Laura Linney brings her “A” game to “The Big C”

By Stacey Harrison

When discussing her role as executive producer on her new show, Laura Linney could just as easily be talking about the character she plays.

“What it basically allows me to do, in a nutshell, is that I don’t have to keep my mouth shut if I have an opinion about something,” says the three-time Academy Award-nominated actress about The Big C, which premieres tonight on Showtime.

She plays Cathy Jamison, a high-strung Minneapolis history teacher who learns she has terminal cancer, and about a year to live. She sets about making the time she has left count, forsaking the rigors and indignities of chemotherapy while partaking in every indulgence life has to offer — and telling people what she really thinks. More importantly, she’s finally trying to be honest with herself about who she really is. Amid all this, she must deal with her man-child husband (Oliver Platt), who views her more as a stifling mother figure, a bratty teenage son (Gabriel Basso), who has learned through years of misguided upbringing not to respect her, and an anarchistic vagabond brother (John Benjamin Hickey), who disdains her bourgeois ways. None of them knows about her diagnosis, because she simply isn’t ready to face the fallout.

Oh, and it’s a comedy.

Despite her vaunted TV credits, which include three Tales of the City installments and Emmy wins for John Adams and Frasier, Linney had never committed to being a series regular. But when Darlene Hunt’s script came to her, she knew she’d found something she could get behind long-term.

“It just touched a nerve with me about all these thoughts that I had been thinking about intensely in my own life,” she says. “Primarily just the issue of time, and how we spend our time, and the choices that you make throughout your life, and also really about the privilege of growing old. I think there’s some really faulty logic in our culture. People are forgetting that age is a privilege. It’s not a right. People tend to pooh-pooh it, or not value it, or complain about it, and I just find that wrong. It’s just downright wrong.”

Throughout her career, the 46-year-old Linney has mostly played characters who, despite their flaws, you have no choice but to take seriously. Whether she’s the supportive wife of a powerful man (John Adams, Kinsey) or a woman on her own trying to hold it together (You Can Count on Me), she brings with her an undeniable streak of independence and dignity. Her characters walk a razor-thin line of emotion — often seeming as though they can barely fight back the tears. When they do unleash, it is epic.

All of which makes her the perfect choice to play Cathy. One minute she’s reaching out to a reclusive neighbor (Phyllis Somerville), and the next she’s cussing out said neighbor, telling her to mow the bleeping grass. For dinner, she’s ordering only desserts and liquor, and insisting that her contractor wreck her beautiful backyard in order to build the pool she’s always wanted.

“She’s been the type of person who’s really been a function most of her life,” she says. “She’s cared for other people, she’s taken care of stuff, and then all of a sudden I think she realizes, ‘Oh my God, I have a limited amount of time. Who am I? What am I doing? How am I spending my time? Who am I having relationships with? What do I actually like to do?’ I don’t think she really knows.”

Part of Linney’s clout as executive producer includes bringing in the cast and crew she wants. In addition to Platt, whom she has known for years and worked with in Kinsey, there is Dreamgirls director Bill Condon, who helmed the pilot, and recurring guest stars Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), who plays one of Cathy’s students, Brian Cox, who will play her father, The Wire’s Idris Elba as a potential love interest, and Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) as an old college roommate.

It’s particularly satisfying to see Sidibe answer those who wondered if she would have a career after Precious. As Andrea, she displays all the confidence and spirit that she so convincingly repressed in her Oscar-nominated debut. Her character benefits from Cathy’s newfound tough-love approach, which focuses on her weight and nicotine habit.

“She’s a doll. She is really fun to be around,” Linney says of Sidibe. “She’s a bright, sparkly, life-affirming, fun person. Her character is that way as well. For people who are fans of Precious, they’ll be really interested in seeing her range here.”

The series films in Stamford, Conn., which doubles for Minneapolis, and isn’t too far of a drive for Linney to stay in tune with the Broadway community. She was recently nominated for a Tony Award for her role as Sarah, a photojournalist struggling with the idea of a more conventional life with her husband, in Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still. After filming is complete on this season of The Big C, she’ll return to the play this fall.

Until then, though, she’ll be occupying Cathy’s head space, trying to succeed in making people laugh through their tears and their dread for her character’s ultimate fate.

“I think it’s going to take on a life of its own,” she says. “We’ll see what happens, you know; I’m not really sure. That’s part of the big challenge of doing something like this. The goal isn’t to be laugh-out-loud funny, although I think that will happen. It’s to tell a really good, compelling, enjoyable story, but it has its own very unique sensibility and flair. It’s not a heavy drama, although there will be dramatic things in it. It’s not going to be one thing or the other, I hope.

“There’s a good core of this show. This show doesn’t come from a place of fear; it doesn’t come from a place of anxiety or coldness. It comes from a very warm, life-affirming, thoughtful place. And a creative place. Hopefully, at the end of every day, I’ll feel good about what we’ve done.”

Photo: © 2010 Showtime Credit: Jordin Althaus