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Laura Linney's Best TV And Movie Roles

Laura Linney is an incredibly gifted actress with a wide range, and a penchant for picking unique, interesting roles. She has been working in Hollywood for 30 years now, and has received plenty of recognition for her work in television, film, and theater. This has included three Academy Award nominations, seven Primetime Emmy Award nominations (with four wins), five Tony Award nominations, seven Screen Actors Guild Award nominations (with one win), and seven Golden Globe Award nominations (with two wins). And though she has had a few clunkers over the years, her list of credits is heavily skewed toward the good end of the spectrum.

Linney studied acting at Julliard (per Backstage), where she attended a four-year program after having already graduated from Brown University. She made her screen debut (save for a walk-on extra role in 1985) in 1992 in "Lorenzo's Oil," followed by a couple of television films, the movies "Dave" and "Searching for Bobby Fischer," and then her breakout role in the miniseries "Tales of the City." She currently stars as Wendy Byrde on "Ozark," which just recently released the first half of its final season, and is set to start filming the movie "The Miracle Club" (alongside Maggie Smith and Kathy Bates) in the near future. With a resume like Linney's, it wasn't hard to find a selection of stellar performances to highlight. Here are her best TV and movie roles to date.

Tales of the City

Laura Linney has had a very long career thus far, but one of her most memorable roles was also one of her first — inexperienced, trusting Mary Ann Singleton in the Channel 4 television miniseries "Tales of the City," which aired on PBS in America. Set in the mid-'70s, Mary Ann decides to move from Ohio to San Francisco after visiting on vacation. She moves into a boarding house run by eccentric older woman Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis), and gets a job as a secretary for an advertising executive, Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat). She also makes a bunch of new friends of a variety of genders and sexualities, becomes exposed to all sorts of drugs, and even has an affair with Edgar's son-in-law, Beauchamp Day (Thomas Gibson). "Laura Linney ... is a blond, dimpled, perky personification of Midwestern naivete," according to the Orlando Sentinel.

The miniseries, based upon Armistead Maupin's first novel in his famed book series of the same name, caused quite controversy when it came out in 1993 — due to its depiction of sexuality, nudity, and substance use – recalled Vulture's Ross Rudiger in a 2019 article. Sequels based on further books in the series aired on Showtime, before Linney reprised her role in a 2019 Netflix update of the original.

Primal Fear

While 1993 was a very busy year for Laura Linney, 1994 and 1995 were a bit quieter, marked only three roles — a guest spot on "Law & Order," and two films, "A Simple Twist of Fate" and "Congo." None of this work was especially memorable, but Linney's performance in "Primal Fear" the following year was a particularly strong outing in a very good movie. "Primal Fear" is a legal thriller featuring Edward Norton as a young altar boy (Aaron Stampler) on trial for murder. He is represented in court by showy attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere), who is tasked with defending a client that he discovers was a victim of abuse at the hands of both his father and the Archbishop he killed. Linney appears in the film as Janet Venable, Vail's ex-lover and a prosecutor on the case.

"Primal Fear" was embraced by both critics and the public. Linney's role was by no means the flashiest -– certainly not compared to Norton's villain, who faked dissociative identity disorder and a stutter -– but she received some recognition nonetheless. "Laura Linney makes more of her fairly standard character than we might expect," wrote famed critic Roger Ebert, who awarded the movie three-and-a-half stars out of four in his Chicago Sun-Times review, while Austin Chronicle critic Alison Macor said, "Linney brings an edgy wit to the role of Janet Venable."

The Truman Show

Laura Linney's next great role came a few years later, when she appeared in the incredibly successful "The Truman Show," which grossed just over $264 million worldwide (per Box Office Mojo). The movie features Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, the unknowing star of a television show. Everything in Truman's life is fake, as he was adopted by the show at birth and has been broadcast ever since. The people around him –- his family, his lifelong friend, his boss –- are all actors playing roles. Truman starts to realize that elements of his life do not make sense, and eventually escapes the fake world in which he lives.

Linney plays Truman's "wife" Meryl, who is constantly breaking into product placement pitches for the hidden cameras that exist in their home. She is both knowingly playful and mischievously hilarious in the part. Meryl is eventually written out of Truman's "life" under the guise of a divorce, but Linney's part remains one of the best things in the film. "Linney plays the plastic wife with scary success," said The Washington Post in its review, and Variety said, "Linney is purposefully arch as Truman's wife."

You Can Count on Me

Laura Linney had given plenty of good performances by the time "You Can Count on Me" came out in 2000, but this film is where she solidified her place among the best actresses of her generation. "Laura Linney gives an astonishing performance, her most fully realized to date," said Variety's Emanuel Levy; Other critics called Linney's turn "wonderful" (Newsweek), unforgettable (The Washington Post), and "devastatingly good" (the San Francisco Chronicle). The actress received her first Oscar nomination for the role as well as her first Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and Independent Spirit Award nominations.

The film stars Linney as Sammy, a single mother with a messy romantic life and a complex relationship with her troubled brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo). Sammy lives in the Catskills with her son, Rudy (Rory Culkin), and works at a bank as a loan officer. When her brother shows up in need of money, it causes tension in the household and forces Sammy to look at her own choices. "Laura Linney, has it all. She can do a steamy sex scene, she can get laughs, she can provoke tears — and most importantly of all she is loyal to the American small town," said the Guardian. "It's the kind of sentiment and range that the Academy loves, and she surely deserves to beat Julia Roberts to that statuette next week." She didn't win that Oscar — but that's not to say she shouldn't have.

The House of Mirth

"The House of Mirth" is a smaller film that not many have seen, but it's more than worth checking out for fans of Laura Linney, as she makes quite the mark in a reasonably minor role. The acclaimed period drama was one of five projects Linney released in 2000, and is especially fun because the oft-wholesome Linney plays a villain. "Linney is nothing short of delicious as a wicked schemer who relishes stabbing a 'friend' in the back and watching her bleed in public," said Associated Press reviewer Sheila Norman-Culp. 

The movie centers on socialite Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson), who is torn between love and financial security as she plays the field for a husband. She is later accused of having an affair, which ruins her social standing and all hopes of finding a suitable husband. At the root of her downfall is Linney's character, Bertha Dorset, a conniving socialite who is herself cheating on her husband and who uses Lily to occupy her husband until her jealousy causes her to spread rumors. "In a relatively small role as queen b***h Bertha, Linney is the most successful among the femme cast in making her character come alive," noted Variety critic Derek Elley. The Washington Post's Michael O'Sullivan said that Linney played the role "to smarmy perfection," while the San Francisco Chronicle's Wesley Morris said, "Laura Linney makes a perfectly glacial and backstabbing Bertha Dorset."

Wild Iris

We love that Laura Linney has never shied away from television, even back before it was cool. In 2001, she starred in "Wild Iris," a decent TV movie that she completely elevates with her strong performance. The film — which aired on Showtime — was an intergenerational family drama featuring heavy themes like grief, addiction, and suicide. Linney plays Iris Bravard, a struggling widow with an alcohol problem and a strained relationship with both her son Lonnie (Emile Hirsch) and his grandmother Minnie "Min" Brinn (Gena Rowlands). Iris blames Min for her husband's suicide years prior, and begrudges Lonnie's close relationship with her. Iris realizes she needs to get on track when Lonnie attempts suicide while at work.

The New York Times singled Linney out by name: "Ms. Linney's portrait of a drunk is one of the movie's small triumphs. She isn't melodramatically sloppy but realistically sneaky and sad," wrote reviewer Julie Salamon. Linney's performance earned her a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie, her first-ever Emmy win (she now has four).

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Love Actually

Even pros make missteps, and the early 2000s is home to a couple of Laura Linney's worst films, "The Mothman Prophecies" and "The Life of David Gale." But she was also doing some good work during the same period, appearing in vehicles like the television movie "The Laramie Project" and in a small role in the much-admired film "Mystic River." But the movie we really want to single out here is "Love Actually," wherein Linney appears as Sarah, an American working in London. Sarah works at a graphic design company, and has a long-simmering crush on the company's creative director, Karl (Rodrigo Santoro).

At the urging of manager Harry (Alan Rickman), Sarah overcomes her shyness and hits on Rodrigo, but is then called away to deal with her mentally ill brother, Michael (Michael Fitzgerald). And when both Sarah and Rodrigo work late on Christmas Eve, she again chooses the selfless route to spend the evening with her brother. "Love Actually" is an ensemble film with 10 separate but interrelated stories of love, and while Sarah is one character that did not get her happy ending in terms of romance, Linney is at the center of some of the Christmas-themed film's best scenes. The Washington Post called Linney's section of the film "among the most interesting, and the most achingly real." "Love Actually" received mixed-to-positive reviews, but has become a fan favorite when it comes to holiday romantic comedies.


Laura Linney's next role after "Love Actually" was a guest arc on the television series "Frasier," which won her a Primetime Emmy Award. She also appeared in two movies in 2004, "P.S." and "Kinsey." Her work in "Kinsey" was especially strong, with the National Board of Review naming her Best Supporting Actress that year. Linney was also nominated by the Academy Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the Critics' Choice Movie Awards. Suffice it to say, her performance in "Kinsey" is considered by most to be one of her best ever.

"Kinsey" is a biographical drama about sexologist Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson), one of the first scientists to investigate sexual behavior in humans. Linney appears as Kinsey's wife, Clara McMillen, whom he meets as a student and with whom he is sexually incompatible until a surgery fixes their issues. Kinsey was highly eccentric and incredibly controversial, but Clara is so much more than a suffering wife (despite the fact that she is bullied into an open relationship by her husband, who uses their sex life for research and has an affair with his colleague). "She brings dignity, complexity, and — best yet — humor to the long-suffering-wife archetype," wrote the Austin Chronicle's Kimberley Jones, while Roger Ebert said, "Laura Linney's performance as Clara is a model of warmth and understanding in the face of daily impossibilities."

The Squid and the Whale

Laura Linney's next film after "Kinsey" was "The Squid and the Whale," another tremendous movie with yet one more amazing performance from the actress. The film, which earned Noah Baumbach an Oscar nom for Best Screenplay, focuses on two young boys dealing with their parents' divorce in 1986 Brooklyn. Linney played matriarch Joan Berkman, ex-partner of Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and mother to Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). The divorce is motivated by Joan's cheating on Bernard, and her work as a writer surpassing his success. The film then follows the breakdown of the family, as the boys take sides in a bitter battle, touching upon very real familial issues.

"The Squid and the Whale" was extremely well-received by critics and its limited audience. Entertainment Weekly's staff made a plea for Linney to gain awards traction, writing that "perhaps the most surprising thing about the performance is Linney's choice to underplay it" and that "Linney shows more restraint than many high-profile actresses might have exhibited, and work this understated deserves Academy recognition." No Oscar nomination came her way, but Linney did get recognized by the Golden Globes, Satellite Awards (where she won), and Independent Spirit Awards.

The Savages

If we had more space on this list, we could easily include Laura Linney's performances in 2006's "Jindabyne" or 2007's "Breach," which are only two of her nine acting credits from 2006 and 2007. But there was no way to pass up her work in the 2007 film "The Savages," which earned her a third Academy Award nomination. The dark comedy made its premiere at Sundance in January and gathered a small but passionate audience when it was released widely later in 2007. The movie is about two siblings, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Wendy (Linney) Savage, who come together to care for their father Lenny (Philip Bosco), who is suffering from dementia and in the process of being moved into a nursing facility. Given that Lenny was an abusive father, the siblings are understandably less than enthused by their responsibilities, and the way their father's health interferes with their own lives. When Lenny dies, it prompts both Jon and Wendy to evaluate their choices, and make some important changes.

Critics generally praised the film, as well as the performances and script. Variety called the lead performances "superb," and the Austin Chronicle referred to them as "extraordinary." Linney, in particular, was singled out by reviewers. "Hoffman and Linney are superb, but as the film mainly follows Wendy, it's Linney who has the opportunity to give the standout performance, and she does," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle. "She's full throttle and energetic, knows exactly what she's doing at every moment, and she's funny — very funny."

John Adams

In 2008, Laura Linney appeared in the seven-episode HBO miniseries, "John Adams," a biographical series tracing the political life of President Adams from 1770 to 1826. Linney played Abigail Adams, opposite Paul Giamatti. And though the focus was far more on the founding father's political life than his personal one, Linney was front and central as the leading lady in the cast, particularly in Part IV. In this episode, the couple has a big post-war reunion, and Abigail later convinces John to accept a nomination for vice president.

The miniseries boasts an impressive critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, and it was an awards juggernaut, earning 23 Primetime Emmy Award nominations and winning 13, including one for Linney for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie. Linney also won a Golden Globe Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her work as Abigail. While Time called the role "underwritten," this clearly did not stop Linney from eating it up. "Laura Linney, with charm and determination, shows why Abigail was so important to her husband and, indirectly, to the birth of the nation," noted the AP's Barry Garron (via The Hollywood Reporter). Other publications said she played the role "exquisitely" (The New Yorker) and with "iron-willed delicacy" (Entertainment Weekly).

The Big C

In 2010, Laura Linney took on the leading role in the Showtime dramedy series "The Big C," which she also executive produced. She was nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards for the role, winning one in 2013, as well as two Golden Globe Awards and two Satellite Awards (she won one of each, both in 2010). The fourth and final season was re-labelled "The Big C: Hereafter," and treated as a miniseries because it included only four episodes.

"The Big C" is about a Minneapolis high-school teacher, Cathy Jamison (Linney), who is diagnosed with cancer, prompting her to look at how she lives her life. Cathy originally keeps her melanoma diagnosis from her husband Paul (Oliver Platt), son Adam (Gabriel Basso), and brother Sean (John Benjamin Hickey), but eventually lets them in on things — after making some big changes, like kicking out her husband, having an affair, and buying a fancy car. Cathy dies at the end of the series; a final scene focuses on her afterlife.

While the seasons vary in terms of quality and critical reception (per Rotten Tomatoes), "The Big C" is widely regarded as a standout in Linney's career. In their Season 1 reviews of the show, Newsweek's Joshua Alston called her "characteristically wonderful" and the AP's Randy Dawn labeled Linney "one of our great underestimated actresses" (via The Hollywood Reporter).  Even outlets that did not like the show praised Linney, such as Variety, which said "The Big C" was "watchable for what Linney brings to it."


We are huge "Ozark" fans, and Laura Linney is a big part of the reason why the show works for us. She has played matriarch Wendy Byrde since the show made its debut on Netflix in 2017, and we cannot wait for the final half of the last season to drop later this year. Wendy and her husband Marty (Jason Bateman) work for a Mexican drug cartel; throughout the show's episodes, Wendy often exhibits more killer instinct than her pragmatic husband. This is perhaps due to her work in political public relations and lobbying, or maybe her complex familial dynamics. In any case, while she is at times a maternal protector, she can also be terrifyingly self-serving and power hungry.

Linney's work on "Ozark" has earned her two Primetime Emmy Award nominations, a Golden Globe Award nomination, and five Screen Actors Guild nominations. And if you ask us, it's a travesty that she has not yet won at least one award — if only for the heartbreaking scene where Wendy breaks down in her car after okaying a hit on her mentally ill brother, Ben Davis (Tom Pelphrey). Awards aside, critics have been smitten with Linney's work, and the show in general. In reviews for the show, Linney has been called everything from a "mesmerizing force" (Indiewire) to "the most compelling actress on TV" (The Daily Beast).