19 MARCH 2003


Despite her apple-pie prettiness and sweet demeanour, Laura Linney is less girl next door than snow-covered volcano, an actress whose passions might erupt at any moment. Christa D'Souza meets her.


Laura Linney may be a former Oscar nominee and one of Hollywood's most respected actresses, but she is by no means a household name. In other words she can still do her grocery shopping in a pair of sweatpants without getting bothered by anyone, and when she is riding on the subway in her native New York, nobody ever asks for her autograph. Well, almost never. Just the other day, this fellow did come up and clap her on the back, telling her how much she looked like that actress Laura Linney. 'But then he said, "You look so much bigger on the screen. Did you lose weight or something?" Which made me think, aaaarrgh! Do I really look like such a big fat cow up there?'


It is two o'clock in the afternoon and Linney, 38, who is in town to finish off filming Love Actually, Richard Curtis's latest project, has just joined me in the restaurant of the Electric club on Portobello Road in Notting Hill, west London. The joint is full of fastidiously louche types, none of whom so much as batted an eyelid when Linney first walked in, a primly dressed, perfectly slim figure of a woman in a little red jacket, sensible heeled boots and a slight tentativeness about her open, intelligent features, as though she wasn't really sure this was the place where she should be. Really, they ought to be standing on their chairs and cheering when one considers some of the great roles she has played: Jim Carrey's animatronic wife in The Truman Show, the duplicitous superbitch Bertha Dorset in Terence Davies's The House of Mirth and, perhaps most memorably of all, Sammy, the harried single mother in Kenny Lonergan's gem of a low-budget film, You Can Count On Me, which quite rightly won her an Oscar nomination in 2001.


But then even dedicated moviegoers sometimes draw a blank when it comes to knowing exactly where they have seen her before. As one New York newspaper recently put it, 'She's the best actress you never heard of.'


Just as on screen, Linney is a beguiling mixture of warmth and starchiness; pretty in a no-nonsense, apple-pie kind of way. With her fluffy blonde hair and not very ironic hint of blue eyeshadow, there is something of the perpetual student about her, and although the jacket turns out to be Prada (a label she discovered when being dressed for the Oscars), on her it looks more like, well, Boden. But then, by her own admission, she has a fair bit of learning to do on the glamour front. 'I've spent a lot of money on clothes in the past few years, more than I've ever done in my life,' she sweetly confesses. 'Which is all fun, but it's still a little foreign to me. I am getting there, though, just slowly.'


Suffering slightly from jet-lag (the past five months have been spent criss-crossing the Atlantic, for at the same time as Love Actually, she has also been filming Mystic River, a thriller directed by Clint Eastwood, in Boston), Linney is none the less in wonderfully chirpy form this dull, cold afternoon. She raves about Tate Modern which she visited yesterday ('Ahhh, God, you've got to go'); about her little room at the nearby Portobello Hotel ('The same one I've had since August, so I know exactly what my room is going to look like when I arrive'); and, of course, Love Actually. 'It's got about 10 plots going and a huge cast, so no I didn't really get to know Hugh Grant, but I had a wonderful time making it. I play a lovelorn secretary with Alan Rickman for a boss and a cellphone that I use constantly.' Then there is Richard Curtis - possibly, she says, the Nicest Man In London and someone who asked her to be in his film by 'writing the most beautiful letter anyone has ever written in my life. What did I say when I got it? I said, "You bet!" '


Linney is actually here today to promote her latest film, The Life of David Gale, a psychological drama directed by Alan Parker, and also starring Kate Winslet and Kevin Spacey. In it she plays Constance, a blue-stockingy Death Row abolitionist who works alongside a college professor, David Gale (Spacey), and comes to an unpleasant end. However, because of the film's many twists and turns and extraordinary pay-off, she is loth to talk about her character too much for fear of giving anything away. Take it from me, she is probably the best thing about this movie; the glue, in a way, which holds the otherwise rather preposterous plot together, and a kind of centrifugal force around which all the other actors cannot help but revolve. As Parker tells me via e-mail, '[Laura's character], while not the lead role per se, is completely pivotal… Her death is the reason that David Gale is on Death Row and the reason that Bitsey [Kate Winslet] is there to interview him, obviously, but in the flashbacks where we see Constance, it's her honesty, integrity and values that are [also] at the heart of the film. 


'[She] was required to use the entire range of her acting,' he goes on, 'anger, sadness, frustration, humour, sarcasm, the lot… and yet each day she came to work and exuded the same good grace and humility during every single second she was with us. You only have to meet Laura for a few minutes to know that she is one of the most generous, intelligent and ego-free actors you could ever dream of working with. It was a privilege to have her on our set.


'Sorry this all sounds so gushy and luvvie,' he adds rather sheepishly, 'but everyone loves Laura.'


The only child of Romulus Linney, a New York playwright, and Anne Perse, a nurse, Laura Legget Linney was born on Manhattan's Upper East Side. After her parents split up when she was six months old, she went to live with her mother where she spent a good deal of time with babysitters ('It was hard for my mom bringing me up on 12-hour shifts and, God bless her, she did it very well') and wowing her parents' friends with her grown-up ways. 'I knew the names of all the American presidents by the time I was five, and had a picture of Benjamin Franklin up on my bedroom wall,' Linney says. She was also, she says, a fantastic fibber. 'I had this imaginary friend who was so-o-o-o evil. She would draw on the walls, throw things out of the window - God, she was evil! But then that was probably because I had no one else to use as a sounding board or to double check against. It wasn't fun being alone, which was why, when my half-sister Susan [Romulus's daughter by his second marriage] came along 11 years later, it was fantastic.'


Having always intuitively known that she would follow her father into the business ('It was kind of a fait accompli'), she got her first 'work experience' job at the age of 12 when her father secured her a position as a stagehand in repertory theatre in New Hampshire. Later, at Brown University, she studied theatre arts and on graduating in 1986 gained a place at the prestigious New York drama school, Juilliard. There she became great friends with the actress Jeanne Tripplehorn (still one of her best friends), met her future husband, David Adkins, and suffered a near nervous breakdown.


'There I was on stage, and suddenly I came out in these sweats. I couldn't concentrate. I mean, at one point I decided I was going to drop out and join the Peace Corps,' Linney says with a loud, slightly nervous giggle. 'I really thought everybody was just humouring me and that I needed to go away and do something where I'd actually contribute to the world in some way. Of course, I wasn't sleeping either, which made me even loonier. 


'But it wasn't depression,' she insists. 'It was fear. A very odd thing - I was just terrified that something was going to split open.'


Managing to overcome this 'massive anxiety attack' with the help of some kindly professors, Linney slowly recovered and was spotted by a sympathetic agent, 'who realised that I had to be introduced to it all slowly. He knew Jeannie needed a splash, but with me he knew I didn't have that confidence to just waltz in and do it.'


Thus, Linney tiptoed into the fray via a series of television commercials and small parts here and there, including one in the 1992 film Lorenzo's Oil ('the first time I acted outside!'), that gradually 'got bigger and bigger'. Her first proper gig, as it were, came when she was offered the role of Mary Ann in the cult television series Tales of the City, based on the books by Armistead Maupin. 'That was really when I went, "Ooh, wait! I like this! It's OK. I can do it." '


If anyone can afford to be glib about their acting skills, it is probably Laura Linney. The quiet power she exudes on screen, that almost spooky talent she has for conveying plausibility, that meticulous attention to detail, is wonderful to behold and, frankly, something you rarely see in film nowadays. 'A consummately clever actress' is how Sir Richard Eyre, who directed her opposite Liam Neeson in The Crucible on Broadway, describes her. 'There's an inner morality about her which just shines through. 


As I always say, you can fake charm, but you can't fake morality.' There is, without doubt, a definite sensuality there, too. As Armistead Maupin, the friend whom she asked to escort her to the Oscars, once said of Linney, 'All my straight friends tell me she is one of the sexiest actresses they know simply because of the snow-covered volcano effect - that thing that Grace Kelly had, the girl next door who might turn passionate at any moment.'


And yet, for all these plaudits, Linney is anything but glib. Indeed there are moments when she sounds as if she is still at acting school. Not that she is earnest exactly, just someone who takes her craft Very Seriously Indeed. For example, when a journalist once made the mistake of saying 'Macbeth' in her dressing-room just as she was about to go on stage and perform Chekhov's The Seagull, she frogmarched him out into the street and made him turn round three times in the freezing cold before allowing him back in again. 'Well,' says Linney, reddening slightly at the memory, 'I'm very, very superstitious.'


Another thing that somehow distances her from the Hollywood A-list is her frank disdain at the way British theatre has been so hijacked by American celebrities. 'Yeah, sure Gwyneth was good [in Proof]. But with all due respect to these fantastic performances, these people are movie stars. They are not the core of the theatrical community. Neither am I, for that matter, but I really wish there was a bit more trading back and forth. There are some really brilliant but lesser known stage actors out there in America, you know.'


One of those, no doubt, is her ex-husband David Adkins, whom she married in 1995 and separated from four years later. Although there were rumours that she was dating Eric Stoltz, her co-star in The House of Mirth, she now lives alone in an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. When I ask her whether children with Adkins were ever on the agenda (they used to share a dog called Duse) the warmth from her open, intelligent features fades away. 'Look, I just don't want to go there,' she says, polite but at the same time perfectly firm. 'I mean, there's no harm in asking, but I'm always going to say, "No, thank you."

'I don't mean to sound duplicitous,' she finally concedes. 'I will go anywhere and talk to anyone if it's to promote a movie I believe in but I'm not in this to be famous, I'm in this because the work is interesting. You've got to understand my ambition was never to become a movie star. I wanted to be a regional stage actress. I wasn't desperate to be famous, all I wanted was to be part of a big theatrical community. That family thing is really what appealed to me about the business. OK, I'm not part of that any more and it would be stupid and coy to pretend otherwise, but there's a big difference between me and those celebrities you see on the cover of In-Style magazine. I'm not saying one is better than the other but if you're an actor, people don't care what food you've ordered, whom you're sleeping with. You're just a character in a play or a movie.'


It has been a couple of hours now since we first sat down. The lunch crowd is thinning out and I have suddenly come down with a severe allergy, alternately blowing my nose and sneezing away. Linney, bless her, couldn't be more sympathetic, telling me I should go to my doctor straight away and ask him about this nose spray - she can't remember what it is called - that helps with allergies. It occurs to me that this might be all the usual ingratiating stuff - she is a brilliant actress, after all - but then I remember something Alan Parker said in his e-mail. 'There's not a phoney moment with Laura. Ever.'