When it comes to acting, Laura Linney knows no fear. She has embodied everyone from steely First Lady Abigail Adams in HBO's John Adams to FDR's mousy cousin/lover in the recent biopic Hyde Park on Hudson. But with her Golden Globe-winning performance on The Big C, she took on a seemingly impossible feat: making cancer funny.
Now the show is being put to rest with a four-episode finale, but neither Linney nor her character, Cathy, is going down quietly. Tonight's episode finds her struggling with chemotherapy — she wants to stop treatment so she can feel well enough to take care of her family and make sure they'll be strong enough to survive without her.
Soon after the show's fourth season wrapped, the 49-year-old three-time Emmy winner shared her thoughts about the end of Cathy's journey.
TV Guide Magazine: Are four episodes enough for the satisfying ending you wanted?
Laura Linney: Some shows are canceled without any warning at all. It was fantastic that we got an hour for each episode to complete the narrative.
TV Guide Magazine: The entire series has followed Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief. Where is Cathy, emotionally, in the season's first episode?
Linney: She's in sort of a depression. We fast-forward to get through the last stage, acceptance, and there's a little bit of all the stages at the end. [Laughs]
TV Guide Magazine: What are some of the major issues Cathy and her family must face?
Linney: We touch upon options in dealing with someone with an advanced disease that I didn't know were possible. I don't want to give away any secrets, though.
TV Guide Magazine: What are her goals as her health worsens?
Linney: She really wants her family to live their lives fully — her son Adam [Gabriel Basso], husband Paul [Oliver Platt], brother Sean [John Benjamin Hickey], dear friend Andrea [Gabourey Sidibe] and even her estranged father [Brian Dennehy]. She desperately wants to do the right thing for them.
TV Guide Magazine: Besides Dennehy, who are some of the other guest stars?
Linney: The magnificent Alan Alda is back as Cathy's oncologist. Kathy Najimy plays her therapist and Isaac Mizrahi has a wonderful storyline as Andrea's fashion-design mentor. Dana Ivey also has a fantastic arc as a fellow cancer patient.
TV Guide Magazine: What do you say to fans who might think the final four episodes could be too sad to watch?
Linney: I hope they return, but I respect that people could be afraid of the show, especially if they are living with someone who is battling cancer or if they have cancer themselves. I completely understand. My father [playwright Romulus Linney] died while we were making the series.
TV Guide Magazine: Your dad had cancer?
Linney: He died of lung cancer very, very quickly between Seasons 1 and 2, the night before I got my Golden Globe. I couldn't talk about it for a long, long time. I was doing a show about cancer, and of course everybody wanted to know how I felt, and I just wasn't ready to talk about it. It was very difficult to negotiate that, because people do step over the line in an effort to get a good story.
TV Guide Magazine: You had another connection to this show through your mother, Ann Perse, didn't you?
Linney: She was a nurse at [New York's] Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center for my entire childhood, and I'm incredibly proud of the work she did there. What I remember most about her stories is the love of the people that she got to know. So cancer is something that I've been aware of for a very long time. It influenced my view of life from a very early age.
TV Guide Magazine: What kind of responses have you received from people affected by the disease?
Linney: The cross section of people who say they're grateful has been wonderful — everyone from a waiter to a bank president, every nationality, every ethnicity. Some people were angry that Cathy didn't tell anyone she had cancer for some time, though they kept watching! My hope is that the show makes people feel less alone and lets them know that there is a strong community out there for them. Not that television should revolutionize the world, but if it has helped one family, that's a good thing.
TV Guide Magazine: Why did a comedy about cancer appeal to you?
Linney: I was very excited about the idea of using comedy to get closer to truth. I find that to be the most liberating comedy.
TV Guide Magazine: What truth have you learned from the show?
Linney: It is a privilege to age. Not everybody gets to do it, and I get very angry on behalf of my friends who didn't have the opportunity to see their faces wrinkle when I hear someone complain about feeling old at 45. It's crazy thinking!
TV Guide Magazine: How did playing a woman in such emotional and physical distress for four seasons affect you?
Linney: It's impossible not to think about the end of your own life and those of whom you love, but also the potency of life when it's good. I feel like I have a responsibility to live my life well because of the people who haven't been given that opportunity.
TV Guide Magazine: What's next for you?
Linney: Time off! I'm just back from Europe, where I did a small part in Bill Condon's [WikiLeaks-themed] movie The Fifth Estate. Now I'm going to enjoy the summer.
TV Guide Magazine: Would you consider doing another TV series?
Linney: Never say never. Who knows what's around the corner?
The Big C premieres Monday at 10/9c on Showtime.
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