Fresh off a Tony-nominated Broadway run in The Little Foxes, formidable talent (and former Northwestern undergrad) Laura Linney makes a thrilling return to TV in the new Netflix drama Ozark.
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With four Emmys, four Tony nods, and three Academy Award nominations for projects ranging from Tales of the City to The Big C and John Adams, Laura Linney is one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation. The New York native and Juilliard grad still pushes herself like few others in the business—as in her just-wrapped turn in Lillian Hellman’s stage classic The Little Foxes, where she and costar Cynthia Nixon drew rapturous reviews for swapping leading roles each night. Now it’s back to TV for drama of a different sort: the just-released Netflix original series Ozark, where the 53-year-old costars with series creator Jason Bateman as a husband and wife on the run from a drug cartel. As Linney—who has considered Chicago a second home since marrying Hinsdale native Marc Schauer in 2009—prepared for the series premiere, she chatted with Michigan Avenue about the fun of working with Bateman, her proudest career moment, and what thrills her about the Windy City.
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You’re in the home stretch of The Little Foxes. How does it feel to be doing your last few shows?
I’m a little in denial about it—if I think about it too much, I get very, very sad. It’s been just a fantastic experience. It’s been hard, and it’s been challenging, and it’s been demanding and frightening, but it’s one of those full-on experiences that you don’t get very often. So I’m going to miss it terribly; I’m going to miss everyone involved.
And next up is Ozark—a very different kind of role. What drew you to it?
It was all about Jason Bateman. I’ve known him over the years, but as an acquaintance. I’ve always liked him. I’ve always been fascinated by his talent and how he lives his life, and just sort of all things Bateman. [laughs] So when he asked me to do this, I wasn’t looking to do television, but I wanted to work with him. And because this is really so much his project, and he’s so dedicated to it and so invested in it, I thought that would be a good way to spend my time.
It’s not the most obvious onscreen pairing—you’re known for your dramatic expertise and he’s a comedy pro. What was it like to join forces?
It was no surprise to me that he’s such a great dramatic actor, which he really is. If you are that grounded of a comic—if your comedy comes so much from situation, and its sort of interior timing—there’s a lot there. We had a great time. I find that most comics are more serious, and most serious actors are more comic. There’s a sort of undertow of the other that we have—the opposite undertow.
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What excites you about the project?
It has its own sort of tone. There’s been a lot of comparison to Breaking Bad, which is such a fantastic show, but it really does have its own tone. It’s mysterious and it’s dark, and it’s murky. I hope people like it as much as I do.
Netflix also just announced the development of a revival of Tales of the City.
That was such a big break for you early on, and so many people are passionate about it. How do you feel about reentering that world? It’s going to be wonderful, and I’m very very curious to see what they all come up with. And you know it’s not official official; we’ll see if it makes it to the next phase. I hope so.
I told a friend yesterday that I was interviewing you, and he said, “She will always be Mary Ann to me.”
Oh, I just love it when people say that.
How does it feel knowing that role has had such an impact on people?
Tales is, with its enormous heart and its humor and its sort of magical quality, a politically important piece of entertainment. It was necessary at the time; it’s still necessary, I feel. It’s one of those pieces of entertainment that helped our culture, and means a lot to a lot of people. I’m always so proud when anybody mentions it. My son’s middle name is Armistead for a reason!
You’ve made incredibly smart choices in your career. What do you look for in a project?
Well, thank you. I try. There are always things that don’t work. The things that have turned out really well, you have such little control over it that some of it is sniffing out just to see if the right elements are involved. Is there potential for something good happening? Sometimes there’s no reason for it to be good, and it just turns out [that way]. A lot of it is script. What’s the potential of the story? Is it actable? Because a lot of things are not actable. I’ve said this a lot—you get the scripts and they’re not written to be acted, they’re not written to be turned into a piece of entertainment or a piece of art. They’re meant to be greenlit. They’re not written thinking about the actual performance aspect or the production side of it. So I really look to see what’s there, and I can always tell when I’m reading a script if my actor brain is turned on, if I start working on a project before I finish reading the script—if I can’t help myself, then I know I have to pay attention to it. And then of course the people involved, because even if you have a great script and then you have people who you don’t see eye to eye [with] or you’re just not going to get along, that’s just not fun anymore at my age!
You’re one of the few actors who have moved very fluidly between television, film, and stage. Which is your greatest passion?
It used to always be stage, because I grew up in the theater and I studied the theater, and film and television were the big surprise for me. But the more I do film and television, the more I enjoy it, because they are very separate—your preparation is different and the execution is different. If I was forced to choose— and I’m very glad I don’t have to—it would be stage, just because I’ve been doing it the longest, and it’s ultimately where I’m the most comfortable.
What’s been the proudest moment of your career so far?
Getting into Juilliard. More than anything, that was the most important thing, as opposed to any job. I could point to five or six jobs that were important and I grew and I was recognized for the work and all of that. But really, at the end of the day, the most important thing that has happened to me was getting into Juilliard.
You’ve maintained a close connection to Juilliard.
I gave a commencement speech a few years ago, and then I was asked to join the board of the school. So I’m a trustee there, and I try to stick my head in the drama department as much as I can whenever I have the time. I love being involved there. I love the faculty. I love the students. It’s a place where my concentration sort of works on a different level. And it’s an excellent reminder for me about the core of our work and why we do it.
"OZARK HAS ITS OWN SORT OF TONE. IT'S MYSTERIOUS AND DARK, AND IT'S MURKY. I HOPE PEOPLE LIKE IT AS MUCH AS I DO."
Let’s talk about your connection to Chicago.
I went to Northwestern for my freshman year, and I liked the school a lot, but it ultimately wasn’t the place for me. And I didn’t really get into Chicago, into the city, a whole lot. So I didn’t really get to know it. And then I met my husband, who grew up in Hinsdale, and his family. His sister now lives in Oak Park, and his parents are right in the city next to the lake. Now I go there quite often. I’m actually headed there next week. And I love it. It’s just a great city. So I love that I have a sort of second home in another city. Having grown up in New York and being so New York-centric, to now have a solid connection to another American city the way that I do to Chicago is just fun. I love the architecture, I love Millennium Park—I love the size of Chicago. Everything’s big: The weather is big, the buildings, the streets, the lake. It’s just big, and it’s bold, and it’s solid. Those buildings—the huge buildings that take up blocks of space—it sort of represents an abundance of this American energy that I really love, while at the same time feeling intimate. And because of the lake, and the lake effect, there’s always a sense of circulation going on there. Whether it’s the wind or just the movement of water back and forth, it’s constantly percolating.
Are there any particular places that you and your family love to go?
Al’s Beef and Johnnie’s in Oak Park.
That’s the first [thing] that is attended to whenever we get into Chicago. My husband insists on that being the first meal.
Are you an Italian beef person or more of a hot dog person?
I’m a full-on opportunity person. I will do it all. But it’s really good. And the pizzas are amazing. Being a New Yorker, New York pizza is New York pizza. But Chicago pizza is carving out a big place in my heart at the moment, I must say.
Obviously Chicago’s theater scene is very robust as well. Can you imagine yourself taking the stage here?
Oh, sure. Some of the best theater in the country is in Chicago, with the Goodman and Steppenwolf, and all the young companies like the Hypocrites. There’s a lot of exciting work happening there, and the playwrights that are there. So absolutely.
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You have a 3-year-old, Bennett. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve experienced with motherhood?
I think it was just how ready for it I was. You know, I had a child very late in life. It was something I didn’t think was going to happen and then when it did, there’s an extreme sense of gratitude that comes with that—when it almost passes you by and then doesn’t. So I have loved every second of it and continue to, and I’m constantly amazed and delighted and challenged by all of it—even in the moments that people complain about. When Bennett was an infant and I was up with him at 4:30 in the morning and sleep-deprived and all of that, I can remember sitting with him and just having this overwhelming sense of, I’ve wanted to be right here for 20 years, and all of a sudden here I am. The benefit of being an older parent is everyone sort of says, ‘Oh, your life is going to change,’ and I was very ready for my life to change. And they’re just fun—or at least I find being around my child a lot of fun. And it’s challenging. You have the moments where you think, ‘How do I deal with this? How in the world do I deal with a toddler who doesn’t want to do what I want him to do?’ You know, how do you help a human being navigate through the minefield of emotions when they’re first really experiencing them, without being too overbearing? What’s the balance? What’s the right level of involvement as far as helping someone discover all that and then learning how to navigate themselves through it? [It’s] big, important stuff, but I’m having a great time.
With all the acclaim you’ve received over the years, what do you feel is left for you? What are your goals?
My thinking is not as specific as that. I wish it was. It would make a lot of people very happy if I could point to things and say, ‘I want to do that!’ I just want to be better at what I do, and I want to keep learning. And I want to be stretched and do things that scare me a little bit, and experience the work that all these wonderful playwrights over the decades and centuries have done. You just want to contribute. The arts are important, and it’s worthy of our time to champion [them]. I just feel like there’s so much more to discover.
Are there any talents out there that you really admire and could see collaborating with?
There are tons and tons. I hope at one point I get to work with Maggie Smith in some sort of capacity. Or Judi Dench.
If you weren’t an actor, what do you think you’d be doing?
God only knows. I have no idea. I hope I’d be okay [laughs], but I really don’t know if I would be. I am just so grateful I am right where I should be. And I know a lot of people never get to that place, so I certainly don’t take that for granted, ever.
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