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The Sunday Conversation: Laura Linney

Laura Linney plays divergent characters in the upcoming films “The Details” and “Hyde Park on Hudson.” Her Showtime series “The Big C” is entering its final season.
(Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times)

Laura Linney takes an uncharacteristically outrageous turn as a wacky neighbor in the dark comedy “The Details,” available on video on demand and in theaters Nov. 2. Also coming up for Linney is “Hyde Park on Hudson,” opening Dec. 7, in which she plays Margaret Suckley, FDR’s distant cousin and close companion. She talked to us from Connecticut, where she is filming the fourth and last season of Showtime’s “The Big C.”

Let’s start with “The Details.” You’ve had a really eclectic career, but none of your roles is quite as out there as Lila, the nutty neighbor. What inspired your interpretation of Lila?

With everything, at least for me, it always tends to come from the script. And it was interesting because originally the role was conceived in a very different way. My brain just sort of turned on and went crazy as I was reading it for the first time, and it was just one of those things that just came to me.

How was your interpretation different from the original concept?

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She was a little more of an agoraphobe, and that showed more in her demeanor. As opposed to someone who was active in her loneliness, she was someone who was inactive in her loneliness. She had tremendous connections to her pets and any living thing and to the world she created in her own mind to what she wore to the hours that she would spend on her hair. And as she falls for Tobey [Maguire, who plays her neighbor] more and more, I had the sense that she would spend hours on her hair, so that if he saw her, it would look a certain crazy, crazy way.

Those were quite interesting hairdos.

We found very specific reference photos.

Like for the poufy pigtails?

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There’s a little yellow brick road there; it’s a little Judy Garland, when she’s walking down the road at the end with the little dog. There’s a little Raquel Welch there, when the hair is wilder and unkempt. The sort of ‘60s pin-up girl. And I wanted a really hungry sexuality underneath, really someone who was ravenous — ravenous for attention and sexuality.

I know you had a run on “Frazier” as his girlfriend, but why do you think you haven’t done more comedy?

I don’t know. “The Big C” is classified as a comedy. It has an undertow to it that’s deeper. But with comedy I find you have to be very, very specific. And a lot of things that are written comedically are not specific, and it’s hard to find material and people who will allow you to do that sort of work. So I don’t know, but I love Lila. I so hope that people see it because I think it’s so cuckoo. And fun. I just loved playing her, I really did.

You play Margaret Suckley, who was FDR’s distant cousin. What kind of research did you do and what did you learn about that period?

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Margaret Suckley was FDR’s fifth cousin. She lived in Rhinebeck, N.Y., very close to Hyde Park. She lived to be 100 years old. When she died in the house that she lived in her entire life, under her bed they found in a small black suitcase, letters, the correspondence between her and FDR. Those letters have been published, as has her diary. Her home is a museum. She willed it to a trust before she died. I contacted them and they were incredibly gracious about letting me snoop through that house, and it was in her bedroom, which is not open to the public at the moment, but they let me go in there, and that’s really where I found a lot of stuff.

Just to see what she surrounded herself by. The books that were on her bookshelf, the fact that every morning she woke up to a very large lithograph of FDR right across from her bed. And next to the lithograph was a glass vitrine full of little knickknacks that he had bought for her from around the world. And then there are also pictures of Scottie dogs all over the place, because she’s the one who gave him Fala. That hit me harder than any bit of research I could have found. She was a photographer. That said a lot to me. The only two photographs that exist of FDR in a wheelchair, she took. It’s also my grandmother’s generation, so people spoke in a very different way. There’s a sweet nostalgia for that time, which is fun to poke your nose into.

Is it generally accepted that they had an affair or do historians differ on that?

It is very much up to interpretation. What is not up to interpretation as far as I’m concerned is the dedication and the love they had for each other, that they were important to each other.

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I think it is not farfetched if you read the letters and the diaries and you see her home and you know that certain letters were destroyed, certain sections of the diary were pulled out.

As much as I loved Lila’s craziness and her hunger for attention, Margaret Suckley was the exact opposite. She needed no attention. She didn’t need to be acknowledged. Until she died, no one knew how close they were, and she was perfectly fine with that.

Bill Murray, who plays FDR, has a reputation of being a brilliant eccentric. What was he like to work with?

He’s a brilliant eccentric in the best sense of the word, he’s absolutely that. But he took this role very seriously; he worked very hard. You don’t really know what’s going to happen with Bill, in the best way. We filmed a lot of the scenes in cars. He would just take off in the car with me every once in a while. I’d look behind me and there’d be an AD [assistant director] waving their arms frantically, come back! We’d just go on a joy ride in these beautiful meadows in London. It was fantastic.

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I wanted to ask you about your mom, Miriam Perse, who was a nurse at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. What was it like growing up with a mother whose professional life revolved around cancer, and what did you learn from that experience that you were able to use on “The Big C”?

I was very aware of cancer from a very early age because my mother worked 12-hour shifts at Memorial Sloan-Kettering for much of my very young childhood years. And seared in my memory is her dressed very much in the way I was dressed in “The Truman Show,” actually — it was in the ‘60s, and there were the stockings and the white shoes and the little hat. She really looked like an angel to me. And she would become very close to the families she was working with, and sometimes people would get better and sometimes she would come home and burst into tears because someone had passed. I became close to the families as well.

So I learned a lot about how no one is entitled to a long life. I mean, you hope for it, but it’s not a given. And it affects the entire family. And it affects the people working with you in hospitals, and it’s never far away. That someone going through a struggle, a real struggle, is not far away, no matter where you are or who you’re talking to, if it’s not right in front of you, it’s one step away. It’s always made me very aware that I never know what someone’s going through, so I tend to give a lot of people the benefit of the doubt.

You recently attended a ceremony for your late playwright dad, Romulus Linney, at Appalachian State University, where he left his papers. How was that ceremony for you, and how did he influence you as an actor?

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My father very much wanted his archive to go to Appalachian. My family has deep roots there. Linney Street is in Boone, N.C., which is where the school is. And my father was Romulus Zachariah Linney the fourth and Romulus Zachariah Linney the second, third and first were all there at one point, if not living there full time.

The people at Appalachian were terrific to my family, and we had a great weekend, but it was very, very emotional for everybody. You know, it’s wild to walk into a room and see all of your father’s things behind glass — notes that you had written to him as a little girl and photographs of you as a kid, things that were on his desk displayed. But it makes me happy to know that all those things are together in a place he loved.

calendar@latimes.com


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