Unhappy at school in New York, she applied at age 13 for admission to the Northfield Mount Hermon boarding school in Massachusetts and then persuaded her parents to let her attend. Once there, she maintained her interest in her father’s world, the theater. “Whether it was genetics or an influence or a desire for connection, I don’t know, but I’m grateful for whatever it was,” says Linney, who won leading roles in school productions.
Working with autistic and deaf children while in high school led her to “toy with becoming an audiologist” while at Northwestern University, she says, but she ended up transferring to Brown and majoring in theater arts. “Onstage, she was very self-confident, very intense, very sure of herself, a commanding person,” says Willis Sparks, an actor turned geopolitical consultant who dated Linney at Brown and has remained close. “Offstage, she was none of those things. There was something apologetic about her. She was afraid that the fact that she got the big roles alienated people.” During her senior year, she pondered long and hard about whether she should star in a campus production of one of her father’s best-known plays, Childe Byron. In the end, she seized the opportunity—“I thought, Here’s a safe place for me to do it,” she says—and it turned out to be an emotionally gratifying father-daughter experience. As she puts it, “The theater is common ground for us.” (Many years later, she suggested her father for a bit part in Kinsey. “He was called in to audition and got the part,” she says. “That was a fun day.”)
Graduate work in the drama division of the Juilliard School in New York came next. Tripplehorn, who was perpetually tardy to classes, recalls the first time she and Linney met. “Laura walked up and introduced herself and said, ‘You cannot be late to Juilliard. You’re going to get kicked out. I will give you a wake-up call.’ ” And so the two-decade-long friendship of these strikingly different women—“She was very Broadway, I was very rock and roll,” Tripplehorn says—began with Linney rousing her friend out of bed each morning.
During her third year at Juilliard, Linney experienced a terrifying bout of stage fright. “My concentration was gone. I’d come offstage and burst into tears,” she says. When a favorite teacher heard that she was considering dropping out, he sought her out to say, “This is where you’re supposed to fail. You have to allow yourself to be bad, or you don’t learn.” Linney shudders even now at the memory of feeling so vulnerable. “I went to the head of the program and said, ‘Let me push furniture. I don’t want to say anything—I just need to be onstage as much as I can.’ I did that, and it helped get my confidence back.” Says Sparks: “If courage is being scared of something and then doing it, that’s Laura.”
Linney has been a working actress ever since she graduated from Juilliard in 1990 and landed her first job, as an understudy in the play Six Degrees of Separation. She was so eager to see her name in the Playbill that she ripped one out of the bound stack, ran to the ladies’ room and in the privacy of the stall saw herself listed as Lavro Linney. “I started to laugh,” she says. “I thought, Serves you right. Don’t ever let it be that important.” (Lavro has since become a jokey nickname she uses with friends.)