Laura Linney on Balancing a Life in Theater

For Oscar nominee and Emmy Award-winner Laura Linney, visiting Harvard may have felt like coming home. The New York native’s heart lives in New England, she said, and she not only misses being a student, but also loves teaching.

“Part of the reason why I love coming back to schools and talking to students is, I think, I just have a desire to go back to school. I dream about going back to school. I dream about filling out applications,” she laughs. “I dream about going to campuses. I dream about it all the time. I think it’s because there is that pure concentration that is allowed in an environment like this that doesn’t happen anywhere else. So I constantly have that sort of hunger for thought hanging in the air a little bit. For the time to consider.”

And consider she does. Linney exuded an air of thoughtfulness throughout her conversation with Thomas S. Lee, the director of the Learning from Performers program at the Office for the Arts at Harvard. Her soft-spoken yet powerful presence captivated the New College Theatre last Thursday. for over an hour and a half of discussion.

But thoughtfulness is nothing new for Linney, who spent a year at Northwestern University before transferring to Brown University and later graduating from The Juilliard School. And her hunger for learning has never subsided.

“What I love about theater is that you are constantly a student, for the rest of your life. You are handed a script and you are placed in a certain time in history with its own politics and culture, and you have to know where you are, so you get to constantly study history, music, politics, entertainment, culture, society ... and I love that,” she said.

Linney’s instinct to follow her passion has guided her career from a young age. “It was about the space for me ... it wasn’t about Broadway, it was more about the community of the theater, coming together in the space to create something ... [I] could have been in the box office, could have been the stage manager, could have been hanging lights,” she said. Now, she chooses roles according to what she needs. “I try not to go more than every other season [without doing theater],” she said. “Otherwise that skill just goes.” As for film, “there has to be one of three things: either a great director, a great co-star, or a great script. There has to be one of those. If there are two of them, that is pretty good. If there are all three—slam dunk.”

And for television? “It depends on the people. It always depends on the people,” she said.

As for acting advice, Linney advised students to steer away from “skipping steps.” In one example, she explained, “There is an enormous amount of work that happens to get to that point where an eyebrow will lift.” She proceeded to enumerate the steps as she sees them. “You would be surprised at what it takes to get there, so that when the eyebrow lifts, it is connected to the face that it is on, and then that is connected to the thought that makes the eyebrow rise, and that [thought] is connected to whatever the character is seeing that causes the thought that makes the eyebrow rise. If you skip steps, that is when I become either uninterested in what I am watching or uninterested in what I am doing,” she said.

After her conversation with Lee, Linney took nearly 20 minutes to greet eager fans and other attendees. Then she sat down for a private interview with The Harvard Crimson, where she opened up even more, munching on mixed nuts with her husband at her side.

Elaborating on her newer work, like playing the character of cancer patient Cathy Jamison on “The Big C,” she said, “I am a believer that you have to be very careful in exploiting your own pain.”

“[My pain] is not the character’s pain,” she continued. “And [my pain] is going to bleed through anyway. But if I rely on it—if I substitute it, if I cut and paste my pain, my experience into a character, it will not fit. It will not organically knit to the material, to the situation, to that character.”

When not on set or on stage, Linney does what she can to maintain boundaries between her and her personal life. “[Just] as it is a skill to apply yourself to a profession or to a vocation, it is also a skill to apply yourself to living and life. And it requires just as much time—it is not easy.”

Consequently, she and her husband have chosen Connecticut and Colorado as their permanent residences. “I have a whole other very unexpected life in the Rockies. Who knew? I walk around sometimes and think, ‘What am I doing here? I cannot believe I have such a great life here.’”

Though Linney said Hollywood can be a draining atmosphere, at the end of the day she is grateful to be doing what she is doing and is not preoccupied about leaving a legacy. “I just hope I get better. I don’t need to live forever—to make a mark, or leave a footprint. I do not feel that pressure, fortunately.”

Nonetheless, she cannot help but inspire younger artists. Ryan P. Halprin ’12, a Hasty Pudding actor and aspiring professional, said he felt humbled by her accomplishments. “If I understood acting and could turn that understanding into practice as well as she does, I think that would be an incredibly fulfilling career. To be able to touch that many viewers, to be able to be that kind of actor who plays real and emotional characters and tell stories that other people can relate with—that millions of people can relate with ... I think that would be an amazing life to lead.”

—Staff writer Abigail F. Schoenberg can be reached at aschoenb@fas.harvard.edu.

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