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With Linda Emond in Broadway's 'Death of Salesman,' it's hard not to pay attention
NEW YORK (AP) ' It's a glorious spring day in New York, so Linda Emond wants to meet in Central Park.
She finds an empty bench by a pond where ducks quack along happily in the sunshine and tiny model sailboats meander. Her day is packed and there is so much darkness ahead.
"I have a little window where it feels like if I can get outside and it's nice out, it's good for my soul," the actress says.
In a few hours, Emond will be in the Barrymore Theatre, in one of the most anguishing parts in American theater ' Linda Loman in the acclaimed revival of "Death of Salesman."
The production ' starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman and Andrew Garfield as Biff under the direction of Mike Nichols ' gets much of its heart from Emond, who plays the part with ferocious love.
She is holding her family together with her nails, watching her husband fall apart, taking his abuse, soaring with his hopes, playing interference between him and her sons, and generally walking on eggshells. But hers is an inexorable march to widowhood and Emond is breathtaking.
The Tony Award nominating committee agreed, giving Emond a nomination last week for best performance by an actress in a featured role. She'll compete for the Tony against Spencer Kayden from "Don't Dress for Dinner," Celia Keenan-Bolger of "Peter and the Starcatcher," Judith Light from "Other Desert Cities" and Condola Rashad from "Stick Fly."
"It's a great honor, frankly, to do this play, especially in this company and with these people. It is one of the greatest plays ever written. To do it right ' by right, I mean the right pieces, the right sets and the right lights and the right people around you ' I got very, very lucky. I pinch myself every day."
It's Emond's second Tony nomination in a career that has included stints on Broadway in "Life x 3" and "1776," roles in TV shows like "The Good Wife" and "Gossip Girl," parts in the movies "Julie & Julia" and "Stop-Loss," and off-Broadway theater credits like Tony Kushner's "Homebody/Kabul."
"I feel like, honestly, I've been living the dream for a long time," Emond says. "I have always had wonderful work with wonderful people and the opportunities have only gotten more interesting."
Emond had never performed "Death of a Salesman" or worked on it in acting class before Nichols called to offer her the part in July 2010. "That was a very good phone call," she jokes.
Nichols has been a fan for years, watching Emond disappear in roles. He notes that many people waiting for the cast outside the Barrymore Theatre's stage door don't recognize her when she emerges. "It says that she's a great actress. She becomes other people and brings herself ' absolutely all of herself ' at the same time," he says.
She has put in a tremendous amount of work to understand the role, reading Miller's autobiography "Timebends" and digging into the stage directions for clues. Linda Loman is often considered a long-suffering wife, but Emond points out that Miller writes that she is "most often jovial" and that Elia Kazan, the original director of "Death of a Salesman," once called her "terrifyingly tough."
"I never come in with some idea of what I'm going to do," says Emond, a petite and youthful 52. "Whatever I'm playing is in the play. You just work to say the lines in a way that feels right."
It is not a frivolous role, and Emond usually arrives three hours before performances. In the first hour she eats dinner and checks her iPad. The next two are getting psychically prepared for what she calls this "mysteriously powerful play." It opens immediately in a state of emergency and never really calms down.
Along the way she gets to utter the play's most famous lines ' "attention must be paid" ' but Emond doesn't show off in its delivery, insisting on remaining true to the spirit of the piece and Miller's words.
"It's so interesting that in people's minds it's a huge sentence. You often will see people say it with exclamation points or capital letters. In the text, it is a tiny little sentence, there's no exclamation point, it's in the middle of a paragraph. It's a piece of something and somehow it's become this iconic thing," she says.
"Frankly, I had to battle it. You have expectations. I did recognize there probably was an expectation that I would be screaming 'ATTENTION MUST BE PAID!' And that's not the way it's written."
Attention has been building for Emond since she landed in New York more than a dozen years ago after working in Chicago and Los Angeles. She seems to be attracted to roles that reflect her: warm, intelligent and expressive.
Hoffman calls her "an amazing talent" and is thankful that her skills are being recognized. "She's an actor to the core. She's 100 percent actor," he says. "She's a rare bird. That's what she does. That's her life. What she gives to the theater, it's not like other people."
From her rent-stabilized studio apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, she has worked steadily in the theater, with credits including "Nine Armenians," ''The Dying Gaul," ''The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" and last year's Kushner off-Broadway debut of "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures."
Hoffman saw her in that and in "Life x 3," and the two had spoken about hopefully one day working together when they'd meet socially. "She puts a lot of thought into what she does. There's no stone unturned," he says. "When she starts working, there's very little that's going to be unmined."
She met Arthur Miller once ' at a Roundabout Theater Company reading of "After the Fall" shortly before the playwright's 2005 death, but it was brief and in a crowd. What would she do if she had the chance to meet him again?
"I think I would just listen," she answers.
One of her best friends is another playwright ' Kushner, a man with whom she shares Thanksgiving dinners and commiserates with when their favorite contestants from "RuPaul's Drag Race" are eliminated. She calls him a genius but also a "total goofball," a man who when given bright socks as a present will photograph himself wearing them in a pre-Raphaelite pose.
She became friendly with him in the late 1990s when he asked her to read something he'd written for a public event. She was over the moon, but he warned her: "It's not a little thing and it's going to take you a little bit of time."
He wasn't kidding. It turned out to be the one-hour opening monologue of "Homebody/Kabul," an eccentric English woman's complex, meandering speech speckled with obscure place names. "I had to cancel everything for three weeks," she recalls with a smile. The speech would later earn her an Obie and a Lucille Lortel Award.
Her first love is the theater, and to pay the bills while doing off-Broadway work, Emond has raised her voice ' specifically, doing voice-over work and recording audio books. She's narrated documentaries and specials for National Geographic, Discovery, TLC, A&E and PBS, as well as over 50 episodes of the Lifetime series "Intimate Portraits." It's Emond who often reads books by Kathy Reichs and Laura Lippman, and has done ads for Miralax, Advil and AXA Equitable.
"I'm really good with medical jargon," she says. "It sounds like it makes sense."
A few weeks after meeting Emond in the park, the announcement of her new Tony nomination barely broke her stride. She knew something was up by the huge volume of emails and texts on her phone, but she nevertheless rushed to make yoga class.
She said she'd take a moment to reflect on all the good wishes later. "It's a lovely thing to be noticed," she says. Alas, the afternoon was rainy, and that meant no visit to the park today to repair her psyche.
Too bad. "The ducks are extremely frisky right now," she says.
Follow Mark Kennedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits