Laura Linney: A student like you

by Madeline Smith

"I still wish I was in school," said stage and screen actor Laura Linney, who was speaking with American Repertory Theater Institute students Thursday, Oct. 6 at Harvard's New College Theatre. "In some ways, I still am."

Linney visited Harvard this week through the OFA Learning from Performers program. She first spoke in an intimate setting to A.R.T. acting students, then more publicly at a Q&A in the NCT studio.

The honesty and clarity with which Linney reflected on her own experiences to a group of new and eager actors set an open and informal tone for the afternoon. She spoke with utmost humility, despite her wide acclaim and stacked résumé. You may know Linney from her screen credits, which include Love Actually, The Truman Show, and the new Showtime hit The Big C, which she also produces. But Linney is personable and easy to relate to -- full of passion for her craft and laughter for its quirks and idiosyncrasies.

The daughter of a playwright, Linney recalled tagging along to rehearsals and feeling most at home in a theater from a young age. She could not point to a time when she chose to lead an artistic life: "I didn’t decide … it was something I was." However, it was not the prospect of the limelight that allured the young artist. "I could have been in the box office. I could have been stage managing. I could have been hanging lights," Linney said. The community of theater is what she found irresistible.

Linney looks back fondly on her academic career, during which she spent time at Northwestern, Brown and Julliard. Despite her affinity for the cloistered and focused environment of academia, her time as a student included periods of serious struggle and self-doubt. Admission to Julliard, which she claims happened only "by the grace of God," dropped her into a very intense environment, which she seriously considered leaving to run away to Africa and work at an orphanage. But Linney endured, emerging with the conviction that "commitment is when you don’t abandon yourself during the tough times."

Among Linney's most striking qualities is her artistic versatility. She fielded several questions on Thursday about her frequent and seamless transitions among stage, film and TV. Linney laughed: "It's like Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole, like, 'Where am I now?'" Finding her personal strengths and weaknesses in a variety of media has been invaluable to Linney. She seizes each opportunity as a chance to grow.

The balance between artistic pursuits and "real life" was a prevalent theme of Linney's talk. When asked about how to find an artistic summer job, Linney encouraged students to consider disassociating themselves from the artistic world and take a well-deserved break. "You're in a bubble," she said, reflecting on the intensity of her own experience as a student. "It's the best bubble, but it's a bubble." Linney stressed the importance of finding human connection, recommending travel, volunteerism and cooking.

In the vein of human connection, Linney's talk highlighted the interpersonal skills needed in the artistic world. At every step in the process -- from audition to rehearsal to reviews -- Linney has learned you must "strap on your sense of humor and your kindness for other people."

And Linney's kindness truly shone through. Her anecdotes and reflections demonstrated her ability to learn from every experience and to genuinely embrace hardships as new opportunities. She encouraged and inspired the students to press on: "Unless you fail, fail, fail," said Linney, "you don't really begin."

[Caption: Laura Linney at Harvard, October 6.]

[Caption: Laura Linney chats with students after her talk at Harvard. ]

[Caption: Learning From Performers director Thomas Lee interviews Laura Linney at the New College Theatre (photo by Jacob Belcher).]