Laura Linney: 'I had always dreamed of being able to say I'm tired because I have a child so I'm grateful'
Laura Linney is returning to the role that made her, Tales of the City's Mary Ann. She tells Susannah Butter about the joy of becoming a mother at 49
Laura Linney has only been in London for 24 hours but that's enough time for her to have been recognised multiple times for her role as the dutiful Sarah in Love Actually. "That is the big one," says the actor with a resigned smile. "I'm just happy people don't see me and turn to walk in the opposite direction." Does she ever watch Love Actually? "It's hard to turn it off if you see it on TV because it's such a sweet movie. I was just happy as could be working with that group of people."
There's an old-fashioned charm to Linney's turn of phrase. She's well-informed, interrogative and thoughtful. A blanket-sized purple scarf engulfs her shoulders and she wears a coral cord jumpsuit, which she says is "a little bright but I love it", silver earrings jangling. We've met at Soho House White City because it's on her way to the airport - after our interview Linney is flying home to New York. She was in London for one night only, to see her friend Dame Maggie Smith in A German Life at the Bridge Theatre, and finds this city "a relief". Smith is "formidable, funny, smart - she's setting a standard that is worth chasing after." Linney spent last summer at the Bridge, starring in My Name is Lucy Barton. Her performance in the one-woman show earned her a place on the shortlist for best actress at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards.
Today, Linney is on a high because she's been with Armistead Maupin, the 75-year-old author of Tales of the City, who has left San Francisco for Clapham. The city that inspired his novels has been taken over by Silicon Valley, he says, and he wanted a new adventure. He and Linney have been friends since she made her name in the 1993 TV adaptation of Tales as naive secretary Mary Ann Singleton. She originally auditioned for another part but is coy about which one, only saying she hadn't read the book and was "ignorant".
Now Mary Ann is back in a Netflix reprise. "I always hoped to return to Tales in some form," says Linney, who as co-producer was responsible for corralling the old gang back together.
The original show adapted Maupin's bestselling novels, following a group of characters thrown together in a San Francisco house-share under the watchful eye of landlady Anna Madrigal. Tales was ahead of its time, with trans characters and different sexualities; defiantly different to anything that had gone before - the first time a generation had seen themselves reflected on television. "A lot has changed since then and a lot has stayed the same," says Linney philosophically. "The old and new generations can learn from each other."
This series begins with Mary Ann returning to present-day Barbary Lane after 20 years living in Connecticut. She's come for Anna Madrigal's birthday party. All the old faces are there, including her ex-husband Brian (Paul Gross), who resents her and now runs a gardening shop called Plant Parenthood. There are new characters and Michael is now played by Murray Bartlett. This series has a plot about a couple adjusting to the man transitioning.
"The best thing about now is that those writers can tell their own story," explains Linney. "Our writers' room was all LGBTQ, as were our directors. That could not, would not, have happened in 1993. What has not changed though is that there are still people who are not accepted and feel isolated." She elaborates, widening out from the trans debate. "We're in an uncomfortable time where people don't know how to talk about anything and they are afraid - so they become reactionary. Some opinions are just based on unconscious ignorance. We are evolving but it's brutal."
Shows like Tales can ease the load, she hopes. "It sends people a message that they are not alone, life has much to offer and there are people for them, family, they just have to find them." Netflix gives it a broad reach, to areas where, Linney says "the LGBT community is not accepted ... so Tales serves many functions - it's entertaining, fun and it has the purpose great art does, which is to connect people".
What was it like returning to Mary Ann? "She represents the feeling that everyone has on the first day of school," says Linney, who insists she isn't like her character. "You're in a new place, it is exciting; you don't know the rules. You have to learn on the fly and that's awkward and can be embarrassing and liberating and wonderful. The misconception I can speak to about Mary Ann is people think she is innocent and square. She is but she's not dumb."
Linney is 55, which she says makes her exempt from pressure to look a certain way. "I've never (felt a need to conform) but I also know that I fall into a very unique, weird little place, I'm not one way or the other so I've been able to avoid a lot of that." She is sleep-deprived but happily so, because it's her five-year-old son Bennett waking her up early. His middle name is Armistead, in tribute to "the fiercely intelligent, amazing" Maupin.
Linney had Bennett after years of trying to conceive. "That's just the way life is," she says. "It's been a wonderful gift that I am so grateful for. Sure, it's exhausting like it is for everybody but I had always dreamed of being able to say I'm tired because I have a child so I'm grateful."
She nearly turned down her Netflix series Ozark because she didn't want to be away from home for long stretches of time but the producers were supportive and agreed to give her four days off in every seven. Her husband, Marc, is an estate agent, and they met at the 2004 Telluride Film Festival. "I'm sure (childcare) would be harder if Marc was an actor as well," she says. "I'm lucky he is willing to be there. There are times I wish I could be with my child all the time, but I'm lucky."
Bennett "likes to tag along to the theatre and run around". His favourite TV show is CBeebies' Sarah and Duck. "I love it too," says Linney, proud of her son's taste. "He's also into Spider-Man - I don't know how he found that." To escape, she reads cookbooks. Not to cook, "that doesn't come naturally to me" but for entertainment. "I read them like novels and am going through a pastry phase. I'm deep into Brave Tart by Stella Parks."
There is much still to be done to make her industry equal. "Times Up has moved us forward an inch but there is still more to do," she says. Like what? She gives a long, dry laugh. "That's like a thesis paper. The world is a little upside-down and there's always a push and pull between what is good for art and what is good for commerce. What helps one might not help the other. This gets into stuff people won't want to hear."
Has she ever asked to be paid the same as a male co-star? "Oh sure. We all have to bring up pay equity. Of course it (takes courage). You get to a point where you just have to stand up for what you believe in." She fixes me with her blue eyes. "It's not about me, it's about your generation and the people after."
The only time Linney loses her Zen is when I ask if the finale of Game of Thrones lived up to her expectations. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to make a show like that?" she scolds. "I marvel at it from a production standpoint. It is an unbelievable feat so I just cheer them on. It's amazing to see film and TV merging as far as cinematic scope and production values."
So will there be a sequel to this Tales? "One hopes," she says. "You never know."
- Tales of the City launches is on Netflix now