“That horrible phrase—‘It will happen when you least expect it’—people mean so well, but my impulse was to stick a fork in my eye,” says Laura Linney, who is feistier than her fine-boned beauty would suggest. Sitting in a Manhattan restaurant, nibbling edamame, she is thinking back to a time when her career was skyrocketing but her personal life was in a slump. Divorced in 2001 after a five-year marriage to actor David Adkins, she was nominated that year for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for You Can Count on Me. Suddenly she was landing roles in prestige movies (Mystic River, Kinsey) and winning both Emmy awards (Wild Iris, Frasier) and her first Tony nomination (The Crucible). But she discovered that her newfound prominence came at a price. “It was weirdly isolating,” she says. “The more successful I became, everyone took a slight step back. I didn’t know what to make of it. I was brokenhearted.”
By the time she flew to Colorado to promote Kinsey at the 2004 Telluride Film Festival, accompanied by her mother, she was resigned to being self-sufficiently single. “I had given up,” she recalls. Greeted at the airport by a VIP host—local real estate broker Marc Schauer—she was relieved to discover that he was not “a painfully awkward, strange chap, as some of them can be.” Later that day, she had a second, startling reaction. “I was alone with Marc. I remember turning and looking at him—Oh my God, am I attracted to my handler? I thought, Calm down,” she recalls. “But there was a part of me that was very relieved. I felt like something was waking up. I thought, How wonderful that I can feel this again.”
Linney is laughing as she tells this story, looking forward later in the week to the first anniversary of her wedding to Schauer. “Marc has been a gift,” says the actress, who is wearing black jeans, a black sweater and a black jacket, her blond hair flowing loosely around her animated face. “I’m learning a lot from him about joie de vivre. I know really well how to work; the life part is harder for me, and he pushes me to live a bit. We laugh a lot.”
Her recent domestic bliss is welcome news to her friends. “I had been telling her for a long time, ‘You need to date out of your species,’ ” says Jeanne Tripplehorn, a Juilliard classmate in the 1980s. “She had been with other actors, and it hadn’t gone so well. Marc adores her, she adores him.” Says Liam Neeson, who costarred with Linney in Kinsey and The Crucible and has a country home near the actress’s Connecticut refuge: “We all fell in love with Marc because he is so supportive of her. He’ll sit there and listen to all our boring actor stories and guffaw louder than anyone. She seems very, very happy, which is terrific to see.”
Now that Linney has settled one of the big personal questions, she is focusing on another: how to get the most meaning and pleasure out of life. It’s a theme that extends to her new project, the Showtime series The Big C, in which she portrays a married schoolteacher who is told she has stage 4 melanoma and only one year to live. The pilot for this unusual show has genuinely funny moments in which Linney’s cautious character breaks out by playing a mischievous trick on her son, doing cartwheels in her school’s hallway and standing up to her comically childish husband, played by Oliver Platt. Yet even as she tries to reconnect in more meaningful ways with her loved ones, she keeps her devastating news a secret. “She has a husband who is a baby, a son who is a brat, a brother who is eccentric and homeless, and there is no real intimacy anywhere,” Linney says. “If she tells any of them, they couldn’t handle it.”
Linney was drawn to the show because “I’ve been really thinking about my life, where I’ve come from and what I need, what’s good for me,” she says. “At my age—midforties—time and living take on deeper meaning. All this stuff was percolating in my brain, and I thought, Oh, this could be interesting. If you knew you only had a year to live, how would you spend that time?”
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.”
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.)
Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Donald Margulies still vividly remembers seeing Linney perform during casting sessions for his play Sight Unseen in 1991. “She auditioned along with dozens of ingenues. This lovely blond, bold young woman came in and began reading. Everyone in the room is suddenly leaning forward and saying, ‘Who is she?’ ” Margulies recalls, lauding the actress’s “to-die-for dimples” and “gorgeous vocal quality.” Linney was cast as the young German journalist in the play; 13 years later, in a revival of the show, she played the leading female role, an artist’s former lover and muse, and was nominated for a Tony. She scored another Tony nod this year for her work in Margulies’s Time Stands Still and will return to that play on Broadway this month.
Widely admired by her peers, the hardworking Linney is perceived as a risk taker in her performances, willing to be unattractive, to be nude, to physically contort herself if the part requires it. “She just jumps right in,” says Daniel Sullivan, the director of Time Stands Still. He was worried that Linney might injure herself while wearing the heavy leg brace required for her character, a badly wounded war photographer, but he reports that her reaction was, “Who cares?” Sullivan says, “She’s extremely strong.” Adds Neeson: “She’s like Meryl Streep in that way. She just lets it hang out, no vanity at all.” Of her nude scenes, Linney jokes, “I’m a real tart. I’ve been naked in a lot of movies. If I feel that the nudity in some way will add to the story or the understanding of the character, I’ll do it.”
At an age—46—when many actresses panic at the sight of a wrinkle, Linney professes to be happy with her reflection in the mirror. “I feel like I’m getting better looking as I get older,” she says. “It’s true. I’m sort of trying to be friends with it and say, Look, there’s a little bit of my grandmother there.” Tripplehorn says the two of them have made a pact: “We’re not going under the knife, we’re not going to do Botox. We’re both very committed to approaching life gracefully.”
But for Linney the subject of aging touches something much deeper as well. “I have a lot of friends who’ve died way too young,” she says. “And I’m a little angry about it. It makes me very upset at the whole viewpoint that there’s something wrong with aging when it is a privilege to grow old.”
One good friend she lost was Neeson’s wife, actress Natasha Richardson, who died in a skiing accident last year. “I was just thinking about this, in relation to Tash,” Neeson says, “that Laura would always proffer great advice, of a personal nature or a delicacy in one’s relationship: ‘Have you thought about this?’ She’d never bang you over the head with it.”
Richardson’s tragic accident, says Linney, “changed all of our lives. Those of us who knew and loved her and benefited from her incredible talent, we’ll never be the same.” When Linney got the news, she was in the midst of a self-imposed sabbatical from work, living in Telluride. She and Schauer had set a date to marry, even though she’d been in no rush to make it legal. “The wedding was much more important to Marc than it was to me,” she says. “I was so happy to be engaged. I loved introducing him to people as my fiancé.”
When Richardson died in March 2009, “we actually thought about postponing [the May wedding],” Linney says. “She would have been there. Of all my friends, she was the one who was most annoyed that we were taking so long. She was so happy when we got engaged, and she kept saying, ‘When is this wedding happening?’ We were on the phone a lot about the plans.”
But the couple decided to proceed with a small ceremony in Linney’s Connecticut backyard. “We all needed something to be happy about,” the actress says. And when it came time for the bride to make her entrance, “I realized I needed someone, and I thought, Where’s Liam?” Linney says. Adds Sparks: “Laura went up to Liam and said, ‘Walk me down the aisle.’ And Liam wasn’t about to say no. I remember thinking it was heroic of him just to show up, but he wanted to be there for Laura.”
Lately Linney has taken to heart suggestions from friends that she pay more attention to her health. She is working out more and experimenting with a largely vegetarian diet. (She isn’t counting calories, though—at our lunch she orders and devours a vegan chocolate–peanut butter dessert.) “Jeanne called me up and said, ‘OK, that’s it, no more. We’ve got to get our acts together,’ ” says Linney. Adds Tripplehorn: “I’ve been on her for a year and a half. This is a nice little tipping point—we’ve got to start taking care of ourselves.” Alicia Silverstone, who costarred with Linney in Time Stands Still and is the vegan author of The Kind Diet, has also been an influence. “Alicia opened my eyes,” Linney says. “I’m still figuring it out, but I feel much better having a more vegetarian or vegan diet. I do still eat meat occasionally, but instead of a diet that’s 90 percent meat based and 10 percent plant based, it’s now the reverse.”
She and Schauer have a home in Telluride, but he has quit his job and is contemplating a new career. “He’s reassessing his life just as I’m reassessing mine, trying to figure out what to do next,” she says. “He’s probably going to go back to school in social work.” At first, she says, she was “flipped out” that he wouldn’t understand her life as an actress. “The obsession, the time, the travel—I wasn’t sure anyone could handle that, and why should they? ‘See ya, I’m going away for four months.’ ” But none of it has fazed Schauer, and “I am so deeply thankful for him,” Linney says.
Ask her friends what surprises them about her personality, and they gleefully oblige. Neeson says she forwards him hilarious, vulgar comic routines from YouTube: “She just sent me another one. I know it will be absolutely disgusting and gut-laughingly funny.” Tripplehorn was startled when Linney, accompanying her and her son, now eight, on a trip to Disneyland, insisted on riding the scariest roller coaster. “She’s quite the daredevil,” Tripplehorn says. “It made me sick just to think about it. She rode it over and over again.”
Yet Linney, fingering her modern, custom-made wedding band, is enjoying quieter thrills these days. “I really like being married,” says the actress, who as our interview concludes is going off to rendezvous with her husband. “Marriage is a great adventure.”
Meryl Gordon has profiled Kyra Sedgwick, Mary-Louise Parker and Sigourney Weaver, among others, for More.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of More.