ON A DAY OFF FROM MOVIEMAKING, Laura Linney has wandered into L.A.'s Museum of Natural History, where—wouldn't you know it?—she comes upon a chimpanzee display. Time for "Ape Call"! No, that's not some simian mating sound she learned on the set of Congo, the jungle thriller in which she currently stars. Rather, the peculiar noises emanating from the 31-year-old actress, demurely clad in a sky-blue linen suit, are part of the 1956 Nervous Norvus ditty she and her father sang when she was growing up in Manhattan.

"We'd always hit a red light at 64th and Third," Linney explains, "and every time, we'd break into 'Ape call diddly wa ba!' " The memory makes her collapse even now into honks of laughter.

This is clearly a woman who enjoys having gorillas in her midst. Her Congo role—as a communications expert who clashes with killer primates while searching for missing colleagues—required her to share screen time with dozens of pseudo-apes. One, a scene-stealer named Amy, was a high-tech puppet operated from within by a human. The effect was so lifelike, says Linney, that it was "easy to become emotionally involved." She found shooting in the jungles of Costa Rica equally moving: "I'd call my dad and say, 'I hung from a tree today; then I ran down a volcano!' "

Her Congo costars were impressed by her enthusiasm. Says Dylan Walsh, who plays a primatologist: "Between takes, she'd run around with her laser gun and scream in her best imitation of an action-adventure heroine."

Linney's role playing began when she was a toddler. Her parents—retired nurse Ann Perse, 56, and playwright and Columbia University playwriting professor Romulus Linney, 64—divorced when she was 6 months old, and Linney, their only child together, created imaginary friends. "At school," she says, "I was always trying to con my teachers into letting me act out book reports instead of writing them."

At 12, Linney begged her father to get her an unofficial job as a stagehand at a small New Hampshire summer theater. There, she says, "I remember crawling up to the sound booth during a show, and an audience member stopped me and said, 'Little girl, I don't think you belong up there.' I kind of smiled and said, 'Yeah, I think I do.' "

Not that there weren't bumps on the road to stardom. After graduating from Brown with a degree in theater in 1986, Linney attended Juilliard, where she suffered such severe stage fright for more than a year that she "couldn't walk and talk at the same time. I felt I'd been kidding myself, that I should find something else to do." With the help of her boyfriend—now her fiancé—fellow Juilliard actor David Adkins, she overcame her insecurity, and in 1990 she made her off-Broadway and Broadway debuts in Six Degrees of Separation. Last year she starred as sheltered Midwesterner Mary Ann Singleton on PBS's cult-hit mini-series Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City. Her most recognizable pre-Congo work, though, was her goofy turn in 1993's Dave. Squashed in bed beneath a suddenly comatose U.S. President (Kevin Kline), she gave new meaning to the term "press secretary."

These days Linney is trying hard to make a life with Adkins, 32, who, she says with a laugh, is "just as complex as I am." He's just as busy, too, appearing in an L.A. stage production of Kenneth Branagh's Public Enemy while she is shooting Primal Fear, a courtroom thriller, due this fall, with Richard Gere.

The two, who have set no wedding date, make sure they visit at least once every three weeks when they're away on separate projects—"even," says Adkins, "if it means getting on a plane." That's a big "if" for Linney, who is afraid to fly—especially after a recent flight from L.A. to New York City. "We hit something called clear-air turbulence," she says. "People were flying about; one guy cracked his head open on the ceiling." Linney shudders. "I wrote notes to the people I love and shoved them in my pockets. I said to myself, 'I cannot die now!' " In life, as in art, she realizes, timing can sometimes be everything.

JENNIFER KORNREICH
KURT PITZER in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Kurt Pitzer.