Laura Linney

Laura Linney’s numerous work commitments forced her to pause when she was offered the lead in the black comedy-drama, The Big C. But, upon reading the script, she found the character too titillating to turn down. Two years on, it has been a runaway success. Debashine Thangevelo gets the Hollywood actress’ take on the series and finds out what Hugh Dancy thinks of his downcast character in the second instalment…

CANCER as the subject for a TV series doesn’t exactly instil the same excitement as escapist shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife or Suits. But The Big C has managed to wow viewers.

Credit, of course, goes to the cast, spearheaded by Laura Linney as Cathy Jamieson, who is diagnosed with melanoma and preps for the inevitable in season one.

The follow-on season, which recently aired on M-Net, introduces a changed Cathy – she has decided to fight the cancer.

Linney explains: “She’s starting to fight. If you remember what happened at the end of season one, there was an important juxtaposition between her neighbour Marlene (played by Phyllis Somerville), who commits suicide, and Cathy, who has a terminal illness.

“There is a great contrast between someone who has time and doesn’t want it and someone who has no time, but wants it. It’s a fascinating subject,” she said.

What else changes in her life?

“In some ways, Cathy was so unfair to Paul (her husband) in season one. Granted, he was a big baby! But he was kept in the dark about her illness and got the raw end of the stick. Now he knows more about Cathy’s terminal cancer and is stepping up to the plate. He is finally being allowed to be more of a man,” Linney reveals.

On whether she regrets giving the green light to the role, she admits: “To be honest, I wasn’t looking to do a TV series – like moving from job to job, which takes me to different places. But this show chimed with what I was thinking about a lot in my own life.

“Our time here is finite and ageing is a great privilege. But it’s not always seen as a great privilege. Here in the US, there is a strange logical schism about ageing. More and more people are becoming ashamed of their age and dreading the ageing process.”

Although the plot is centred on a serious subject, it is given a comical treatment to balance the tone.

On whether that is the right approach, Linney defends: “Yes. The role of comedy is to point a finger at the truth and deal with overwhelming situations. Comedy is grasping at trying to understand things. When it tickles the truth, it’s at its funniest. Is it slapstick? No.

“Hopefully, it’s liberating as it allows some air into the subjects of cancer, mortality and family.”

Interestingly, this season sees Hugh Dancy (Saving Grace, Confessions of a Shopaholic) introduced as Lee, a fellow patient in Cathy’s clinical trial.

Expanding on his character, Dancy says: “He meets Cathy at a clinical cancer trial. He is also a patient, but he is beating the odds. He’s been ill for 12 years. The contrast between Lee and Cathy is that Lee’s figured out a way to negotiate the disease. He’s a Buddhist and has learnt to detach himself from events.”

The 37-year-old British actor says they don’t start off on the best of notes.

He explains: “It is initially very combative. Cathy thinks Lee is a jerk – obviously she’s wrong about that! But she has not been close to anyone in the same situation before and rapidly they become close friends. They balance each other out.”

And so with a new friend- ship forged from a trying situation, the second season meanders through more dramatic upheavals and conflicts as Cathy tries to beat the odds.

• The Big C airs on M-Net (DStv channel 101) at 10.30pm on Tuesdays.