The series is set for a 13-episode run, and there could be future seasons, despite the character’s time-limited plight. “The episodes take place through a summer,” Linney says. “They’re slowing time down.” Besides being the star of the show, she is an executive producer. “I’m learning what that means. The most important thing is that if I have an idea, I don’t have to keep my mouth shut,” she says with a wicked laugh.
Weeks later, during a visit to the set of The Big C in Stamford, Connecticut, I witness the production’s delicate balancing act between serious and smile inducing. On this humid June day, Linney is shooting a scene in a school corridor with castmates Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), who plays a student, and Idris Elba (The Wire), as an artist painting a mural called Dream. She scolds the girl for flirting with the artist, then proceeds to do the same herself, telling him the dream theme is “really corny.” He counters by saying he didn’t design it but likes its positivity. “And then all those dreams get crushed by reality,” Linney retorts, playing each take with an edgy charm, trying out a symphony of variations in an amused tone of voice. When her shoulder bag catches on a doorknob and ruins a take, she bursts into laughter, and everyone else joins in.
“We’re doing a ‘comedy’ about cancer, and it’s so easy to go wrong in trying to achieve that,” says Robert Greenblatt, Showtime’s president of entertainment. “The comedy has to come from the reality of the situation. I think Laura’s alone in her class in being able to do something like that.” He adds that Linney cares so much about the ambience that she personally oversaw the outfitting of the cast’s dressing rooms. “It was important to her what furniture and creature comforts they had,” he says. “She just wants everyone to have a great time on the set.”
During a break, Linney joins me on the sidelines, perching on a director’s chair. Now that she is putting in 14-hour days, I ask whether she is wired at night. “No, I’m engaged,” she says. “Wired happens when you know you’re not connecting. When you’re in it, you love the people and it’s going well, you’re making sure you’re doing the best job you can.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Linney would become an actress, although her goal was a life on Broadway. “I never thought I’d be in film and TV, ever—that is the big surprise,” she says. The daughter of Romulus Linney, a playwright and professor, and Ann Leggett, a nurse, Linney was only six months old when her parents split up. “It was not a good divorce,” she says diplomatically. Although Linney successfully embodied a rich-bitch Upper East Side mom in The Nanny Diaries, that universe did not resemble her own middle-class latchkey Manhattan childhood. “The biggest misconception about me is that I came from great wealth, and I didn’t,” she says. “There was no money growing up.”
She was not initially close to her father. “I spent every other weekend with him, but it was never large chunks of time,” she says, adding that they often attended plays or movies. “Poor guy, he didn’t know what to do with a five-year-old.” Her mother worked at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “I was the only kid from a divorced family at school, and my mother worked really, really hard, night shifts and days,” she says. “I’m really proud of her.”
Her father remarried twice—Linney has a half sister, Susan—and her mother wed the owner of a movie-theater supply company, Harry Perse, who died in 1998. Linney speaks of her stepfather with great affection, saying, “He would be so excited and proud if he knew what had happened to me, that I had been to the Oscars. He would be beside himself.”