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Variety is the spice of an acting life for `Squid/Whale' star

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Even an actress as versatile as Laura Linney occasionally gets a "Don't call us, we'll call you."

For instance, Linney is dying to reteam with "Kinsey" director Bill Condon on his next project. But it ain't happening. "I keep telling Bill to cast me in `Dreamgirls,' but he just isn't doing it," chuckles Linney, who would be a stretch for any role in the all-black musical about a group very much like the Supremes.

But, in general, Linney says, "I haven't really found myself in a situation where I thought a role was forbidden to me. I have been asked to do some press things that were outside of my comfort zone, but, in terms of the acting stuff, I've never worried about that."

Which is probably why Linney has played so many different roles, such as the working-class Lady Macbeth in "Mystic River," the efficient attorney in "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," the scattered mom/sister in "You Can Count on Me," the small-town peace officer in "The Mothman Propecies" and the brusque intellectual in "The Squid and the Whale."

"You do tend to go through phases, like there were a lot of lawyers for a while, and, after Emily Rose,' there will probably be more," says Linney, whose phone manner is like you'd expect: crisp, quick and funny. "And then, once in a while, someone will send you something, and you're relieved that it is so different. Clint (Eastwood) casting me inMystic River' in that way was wonderful. `Driving Lessons,' which is coming out later in the year, is different, too, I think. I play a domineering mother."

There may be more domineering mothers headed her way after "Squid and the Whale." Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, it's based on his childhood, in which his parents (played by Linney and Jeff Daniels) divorced and shared way too much information with their children.

"My response to a script is generally to the overall thing, not the part I'm playing," says Linney. "But I loved the wit and humor and insight in this script. I loved these unsympathetic people that I felt sympathy for."

Baumbach and Linney have been friends for years, and Linney is, essentially, playing his mom, film critic Georgia Brown, but Linney says she didn't need to hang with Brown to play the role.

"I had met her one time briefly, but, really, everything I needed was in the script," says Linney, who is taken aback when it's pointed out to her that Brown has probably reviewed her movies. "I've certainly watched a lot of women outgrow relationships, so that wasn't hard to understand. And I've watched people who, in an attempt to grow closer to their children, will discuss things with them that they have no business discussing with them. So I felt like I understood what was going on there, too."

And, of course, if she had any questions, the guy who wrote the script - and lived it - was right there, directing her. "The great directors make you feel like you've done it all on your own, even though you know you needed them so much," says Linney. "Bill Condon is that way, and Clint. The analogy I use is, you know the Arthur Murray dance studios? In the 50s and60s, there were these things you could send away for that gave you footprints to learn dance steps. You followed along, and all of a sudden, you were doing the fox trot. It's like that with a great director. You're doing the steps, but they create a situation where you cannot not fox trot."

On "The Squid and the Whale," Linney says it also helped that the fox trotters had plenty of time to rehearse. Since most of the film focuses on four people - the couple and their two sons (played by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline) - rehearsals made the actors feel like a family.

"There's something about the speed of film that can be very instant pudding," says Linney. "But, when the film requires a little more depth, a little bit of rehearsal time is necessary. You need to make the pudding the old-fashioned way. You see that onstage all the time. Only time will deepen a production - it only happens three months into a run."

In the case of "The Squid and the Whale," the pudding came out delicious, according to critics and Linney. "Working with like-minded people is just terrific. When you're in that room together, it's great fun," says Linney. "It was an enormous pleasure to watch Noah make this movie that he had waited so long to make, and it was fun to be doing it in Brooklyn and then to see the whole thing turn out so well."


(c) 2005, St. Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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