Laura Linney explains why going completely naked in The Life of David Gale was no frivolous attention-grabber.
Although Hollywood actresses have never been slow to take their tops off, they have seemed less keen than their European cousins when it comes to stripping completely. But Laura Linney, star of films as varied as Congo, The Truman Show and The House of Mirth, earns the dubious distinction in her latest movie of appearing not only in a full-frontal nude scene, but doing it with a plastic bag over her head.
Linney gave her all for the key scene in The Life of David Gale, Alan Parker’s new thriller, in which Kevin Spacey plays an Texan academic and anti-capital punishment campaigner accused of murdering the friend, colleague and one-time lover played by Linney. Half the film consists of flashbacks while the other half focuses on journalist Kate Winslet’s last-minute investigation into the case, during which a video-tape of the death scene mysteriously turns up in her motel room.
"That was all very much me," says Linney. "There was no rigging on that bag, so I really did have to hold my breath that long and when they would call cut, someone would rush in and rip the bag open. There were a few times it was a little scary, because your adrenaline is running and you’re panicked and you’re naked on the floor, so I was very relieved when the scene was over.
"It was nothing that I just sort of did in a sense of frivolity and it was very important for me that I felt that the scene would make an impact on the story, that the nudity particularly and the violence of it would provide an impact that couldn’t be reached in any other way. And I think it succeeded in that or I hope it did."
Within the industry Linney has a reputation as an actress who is prepared to take risks, while being the very opposite of a prima donna. Parker describes her as "the most generous actor" he knows. "Everything she does is infused with her own humility, an anomaly in today’s ‘look at me, aren’t I great’ acting styles... Yet, when you see the dailies and the finished film, she still ends up stealing her scenes." Of course it helps that she is naked and has a plastic bag over her head...
The Life of David Gale saw major Hollywood stars lobbying Parker for roles and Linney reckons she would have been squeezed out were it not for the success of You Can Count on Me, the low-budget comedy-drama that brought her an Oscar nomination a couple of years ago. She expresses reluctance when asked her own views on capital punishment, fearing such knowledge might distract audiences from the drama on screen, but it is a line she finds impossible to maintain. "I am against the death penalty and all of my experience with this movie just confirms my beliefs on a much deeper level. I now feel that I have an educated opinion about it." But she is unsure if the film will effect public opinion in the United States.
Parker spent months researching the subject, found the Texas Department of Criminal Justice surprisingly open and used many incidental details in the film, including the actual cost of an execution - 86 dollars and six cents, apparently.
There has frequently been a strong social message in Parker’s films, which include Midnight Express and Mississippi Burning. Linney insists however that her main priorities in assessing The Life of David Gale were storyline and character.
It was written by Charles Randolph, a professor of philosophy originally from Texas, but at the time based in Vienna. But the film ends up closer to Grisham than Plato, delivering its political message on the back of the sort of drama and suspense that is essential to get a movie out of the film theatres and into the multiplexes.