Laura Linney not staying neutral about 'Switzerland' at Geffen Playhouse

Laura Linney happy to play Patricia Highsmith because 'I was looking for something that scared me'

Laura Linney paused for a moment before delivering a blunt assessment of her latest role, author Patricia Highsmith: "It's going to kick my butt."

The three-time Academy Award-nominated actress wasn't complaining or admitting to premature defeat. If anything, her words conveyed the realistic determination of a seasoned athlete eager to get back to work following a period of rest.

"It's hard. It's a full-body commitment," said Linney, who is returning to the theater after a four-year absence. "You are physically tired. Your body is sore."

A good kind of sore, no doubt. Linney is starring in "Switzerland," by Joanna Murray-Smith, a two-person drama opening Friday at the Geffen Playhouse, in which she is on stage for virtually all of the play's approximate 95-minute, intermission-less running time.

The play picks up when Highsmith, the author of the Tom Ripley suspense novels, is near the end of her life, holed up in expatriate isolation in the Swiss Alps. A visit from a young American man (played by Seth Numrich) sets this compact but twisty psychological drama in motion.

Linney's awards mantel may be filled with statuettes for such television work as her four-season run as Cathy Jamison on Showtime's "The Big C," but she has always been a creature of the stage — a New York-born, Juilliard-trained theatrical thoroughbred who admits to getting a high from stepping into a rehearsal room.

In a recent interview at the Geffen, Linney was talkative and upbeat despite having arrived from New York at 3 that morning. She said her flight made an unexpected stop in Las Vegas to refuel but had to return to the gate when the cockpit windshield shattered.

She ended up traveling by car from Vegas to L.A. with director Richard Curtis and actress Jennifer Ehle, who also happened to be on the flight.

Linney nursed a Thermos of tea as she spoke, frequently pausing to find the right words and sometimes bursting into laughter. One point that tickled her was that "Switzerland" marks this first time that she has done theater in L.A.

"There's something sort of exotic about it," said the actress, who has appeared numerous times on Broadway.

Linney recalled that the offer to play Highsmith came in an email in January from Murray-Smith, whom the actress had known for years since appearing in her drama "Honour" in New York in 1998.

"I was a little hungry for something complicated. I was looking for something that scared me," Linney said.

On the screen, Linney has played her share of icy characters — her roles in "Mystic River" and "The Truman Show" come to mind — but few test the boundaries of empathy like Highsmith, who by many accounts was a borderline sociopath.

"Switzerland" depicts the novelist engaging in cruel mind games with her young guest while lobbing long-distance insults to her stateside publishers.

On top of that, "she was hideously racist," said Linney. "An ugly racist. A smart, ugly racist. An aggressive, smart, ugly racist." But, she added, the novelist retained "some gentleness deep in there."

The actress said she found the opportunity to play such a complex person exciting but turned down the role because it would involve uprooting her family on the East Coast.

But when the Geffen offered to hold rehearsals in New York, she changed her mind. For nearly three weeks, Linney and the production team, including director Mark Brokaw, rehearsed at a rented space in midtown Manhattan.

"Switzerland" features some plot surprises that are best left unrevealed. Reached by phone at her home in Melbourne, Australia, Murray-Smith said her play explores ways in which "writers fall in the love with their own creations."

The playwright said she had been a fan of Highsmith's books since her adolescence and was inspired to write the play after encountering biographies of the author at an L.A. bookstore a few years ago.

"[Highsmith] had a passionate affection for her creation in Ripley," she said. The play was commissioned by the Geffen and had its premiere late last year at the Sydney Theatre Company with different actors.

Linney said that she finds Highsmith to be "endearing in a way that only difficult people can be. There are some very difficult people who make people's lives hard — but I find them endearing."

The actress has first-hand experience living with a famous writer: Her father was celebrated playwright Romulus Linney, who died in 2011. Linney's parents divorced when she was young, but she remained close enough to her father to observe him at work.

"I used to sit outside the door and hear the typing on the electric typewriter," she recalled. "It was like waves crashing on the beach in these bursts of energy, and then he would get up. It's a very active state. It can be sedentary, but the blood is pumping."

Her father encouraged her to accept the role of Elizabeth Proctor in the acclaimed 2002 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," which she counts as a highlight of her stage career and for which she received the first of three Tony Award nominations.

"I'm ashamed to say how I really didn't understand what a masterpiece it was. I think I had seen so many bad high school productions of that play I was like, 'Do I really want to do it?' " Linney recalled.

Her last stage role was in 2011 in Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still," in which she played a war photographer readjusting to civilian life.

Since "The Big C" ended two years ago, the actress has devoted a lot of time to her family. She gave birth at age 49 to a son, who recently turned 1. "I was fortunate enough to get pregnant, and to carry it to term," she said. (Her son and husband were expected to join her shortly in L.A.)

She recently wrapped two movies expected to be released later this year — "Genius," about literary editor Maxwell Perkins, and "Mr. Holmes," a take on Sherlock Holmes that reunited her with director Bill Condon, with whom she worked on the movie "Kinsey" and other screen projects.

In "Switzerland," the actress costars with Numrich, who plays the ambiguous visitor from the U.S. The young actor said he has never worked with Linney but met her several years ago when he was a student at Juilliard and interviewed her for a school publication.

"I prepared before the interview, but I ran out of questions after 15 minutes," he recalled. "But she was so generous — she helped me along and kept talking."

There are no announced plans to take "Switzerland" to New York or beyond. Linney said that she is focusing on making the play work in L.A. and even said her stay began fortuitously, the nightmare flight aside.

Upon checking into her temporary housing, she found a snail — an animal that obsessed Highsmith, who kept them as pets. Linney said, "I took that as a good sign." 

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'Switzerland'

Where: The Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles

When: Preview performances through Thursday; opening Friday and running through April 19

Prices: Vary by performance

Info: (310) 208-5454 or http://www.geffenplayhouse.com

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