Laura Linney and Oliver Platt in The Big C.
Laura Linney and Jason Bateman for emmy magazine issue #4, 2018.
Before her turn in Netflix's Ozark, Laura Linney won hearts in her Emmy-winning role as Cathy Jamison, a cancer patient who initially chooses to hide her diagnosis from her friends and family, in Showtime's The Big C.
The show, which ran from 2010 to 2013, drew the largest audience for a Showtime original series premiere up to that point. And the role nabbed Linney her fourth Emmy win (her others were for her lead roles in the limited series Wild Iris and John Adams and her guest role on Frasier).
Ozark, which returns to Netflix with part one of its fourth and final season on January 21, marks the first starring role in a series for Linney since The Big C. And one could say the two characters share similarities in the messy ways they deal with their tough circumstances. Her role as Ozark's Wendy Byrde — who, along with her husband Marty Byrde (played by Jason Bateman) relocates her family to the Ozarks and begins money laundering — has already garnered her two Emmy nominations.
"What's the most fun in dealing with her, even now, is that she's a woman who doesn't know herself very well," Linney said in her interview for emmy's 2018 Ozark cover story. "She's very capable, but she's not terribly mature. And she's not very in control of herself."
Take a look as we flip back the pages of emmy magazine to "Happy to Be Here" by Mark Morrison, our 2011 feature story on Linney's first series lead.
When Laura Linney was thirteen, a recruiter visited her New York City school and showed slides of the park-like campus of Northfield Mount Hermon boarding school in woodsy western Massachusetts. "It looked like a Maxfield Parrish painting," the actress recalls. "I saw that landscape and said, 'I'm going.'"
It was the first in a series of smart choices she made regarding her education, which would include Northwestern, Brown and Juilliard. But how did she know what was right? "I have good instincts, I guess," she says.
Now, as the star and an executive producer of Showtime's returning series, The Big C — for which she won a Golden Globe in January — Linney is putting her instincts to work on both sides of the camera.
She plays Cathy Jamison, a sensible Minneapolis teacher, wife and mother who is diagnosed with stage-four melanoma. Instead of embracing the news with her usual good graces, Cathy acts out: she avoids treatment, conceals her condition, kicks her childish husband (Oliver Platt) out of the house, punks her cocky teenage son (Gabriel Basso), out-attitudes her students (particularly Andrea, played by Precious star Gabourey Sidibe), shamelessly flirts with her doctor (Reid Scott), has a fling with a hunky artist (Idris Elba), befriends a neighborhood Scrooge (Phyllis Somerville), reaches out to her social-dropout brother (John Benjamin Hickey) and generally rails against her usually boxed-in universe.
In the face of death, she begins to reclaim her life.
"She realizes she wasn't living," Linney explains. "She was functioning. She has no idea who she is, and now she has a limited amount of time to find out."
And that conceit is where the fun lies, turning The Big C into a life-affirming human comedy, not merely a Show About Cancer.
"What's fun for me," Linney says, "is playing a character whose senses are alive — she sees things differently, hears things differently, feels things differently. I enjoy playing with that."
Not that she was looking for a series when the role came her way. The actress was about to leave for Seattle to film The Details, a feature with Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks, when she received Darlene Hunt's script.
"It coincided with things I had been thinking about — time and the privilege of aging," she says. "You know people who died young, and then you hear someone complain about getting old. There's something wrong there. It's not a God-given right that we all get to age. I'm not saying that growing old is easy — it's not. But it is a gift, and it's not one that everybody gets."
Whether she is referring to her friend Natasha Richardson, the actress who died in 2009 at age forty-five, she doesn't say. Nor does she mention her father, playwright Romulus Linney, who died of lung cancer in January at eighty. But clearly, mortality — and what humans do with the time they're given — have been very much on her mind. And these subjects are at the heart of her series.
While Showtime's other women-on-the-verge comedies have more of an outlaw appeal (Weeds traffics in drugs, United States of Tara deals with dissociative identity disorder, Nurse Jackie features a pill-popping Florence Nightingale), in the view of David Nevins, Showtime Networks' entertainment president, The Big C has its own absurdist edge.
"It is less about the specifics of cancer and more about someone who is living with a daily consciousness of her mortality," Nevins says. "That's the setup for a life lived in the extreme."
And it takes a star like Linney to make it work. "Laura brings enormous humanity to everything she does," he says. "She's basically got a cheerful, friendly disposition, at least on the surface. But you always know there's more going on than whatever she's projecting — that's what makes her so interesting and watchable."
With her porcelain skin and tranquil blue eyes, Linney has an angelic beauty and gal-next-door glow. But there is a steely reserve behind that sunny façade, and a natural gravitas that enables her to hold her own opposite some of the screen's most imposing leading men: Clint Eastwood, Richard Gere, Liam Neeson, Jim Carrey and Sean Penn.
"She's got a really strong core," says Jenny Bicks, who shares executive producer credit on The Big C with Linney and series creator Hunt. "She's a very solid citizen. So you feel very rooted when you watch her. You trust that she knows this character so well that you just go with her. If it were another actor, I'm not sure you'd be on the ride as much."
Her on-screen brother, John Benjamin Hickey, has known Linney since he was a year ahead of her at Juilliard, and she was instrumental in his reading for the role of Sean. He likes to warn today's drama students: "Be nice to your underclassmen because you never know who will be Laura Linney one day."
Linney has "a very sly sense of humor," Hickey says, "and in life she can be wildly irreverent. There's a very subversive disco queen inside Laura." In The Big C, "you get to see [her] wonderfully silly side. She's played a lot of people who are buttoned-down, but some of her best work is when that person starts to become unbuttoned."
As an actress, "Laura is a great secret keeper," he adds. "She doesn't feel that she has to reveal everything. You can see what is going on inside her, but she doesn't always have to show you or tell you. I think that's the mark of an incredibly gifted and tasteful actor — and she's that way as a human being."
For someone who looks like Everywoman, Linney has not led an everyday life.
She was only six months old when her parents split up. She and her mother, Anne, a nurse, shared a modest one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, and Linney saw her dad on weekends, spending summers with him in New Hampshire.
As a college freshman, she attended Northwestern's prestigious theater program, but she missed New England and wanted a broader liberal-arts education. So she transferred to Brown and, after graduating, studied acting at Juilliard.
Linney made her screen debut in 1992 in the dramatic feature Lorenzo's Oil and had a small part in the Kevin Kline comedy Dave before landing on television in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. The miniseries, produced by the U.K.'s Channel Four, broke ratings records for PBS. And as Mary Ann Singleton, one of the four leads, Linney was suddenly established as the archetypal small-town naïf. But soon her turn as Janet Venable in the Richard Gere feature Primal Fear would reinvent her as an icy blonde legal eagle.
She went on to roles in films such as The Truman Show and You Can Count on Me, while reprising Mary Ann Singleton in More Tales of the City and Further Tales of the City, both on Showtime.
Along the way, she picked up three Oscar nominations — for You Can Count on Me, Kinsey and The Savages — and three Primetime Emmy Awards: as the lead actress in the Showtime film Wild Iris in 2002, as a guest actress in NBC's Frasier in 2004 and as lead actress in the HBO miniseries John Adams in 2008. She was nominated for a Tony Award this year for the Donald Margulies play Time Stands Still, which she squeezed in between seasons of The Big C. And since 2009 she has also been seen on PBS as host of Masterpiece Classic.
With professional success have come some personal trade-offs. "Because I grew up in the theater and had an artsy background," she says, "I've spent most of my life never having a sit-down dinner — because you work in the evenings. Marc took me to friends of his, and I didn't realize how foreign it was to watch a family sit down for dinner."
Marc is her husband, Marc Schauer, a Colorado real estate broker she met seven years ago when he was assigned to be her local handler at the Telluride Film Festival. Married two years ago, they divide their time among homes in New York, Connecticut and Telluride.
"I've been living on the fly, working on a movie set or doing a play, constantly moving," Linney observes. "To sit down in someone's home was really nice. And I've realized there has to be a bit of a correction in my life. Telluride is a completely different landscape than anything I'm accustomed to. The community is remarkable, and I have really good friends there. It forces me to look at things in a different way."
Meanwhile, in Stamford, Connecticut, this spring Linney has been shooting season two of The Big C, which will debut June 27. The story picks up where it left off last summer: Cathy has come clean about her diagnosis, patched things up with her husband and begun treatment.
The series is being shot in an approximation of real time: if each TV season were to equal one calendar season — and if the show lasts six seasons — viewers will follow Cathy's life over eighteen months.
"In season two," Nevins says, "she goes more into fighter mode. It'll be less about avoidance and more about living honestly. It'll go deeper into the actuality of cancer." Alan Alda will guest-star as a physician, and a fellow cancer patient will enter Cathy's life.
With the Broadway run of Time Stands Still and a brief respite in Telluride behind her, Linney is fully vested in the new episodes. "Everyone's a little more relaxed," she says. "There were a lot of people who doubted that the show would work. They were very nervous about the subject matter."
But Showtime won them over. "We marketed it very carefully," Nevins says, "as a show about a woman living with cancer, as opposed to suffering from cancer. By week three, you could already see that the audience was starting to embrace her — and there were a number of people who were in for the journey."
Two weeks before second-season production began in March, Linney was on hand for meetings, taking her behind-the-scenes responsibilities seriously.
"Of any actor I've seen [in such a position], Laura really fulfills this role," says Bicks, who was previously an executive producer on HBO's Sex and the City. "She comes to production meetings and tries to be in all the department meetings."
Linney weighs in on everything from casting to props. "One thing that stands out to me," Bicks adds, "is that she decided her character would always wear a watch, whether she's sleeping or awake, because she is so aware of time. Laura's always looking at these little moments."
Same goes for wardrobe: "She's very aware of what this woman would be able to afford. She wears very basic J. Crew clothes, and often you'll see repeating of wardrobe. Laura always wants to keep it real."
So now that Linney has had time to live in Cathy's clothes, to read books about melanoma and talk to doctors and patients, has she come to any conclusions about her own mortality?
"It's not about a bucket list for me," she says. "It's not about what I want to do — it's more about what I want to be. I want my relationships to be rich and fun and joyful. I want the people I love to feel loved. I want to look at art and be moved by it. Red carpets are nice, but holding my husband's hand is glamorous to me. You can't take anything for granted. That's a powerful thing to think about."
This article originally appeared in issue #3, 2011, of emmy magazine under the title, "Happy to Be Here."