. She asked that the part be rewritten. “I had no problem being a sideline to Jason Bateman under any circumstances,” she explains. “I just wanted to make sure that sideline was interesting. If I was going to commit to a multi-year endeavour, I would need to be able to bring something to it that would keep me engaged. If you have just one character that never changes, you can become subconsciously disinterested and start to detach.”

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Character development wasn’t the only stumbling block. In January 2014, Linney became a mother for the first time at the age of 49 (“I was very old”). The idea of being away from her son, Bennett, on location in Atlanta for long stretches was unappealing. Hence why she had her Ozark contract stipulate that for every seven days she worked, she would take four off to go home to Brooklyn.

I felt a little intrusive on ‘Frasier’ – it was a very emotional time for them

Motherhood, says Linney, has made everything “more enjoyable”. “While it’s not easy being a mother and trying to handle a career, and having to go away on location and all that,” she explains, “it certainly fills the time with a meaning. It’s grounded me, and there’s something about being tethered to people you want to be tethered to.”

Among these are the people working on Ozark, who, for one episode in this final series, encouraged her to direct for the first time. “Jason and our producer, Patrick Markey, had been trying to get me to do [it] since the first season,” she explains. “I’ve always sort of shied away from it, and the last season came around and they forced my hand. I was surrounded by a crew of people who I had been working with for years, who had a vested interest in me doing well.”

The episode, titled “A Pound of Flesh and Still Kicking”, leads into what will surely be one of the most chewed-over TV denouements since Breaking Bad, with Marty and Wendy Byrde’s bloody past bound to catch up with them.

<p>Alongside Liam Neeson in 2004’s ‘Kinsey’ </p>

Alongside Liam Neeson in 2004’s ‘Kinsey’

Ozark, of course, is not the first enormously popular series involving Linney to draw to a close in a blaze of excitement. In 2004, she appeared in the finale of Frasier, the wonderfully erudite NBC sitcom that won 37 Emmys. “I did six episodes of Frasier because I had no idea what it was like to be on a sitcom,” says Linney. “There was something about it that massaged your wit. I was only there for the last episodes, so I felt a little intrusive that I was joining this very tight-knit group of people who were ending an 11-year run. It was a very emotional time for them. So I tried to just be as kind and, in some ways, invisible as I could be, so they could have their time together. That’s a big thing, as I now know with ending Ozark. It is a very, very special time.” Frasier is supposedly coming back, I say. “There are rumours,” she replies. “I don’t know whether they’re true or not.”

Television, on the whole, has been very good to Linney. Think of her soulful, Emmy-winning turn as Abigail Adams, wife of the second US president, in the HBO miniseries John Adams (2008). Or her carefully modulated performance as a dutiful Minneapolis schoolteacher diagnosed with incurable cancer in Showtime’s The Big C (2010), for which she also won an Emmy.

Before all that, though, was her astonishing portrayal of the apple-cheeked, straitlaced Mary Ann Singleton in the 1993 adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. The series, which followed the Midwestern naïf as she was seduced by Swinging Seventies San Francisco, was groundbreaking in its heartfelt depiction of queer culture. “It was really culturally significant,” says Linney, who named her son Bennett Armistead Schauer in homage to the book’s author. “The younger generations don’t quite realise – when that first came out, no one had ever seen anything like it on television. Nothing like that had ever been allowed. Armistead, who now lives in England by the way, is the cornerstone of American gay literature. What he has given to a countless number of people is really significant.”

<p>As Mary Ann Singleton in the 1993 miniseries adaptation of ‘Tales of the City’ </p>

As Mary Ann Singleton in the 1993 miniseries adaptation of ‘Tales of the City’

I ask if she’s surprised that, in the years since Tales of the City aired, the treatment of the LGBT+ community, particularly trans people, has worsened in some respects. “It just makes no sense,” she says. “The Americans are just passing all of these laws that I find really offensive, and for some reason, the swirl of distrust just keeps going around and around. It’s just wrong, deeply wrong. I don’t understand why people would want to suppress such a loving, kind, good community. It’s just such a disservice to every community.” She takes a breath. “It’s just awful and it’s ignorant; there’s nothing more dangerous to me than ignorance and arrogance. Those two things coupled together, you know, is a nasty engine.”

Linney speaks just as passionately about the arts, which have taken a well-publicised hit during Covid. “It’s one of the most valuable tools we have,” she says. “I’ve never understood why [the US government] doesn’t encourage the resourcing of the arts, not just for the mental health of our citizens but for health in general. Money towards the arts is money well spent.”

It’s not entirely surprising Linney feels this way. A theatre person by her own admission, she’s the daughter of playwright Romulus Linney, the winner of two National Critics’ awards. “I grew up in the theatre,” she explains. “It’s my longest relationship.” After graduating from Brown, having transferred from Northwestern University, Linney spent four years studying acting at the Juilliard School in New York. Now she’s been nominated for five Tonys; her many Broadway credits include The Crucible, Time Stands Still and The Little Foxes. “I’m most comfortable on the stage,” says Linney. “I love how demanding it is of your concentration, of your body, of your voice, of your mind, of your spirit.”

Nothing has been more demanding than starring in an adaptation of the American novelist Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016, adapted by Rona Munro and directed by Richard Eyre. A daunting 37-page monologue about a writer confronting her past, it came to London’s Bridge Theatre in 2018 and was carried by Linney’s luminously subtle solo performance. “It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” says Linney. “I was terrified. It was just an insane thing to do.”

<p>Alongside Colin Firth in 2003’s ‘Love Actually’</p>

Alongside Colin Firth in 2003’s ‘Love Actually’

Of course, there’ll be some viewers in the UK for whom Laura Linney is forever tied to Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003), a film that is either a problematic exercise in lachrymosity or a life-affirming celebration of romance, depending on your cringe threshold. Linney is a huge fan. “I’m so fond of that movie and I had such a wonderful time making it,” she says. “Deeply loved everyone involved in it.” She was already friends with Liam Neeson, with whom she had starred in The Crucible. “Alan Rickman became a mentor: really treasured and cherished. Colin Firth and I have remained friends over the years.”

The film, she says, worked because of Curtis. Yes, people accused it of being “very, overly saccharine, but Richard has such a unique optimism about love. He’s not embarrassed by love and loving and being loved, and there’s something so pure about that. That’s why that movie really works.” Linney’s face lights up again. “I loved it.”

‘Ozark’ returns to Netflix for its final episodes on Friday 29 April