One of the best actresses of her generation, Laura Linney has a knack for making cool, even somewhat icy characters seem sympathetic. Her latest is Mrs. Munro, the beleaguered housekeeper to Ian McKellen’s Sherlock Holmes in Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes. In the film, an elegiac tale about the detective toward the end of his life, Holmes struggles with the steady disintegration of his magnificent memory and tries to put his emotional affairs in order, finding unexpected inspiration in a friendship with Mrs. Munro’s precocious son, Roger, played by Milo Parker. Meanwhile, her pained absorption of his high-handed, unintentionally rude treatment helps trigger a primal memory that haunts Holmes for reasons he struggles to understand, giving him one last mystery to solve.
Linney and I spoke at the Crosby Hotel two weeks ago, the day the Supreme Court handed down its decision in favor of gay marriage. Although that landmark decision never explicitly came up in our conversation, Linney ended the interview with a cheery “Enjoy this wonderful day, this historic day!” In person as in her work, she seems at once emotionally transparent and guarded. She answered every question promptly and emphatically, yet often revealed very little, while leaving no doubt that there was a lot going on behind those observant, intelligent eyes.
You often talk about how much you loved being in school. What did you love about it?
I loved the process of learning and changing—of walking into a room and leaving it a different person by whatever you’ve absorbed in the process. I find learning inspiring. I find teachers inspiring, great teachers. And I find classmates inspiring. And the connection that you can have when you’re in a group of people who are all learning something together. It’s life, to me.
It sounds like that could all translate pretty seamlessly to acting, substituting a movie or play for a classroom and the other actors and crew for your classmates.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s all about connection. And it’s fantastic when your mind opens up in a way that you don’t expect it to, when knowledge drops in and there’s illumination about something. It’s what I love about getting older. It’s sort of like a Chinese puzzle: You work and work and work and work and you get to a certain level and then something unlocks and you’re right back to the beginning again. And you work and you work and you work and you work and something else unlocks. It’s endlessly fascinating, and you always feel like a beginner—and that’s not a bad place to be, where you feel the excitement of a future.
In an interview with your father, you talked about how you loved learning how movies worked when you were in your first one, spending hours with every department to find out how they did things. More recently, you were a producer on The Big C. Are you moving in the direction of producing?
No. I mean, I love it. And I have a mind that adapts itself really well to production, only because I’ve been on set for so long that I understand when a set works well and when it doesn’t work well, what an actor needs to better a performance, what a crew needs to feel energized and involved, the simple decisions during the day that can help or hurt a production. That just comes naturally to me, and I enjoy being able to help a production along in that way. To make a day easier and more fun and more productive is a satisfying thing, because it can be hard. But I really enjoy the process of acting and I still hope to get better at it.
How do you think you get better at it?
By doing it. And by working with good people.
Speaking of, is this the first time you’ve worked with Ian McKellen?
It is. I’ve known Ian for a long time. We’ve been kind of fond acquaintances, because we have Armistead Maupin in common.
You were in Tales of the City, but what’s his connection to Armistead Maupin?
They’re just very, very close. I think they’re best friends. And he was in the first one [Tales of the City]. I think it was a cameo. So there was a connection there because of our mutual adoration of Armistead. And, also, Bill Condon, who I’d worked with before, adores Ian. So here are two men who I admire and love who both adore Ian, so he must be terrific. And now I have the privilege of being able to claim him as my own, my own friend. And he is terrific, and he is wonderful.
What was the accent you were doing?
It was a Sussex accent. It took the production a while to decide which accent they wanted. They landed, finally, on this one. And then Milo and I worked with a terrific dialogue coach. It’s a different kind of sound, a softer sound. Sort of a modest sound. So I just followed direction there.
When you’re acting in an accent, is that more difficult for you? Is it harder to improvise, for instance?
No. Once you know it, you know it. It’s not just the sound; it’s the phrasing. It’s the emphasis on one word rather than the other.
Your father was a playwright. Did he give you good advice about acting?
Sure. All the time.
Can you give me an example?
Yeah. I might start to cry. I miss him a lot. He always said if you’re relaxed, then you can be precise. If you’re precise, then you can be fierce. For me, being relaxed has a lot to do with preparation. The more prepared I am, the more relaxed I am.
It was about figuring out, first, how she fits within the narrative of the story. This is something you always want to figure out, and this is where it was helpful having a playwright for a father. To figure out the function of the character for the telling of the story. What’s my main responsibility for that? So every decision I make will help move the story forward in some way. And then, underneath all that, infusing in a way the marrow of the character’s given circumstances. Where is she from? Who is she? What’s happening? In this case, it was a war widow whose life has been turned upside down, who’s lost her husband, who has a small child, who’s trying to survive, who’s confused and disoriented and sad and feeling the affection of her son kind of slip away.
What did you see as her role in the story?
I think the main relationship is Sherlock Holmes and the young boy, Milo. And [my character is] sort of in between the two of them, so I create both an obstacle and a challenge. She’s someone who could care less that this is a famous detective. She doesn’t care. She’s not impressed. And because this is a movie about the more human side of Sherlock Holmes, that helps as well.
And also, his inadvertently cruel behavior toward her is one of the things that makes him kind of rethink—
Yeah, yeah! The choices that he makes about people, particularly in regard to women. You don’t see Sherlock Holmes interact with a lot of women. Mrs. Hudson, yes, but he doesn’t really have to deal with women.
What made you decide to take this role?
It was a combination of things. It was Bill. It was Sherlock Holmes. It was Ian. But, really, it was Bill.
You were talking in one of your interviews about actually having a fear of cameras.
What do you think that was about, and how did you get over it?
I don’t know what it was about. I just found it unnatural. I think when you’re from the theater, the last thing you should be thinking about is what you look like. Cameras have always made me uncomfortable. They still do. And you just get over it. You just figure out a way to befriend that weird-looking thing that’s intrusive and in the way. You sort of embrace the challenge and the fun of technically what’s demanded: acting for different lens sizes, helping a camera crew when they’re moving a camera around a tight space, being off camera for another actor. That stuff is really fun.
You’ve also talked about not wanting to impose your own personal pain or personal experience onto the characters you play, which sounds so anti-Method.
I don’t know if it’s anti-Method. I think it’s what the Method turned into. I think it’s what became the American Stanislavsky method. But I think it’s always story first. You can have an affinity for a character or understand them because of your own experience, but that doesn’t mean you have to impose your experience onto the character’s. It works in some situations, and it works for many actors. It does. I just don’t have much fun when I do that.
Does it distract you from the role you’re playing?
No. It’s just I’ve had that feeling before. And it’s my feeling; it’s not the character’s feeling. It’s not going to be knitted to the story or that character. It doesn’t really belong there. Besides, some of it will find its way in there anyway, whether I want it to or not.