Laura Linney is the latest Academy Award nominee to star in a TV series. In The Big C, she plays a woman diagnosed with terminal melanoma. This is actually the beginning of her new life, making the most of her last days. Showtime expects there to be several years still left in this character’s lifespan.
For starters, Cathy (Linney) no longer takes any crap from her son or her husband. She’s emboldened to stand up to bullies and help her teenage students without sugarcoating their obesity issues. She attacks a school bus with a paintball gun, sunbathes nude in her yard and goes for a hilarious waxing.
Linney doesn’t usually get to do comedy. Even in The Truman Show and Love Actually, she was the serious conspiracy wife or the sister dealing with an emotionally needy brother. Even with its cancer theme, The Big C is lighter than films like The Savages, Kinsey or You Can Count on Me. See it Mondays on Showtime.
Q: I find I respond to movies about death and dealing with death. Do you have that reaction to this kind of material?
LL: Well, the thing about death is that it’s honest. I sort of go to things that have a core of honesty about them and there’s sort of nothing more honest than death. So yeah, life, family, sex, food, religion and all those basics of life are what most things are written about.
Q: Have you ever had a health scare?
LL: No, God willing, thankfully no, I haven’t.
Q: Are you taking anything you’re learning from Cathy and incorporating it into your own life?
LL: You know, it has affected me more than any other job as far as day to day and I don't know if just because I’m filming so intensely, I’m in every scene, I film every day, three or four months have gone by or whatever it’s been. I’m a little calmer than I normally am. I’m a little more relaxed. I’m sort of in a state of wonder all the time and that’s been nice.
Q: You’ve played characters who face things we never want to face, from cancer to losing your parents. What is it about that you’re attracted to?
LL: I think it’s the universal theme. No one gets out of that. If you’re lucky and you live long enough, your parents go before you. No one gets out of that. If you are ill, you are ill. So I think it’s about the universal thing that connects everybody, that connects the human race to each other and through history. There are certain things that are unavoidable and that we all share.
Q: How do you make it compelling instead of depressing?
LL: Because then you’d have just life. Life has a way of blowing a breeze through you even in the most horrible circumstances. Absurdity will creep in in ways that you don’t think it can get there.
Q: Is it hard to pull away when you’re done working?
LL: Well, the day’s done and then I go home and learn lines for the next day. So while I’m filming this, it’s all one big, long day. It’s been a good day but a big, long day. When this is over and I go on vacation, I think I’ll enjoy it a little more. I’m enjoying things a little more because of the show.
Q: Does tackling the tougher issues in life in your work prepare you for more curveballs?
LL: I don't know if it has or not but it certainly made me more empathetic and sympathetic.
Q: Are you a happy person?
LL: Yeah, I think so. I have a lot to be happy about.
Q: Because we only see the characters.
LL: No, I’m not a Debbie Downer.
Q: Does it get any more outrageous than the waxing scene?
LL: Probably. Yeah, probably. I would think so.
Q: Is that a tough scene to do?
LL: Well, I don’t really try and sell it. I’ve been waxed so I think every woman who’s been waxed knows that position very well and that experience very well. Another universal thing.
Q: Are there things Cathy does immediately that surprise you?
LL: No, she’s an odd person, Cathy. Some of the things she does are strange. Nothing that I would do but it’s her own very unique journey.
Q: Do you look at this show as more about Cathy than her condition?
LL: When this script came to me, what hit me the most was the theme of time and what do you do with time, what are the choices that we make, how we spend our time, the fact that we all have a limited amount and that it's a privilege to grow old. That's something that I think a lot of people have forgotten in this very fast-paced world where youth is overly celebrated, I think. So it was meaningful to me. It was more what the whole story was about more than just the wonderful character that's there. Clearly, I thought it was something that I could spend some time with and would be challenged by. But more than anything else, it's more, for me, about time.
Q: Have you done any personal research about cancer?
LL: Well, I certainly know a lot about melanoma at this point. You know, I've known a lot of work on that and the process and what happens and what can be expected so there's that bit of research, of course, that I did. And then I'm sort of going on the journey with Cathy, actually, because I'm at the age where relatives are growing older and friends are dying sometimes in unexpected ways. It hits me in a very different way. Every once in a while, I'll be filming, and normally I'm fairly contained when I'm working. Things don't really cross over, but something hit me and I just started to boo-hoo because it hit me: Oh, my God. She's really dying. And it was a scene that had so much life and had such vim and vigor and vivacity and great humor that it was the combination of those two things that were hitting me at the same time. That's part of why I love the show.
Q: How quickly can you reveal this character in episodic increments?
LL: Well, I have a feeling she's a woman who doesn't really know who she is, and she has the opportunity to find out, and she's going to take it. And she's someone who has been functioning very, very well but hasn't really been living, and so she has a huge growth spurt, really, throughout this whole experience.
Q: What does being an executive producer involve for you?
LL: Basically, we have a team of wonderful executive producers. What it has allowed me to do is that I don't have to keep my mouth shut. If there's something that I see, if there's an idea that I have, we also sort of have our areas that we have more involvement in. Mine deals much more with the atmosphere on the set and how things function day to day. Jenny [Bicks] and Darlene [Hunt] are the writers. I mean, we all help in every area, but that's fair to say.
Q: Have you thought about where this journey ends for Cathy, maybe the final scene you’ll have to do at the end of several seasons?
LL: No. I don't want to miss out on what happens before that if that happens. You know, the thing that's been amazing is that, since we've started the show, in the news, there's all of this stuff about melanoma that's coming out. There are new treatments happening. I mean, oddly, sort of weirdly, we started the show, and then this enormous research came out about this new treatment for melanoma. So I don't know what's going to happen, and we'll see. But I find the fullness of the time that she has sort of so wonderful that I'm sort of game for whatever happens, you know. As long as it's honest, I'm sort of game for whatever happens.
Q: What advice would Cathy give to women dealing with this situation, and would you take advice from her if you were dealing with it?
LL: I don't think she'd give any advice. I don't think she'd give any advice at all. She's pretty self-consumed at the moment, and I don't think she would dare take anyone's advice. But she's learning from experience. She's learning from the mistakes that she makes. She's learning from the actions that she does that are positive. More than trying to have a bucket list, I think she's trying to figure out who she wants to be. Although what she wants to do is certainly part of it, there's a lot of fun stuff that she does do because there's a sense of liberation in a way, which is so odd, that when you're dying you're sort of liberated to do what you want to do. You give yourself permission. I don't think she would dare to do that. I think everyone's experience with a terminal disease is so deeply personal and so deeply unique to the person and the context in which they're living and the relationships that they have, that I don’t think that’s fair to say, guys, do you think?
Q: How do you feel about being teamed with Weeds on Monday nights?
LL: I'm thrilled. I mean, I love Mary-Louise. We're friends, and it was great fun. We shot some promos together, which was a kick. I'm completely honored to be following Weeds, and I think it's a really good pairing. I love the programming on Showtime. I’m really a huge fan of Dexter and Weeds, but I think The Big C has a completely different tone. I think our show is sort of a really nice complement to their lineup and different.
Q: Could they do a crossover where Cathy buys medical marijuana?
LL: I would love that. I would love for all of the Showtime shows to cross over. I'd love to go see Nurse Jackie and maybe have an affair with David Duchovny. We can go to the Vatican, time travel. I just think it would be so much fun, so let's see. It would be fun. I would love it.
Q: You’ve done TV before with Tales of the City and Frasier. What does it take to get you on TV?
LL: I think it's made me a better actress, which is why I love working in different mediums. I find it really challenging. The television that I've done has been some of the happiest experiences I've ever had. I mean, Tales of the City and John Adams, I deeply love those projects. You learn so much about yourself when you're with certain responsibility and with the time constraints that are there, the challenge. You have to relish the challenge of television. I sort of enjoy that, like what do we do? Okay. How do we problem-solve this? How do we problem-solve and, yet, still not let go of the core things that we know are vitally important and cannot be relinquished? And that's the great challenge of TV. It's fast. It's furious. And it can do things that film and certainly theater, of course, can't do. For me to have the opportunity now to stay with one character for hopefully, God willing, a long period of time, for any actor is really exciting, and also not to know what's coming. I mean, normally, when I do anything, if it's a film, if it's a theater piece, or a miniseries, I know beginning and end. I know what my complete arc and journey is. With this, I don't, so that's very new for me, and I'm trying to figure out how to craft something without knowing where it's going, you know, sort of a bridge to I don't know where the bridge is going. Hopefully not nowhere.