Laura Linney Reflects on ‘Tales of the City’s Return, Mary Ann’s Journey & More
When Tales of the City premiered on PBS 25 years ago, most viewers had seen nothing like it. Based on the first of Armistead Maupin’s nine novels about a group of friends — straight, gay and transgender — living at apartment complex 28 Barbary Lane in 1970s San Francisco, the exuberant drama featured pot-smoking, lovemaking and other TV-MA material mixed in with a soapy mystery. “It changed the conversation,” says Laura Linney, who delighted as Mary Ann Singleton, a naive Ohioan.
Despite Tales nabbing PBS’s best ratings in a decade, the network declined to produce follow-ups. (Some claimed they caved to protesters.) So Showtime stepped in for More Tales (1998) and Further Tales (2001). Now the baton has passed again, with Netflix debuting the fourth entry, a 10-episode sequel set in present day. “We’d all been hoping that Tales would return,” continues Linney. “We just didn’t think it would take this long!”
Fans will be happy to know that Mary Ann isn’t the only character to come back: Eccentric land-lady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis); Brian Hawkins, Mary Ann’s ex-husband (Paul Gross); and best friend Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Murray Bartlett) are all here. Meanwhile, new faces include Mary Ann’s estranged daughter, Shawna, and filmmaker Claire (Ellen Page and Zosia Mamet). Linney opens up to TV Guide Magazine about her new Tales.
This is set more than 40 years after the original took place, but the characters haven’t aged accordingly. How does that work?
Laura Linney: We’ve sort of leapt over all the novels and taken a little artistic license to make it feasible for us all to come back. It’s all original material.
The series opens with a reunion at Mrs. Madrigal’s 90th birthday party. How did it feel to reunite with Olympia Dukakis?
Fantastic! Olympia has unbelievable spirit and great rapier-like execution. In the tradition of Armistead Maupin, there is a mystery involving Anna Madrigal that plays out through the season.
What can you say about that?
Nothing! I’m not going to say a thing! [Laughs]
What was your reaction when you saw the Barbary Lane set again for the first time since 2001?
It’s always emotional. It’s the heart of the show and symbolizes so much for so many people, particularly for those of us who have lived through the making of the series.
Mary Ann’s sunniness was central to the character. How has she changed?
She left 28 Barbary Lane, Brian and their daughter and moved to the East Coast to pursue [a broadcasting] career. It didn’t work out, but she stayed, remarried and had not been back to San Francisco since. When she returns, she’s doesn’t feel part of the family.
There’s definitely some awkwardness with her daughter, Shawna.
[The girl] quite rightfully feels abandoned. There’s a lot for Mary Ann to face up to. She’s completely justified in her own mind, but it’s still very, very wrong.
What’s Mary Ann’s journey?
She has to ‘fess up that she’s made some mistakes. A lot of it is just her really accepting who she is, flaws and all, and having to admit that she wants to come home to 28 Barbary Lane.
Can someone who never watched the earlier Tales jump right into this series?
Oh, I think so. This absolutely is for the new generation.
With all your post-Tales success, does Mary Ann Singleton still hold a special place in your heart?
Absolutely! My life changed for the better and drastically when I was able to play Mary Ann. So my heart will always grow whenever I think of Tales.
Are there more chapters coming?
I hope so. We’ll see! But right now, we’re just proud that it is what it is at this moment.
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, Series Premiere, Friday, June 7, Netflix
Watch More Laura Linney: Here’s Where to See Her Best TV Shows
Tales of the City
A 29-year-old Linney (far right, with costars Chloe Webb, Paul Gross and Marcus D’Amico) broke out on the original 1994 PBS series as a wide-eyed Midwesterner shocked by the debauchery of California. Six episodes available on Acorn TV
She nabbed a guest actress Emmy for her recurring role on the final season of the NBC comedy as matchmaker Charlotte, who enchants shrink Frasier (Kelsey Grammer). Seasons 1–11 available on Netflix
Another win! Linney portrayed the nation’s second first lady, Abigail Adams, in HBO’s 2008 limited series based on David McCullough’s bestselling biography of the titular founding father. She earned an outstanding lead actress in a miniseries Emmy, one of 13 trophies the show took home. All seven episodes available on Prime Video and HBO Now
“She’s a hot mess,” the actress says about her character on Netflix’s twisty drama. Wendy Byrde (Linney, with onscreen family Sofia Hublitz, Jason Bateman and Skylar Gaertner) co-runs a drug-smuggling business while trying to stay alive. Seasons 1–2 available on Netflix