She has delivered iconic performances on Broadway in The Crucible (2002), Sight Unseen (2004), and Time Stands Still (2010), for which she received Tony nominations. She received Emmy Awards for portrayals in Wild Iris (2001), Frasier (2003-2004), as Abigail Adams in John Adams (2008), and Showtime’s The Big C (2013). She was Oscar nominated for her roles in You Can Count on Me (2000), Kinsey (2004), and The Savages (2007).
He is the winner of two Tony Awards as Best Actor in a Musical for his gobsmacking performance as slick lawyer Billy Flynn in Chicago (1997), and his role as film-noir era detective in City of Angels (1990), which also earned him a Drama Desk Award. He won the 1999 MAC Award as best male vocalist for his one-man concert show, Street of Dreams presented by Mike Nichols. And his numerous film credits include Equity (2017, Sundance Film Festival), The Devil Wears Prada and First Wives Club to name a few. Most recently on television he has starred in Gossip Girl, The Black List and The Affair.
Together Laura Linney and James Naughton have accumulated a staggering number of credits, awards and nominations. They are masters of their craft and shared their combined wisdom at the Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center, Monday evening 6 March. James Naughton knew the questions to ask and Laura Linney spoke from the truth of her heart. It was my pleasure to be present at this sterling event which was presented by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women. The event was produced by Betty Corwin with Pat Addiss and Sophia Romma.
Both Linney and Naughton are graduates from Brown University. Their renowned careers have spanned all entertainment genres (television, theater, films), and James Naughton has also distinguished himself as a director on Broadway (Arthur Miller’s The Price and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town starring Paul Newman). Both continue to work and garner awards.
Laura Linney is the daughter of Romulus Linney prolific writer, novelist and playwright. One would think Ms. Linney’s choice of an acting career to be counterintuitive, a natural given that she was raised around the theater, actors, and directors. She had the opportunity to watch her father’s work rehearsed and performed to acclaim. Her acting career was not “a given,” however. James Naughton, in his discussion of how Laura Linney made her decision to become an actress brought out the profound and perceptive intellect of this actress, who saw early on that to be stereotyped as an ingenue while beguiling, in the entertainment industry was a road that led to a dry, declining ecosystem.
Linney’s decision to be an actor and have a career in acting which she finally announced in 1981 was based on thoughtful deliberation, care and a silent knowing of the soul. Too often she had cringed upon hearing various individuals flippantly proclaim they were going to be actresses or celebrities or pursue acting careers. For Laura Linney becoming an actress was close to an ordination that “one must earn.” It was not to be taken lightly and it meant the world to her which she finally was able to admit to. From that moment on, she was committed to give this career path the time and effort required to make it her lifetime pursuit in which she would grow and evolve as an actress and a human being.
From Brown University where she studied Theatre History, she applied to Julliard. She knew it was the “training ground” that would provide a solid foundation in technique to sustain a long and fulfilling career which was her overriding goal. She mentioned that Julliard and Drama School are not for everyone. For those who want to begin working immediately and assiduously pursue auditions to that end, that is one way. However, it was not her way. She knew from her experience in witnessing actors who worked with and around her father that instinct and talent were vital forces. However, oftentimes, as the actors aged, they had tremendous difficulty transitioning into older or more substantive and complex roles. She averred that she understood this. Thus, she was willing to put in the time, effort and work that it would take for a long and vibrant career.
Being accepted into Julliard was a tremendous break for Linney. In her discussion with Naughton she complimented the faculty who were tremendous because they “did not pull punches” and they “let me have it.” She admited that she was hungry to learn and “desperate for someone to tell me what to do” and that they provided the understanding and the wisdom to help her evolve in her craft. They were like “water in the desert” of her knowledge base and she was thirsty and happy to drink all they had to give.
For those (some in the audience were actors), imagining that Julliard is “easy,” she dispelled those notions. Her comments about herself in the four-year-program were forthright. It is “a tough school,” “seven days a week,” “all day, every day.” Julliard is a school where you “learn about yourself,” and you “don’t always like what you learn.”
Another benefit of Julliard she mentioned is that there is not one particular methodology taught, but there are a variety of options for expression of one’s creativity. It is up to the students to make their choices based upon their own proclivity and they then select what they wish to take away with them for good or ill. Laura Linney affirmed that what she learned at Julliard she uses every day in her career. From her exceptional and lasting body of work, it is clear that the wisdom and the grounding she received from the faculty has helped her achieve her finest work, indeed even after she turned thirty-five.
Laura Linney was also upfront about the way she works her craft. For example if “Aunt Jackie” is mentioned in the script though she never appears, Linney personalizes the character and makes sure she gives her a backstory, identifies what she looks and sounds like and tries to be as specific as possible in filling out the details of this person to make her visible in her own consciousness. She mentioned that doing such work takes the actor places to further their understanding and feeling about one’s own character. In asking the questions elements are always opened up to provide for the depth of humanity for the portrayal.
Whether onstage performing or behind the cameras which Linney remains uncomfortable with, fear is always something to overcome. She discovered that if fear is a deterrent, what dispels stress and unease for her is assiduous preparation. She researches each role. She does an enormous amount of work before she gets to a film set, so that doubts about self-worth do not enter in.
She gave examples of working with director Clint Eastwood (she worked with him on Primal Fear, Absolute Power and Sully), who is famous for shooting quickly and not rehearsing. With him in the director’s seat, she stays relaxed. She follows a tip given by Kevin Kline, also an alumni of Julliard who said, “It’s about relaxation.” For an Eastwood shoot where one must be ready, she remains relaxed throughout the day allowing a slow simmer within to carry her through so she does not over-expend her energy.
As another illustration of her work ethic and research for a role, in Primal Fear, she played the tough-minded prosecuting attorney. In preparation for that role, she shadowed a prosecutor and somehow managed to capture the woman’s ethos in that well defined and memorable performance she played against Richard Gere and Edward Norton. Like that woman prosecutor, she even picked up smoking.
Indeed, Ms. Linney mentioned that she is grateful for each role she’s portrayed and she loves and empathize with her characters. She follows the adage about actors and the roles they bring to life: the beginning of great acting is to be non-judgmental of one’s character, so that one may step inside their skin and move around with ease, even though the character may be expressly filled with tension.
Linney shared that she is the mother of a three-year-old son and is filled with gratitude because the love has “softened her in ways that she didn’t understand could be possible.” She noted that she has learned elements of her own personality that she was unaware were there. And she finds the “muscles on her face moving in new ways” in her response to interactions with him. As a mom she is learning to work differently while giving a 100% effort. However, she framed the work and motherhood experience as learning “to take the foot off the gas pedal” and perhaps not drive as fast.
These were the highlights of the conversation which was followed by a Q and A where Laura Linney fielded questions from audience members ranging from her personal decision to have a child at a later age to working with various directors and actors. What a joy!
Look for Laura Linney’s film The Dinner, directed by Oren Moverman with Richard Gere, Steve Coogan and Rebecca Hall which premieres in the U.S. on May 5, 2017. Linney will be in Ozark, a Netflix original series where she plays Wendy Byrde opposite Jason Bateman to debut in 2017. And if you wish to be thrilled by her and Cynthia Nixon, The Manhattan Theatre Club is reviving Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes on April 19, 2017, directed by their friend Daniel Sullivan.
Look for James Naughton in a film that premiered at Sundance Film Festival: Equity.