Michael Jensen, Editor
August 16, 2010
When I wrote last month about an unexpected encounter at the Television Critics Association Summer Tour with Laura Linney, the star of Showtime’s The Big C, I said that she wasn’t just the nicest celebrity I’d ever met, but quite possibly one of the nicest people I’d ever met.
After all, when she noticed me standing by myself waiting to interview someone else (something Linney didn’t know), she first waved hello at me and then pulled me into the conversation she was having with friends. When I introduced myself and said I edited a site for gay and bisexual men, Linney grinned widely and exclaimed, “My people!”
Trust me, this is not normal celebrity behavior in Hollywood.
Given that I met her at a press event, the possibility wasn’t lost on me that, as nice as Linney might be in her personal life, perhaps she was performing a bit as well. How better to get me to write about her new show than by dazzling me with attention?
Then I read this New York Times Magazine profile of Linney and it turns out I’m not the only person who thinks Linney is almost surreally kind, gracious and intelligent. Indeed, it sounds as if almost everyone who has met the Tony and Oscar nominated actress feels that way.
For those not familiar with Linney or her connection to the gay community, here is some background. Long before Will Truman met Grace Adler or Carrie Bradshaw met Stanford Blatch, a naïve girl from the Midwest named Mary Ann Singleton moved to San Francisco and met a gay man named Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver in the Armistead Maupin novel Tales of the City. And in 1993, Linney brought Mary Ann to life in the PBS series based on the book.
That indelible performance prompted a generation of gay and bisexual men to fall in love with Linney.
While friendships between gay men and straight women are so common on television today as to be a stereotype, such wasn’t the case back in the early 90s when the actors starring in Tales were actually doing something daring.
And while Linney is modest about it, the role of Mary Ann made her something of an icon for many gay men. “Not full-fledged,” says Linney to a group of reporters. “Kind of a mini. More of an iconette. I like that. I’ve got a little sparkle, a little sass.”
Linney brings that same sparkle and sass to her new Showtime drama, The Big C debuting August 16th at 10:30 PM EDT. In the new series, Linney plays Cathy Jamison, a forty-something woman who learns she has incurable cancer and likely less than two years to live.
When Linney is told that for fans of Tales of the City, she’s more than just an icon-ette, Linney smiles and says, “Tales of the City fans are the greatest fans on the planet. They just are. They are kind and effusive and loving and bright. It’s probably the most important job I’ve ever had and the best time I’ve ever had doing anything.”
Linney also did the Tales sequels More Tales of the City and Further Tales of the City (both of which aired on Showtime after PBS backed out due to criticism from the religious right) and the friendships she formed filming both are still with her.
“A lot of my best friends in the world are Tales people,” says Linney. “Armistead and I are extremely close. Stanley DeSantis, who is sadly no longer alive, was one of my best friends. Alan Poul who produced has directed some of our episodes on The Big C. Tales is a huge part of my life that I’m so proud of.”
Linney remembers the AIDS crisis well and lost a number of friends to the disease. Did dealing with death at such a young age help her come to terms with her own mortality?
“I think that’s something you learn and learn over again,” says Linney thoughtfully. “Even now, when I’ve lost so many friends over the years, I still can’t wrap my brain around it. It still doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t know where to put it.”
That doesn’t mean that playing the role of a dying woman is hard for Linney. “It’s actually been more positive than anything else,” she says. “The core reminder is there’s a certain amount of time, enjoy what you have. It does sort of realign my thinking in a healthier way.”
Linney doesn’t think her show is only for those who have had cancer themselves or know someone who has suffered the disease. Says Linney, “It’s about anyone who has an illness, all of my friends who I lost to AIDS, anyone who has a life-threatening illness, or who is around it, will be able to relate and will recognize things. You could substitute cancer for many other diseases.”
When told that she was able to make cancer “funny,” Linney disagrees strongly: “No, I wouldn’t say that. It’s a comedy about a woman who has cancer. It’s not a comedy about cancer. There’s a big difference. It’s a comedy about when you are stripped of everything you thought was going to be true, and that’s where I find comedy to be really interesting, when it comes from that sort of limbo.”
Linney also says the show isn’t about having cancer, but something more important. “It’s about time,” she says, making it clear she has thought deeply about the subject. “What do you do with your time? How do you use the time you have? And it’s about the privilege of aging, more than anything, for me. It’s a privilege and a lot of people don’t get it.”
Thankfully, viewers should have the privilege of watching Linney for many years to come.
The Big C airs on Showtime Mondays at 10:30 PM EDT.