Laura Linney, Icy Volcano

Everyone thinks they discovered Laura Linney, says her friend, the author Armistead Maupin. There are the devotees who claim to have discovered her in the PBS miniseries adaptation of Tales of the City , in which Ms. Linney-then an unknown not far removed from Juilliard-played Mary Ann Singleton, the Midwestern innocent who centers Mr. Maupin’s ribald chronicle of pre-AIDS San Francisco. There are those who say they noticed Ms. Linney’s acting prowess as Richard Gere’s prosecutorial nemesis in Primal Fear ; as Clint Eastwood’s estranged daughter in Absolute Power ; as Jim Carrey’s chirpy ersatz wife in The Truman Show . More recently, there are the legions that discovered Ms. Linney in You Can Count on Me , in which she played the single mother Sammy Prescott earned her first Academy Award nomination. There are even people who say they first noticed Ms. Linney in the schlocky Congo, in which she did a lot of running through dense growth and a tribe of angry simians devoured, among other things, Tim Curry.

And as usual whenever an actor comes into his or her moment, there are the typical, braying showbiz blather-amonials about brilliance , beauty , guts , authenticity and so on. In Ms. Linney’s case, it’s not that they’re wrong; each quality does exist. It’s just that she could never be a flashy flavor of the month. The East Side–bred actress, who is set to bow on Broadway with Liam Neeson in a revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible , has won over audiences gradually, both in her career and her performances, by delivering the old-fashioned slow melt-exuding a prim, WASP-ish reserve that first registers cold and then gradually becomes undone, and maybe a little reckless.

“All my straight friends tell me she is one of the sexier actresses they know,” said Mr. Maupin, who is now one of Ms. Linney’s closest friends and who accompanied her to the Academy Awards last March. “Simply because of the ‘snow-covered volcano effect’-that thing that Grace Kelly had, the girl next-door that might turn passionate at any moment.”

What amplifies this effect is experience. Ms. Linney, 38, has been acting in films for 10 years, but it feels longer, and for her earliest fans there is a certain shared sense of ownership over her career, because the rising actress they have monitored for ages-perhaps wondering if she would ever break through-has finally been received by the rest of us. Largely on the basis of director Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me , Ms. Linney is a bona fide star, not in the Julia Roberts cover-of- Rolling-Stone sense, but in the coveted, asked-for-by-directors-by-her-first-name sense.

And with that prominence, there are perks. That was Ms. Linney on the carpet at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in a cherry-red Valentino dress, which she joked cost more than her salary for the movie; and those are her pale cheekbones on posters for The Crucible , alongside those of Mr. Neeson.

A recent afternoon found Ms. Linney brewing a pot of herbal tea in her dressing room at the Virginia Theater. She wore a pair of thin black slacks and a black striped sweater, and her auburn hair was pulled back straight. The previous night, during The Crucible ‘s previews, there had been a little ruckus. The Virginia Theater rests wall-to-wall against the Roseland ballroom, and on Feb. 21, Arthur Miller’s words had been accompanied by a steady bass throb from a concert by the bands Static X and Soulfly. Richard Eyre, the play’s director, was seething, calling it a “constant earthquake” and a “significant irritation.”

Ms. Linney herself seemed amused. “It’s just one of the challenges,” she said. “You’re in a Pilgrim costume and it’s like BA-diddy-BA-diddy-BA .” (Later that afternoon, there was word that a new layer of soundproofing would be put inside the theater to prevent a repeat occurrence of l’affaire Static X.)

Though Ms. Linney had been on Broadway before-she made her debut in 1990 as an understudy to Stockard Channing in Six Degrees of Separation -and had been in dozens of plays, this was her first whirl at The Crucible. She plays-surprise, surprise-Elizabeth Proctor, the firm yet flawed wife of Mr. Neeson’s John Proctor, and so far the experience had been a revelation. “I feel like an idiot admitting this, but I really didn’t know how great it was,” she said of the play. “I think I’d seen so many productions that were well-meaning but not terribly well-executed that, over time, it just became a blur of people in Pilgrim suits. I didn’t know how the play really worked.”

She acknowledged it felt different now being on Broadway. The young women in the cast were eyeing her another way, and not simply because she was older. She was Laura Linney. Laura Linney! And it had only begun to sink in recently. “The past two years have been a bit of a blur,” she said.

The daughter of a nurse, Ann Leggett Perse, and a playwright, Romulus Linney, who separated when she was a small child, Ms. Linney said all the proper and elegant things about her recent burst of notoriety, downplaying it for one beat, expressing gratitude the next. She professed great affection for her co-stars current and former, claimed not to know what project she was doing next (this past fall Ms. Linney filmed The Life of David Gale , directed by Alan Parker and co-starring Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet, about a capital-punishment opponent who winds up on death row) and seemed genuinely taken aback by the suggestion that there had been some grand plan, that Laura Linney knew that one day she’d wind up, indeed, as Laura Linney !

“You have to understand, when you go into a business like this, that for every high, there will be four lows,” she said. “You have to completely accept that and not take it personally. You’re invested, so it’s hard not to take personally, but you have to know that the consequence of being in this business is that it’s not going to be easy. There are going to be some frustrating, disturbing periods of time.”

But now was a time to be cherished. Mr. Maupin recalled a fairy-tale-like quality to the evening when he escorted Ms. Linney to the Oscars last year (divorced from her first husband, David Adkins, she’s now seeing the actor Eric Stoltz). That night Ms. Linney lost the Oscar to Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich , of course, but it felt like a breakthrough. She belonged.

“I believe she knew she had earned it,” Mr. Maupin said. “But she still had a kind of wide-eyed wonder that evening that made her a delight to be with. We did feel somewhat like we’d arrived at Cinderella’s ball. Every great actor in Hollywood made his or her way to her at one point or another to praise her for her work.”

Ms. Linney’s work in You Can Count on Me was what did the trick, of course, suddenly making everyone a Laura Linney acolyte. In a tiny, painfully honest film, Ms. Linney delivered an acclaimed performance as the older sister of a troubled younger brother (played by Mark Ruffalo) who flirted with personal disaster herself, sleeping with her hapless boss (Matthew Broderick) and struggling to raise a child, Rudy (Rory Culkin), on her own. Though Ms. Linney places most of the credit for the small-budget film’s success on Mr. Lonergan’s direction and script-the latter, too, was nominated for an Oscar-those who know her point to her unscripted, unspoken moments as their favorites.

“She has that wonderful moment where she tells her brother that she’s fucking her boss,” said Romulus Linney, Ms. Linney’s father. “She does a funny thing there-she puts her head in her hands very quickly. She makes those kinds of choices.”

Mr. Lonergan remembers another unspoken moment. “There’s a tiny little thing she does,” he said. “She comes in the house carrying two bags of groceries, and Rory comes in front of her with the mail, and he’s not carrying anything except a couple of letters, and she follows him in and closes the door with her foot. And she doesn’t make a big deal of it, but there’s this teensy little Mom sigh that her 8-year-old is not helping her carry anything, and she’s all by herself. And it’s a small thing, but that sort of provided the whole single-mother scenario in one little gesture. And it wasn’t a big dramatic moment; it was just, there was no one helping her get her goddamn groceries in the house.”

Ms. Linney can also tackle the misspoken moment, it appears. That afternoon at the Virginia Theater, a reporter unknowingly (pretty stupidly, it turns out) violated a cardinal superstition of the acting trade by uttering the word “Macbeth” in Ms. Linney’s dressing room. The actress flew up with a start-” Don’t say that! Don’t say that! Turn off that recorder!”-and hurried the reporter out to 52nd Street, whereupon she instructed him (actually, it was more like a command ) to, as is customary for such infractions, spin around three times, spit over his left shoulder, and pound upon the stage door and ask to be re-admitted.

Then, a few moments later, back in her dressing room, Ms. Linney was herself again. She reiterated that she didn’t have a master plan. She’d like to do another film with Mr. Lonergan. What about another action film? Could she play a Bond girl? “Bond girl?” Ms. Linney unleashed a loud laugh. “Never say never.”

“This is just how it’s sort of worked out for me,” she said of her career. “It’s a crapshoot.”

Mostly, Laura Linney was comfortable being what she’d always been. And finally, that was enough for everyone else.

“Laura is substance,” said Mr. Maupin. “And that is what will make her last in the long haul.”