When we interviewed Laura Linney for a chapter on “How to Act” in our upcoming book, we asked the award-winning actress:
“Who are you acting for?”
The question was met with a long silence. We had to stifle the urge to blurt out helpful hints. As the seconds turned into minutes, we wondered if she had misunderstood or been offended.
It turned out Linney was thinking, actually thinking, not pretending to think as sometimes happens when you are interviewing a famous person who is feeding you lines because that is what their publicist told them to do.
When Linney finally did respond—a full two minutes of tape time later—her answer was not at all one we would have expected. She was not acting for her audience, her fellow actors, directors, producers or even her late father, the playwright Romulus Linney. No. She was not even acting for herself.
What she told us when she finally spoke in the quietly intense tone that we recognized from many of the roles she has played was:
“I’m acting for the story.”
That was the moment when Linney truly revealed herself and the interview got really interesting.
In every facet of her work Linney puts the story first. It begins when she gets a script. If the story speaks to her she does not listen to advice, she just takes the role. (A reason she has accepted roles in some of the riskier indie projects she has done so well in.) Character preparation for Linney is an all-consuming immersion in which she “saturates herself with the text” that leads her to “the core of the story.” Once on set or stage, she told us, “You’ve done all that work on the story—now the story is working on you.” And if she feels others in the production are not honoring the narrative, she will fight for it. “My loyalty is not to a director or producer but to the story,” she said.
In an age of global megablockbusters, dumbed-down superhero sequels, multi-million dollar action sequences, CGI and bionic bodies, when it comes to Hollywood, the actual story can be a low priority. Some of the more commercially minded might consider Linney’s commitment to story quaint.
But her obsession can be a lesson to us all whatever our vocation. Just as with the success of many of the other extraordinary people we interviewed for our book, much of Linney’s success is due to her determined focus on what really matters. Linney who has been described by the New York Times as “an actress of peerless emotional transparency, capable of conveying a multitude of conflicting feelings through minimal means” didn’t become that by being preoccupied with her Q Score, number of Twitter followers or next glamorous magazine cover. She told us,
“If it’s not about the story, it’s no fun. When people come up to me and say, ‘You’re so brave, letting yourself look that way,’ I think, ‘Well, what was I supposed to do when I was playing Abigail Adams who had rotten teeth?’”