Laura Linney: The SAG-AFTRA Strike Is ‘Not Just About Actors That People See and Know’

[Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike began on July 14, 2023.]

Laura Linney may miss the chaos of playing crime matriarch Wendy Byrde on Netflix’s “Ozark,” but her latest movie finds her yearning for the past in a decidedly less dark direction. In Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s 1960s-set Irish drama “The Miracle Club” (out now in theaters from Sony Pictures Classics), the four-time Emmy winner and three-time Oscar nominee plays Chrissie, an American woman on a prize-won trip to Lourdes with her estranged Irish friends (played by the likes of Kathy Bates and Maggie Smith). It’s a jaunty, frothy, deceptively light comedy about faith and friendship that could not be further from “Ozark”

But, as Linney explained in a relaxed chat with IndieWire over Zoom, the longtime New Yorker saw the script before the pandemic and long before she flew to Ireland to shoot the movie on location. So she wasn’t deliberately setting out to subvert the darkness of “Ozark,” an experience she likened to falling into “a big pot of honey” because of the healthy collaborations she enjoyed on set — and, of course, four Emmy nominations and billions of hours streamed never hurt, either.

Fran Drescher and Duncan Crabtree-Ireland joins SAG-AFTRA and WGA Members and Supporters as they walk the picket line in support of the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strike at the Warner Bros. Studio on July 14, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.

Mark Ruffalo at 2023 Tribeca

Yet Linney is not calculating about her career the way such successes might suggest. She most recently starred on the Broadway two-woman-show “Summer, 1976” opposite Tony nominee Jessica Hecht as a free-spirited artist who befriends a less cosmopolitan housewife over a summer in Ohio. Linney is a self-identified “theater nerd” who obsessively cares about actors and their craft, so it was no surprise to see her name on a list of high-profile signatories earlier this month imploring top SAG-AFTRA brass to step up their game with AMPTP negotiations. That turned out to be effective, as Fran Drescher gave a rousing speech declaring the SAG-AFTRA work stoppage that has united much of working-class, as well as a more elite, Hollywood.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

IndieWire: “The Miracle Club” is deceptively lighter than something like “Ozark,” where you play the Lady Macbeth-like matriarch of a crime empire in Missouri?

Laura Linney: I saw the original script before the pandemic, so we were all set to go and then the pandemic happened, and then it was pushed. We filmed it last summer, last July. I wasn’t thinking of doing anything opposite because you can read something and think you have a sense of the tone of it, and who this character is, but you get there and start working and it turns into something you didn’t expect. You don’t really know what flavor it’s going to take, so it wasn’t in reaction to “Ozark,” but the fact that Maggie Smith and Kathy Bates were in it was a pretty big draw.

What is your way of working when you’re given a script and into production?

I tend to let the script tell me how to work on it. Some scripts you approach from one direction, some from another, and you have to be interpretive and diagnostic about what’s the best way to approach this character, this story. For this one, backstory was important. I spent a lot of time thinking about Chrissy’s history and who she was and why she was the way she was, and what she went through, and where she was during the period of time in the past, who she was then and who she is when the movie is actually happening.

Laura Linney and Maggie Smith in The Miracle Club
“The Miracle Club”Sony Pictures Classics

Maggie Smith is someone I’m extremely intimidated by. What was it like orbiting her on set?

Everybody’s intimidated by her. I adore Maggie. I loved being around her, I love being around her. I learned so much from her, and she’s a creature of the theater, and she has a diamond-like actor brain. She can see through a story and understand the narrative and what is required better than anyone I’ve ever seen. It’s clean, it’s clear, and she’s just piercingly accurate, and she’s able to not only have the ideas she has but then she can execute it. A lot of times people have these great ideas, and they can’t pull it off, and she’s just as sharp in both of those areas as you can be. She’s precise, wildly funny, hilariously funny, and Kathy’s amazing. Kathy learned that accent and she was in that accent the entire time we were there. She was intimidated to do it, and she worked her butt off, she works very, very hard, she spends a lot of time with the material, and she’s accurate as well and precise as well but in a different way. They’re both women who knows what they’re doing.

You handled the “Downton Abbey” introducing narration for Season 3. Did you have any crossover with Maggie Smith during that time?

No, no. We went out to dinner once years ago with a mutual friend, and then I was in London doing a one-woman show called “My Name is Lucy Barton,” and she was in a one-woman show right after me called “The German Life.” We talked a lot during that period of time. She came and saw the play. She was very generous. We kept in touch afterward.

You starred in the play “Summer 1976” that ran this spring on Broadway in New York. Do you see a lot of theater yourself?

I’ll see anything. I mean, I’ll see the things that people say aren’t good. I also find it fascinating to watch something and sort of look at it and be like, why is that not working? What is it, why is that fantastic actor in trouble there? Like, what is it that’s causing that? I just find it interesting.

A few years ago, you told Stephen Colbert you weren’t sure you’d made it as an actor. What does that mean, “making it as an actor”?

I don’t know if it actually exists. It exists for young people who have not entered into the business. I think it exists for people who are very far away from what we do. For me, it’s a lifelong journey, and I’ve never really understood what that meant to make it, to be there, I’m just so thrilled that I get to do it, and I just hope I get better. I also really love it. I’m a theater nerd. I find film fascinating. I love watching how people executive things. I find things that are glorious amazing, things that don’t work fascinating.

Ozark. (L to R) Jason Bateman as Marty Byrde, Laura Linney as Wendy Byrde in Season 4 Part 2 Episode 7 of Ozark. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022
Jason Bateman and Laura Linney in “Ozark”Courtesy of Netflix

I get an unpretentious air from you. Are you someone who’s always actively calculating your next career move, or more go-with-the-flow and letting your minders handle that as long as they’re presenting interesting projects?

There’s the business side of it and then there’s the work. And, um, some people are really great at just the work and not the business. And some people are wonderful at the business, and it doesn’t matter what their work is because they’re so wonderful at the business. It’s an interesting sort of thing to constantly have to deal with. You can’t ignore it. You figure out how much time to put into one so that it doesn’t become a detriment to the other, you know, there has to be, there has to be an appropriate balance.

Do you feel like you’re good at the business aspect of things?

You know, not really. I mean, I should say yes. I make decisions from an educated point of view. I vet people. I don’t make decisions based on career. I make decisions about what to do based on the people involved, the quality of the script, if the director has done anything interesting. Then there’s the practical things of where do I want to be in my life. Can I be away from home for three months? I’m involved in the business that way. I try to be responsible to the business. I do interviews like this. I tried to support the movies I’ve been lucky enough to make. It’s not at the forefront of my mind.

Did the success and ubiquity of “Ozark” change your relationship to the business or open new channels?

It just felt like I landed in a big pot of honey, like I landed on a really good one. I love these people. I love this material, I love who I’m working for, who I’m working with, and that doesn’t happen all the time. I was thrilled to be in a good situation, one that works so well. We all felt good about the work. It was a healthy set. I’m aware that it has bumped up my profile a bit as I walk down the street.

You were among a contingent of SAG-AFTRA members who signed a letter that called out union brass for not making sacrifices the actors were prepared to do themselves.

There are very, very important issues at stake, and I think in the past, we felt that things were not dealt with with the conviction that they should’ve been. We don’t want to see that happen again. There are very important issues on the table that will affect generations of people after us. I can only speak for myself. I hope and assume that the leadership involved in the negotiations are working as hard as they can to make inroads.

I don’t think that letter was calling out to bash anyone anywhere. It was a call to arms for people to know, inside and outside the business — I don’t believe that letter was meant to be leaked anywhere. It was meant to let people know that we are aware of what’s going on and that we view this as an important, serious period of time.

It’s not just issues about the actors that people see and know. It’s issues dealing with people working very hard trying to get a foot in the door. You have to reexamine and rework things every once in a while.  

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