On July 25, Laura Linney is set to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s exactly the kind of high-profile status symbol Wendy Byrde might finagle to burnish her place among Tinseltown’s most successful and respected, except that the actor earned the honor precisely for playing the master manipulator on “Ozark” (and dozens of other unforgettable roles) so convincingly. Recognition coincides with the end of the acclaimed Netflix series, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe and three Emmys for the final season. After decades of showing the strength of tender characters and the tenderness of strong ones, earning a star immortalizes Linney’s complexity, versatility and febrile intelligence.
Even as far back as Ivan Reitman’s “Dave,” in which she played the small but pivotal role of a government aide whose liaison with the president catalyzes the need for the title character to temporarily replace him, she injects the character with a desperate, sympathetic sincerity that’s palpable in just a few brief minutes of screen time. Bigger parts came quickly, as a quick-thinking former CIA operative in “Congo” and a ruthless prosecutor who unwittingly plays into the hands of Edward Norton’s sociopathic murderer in “Primal Fear.”
But the ones that best utilized Linney’s extensive skill set — and began to define her identity on screen — were those in which her character’s grasp on normalcy was either a little too loose, or way too tight. Playing Hannah Gill, the actor pretending to love Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank in “The Truman Show,” her disdain, even exasperation at this responsibility only accelerates his suspicions that the world around him is meticulously scripted, especially when she delivers advertising boilerplate more convincingly than words of comfort.
Working through her own character’s lack of control in “You Can Count on Me” two years later, Linney scored her first Academy Award nomination, transforming the minutiae of a single mom’s messy life into a mesmerizing study of the ripples, big and small, that reverberate from childhood traumas. As an ensemble player, she expanded her repertoire and brought remarkable dimension, alternately heartbreaking and maddening, to characters such as the lovestruck Sarah in “Love Actually”; a grieving mother supporting her husband, Lady Macbeth-style, in “Mystic River”; and an American researcher demystifying sexual taboos in “Kinsey.” At that same time, it felt doubly appropriate that she would serve as Frasier Crane’s final love interest on the sitcom “Frasier,” both for possessing the same kind of merciless erudition that Crane’s former lover Lilith Sternin had — as well as sharing in common with Bebe Neuwirth, the actor who played Lilith, a well-established pedigree of stage work.
To that end, parallel with her film and television credits, Linney appeared on Broadway in “Hedda Gabler,” along with “The Crucible” and “Time Stands Still,” both of the latter of which earned her lead actress Tony nominations. She seemed to bring the lived-in longevity of those roles, the preparation and repetition, to longer stints on TV around that time as well, which may explain why she earned Emmys for both HBO’s historical miniseries “John Adams” and the Showtime series “The Big C,” which she executive produced and starred in. “I love trying to figure out how to use the theater or film or television,” Linney told Variety in 2020. “Because they are slightly different, all of them. How do you adjust the flame of your performance?” In virtually any medium, that flame did not lose its intensity — an aptitude recognized by her peers with three Oscar nominations to date (in addition to “You Can Count on Me,” “Kinsey” and “The Savages”), two Golden Globes (and five other nominations), and four Emmy wins and four more nominations. That includes three for “Ozark,” a show that was seemingly tailor-made for her.
Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams’ series about an unhappily married couple who moves their family to central Missouri for a money-laundering operation built her character’s arc like a head of poisonous steam. Initially viewed by audiences from the same reductive point of view that Marty (Jason Bateman) perceives his restless, philandering wife, Wendy becomes a mastermind even more calculating than her husband — first to path of success within an organization whose line of succession spirals out in concentric circles of dead bodies, then to self-deceiving ambitions of legitimacy.
Even in a career as accomplished as hers, Wendy Byrde feels like the apotheosis of the kind of character work she’s done in roles big and small. There’s an astonishing growth that the character makes by the end of the series, overshadowing Bateman’s constant renegotiations as Marty, both for the good and ill of the Byrdes’ plight. What he views as an act of survival, she sees their brinksmanship as self-actualization, a showcase of the skills Wendy was born to use, even when they come at the expense of her husband’s best efforts, her children’s trust, and even her brother’s life. Her performance is so ferocious and convincing, whether she is manipulating a local politician, outmaneuvering a ruthless drug lord, or championing the drug treatment facility she claims holds the key to the Byrdes “going straight,” that you wonder if Wendy is even capable any longer of being sincere. It’s a character of multiple layers, and even multiple performances, and Linney disappears so fully into Wendy that if she told you that the sun was shining, you’d still request a nearby window for verification.
Linney also stepped behind the camera and directed an episode of the final season of “Ozark,” an ambition she admitted just two years earlier was not something she considered herself ready to do. But it’s clear that her flame not only is in no danger of running out of fuel, but will continue burning through one challenge after another. “My dad, who was a playwright, always used to say to me, ‘The talent is in the choices’,” Linney said in 2020. “And I think there’s something really true to that: It is about taking the time to really thoroughly think through something, and making really specific decisions.”
WHAT: Laura Linney receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
WHEN: 11:30 a.m., July 25
WHERE: A6533 Hollywood Blvd.