Netflix's Tales of the City: Laura Linney on reprising the role of a lifetime

2019-06-11 20:09:51

On a quiet, leafy block of Taylor Street, in San Francisco's Russian Hill, there is a curious wooden staircase that springs from the middle of the footpath and ascends to a cobbled laneway overgrown with thickets.

Back in 1993, in the opening scenes of the first Tales of the City television series, based on Armistead Maupin's best-selling book of the same name, Laura Linney, playing American everywoman Mary Ann Singleton, took her first nervous steps up those stairs to the fictional 28 Barbary Lane.

Her journey, and that apartment block on Barbary Lane, have become permanent fixtures in popular culture, revisited in eight subsequent books and two television sequels in 1998 and 2001. Now, in a sequel series for Netflix, Linney and Barbary Lane's other residents – including Anna (Olympia Dukakis) and DeDe (Barbara Garrick) – are returning for a new chapter.

In Maupin's original 1978 novel, he described 28 Barbary Lane as "a well-weathered, three-storey structure made of brown shingles [on] a narrow, wooded walk-way … It made Mary Ann think of an old bear with bits of foliage caught in its fur. She liked it instantly".

Reflecting on the first steps she took on that staircase more than 25 years ago, 55-year-old Linney describes it as an almost mystical experience, a blend of the weathered wood of the stairs and the promise of what lay in wait at the top.

"It takes a little effort to get up those stairs," she says. "The fact that they're wooden … it has a sense of history to it, it's worn and at times splintery, but there was a patina to those stairs that was powerful. It felt special, that you were climbing up to a place that was magical and mystical and slightly sacred. And unique."

Linney's relationship with the character of Mary Ann is rare in the acting world. Many actors have the chance to do a sequel, and some even return to a part decades later, but few have had the chance to revisit a character regularly across the span of the actor and character's parallel lives.

"To intersect with a character at various points in your life over 25 years is sort of unheard of," she says. "It's a piece of work that I truly love. It's so much bigger than any one person. And it means so much to so many people, and for good reason."

Maupin's Tales of the City books have always been a snapshot of modern urban life, equal parts Number 96, Melrose Place and Sex and the City. Set in San Francisco, they are both sensual and sexual, authentic in a way that few modern stories are and brutally sentimental in its emotional pivots. Love, loss and pain have always been there, in equal measure.

Linney describes Tales of the City as a "compass showing us how to treat each other, how to behave. There's something that just feels very good about re-entering that world and reminding yourself that, no matter how lonely you might feel, you're not alone. That there are really good people out there. That life is funny and awkward and confusing but everyone's trying the best they can".

"It feels good to go to 28 Barbary Lane, no matter what time of my life it is," she adds. "So I'm really lucky that if there was a character that I was going to be playing for a long time, it would be this one. It also has a sense of humour that's delicious and it comes from a warm heart. It comes from a very good place."

Born in Manhattan, New York, Linney was fresh out of drama school when she was chosen to play Mary Ann Singleton, a character Maupin had created on the fly for a newspaper column he had been writing for Pacific Sun, and later, The San Francisco Chronicle. As the name suggests, she was created as a typical single San Francisco girl.

"I was someone who knew nothing but the theatre, and that was where I felt I belonged and where I should be," Linney recalls. "I was very surprised to be cast in something [like Tales of the City] and I was even more surprised at how much I was enjoying it.

"I was intimidated by film and television, I really didn't think it was going to be a significant part of my life. And, much to my surprise, it became a magical experience. I just had so much fun. I showed up to work every day, bright-eyed and really happy to be there. I was literally in this state of delight the entire time."

Linney believes the character of Mary Ann was not naive, as many thought her to be. "She was coming from the Midwest, but there was a big misconception, and there's still a big misconception actually, that Mary Ann was naive and not very bright.

"I always thought the opposite. I always thought Mary Ann was very bright, she just didn't know the rules of the game. But once she'd figured it out, she would be just fine and not as square.

"She's more complicated and more complex, and had much more to offer, than anyone realised."


The new series of Tales of the City is now streaming on Netflix.

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