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Laura Linney on mastering acting at Juilliard

Premiere: 3/17/2022 | 00:15:07 |

On March 7, 2000, Laura Linney discussed her time at the prestigious and notorious Juilliard and how it helped shape her as an actor. "I was just lucky that Juilliard accepted me because it was the right program for me. It's not right for everyone, but I was really, really lucky to get in." Interview conducted for "American Masters: Juilliard" (2003), directed by Maro Chermayeff.

About the Episode

On March 7, 2000, Laura Linney discussed her time at the prestigious and notorious Juilliard and how it helped shape her as an actor. “I was just lucky that Juilliard accepted me because it was the right program for me. It’s not right for everyone, but I was really, really lucky to get in.” Interview conducted for “American Masters: Juilliard” (2003), directed by Maro Chermayeff.

00:00 – How Laura Linney decided on attending Juilliard
04:00 – Linney’s audition day
04:48 – Making the callback list
06:44 – The profound bond of the ensemble
08:25 – The thrill of acting classes
09:29 – Facing self-doubt in her third year
11:56 – “I really knew it was going to be hard and I wanted to be pushed.”
12:57 – The personal reasons for attending Juilliard
14:12 – Learning lessons in endurance, creativity, and fulfillment from Juilliard

The American Masters Digital Archive includes over 1,000 hours of never-before-seen, raw interviews: a treasure trove of the movers and shakers of American culture, including Maya Angelou, Patti Smith, Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett, Matthew Broderick, Carl Reiner, Joan Rivers, Dionne Warwick, Lee Grant, Sidney Lumet, Betty White and many others.


I was always involved in the theater.

My father's a playwright and I grew up with a heavy theatrical influence (chuckles) or a theatrical household, I guess.

And I started backstage doing summer stock and it took me a while to actually get up the courage to get on stage.

I was a little shy about that.

But I slowly did plays in high school and then I went to college and I was a theater arts major in college.

And when I was, when it became time to make a decision of whether or not to try and work professionally or go to a training program, it was very clear to me that what I needed was to go to school.

I had been to the theater a lot.

I went to the theater all the time with my family and on my own, and was an active theater goer.

And I noticed that there would be these wonderful ingenues who I'd watch over a period of time and they'd be so good and so alive and so emotional.

And then they'd get to a certain age and they'd kind of dry out and you could see that they just didn't know how to help themselves get to the next phase of their work.

In a lifetime being in the theater, you could tell they just sort of, their resources ran out.

And I wanted to make sure that that didn't happen to me (laughs) because I knew that I was a creative person.

I knew that I had good instincts.

I knew that I loved the theater and that it was clear that that's where I wanted my life to be.

But I thank God I was instinctive enough to know that I needed to be trained so that I could learn how to help myself as the years rolled by.

And so Juilliard, there were about five programs that were really hot when I was in college that everyone looked to and Juilliard was my last choice, actually.

I had heard terrible things about the school.

I had heard that it was snobby and elitist.

I had heard that it was, they called it the 'jail yard.'

I had heard that it was, that you go and you become a robot and I was interested in other programs actually.

But I applied just to get as many auditions under my belt as I could, and used it as my warmup audition for the other schools.

And oddly enough, I went and I remember sitting there thinking, 'Well wait a minute, this doesn't feel so bad here.

It doesn't, it feels like a school and it feels a little institutional and all of that.'

But the students who were the monitors who were helping us through the audition process were really nice, genuinely nice and the audition process, though terrifying and really you just wanna vomit the whole time you're going through it, everyone was, there was a good atmosphere there.

It was active, it was alive, it felt good.

And oddly enough, the other schools that I went to that I had my sights on, I didn't like it there.

Just the atmosphere just didn't feel right for me.

And when you look to go to a drama school, they're all good.

They all are really good.

And they offer very specific things.

And I was just lucky that Juilliard accepted me because it was the right program for me.

It's not right for everybody, but I was really, really lucky to get in.

So I was wrong about all my preconceived notions about the school.

I was right about some of them.

It's tough and it's really hard and you give up your life for four years, but it has a great heart.

The school really has a good heart.

- [Interviewer] Talk to me a little bit about the audition.

- I was at Brown University and there were a bunch of us who were auditioning during the same day and it was my birthday actually.

And I had a piece from 'Shivaree' which was my modern piece, my contemporary monologue, about a belly dancer. (laughs) And I did Hermione from 'Winter's Tale' very badly.

And it was very much like 'Flashdance.'

There's a table and there are three teachers who are there who you don't know who they are at the time.

But for me, I think it was Robert Williams, Liz Smith and John Stix and Harold Stone, I think that's who it was then.

And I did my pieces and I said, 'Thank you very much.'

And they said, 'Thank you very much.'

And I left the room and your adrenaline starts to go.

And you just think, 'Oh I made it through without completely messing up.'

And then you wait.

And then what they do is they post a list on the wall with the names of those people who were being called back for the afternoon.

And I remember sort of waiting and waiting and someone came down and they posted the list and I think there were four names on the list.

And there were a lot of people there and people just swarmed that bulletin board.

And I slowly walked up and my name was on that list.

And I just sort of turned away and I went to a hallway and I found my friend who was with me.

And I said, 'My name's on the list, I'm actually on the list.'

So then I had to wait until 5:00 that afternoon for a callback.

You've been told or you hear through the grapevine of everyone else who's auditioning, that once you go through your callback they usually put you through a rigorous improv thing.

They make you improvise some event or something.

So I finished my two pieces and I remember it was Michael Kahn stood up and said, 'Well, so does anyone need to say anything?'

And there was a deathly silence. (laughs) And they said, 'Thank you very much, Laura.

Thank you very much.'

And I think I was the, there was no improv.

And they didn't ask me to sing a song.

They didn't ask me to do anything.

They just said, 'Thank you.'

And so I said, 'Thanks.'

And I remember thinking, I love that theater so much.

The space, that theater in the school is so lovely and it felt so good.

And I remember just thinking, 'Oh God I hope I get to come back here. (chuckles) I hope I get to do something here.'

'Cause it just felt good.

The place just felt right to me but I really didn't think I was gonna get in.

And then a few weeks later I got a letter and actually my other two friends who I went to college with also got in.

So the three of us all went together, which was great.

You arrive at school and you're thrown into what you know is gonna be an ensemble for four years.

You don't know each other, you're from all over the country.

I think I was the only person from Manhattan.

I was the only person from New York City in my class other than maybe one other person, and everyone was from all over the place.

We all had vastly different backgrounds.

We varied in age from people who were right out of high school to people who had been out of college for a while.

And you're gonna spend a lot of time with these people. (laughs) You're gonna get to know them really, really well.

And even scarier, they're gonna get to know you really well.

So, and I was very lucky.

I had a great class, I loved my class.

We fought, we went through periods of time of hating each other and loving each other.

That all ebbs and flows as time goes on, but you're profoundly bonded.

I mean, I am bonded to a group of people who I might not see them for years but they're a classmate of mine (chuckles) and your feelings towards them are very, very strong.

And most of us are friends for life.

And whenever you get on the phone with someone else from your class, it's like, 'Have you heard from so and so and what are they they doing and where are they and how are they and what's going on?'

And there's the jealousies and the love affairs and the bickering and the friendships and the friendships that fall apart and the friendships that come back together.

It's an enormous thing for a group of people to go through.

And you're there, you can be extremely supportive.

And really my class was so talented.

I loved more than anything sitting in those classrooms and watching my classmates work.

Those acting classes were thrilling and watching people take a step forward or break through something, break down a wall that they'd been pounding on for a long time, or watching them grow and develop and get stronger and feel better about themselves.

And it was remarkable.

It was really incredible.

And I miss those rooms.

I find that I miss that kind of concentration.

I miss that pure concentration that has nothing to do with the business or growing older or how much money I'm making or rent or family or anything like that.

It is a really pure time and you become completely dependent on this ensemble that you're thrown into.

Oh, third year is hard.

You've learned so much.

And you're literally, you're saturated with new information about yourself and what you can do and everything that's available to you and your body's been retrained and your voice has been retrained and you've learned how to look at text in a different way and you've learned how to work with your fellow students in a certain way and you sort of, it's different for everybody, but for me, I just, I didn't know what to do.

I felt like I couldn't walk and talk at the same time.

I just hit that wall and it was ungodly painful, ungodly painful, and it's not an unusual thing to happen.

It happens usually to everyone at one point while they're there.

And for me, it was third year, for me it was Shaw.

We did a production of 'Heartbreak House' and I had stagefright for the first time in my life.

I had panic attacks.

I was bursting into flop sweats, I got on stage and I wanted to go home.

When I was on stage I would look at my sweet, wonderful classmates and just be thinking about what I had for lunch that day as opposed to being in the scene.

I was just overwhelmed, completely overwhelmed with everything that I had learned and with a sort of understanding that I had to take a step forward and I was really scared.

And fortunately, I somehow worked through it.

But I thought about leaving.

I mean, I thought about, I had such self-doubt at that point thinking, 'You know everyone's been very nice to me for all these years and they've been supportive, but I can't do this.

And who am I kidding (laughs)? And they made a mistake when they accepted me and I should just leave.' (laughs) But I was, and I laugh about it now, but at the time it was no fun.

And I was able to work through it and... But third year you are just, you don't know where to turn.

You've saturated so much and it just hasn't absorbed yet.

So you just feel like you're out of body, you can't quite function the way you know you want to and can function.

It's growing pains is what it is.

It's intense growing pains.

- [Interviewer] Thinking about the experience that you expected it to be and what it really became for you.

Do you feel that you are, do you think you were pretty much on the mark about what you were gonna get from it?

- Yeah, I was, I was pretty good about that.

I knew.

I knew that it was gonna be really hard and I knew there was a lot about it that I didn't know and didn't understand and wouldn't know until I got there.

I did not go to Juilliard expecting to be crowned with laurels and told how wonderful I was.

I really knew that it was gonna be hard and I wanted to be pushed.

I wanted to be spoken to honestly and directly about what I needed to work on and what I needed to address.

I was hungry for that and extremely appreciative of it.

Wasn't easy. (laughs) It wasn't easy.

But, invaluable.

Why you go to Juilliard, what you take from it, how you use it in the future is a very personal, personal thing.

Everyone's experience there is wildly different and wildly personal.

And you can talk to, and as I'm sure you have, you can talk to 20, 30 people and everyone will have a vastly different take on it.

And it will mean wildly different things to them.

But the one thing I can tell you is they'll be passionate about it.

What Juilliard has to offer is fantastic.

It's not for everybody.

And just 'cause you know there are so many actors I know who have not had a stitch of training and they're fantastic.

They're fantastic.

It just depends on what you want I guess and what gets you excited about doing what you do.

I mean, everyone can get very precious about being trained or being not trained and it's fantastic and it was certainly right for me but there are a gazillion good actors who've never stepped foot in a classroom.

So it's just a choice.

It's just one choice.

- [Interviewer] Do you find when you're doing roles or running up a hillside in 'Congo' or, (Laura laughs) - [Interviewer] Where does this Juilliard training kick in to these movie roles?

- Endurance more than anything else, I think.

It helps you with a sense of endurance.

It helped me that way, knowing that I was as prepared as I could possibly be, that I would know how to help myself out if I got in a jam and that I would continue to enjoy it more than anything.

It's about having a reservoir of creativity that doesn't desert you so that when the business is tough and hard and painful, you still are connected in a visceral way to what you do and that you still enjoy it and it still is fulfilling.


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