The Big C, the latest original series from Showtime, follows the life of Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney), a reserved, stifled, Minneapolis schoolteacher who receives life changing news and decides, from that moment on, to make drastic, long-overdue adjustments to the way she is living her life. Receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis causes the perfect wife and mother to want to throw away her conservative, structured life and let her freak flag fly.
During a recent interview while at the Television Critics Association Press Tour, actress Laura Linney talked about taking on this new role and how it has made you evaluate certain things in her own life. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
Laura: Well, I don’t think of it as TV or not TV. It’s just good work and you go where the good work is. Also, the subject matter was running around in my head so often, about time and life, how much time you have, and the privilege of growing old.
What was your first reaction to this material?
Laura: The thing about death is that it’s honest. I go to things that have a core of honesty about them and there’s nothing more honest than death.
Was there a moment in the pilot script where you read it and said, “I need to play Cathy”?
Laura: It wasn’t really about the character. It was more about what the show is attempting to do, and the challenge of knowing how difficult that was going to be to pull off. That was what was intriguing.
What about the grueling schedule of it all?
Laura: Oh, it’s easy compared to some things. It’s still grueling. It’s still 14 to 16 hours a day. But, there’s a family, a network and a studio behind you, so it’s pretty good.
Are you taking anything you’re learning about Cathy and incorporating it into your own life?
Laura: It has affected me more than any other job, as far as the day-to-day. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m filming so intensely. I’m in every scene and I film every day. But, I’m a little calmer than I normally am, and a little more relaxed. I’m in a state of wonder, all the time.
Have you ever had a scare with your own health, at any point in your life?
Laura: Thankfully, no. I haven’t.
In the first three episodes, she’s told no one that she’s sick, at least not in her immediate family. Is that a hard concept for you to wrap your head around?
Laura: No, it makes sense to me. I get that. When you tell people, your world changes, your identity changes and people treat you differently. And then, not only do you have to deal with your own emotional response to what’s going on, but you take on everybody else’s emotional response. It’s a lot and she’s not ready to do that yet.
What might you do, in her circumstance? If anything bad ever happened, would you handle it like her?
Laura: I think everybody handles things very differently and you can conjecture, but until you’re put in that situation, you really don’t know.
Have you talked to cancer survivors or cancer patients?
Laura: Sure. My mother was a nurse at Sloan-Kettering when I was growing up, so I was very aware of cancer, as a young girl, and I remember a lot of her patients very well. I haven’t gotten into the nitty-gritty of the progression of the cancer and all that, just because the character is not there yet, but I certainly know a lot about melanoma. I can tell you a lot about melanoma.
How do you see Cathy, as a person?
Laura: She’s a woman who doesn’t really know who she is, and she has the opportunity to find out, so she takes it. She’s someone who has been functioning very, very well, but hasn’t really been living. She has a huge growth spurt, throughout this whole experience.
Do you like Cathy?
Laura: Yeah, sometimes I like her, and sometimes I don’t.
When do you not?
Laura: She can be really rude. She doesn’t know who she is, and I have sympathy for her because of that. More than anything, she’s a woman who really doesn’t know who she is. She’s been functioning and not living, and I find that interesting. That’s where there’s a lot of potential for growth.
Which is the most fun relationship for you to play on the show?
Laura: They’re all great. I love the relationship with the brother. They’re fantastic parts, and it’s a lot of fun.
Did you see this show as more about a woman with cancer than a show about cancer, from the very beginning?
Laura: When this script came to me, what hit me the most was the theme of time and what you do with time, the choices that we make, how we spend our time, the fact that we all have a limited amount of time 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. That was meaningful to me. It was more what the whole story was about 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, for me, it’s about time.
What’s it been like to work with this cast?
Laura: It’s a fantastic group of people who have come together, and I am delighted to go to work, every single day. I love working with everyone. I think the material attracts good people. Everyone who shows up is so happy to be there. It was important to me that the show was shot on the East Coast to take advantage of the theater community that’s there. And, we’ve been very lucky with people who are willing and enthusiastic to be a part of it.
Since you grew up in a household where cancer was not taboo, with your mom being a nurse at Sloan-Kettering, how much did that inform your role?
Laura: I certainly know a lot about melanoma, at this point. I know a lot about the work on that, the process, what happens and what can be expected. There was a bit of research that I did. And then, I’m actually going on the journey with Cathy 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 and, every once in awhile, I’ll be filming and, normally things don’t really cross over, but something will hit me in a scene, and I’ll just start to cry. That’s part of why I love the show.
How did you get Liam Neeson on the show, and who will he be playing?
Laura: I’m guilty for that. It’s a great part. He’s from the alternative medicine world.
What does being an executive producer on the show involve for you?
Laura: 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, or if there’s an idea that I have, I can say so. We also 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. We all help in every area.
What would Cathy give as advice to other women going through a similar situation?
Laura: 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 her actions that are positive. And, more than trying to have a bucket list, I think she’s trying to figure out who she wants to be. There’s a lot of fun stuff that she does do because there’s a sense of liberation, which is so odd. When you’re dying, you’re liberated to do what you want to do. You give yourself permission. I think everyone’s experience with a terminal disease is so deeply personal and unique to the person, the context in which they’re living and the relationships that they have.
Do you have any thoughts about how the series should end, or have you not thought about that, at this point?
Laura: No, I don’t want to miss out on what happens before that, if that happens. 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 coming out. There are new treatments happening. Oddly, and sort of weirdly, we started the show, and then enormous research came out about this new treatment for melanoma. I don’t know what’s going to happen, so we’ll see. But, I find the fullness of the time that she has so wonderful that I’m game for whatever happens, as long as it’s honest.
What do you think about being teamed with Weeds?
Laura: I’m thrilled. I love Mary-Louise Parker. We’re friends. 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 a huge fan of Dexter and Weeds, and I think The Big C is really nice complement to their line-up.
How do you feel the medium of television has serviced you, overall?
Laura: I think it’s made me a better actress, which is why I love working in different mediums. I find it really challenging. And, the television that I’ve done has been some of the happiest experiences I’ve ever had. Tales of the City and John Adams are projects that I deeply love. You learn so much about yourself when you’re with certain responsibility and the time constraints that are there. You have to relish the challenge of television. I enjoy that whole, “Okay, what do we do? How do we problem-solve this, and yet, still not let go of the core things that we know are vitally important and cannot be relinquished?”
That’s the great challenge of TV. It’s fast and furious, and it can do things that film and theater can’t do. For me to have the opportunity to stay with one character for, God willing, a long period of time, is really exciting. You also don’t know what’s coming. Normally, when I do anything, if it’s a film, a theater piece or a mini-series, I know it, from beginning to end. I know what my complete arc and journey is. With this, I don’t, so that’s very new for me. I’m trying to figure out how to craft something without knowing where it’s going. It’s a bridge, but I don’t know where the bridge is going. Hopefully, not nowhere.