Laura Linney is treading the London boards this month, playing the title character—in fact, the only character—in Rona Munro’s one-woman adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s Booker Prize-longlisted novel My Name is Lucy Barton at the Bridge Theatre. Surprisingly, it’s the first time this theater veteran has appeared on the London stage, and it’s a whole new challenge as she effortlessly commands 90 minutes on stage alone. It reteams her with director Richard Eyre, with whom she last worked on a 2002 revival of The Crucible at the Virginia Theatre in New York. A little over a year ago, she was on the Broadway stage in The Little Foxes alongside Cynthia Nixon, and both plays have received stellar notices.
In between, of course, she shot the upcoming second season of Netflix’s Ozark, alongside Jason Bateman. As Wendy Byrde, Linney plays the family matriarch who is, at turns, afflicted by and complicit in the money laundering criminality of husband Marty (Bateman). From its heart-pounding premiere episode, Ozark has expanded into a show that seems tailor-made for today’s world, examining the darkness of greed and desperation, and the complications of keeping a family above water despite great hardship.
I met with Linney in her dressing room at the Bridge Theatre before a performance of the play last week. The play had been up for a week already, but she confessed to the ongoing nervousness of stepping on stage to deliver 37 pages of monologue each evening. As we said our goodbyes, Linney sighed. “Oh god, I’ve got to go do it all again now!” But if she remains nervous, it doesn’t show in her electrifying performance, which prompted an enthusiastic standing ovation the night I saw it.
We talked about My Name is Lucy Barton and Ozark, and Linney took the time to expound on the experience of working with Jason Bateman, in light of the controversy he found himself embroiled in last month, and the extraordinary contribution he makes to Ozark, as its star, and a producer and director. “What he said was not right, and he knows that,” she told me. “I can only say from my experience that Jason is not anyone who I have ever seen be anything but open and progressive in his views about anybody. I think his apology statement is the person I know.”
In My Name is Lucy Barton, you play a woman remembering the time her mother came to her hospital bedside. Her memories turn on a dime, sometimes joyous and full of love, and sometimes twinged with heartache and hate. That feels very human.
The book itself, written by Elizabeth Strout, is fantastic. It’s just beautiful. Then what Rona Munro was able to do with the adaptation to give it a theatrical narrative… Rona did a beautiful job adapting this. It is right from the book. There is very little, if any, license taken at all. I’m always fascinated by people and relationships and psychology and no one is one thing, ever. This material sort of came my way and it was sort of undeniable.
I’d never thought about paralleling it with Ozark, but there are similarities in the way life’s complexities play out.
The thing the two projects both deal with is poverty in America. It’s not talked about really. It’s become more and more of an issue, thankfully, but both projects do deal with that. I think the stereotype has been to not deal with that. But a real artistic endeavor does try and touch the truth in a way that will get a mind’s attention.
Is it true that you were basically fated to play Lucy Barton?
I had a meeting with Elizabeth Strout, and we both thought that each other was going to pitch some idea of doing My Name is Lucy Barton, but then I didn’t and she didn’t. But we did have this lovely lunch and we sort of fell in love with one another. We realized quickly there’d been some miscommunication about the point of the lunch. So I thought, what a wonderful woman and what gorgeous material, but I wished her well and that was that.
Several months later, I was filming Ozark in Atlanta and Nick Hytner called me. He runs the Bridge Theatre. He said, “Laura, I’ve commissioned an adaptation of My Name is Lucy Barton, and Richard Eyre is going to direct. I’m going to produce. We’d like to do it here. Would you be interested?” I said, “Have you spoken to Liz?” And he said, “No.” I said, “Really? You know nothing about my past with this?”
When something like that happens, it does make you pay attention.
You’d worked with Richard Eyre before, of course.
I’ve worked with Richard before and I love Richard. I’ve always wanted to work with Nick Hytner, and this theatre is so beautiful.
You always hope you’re able to do theatre in London. I never expected that it would be a one-woman show that would bring me here. I realized the only thing that might make me turn it down would be pure fear and cowardice. I felt like I was being tested a little bit, because a one-woman show is nothing that anyone goes after doing. It’s just inherently daunting and a real challenge. Most of us get into the arts to connect with other people and to do things with other people. So when you’re up there alone it’s strange. It’s a strange experience.
In a way, you’re not up there alone. First of all, you’re effectively playing two characters—a daughter and her mother—even if the latter is filtered through the unreliable narration of the former. And since Lucy addresses the audience, they feel very much a part of the show.
That has helped, the more I’ve become comfortable with it. It was still terrifying and there’s something very terrifying about including an audience in your work. I’m glad I’ve been forced to deal with that, because I think that fear for me now is permanently gone. That’s what this experience has given me. I don’t think I’ll ever be afraid to encounter an audience again, in the way that I had been before.
Is a certain amount of fear not a healthy driver?
Oh sure, absolutely. But there’s nerves and then there’s fear, and there’s a difference. Learning it took a long time. There’s no way around it. You can’t fake your way through that. You just have to learn it word by word, and it’s 37 pages of single-spaced writing. It took me a while. I’m still in the middle of it. I’m still just sort of stunned. I come offstage like, “What just happened?”
Are there moments in which you have dried on your next line?
Oh sure. Absolutely. You’re human. You just have to rightsize and realize, it’s a play. You know? My family’s healthy, I’m healthy, people I love are OK. If the worst thing that ever happens to me is I’m embarrassed in front of a group of people, I can handle it.
You did The Little Foxes on Broadway, in which you were alternating two roles with Cynthia Nixon throughout the run. That must have been a lot too.
That was difficult in a whole other context. The fact that I’ve been able to do both of these things in a year has been amazing. They’re certainly the most challenging things I’ve ever taken on, and the most enjoyable. I’ve not made it easy on myself for the past year, that’s for sure!
You started in the theatre. Do you still think of yourself as a theatre actress?
It’s how I started, but I bounce around. I’ve had the longest relationship with it, certainly, so I know it a little better, but not a lot at this point. I’ve been doing films now for over 30 years, so it’s all turned into one country for me.
What it gives you is time. You have time. Time works on you and your experience of doing it, and you can’t force that. There’s no editing to get around it. You just have to put in the time and so your connections become a little deeper in this experience; sometimes a little richer. Film and television are equally—at least for me—satisfying, but you have to accept the medium for what it is. You can’t expect what you find in theatre to happen in film and television. It doesn’t; it just doesn’t. It’s a different thing, but once you sort of get over that, you start to fall in love with the medium for its own reasons.
On stage, you work with a creative team but when you’re up there in the moment it’s on you to author a performance. In film and television, an editor comes in after the fact. Do you feel the loss of control?
There’s a total loss of control when you’re in front of the camera, and also for the director for that matter, because then it goes to an editor and there are producers and executives. It’s worked on by a very large group of people, and it passes through many hands.
That’s sort of what’s exciting about it, also; you don’t know what’s going to happen to it. You do your best and you throw it up in the air and then you see what someone does with it. It is out of your control but there are certain things you can do.
With theatre, you see it through from beginning to end, as opposed to movies or film which are developed early on without actors, who come in very late and leave very early in the process. But with theater you’re in it for the majority of it. For 90 percent of it, you’re in it.
At least on Ozark you get the opportunity to come back to this character again and again. It feels like a show that could only exist in our present socio-political environment. Was that there from the beginning?
No, the show was developed and written before the election. So, I think, once President Trump took office, it took on a different significance in a way that we didn’t see coming. But it certainly has touched on something that is in the air, or is current. I think people are attracted to it for a variety of different reasons. One of them is just the inherent political world that we’re living in right now. I think so much of it is about identity. Who are you? What do you believe? What do you do? What are your ethics? What are you striving for? What’s important to you? What are your priorities? Where do you cut corners, where do you not? Who are we? I think it ultimately points to the questions a lot of Americans are asking themselves, on both sides of any issue. What do I believe in and what do I stand for and does that affect my actions? So I think it sort of does go into that world a bit.
How much work went into getting Wendy right?
There was a lot of development for us. Wendy changed a great deal. I can’t say too much about how, without giving anything away. But she’s a complicated person. She’s still figuring out, really, who is she? I don’t think she knows. What’s exciting about her is that she’s a kaleidoscope. You tip her one way and everything changes. She’s reactive. She’s impulsive. She’s easily agitated and emotional. She’s not very mature. But she’s really capable and very shrewd. She’s all of these things.
In your mind, is she fully complicit? It’s hard to tell whether she’s too far down the rabbit hole or whether she intentionally dove in.
I don’t think she even thinks about it. But in the first season, you see the moment where they decide to move forward. Whatever she’s done with that bit of memory, of whether she understood what she was doing at the time, I’m not sure. But that moment happened.
At least it seems like she wants to rewrite that moment.
Yeah, absolutely. No one wants to be considered a bad person. No one. No one wants to be considered a liar and a manipulator and a criminal and a bad person. Maybe a few, but not many.
Finding those moments with Jason has been such a joy, and so easy. He’s fantastic to work with, and this is very much his show. He’s had an enormous impact on it, from the original look of it to directing the pilot and episodes. He, Patrick Markey our main producer and Chris Mundy our showrunner, the three of them are really exceptional people. All of us feel like we landed in very good place with the three of them.
Jason was mired in controversy recently, after comments in a New York Times interview with the Arrested Development cast. But his reputation has always been one of inclusivity and care. Did you recognize the Jason you know in the way he was written about in the aftermath of that?
I have nothing but wonderful things to say about Jason. What he said was not right, and he knows that. I know he feels terrible about the situation, and I think he realizes that he spoke when he shouldn’t have. He regrets it terribly. I can only say from my experience that Jason is not anyone who I have ever seen be anything but open and progressive in his views about anybody. I think his apology statement is the person I know. I don’t really know what happened there. I wasn’t there. But the person I know is the person who made the apology. He’s a great person to work with and work for. I felt terrible for him, and I know it has not been easy.
It is a difficult time, but it’s a necessary time, so it is going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to be very uncomfortable for all of us, and no one really knows how to deal with this. But progress has been made, and I’m surprised and thrilled that progress has been made. It’s a necessary evolution, and people need to be called on their bad behavior and their mistakes. Clarifications need to be made. And people are going to make mistakes, you know? But it’s worth examining. All of it is worth examining.
Women have had it very hard for a very long time. It’s a reckoning that I’m surprised is happening, and I’m very happy to see it happen. But that doesn’t make it easy when people you know and love are caught in a bad moment. He’s a very good guy. You will have people who will take what Jason said to the mat, and will really pound on it. I understand that as well. I do. But I know it was a very bad day for Jason, and he knows it. The person who I work with has never been anything but on the right side of things. It was sad to see it happen to someone I love and admire.