- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2007

“It’s been the great unexpected surprise of my life,” Laura Linney muses. She’s not talking about her two Oscar nominations (for “You Can Count on Me” and “Kinsey”). Nor is she talking about her two Emmys (for “Frasier” and “Wild Iris”). No, the talented and famous Laura Linney is talking about being a film and television actress at all.

It’s not that she saw herself as a teacher, writer or lawyer. Miss Linney, whose film “Jindabyne” opens in theaters today, always wanted to be an actress. It’s just that she thought she’d perform strictly onstage.

“My heart was always in the theater,” the 43-year-old actress says by telephone. “My father’s a playwright. I grew up in Manhattan. I went to Juilliard.” (Her father is Romulus Linney.) She was even afraid of the camera.

So how did she become one of the country’s most respected on-screen talents?

“I had a really smart agent,” she says of her first (late) manager. He suggested she spend a day here and there doing films, to see what it was like. She got small parts in “Lorenzo’s Oil” and “Dave.”

“I went on these film sets where I just felt like an alien,” she recalls. “He introduced me very slowly to it. Then I did ‘Tales of the City,’ which was this large miniseries. The first six episodes of that was when I remember very specifically thinking, ‘Oh, OK, now I can see this would be a lot of fun.’ ”

That was in 1993. Miss Linney is now known primarily for her intelligent work in independent films — her funny and touching turn as single-mother Sammy in “You Can Count on Me” was a major part of that film’s success. But she got her big break in a rather different sort of movie. In 1995’s “Congo,” she co-starred alongside an animatronic gorilla.

“I’m in very good company,” she laughs. “Jessica Lange had ‘King Kong.’ ” She adds that everyone seems to have a different opinion on when she really broke out. “Theater people think it’s ‘Sight Unseen.’ Television people think it’s ‘Tales of the City.’ ”

She first performed in Donald Margulies’ “Sight Unseen” in 1992. She revisited the play 12 years later, when she assumed its starring role and earned a Tony nomination. She had already earned a Tony nod in 2002 for “The Crucible.”

“The only conscious decision I really made was to work in as many different mediums as I could,” she says. “If a fantastic role in television came up, I wouldn’t say no. If a small but fantastic role with a great director in a fantastic movie came up, I wouldn’t say no.”

But does her father ever joke that she’s abandoned her roots?

“He doesn’t,” she says. “Everybody understands now. It’s so hard to be an actor. That fact that any of us are successful at all is truly a gift. Nobody will begrudge you the opportunity to go do what you’re trained to do. If you’re going to make a lot of money doing a terrible TV show, godspeed. It’s hard to make a living in this business.”

She was persuaded by actor Anthony LaPaglia, a good friend of hers, to travel to Australia for “Jindabyne.” Mr. LaPaglia starred in “Jindabyne” director Ray Lawrence’s 2001 film “Lantana,” a riveting movie about the consequences of miscommunication. “I agreed before I even saw the script,” Miss Linney reports. “You listen to your friends.”

Miss Linney’s diverse resume means she’s never been typecast, but she seems to have a particular knack for playing not wholly sympathetic characters and making us love them anyway. In “Jindabyne,” based on a Raymond Carver story about a group of men who continue their fishing trip after they find a dead body, she pushes not only her husband but the entire town in her quest to right his wrong.

“Everyone is flawed in one way or another,” Miss Linney says. “One of the basic laws of the theater is you don’t flirt with an audience — unless it’s appropriate to.”

She insists the last question an actress should ask about playing a role is, “Will an audience like me?”

She’ll likely be playing another one of those characters in “The Nanny Diaries,” out this fall. Right now, she’s in Richmond filming the miniseries “John Adams” for HBO. She plays Abigail, wife of the title character (played by Paul Giamatti).

“This is one of the great things about what I do. I get to be a student all the time,” she says. “With all due respect to my history teachers in high school, that was the wrong time to learn.”

Now, she’s relishing the research for what she calls “the biggest thing I’ve ever been involved in.” Abigail Adams, who had a companionate, almost modern, marriage, is a suitably juicy role for Miss Linney.

“She was really very much of her time and very much ahead of her time,” she says.

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