Laura Linney for “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”

Laura Linney loves a challenge, as one of Hollywood’s smartest and most diverse actors. Yet it seems strange that the Oscar nominee would agree to star in the part-horror film part-courtroom thriller Exorcism of Emily Rose, in which she plays an initially ambitious lawyer who finds herself defending a priest accused of reckless homicide. But Linney, chatting in a New York hotel room, concedes that she was reluctant to take on the film when first approached to do it. “I’d have to say that I was nervous about this one. This was not a script that I read and thought ‘I’ve got to do this movie,’

Linney, 41, admitted. “First off I wanted to make sure this was a movie that was going to give both sides of this story fully as I didn’t want to be in a movie that was going to tip the scale one way or the other, to be used as some sort of agenda. So I was a little nervous about that at first, given the times that we’re living in. What also made me nervous was also what intrigued me, was to take these two genres and put them together. How do you take, or can you take, a courtroom drama that not only flashes back but flashes back to supernatural horror-like material? Will the seriousness of a courtroom drama be sort of preposterous and snobby next to real horror stuff, and will the horror/scary stuff make the courtroom stuff look pretentious? Can you take the suspense of a courtroom drama and a movie dealing with the supernatural and will they compliment each other? Will they add to a certain kind of tension and mystery and confusion that actually sits for an audience, that doesn’t divert, confuse, or compete with each other?”

The challenge for Linney, was working on the courtroom facet of the film, without ever being present during the exorcism/horror section, which was quite the risk, if one half simply didn’t work. “It’s my character’s job to weave the two stories together,” explains the actress. Having now seen the completed film, Linney is more than happy with the total result, “because I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. I mean I’ve certainly seen a lot of courtroom dramas, which I love, and I’ve seen a lot of horror stuff and that’s always fun, so I think it works pretty well.” Linney laughs when asked if she identify with the more driven aspects of her character. “I’m not as hard as she is. You know, this is a hard woman who is rabidly ambitious and shrewd.”

The character is also far more cynical towards religion, unlike the actress, she adds. “I think I’m more respectful than she is, but I am sceptical as well. Religious demonology is nothing easily accepted. I mean I was not raised Catholic, nor in the church, so it’s a little farfetched to me, but at the same time I do have respect for people who firmly believe but I have a hard time accepting it. But then I contradict myself all the time talking about this, and I don’t really have the answer. I think we’re living in a time where if you don’t have the answer, if you’re not certain, it’s seen as weakness and I don’t think that’s true. I think you can not have the answer and not be sure about stuff and that’s actually maybe a sign of thoughtfulness,” Linney adds, with a slight laugh.

“I don’t have an answer to a lot of this stuff. My knee-jerk initial instinctive response is, no, I don’t believe in it, but, if I really stop and think then I don’t really know what I think about it.” Then why did the pragmatic actress finally agree to shot a film that tends to question her beliefs? “Because I do believe in things that are bigger than us and I believe we don’t have all the answers. I’ve seen legitimately a ghost and it was a great experience so I know that’s there. I don’t have the answers.”

While Linney had trouble reconciling her own religious and demonic beliefs with the idea of shooting a film that explores these issues, the actress responded far more immediately to The Squid and the Whale, which screens sat this year’s Toronto Film Festival. The film, which deals with an adolescent living through the pain of divorced parents, was something Linney had been attached to for years, when writer/director Noah Baumbach first showed her the script. “Noah is a friend of mine and I love him. I thought he wrote something that was personal and honest and skilfully done and I wanted to support him in anyway that I possibly could. We waited four years for that movie to get done and I was always on the phone with him saying: look, I promise you it will happen in the way it’s meant to happen because with these small movies, my experience has been that it takes 4 or 5 years to get them made but when they’re finally made it works out.” And the actress is philosophical when it comes to talking about the commercial prospects of a film so intrinsically character-based as Squid and the Whale. “You never know with a movie, but is it going to be a blockbuster – of course not? Is it a really good movie, I hope so. I haven’t seen it yet but by all accounts it’s good and I know the spirit in which it was made and I know the care that went into it. I know we all sat on the floor for however many weeks.”

Throughout her career, Linney has switched between Hollywood’s mainstream and her comfort level which appears to be the independent world, yet she says she tries to be as choosy when it comes to the bigger films. “I try to be, but now everybody has a clinker. I mean sometimes movies work and sometimes they don’t but you try your best. Not everything’s going to be great or else it’d be too easy.”

Yet Linney is frequently working, and some 30 films and countless stage plays after making her film debut back in Lorenzo’s Oil, Linney admits to being surprised she has become so successful. “It’s really nice but it’s surprising. I guess I didn’t expect it because it wasn’t my goal.” Linney says that instead her goal “was to just work with good people. I wanted to work in the theatre and I wanted to learn.” While most film actors remain content to remain in front of the cameras, Linney is determined to return to the stage as often as possible. “Every other season I try to go back.” But she is not aspiring to do anything in particular. “I tend not to think that way though I wish I could. There are certainly playwrights whose work I would like to have the opportunity to work on, such as O’Neil and Williams and to have the experience of having that repertoire, because I think every actor should have a go at that sort of stuff.”

While Laura will most likely tread Broadway’s boards next summer, the always busy actress is trying to live a little these days and enjoy having a life. “I’m promoting these two movies and then I’m going to take a break,” says the nomadic actress who also concedes “I don’t really live anywhere at the moment. I sort of move from place to place non-stop.” Which does wonders to maintain a personal life. “It is tough staying in touch with family and friends and trying to have a relationship, all of that stuff is hard. It takes a very special man to put up with it.”

Linney recently returned from Australia where she starred in Australian director Ray Lawrence’s latest film, Jindabyne. “It is based on a Ray Carver short story and it’s me and Gabriel Byrne along with some wonderful Australian actors. We filmed it in Jindabyne in New South Wales.” Then the actress went to London to shoot Driving Lessons “that Jeremy Brock made, who wrote Mrs. Brown, in his directorial debut. It seems that Linney is having the time of her life, admitting that working with the likes of Ray Lawrence, reminds her of why she wanted to act in the first place. “you work with these people and their viewpoints and world views you go, oh, yes, yes, yes. You work with Peter Weir and there’s always such relief when I run into these people, because you just are like thank you, and you just go, okay, it all makes sense now.”