They Say You Can’t Go Home Again. Laura Linney Just Did.
After starring in three adaptations of the much-beloved “Tales of the City” since 1993, Laura Linney was overflowing with memories — of her first television series, the evolving L.G.B.T.Q. community that embraced it and her friendship with Armistead Maupin, on whose novels the show were based.
But she wasn’t about to walk down Barbary Lane a fourth time simply for nostalgia’s sake.
“Reboots, while they can be great fun, don’t really have a whole lot of teeth,” said Linney, who last visited the fictional boardinghouse at No. 28 and its pot-growing transgender landlady, Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), on Showtime in 2001. “They can be a little indulgent, and sometimes they work, and most times they don’t. So it was important that if we did this that it had a purpose and was being done with the same intentions that the originals were done.”
“And quite frankly,” she added, “to pass it on to the next generation.”
Sudsy and groundbreaking, “Tales of the City” followed Linney’s wide-eyed Mary Ann Singleton on vacation from Cleveland to San Francisco in 1976 — where she took one look at the exotic terrain and decided to stay, creating a home among neighbors like the bisexual Mona Ramsey and the gay Michael Tolliver, a.k.a. Mouse, and finding love with a lothario, Brian Hawkins, whom she eventually married.
This latest “Tales,” now on Netflix, steps into the present as Mary Ann — smothered by midlife ennui in Connecticut — returns to the still-magical haunts to celebrate Anna’s 90th birthday. And there she tumbles, like Alice down the rabbit hole, back into the life of Mouse (Murray Bartlett) and Brian (Paul Gross), now her ex — and Shawna (Ellen Page), the daughter she left behind.
The much-decorated Linney, with her collection of four Emmy wins plus three Oscar and four Tony nominations, seemingly suffers from no such doldrums. Between shooting “Tales” and “Ozark” for Netflix last year, she made her London stage debut — and went back for a second run — in “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” a solo show about a writer unexpectedly reunited with her estranged mother in a hospital room, which is moving to Broadway in January.
Linney, 55, and her husband, Marc Schauer, a drug and alcohol counselor, are also parents to a 5-year-old son, Bennett Armistead, named after Maupin, “the greatest man I’ve ever known,” she said. “I wanted my child to have as much of his spirit around him as possible.”
In a phone interview from Atlanta, where “Ozark” is shooting, she spoke about the potential impact of Georgia’s restrictive abortion bill on that show’s production and revisiting “Tales” yet again.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Given how much progress has been made in the L.G.B.T.Q. community since 1993, is “Tales” still timely?
Absolutely. There’s been such evolution for how people see themselves and how they identify that was very different from 1993 when we did the first one. L.G.B.T.Q. — I don’t even think that moniker existed. It’s fascinating to see how that history moves on. And also, quite frankly, it’s wonderful that our “Tales” now is being told by the voices that it should be told by, meaning people of that community. All of our writers were L.G.B.T.Q., all of our directors were L.G.B.T.Q., and that could not have happened in ’93 — and it would not have happened in ’93.
You wanted “Tales” to be passed on to the next generation. Why?
I hope that it does what the arts do, which is it makes you feel less alone. Then there’s the other part of it, which is they’re great characters. “Tales” has always sat so comfortably and so potently in both lanes, and it’s what gave it the impact that it had in ’93 and why those books are so important. They’re sort of the cornerstone of gay literature in the U.S., because they give such a wonderful road map for people.
One of the scenes that really resonated with me is when men from two different generations find themselves at odds as they discuss identity and what you call someone.
That’s my favorite scene in the whole series for exactly the reasons that we’re talking. Like, what do the generations have to offer each other? And the history and the jealousy that an older generation can have of a younger generation or vice versa. It’s something that’s very acute right now, because of the AIDS crisis and what my generation lived through and this wonderful new time where there are many more rights for gay people — but at what cost? It’s like any generation of people who have lived through something traumatic. When there’s a fresh new group of people who have no sense of that, it can be really startling.
Let’s talk about “Ozark.” Did you sign on knowing that Wendy was going to turn into, in the words of the show, “one coldhearted bitch”?
I didn’t know. It gradually happened. And she’s really, really fun. What I love about her — if she was a person in the real world I would not love this at all — but what I love is playing someone who is really just emotionally immature. She’s not in control of herself all the time and she’s very smart and she’s very shrewd, but her boundaries and psychology are all over the place.
What should we expect in Season 3 after the power play that makes it look like she’s just usurped the throne?
I’m not at liberty to say. I can tell you I’ve been reading the scripts, and it’s very exciting and completely unexpected. There’s just a lot that’s going to hit the wall.
Some have called Wendy the new Claire Underwood.
A lot of people have said to me similarly that there’s a Lady Macbeth sort of thing. And the thing it makes me think, well, just because a woman is really aggressive and very ambitious for something, she becomes a Lady Macbeth. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but I find it interesting that what is quickly absorbed is the unattractive side of that, as opposed to the basic desire just to survive.
Your co-star Jason Bateman has said that he will not work in Georgia again if the newly passed abortion law is upheld. Netflix recently said that if the bill should come into effect, the company would rethink its entire investment in the state. What is your stance?
I’m not conflicted about the issue at hand. I think that if this goes into law, it would strip millions of women, and millions of Georgians, specifically, of a very, very basic human right. And at the same time, my family has lived in Georgia for many generations, and this state is deep in my bones. And I care deeply about the economic welfare of this state.
People are talking nonstop about this, by the way. I’ve heard them talking about how it’s hard not to feel that this is somehow a reaction to the #MeToo movement. And how a lot of the language that’s being used now has the intention to shame women. And when you hear [Gov. Brian] Kemp describing the outcry to women having their rights revoked as “squawk,” it’s going beyond and outside the bounds of ethics and the issue of abortion. I don’t want to ever stop working in Georgia. But if this law goes forward — despite all the economic damage it could inflict on this state that I dearly love — I think we’ll have to leave. Because if you don’t stand up for this, then what do you stand up for? What does it take?
When “My Name Is Lucy Barton” comes to Broadway, you’ll be onstage alone for 90 minutes. What’s that like?
I am very scared doing it every night.
Really? But you’re such a theater pro! How do you conquer that fear?
We talk about this all the time in the theater — that you think, Oh, I’ll just be working at night, I’ll be fine, I’ll have my days free. It’s the lesson you relearn over and over again. You wake up in the morning and the first thing you think about is, Oh my god, I have to be on stage. And all day long there’s an undertow that leads you to 8 o’clock at night. I get to the theater two hours ahead of time and warm up. It’s completely unnatural to talk 90 minutes nonstop at the level that you’re required to talk in the theater. I warm up vocally, physically, and I run through the whole show on my own before I do it.
But it’s great. This sounds like I don’t enjoy it. I really do, but it’s really scary. It’s kind of an insane thing to do. It really is bonkers. It’s totally unnatural and absolutely wacky, and I’m sort of amazed by it and love it and can’t believe it’s happened. [Laughs] And if I think about it too much I’ll flip myself out.