“Hopefully my career at some point will seem like a tapestry of a lot of different things and a lot of different materials woven together.”
So says Linda Cardellini who may not be a name you quickly recognize, but she is an actor you have most likely seen and enjoyed in several movie and TV endeavors spanning the last two-plus decades. Now, thanks to her truly extraordinary and Emmy-worthy performance in the Netflix comedy/thriller/drama Dead to Me, attention must be paid.
In Dead to Me, created by Liz Feldman, Cardellini plays Judy opposite Christina Applegate’s Jen, two women bonded by grief who become unlikely friends despite the ever-growing number of secrets that are eventually revealed to the audience as well as to one another. Both hard-edged and abrasive Jen and sweet and well-meaning Judy have done some terrible things and experienced their own respective traumas. And Season 1 ends with quite the cliffhanger.
In Season 2, now streaming on Netflix, the two women are drawn even closer together as they do their best to deal with the mounting insanities that include a dead body in a freezer, a possibly reincarnated bird, a horny joy-riding teen, a detective out for blood and Judy’s budding romance with a chef, Michelle (Natalie Morales), who, unbeknownst to her, has a potentially hazardous connection to Judy.
It’s very difficult to write about Dead to Me and not give plot twists and character arcs away. “You’re the nice one and I’m the shitty one,” Jen says to Judy. Alas, everything about the show is much more complex. Judy is an incredibly challenging part and Cardellini embodies her fully, chaos and all, as her character tries to navigate the difficulties involved in wanting to do the right thing and desperately trying to figure out what the right thing is.
Cardellini cut her teeth on a number of films and TV shows, most notably, the (now) cult series Freaks and Geeks, graduating to feature film roles in Legally Blonde, Scooby-Doo, Brokeback Mountain, and the intense indie Return. She spent six seasons as Nurse Samantha Taggart on the hospital drama ER and had a season arc on Mad Men in 2013 for which she received an Outstanding Guest Actress Emmy Nomination.
More recently she’s appeared in the Netflix thriller Bloodline as well as roles in such films as the blockbuster Avengers: Endgame, A Simple Favor, The Curse of la Llorona, Capone and the 2018 Oscar winner for Best Picture Green Book, opposite Viggo Mortensen.
Awards Daily recently had the pleasure of speaking with Cardellini about Dead to Me and her career.
Awards Daily: You are a true chameleon! And I mean that in the best sense…
Linda Cardellini: Thank you!
AD: My husband and I will be watching something like A Simple Favor and have to do a triple take. You transform into whomever you’re playing. Do you deliberately seek out diverse roles that challenge you?
LC: I do. I definitely do. To me, that is the exciting part about what I do. And I usually try to do something different from the last thing I’ve done so I appreciate you saying that.
AD: I just watched Return…
LC: I appreciate your watching that because it’s a lesser known movie, and it’s one of my favorite projects…She’s so different from Judy! God!
AD: I don’t have sibs, but I’ve been around many in my life and the love/hate hate/love bond feels like what Judy and Jen have. What do you think it is about them that has viewers so invested?
LC: I think they’re really well drawn characters. And they play on the flip side of the same coin. There are things that Judy admires about Jen. Judy’s inability to get angry at something that is like a wish fulfillment in what Jen is capable of in terms of her anger and rage. Jen admires Judy for the unconditional love that she offers virtually anybody. (Laughs) So I think they’re really good partners in the way that they’re unlikely friends…the idea that they were bonded by this grief which can bond you to somebody that you are not typically in line to be friends with…They rely on each other. They know so much about each other. And they’re the only people who know their true secrets. I also think that the way Christina and I get along onscreen and off lends itself to being familiar for female friendships. It reminds me of my friends and (me) and the acceptance of how messy we are with each other and to each other. It’s a familiar bond.
AD: Sometimes actors don’t have to get along for a project to work. Here it feels vital for the show to be as palpable as it is.
LC: It helps everything. It really does. And Christina is just incredible and it’s so much fun to work with her…It’s rare that I get to spend that much time with another woman onscreen, in general. And both roles are so equally delicious…They’re so different. They’re not interchangeable and we complement each other, we don’t compete with each other. Those characters exist best when they’re together.
AD: Speaking to chemistry, let’s talk a bit about you and Natalie Morales (Michelle). I have to say it was so refreshing to see a same-sex exploration that didn’t draw attention to the fact that it was, indeed, a same-sex exploration.
LC: Natalie is just wonderful and…[Michelle] is such a beautiful surprise in Judy’s life. It’s a moment of what Judy could have if she were free from all of the burdens of what she’s done. It’s sad because it’s truly a moment of happiness for Judy. They don’t come very often…I just love it and Natalie is funny and beautiful and kind and generous. We had a great time working together.
AD: I love how you could see Judy falling for her slowly so when it happened it wasn’t a shock as much as a natural progression.
LC: Yeah. And Judy really just wants to be loved. And the hard part is the people who are willing to love her she can’t really have in her life. In the first season, Brandon (Scott) who plays Nick so wonderfully, he is ready to have this relationship with her that is loving and caring. And she can’t do it. And in the second season with Michelle, there’s this wonderful relationship where she really cares about Judy and sees her for what Judy wants to be seen as and Judy can’t do that either because of all the mistakes that she’s made.
AD: I hope in Season 3 that changes.
LC: Yeah, you would hope. But she’s always going to have something that she can’t really share with anybody but Jen. Or does she? I don’t know. How do you share that with somebody and not make it a burden on them? And I think Judy’s aware of that. The last thing Judy wants to do is add more trouble to anyone’s life (Laughs) although she goes around creating a lot of it for people. It’s really not her intention.
AD: I love Judy’s earnestness. She’s always trying to do the right thing even when it leads to the wrong thing. Is there some of you in there? Are you a glass half-full person?
LC: Not necessarily. I’m not. Judy is better at that than I am. I’m more of an overthinker and sometimes I’m a little bit more like, when’s the other shoe going to fall?…But I do share a lot of traits with her. When I was first offered the role, I didn’t know how I’d do it because she seemed far from me and far from everything that I had been playing. And that was the thing that scared me but made me so excited about it. And as I grew into the character I found that she’s actually more like me than I imagined. And I think that her openness to try and connect to people, I relate to. I think she is probably more buoyant than I am in real life. She’s more spontaneous than I am. But I think I also try and see the good in people sometimes even when it’s not there.
AD: Are you and Christina aware of the twists and turns of each season before you shoot?
LC: The major ones, I generally know. I love to talk to Liz (Feldman) and pick her brain. And all the writers, they’re so much fun. We usually have some of the writers onset so it’s fun to pick their brains about what’s coming up next. We don’t get all the scripts at once…But the thing about the show is there are major twists and then each episode has smaller, mini-twists. And those are surprising at a table read…And going into the show I didn’t realize it would have so many twists and so I really enjoy that about the show. I think it helps create that binge-able quality.
AD: One of the things I love is that you guys blend genres with ease, which is not easy to do.
LC: No and it’s not easy to pick up on, on the page when you first read a script. Now, it’s Season Two so we know what we’re doing but Season One, when you’re looking at it, you’re thinking, what exactly is this? It’s not like anything else I’ve seen or done so what is this going to be? (It’s) a huge credit to Liz and her vision that she’s created this thing that’s all its own. And that is what’s fun for us.…It’s a great joy for me to play Judy because so many times I will do something as the character and people will say, ‘Well, that’s just Judy.’ And to me that’s a wonderful thing to be able to have earned–that it’s within her personality that anything can be expected.
AD: Judy’s breakdown in the car near the end of the season was an extraordinary scene. How did you manage to conjure up all those emotions?
LC: You know, some days it’s easier than others. We had just done the scene in the garage where she’s confessing and Judy is truly betrayed. And that scene was hard…so coming out of that, there’s the thing that Judy can’t get angry. So Judy’s often holding things in…She’s usually upset with herself and there’s a lot of shame in Judy and that manifests itself in terms of anger at herself. So you just hold onto that. And Christina is a wonderful scene partner and we just go there together. The dial is turned way up with the show. Even when it’s comedy it’s at a certain frequency that is pretty high.
Judy operates on this frequency and when she finally gets a chance to explode –she’s been waiting for two seasons, really, to have that moment of relief because she takes on everybody else’s feelings, even though you may sometimes see her from the outside as being selfish, in her mind she’s trying to help everybody. So that explosion was a long time coming for her. And on the day, in that scene, it’s a transfer of energy between Christina and I. We’re both going at 100 miles an hour. And we’re there for each other and we’re crying and screaming…I took that energy and bottled it up and kept it in for as long as I could and then when I shut the door to that car and she’s in front of me, but I’m still alone, I can finally let it out…that energy just comes out as her punishing herself by hitting herself. Its not always fun to perform. I’m truly hitting myself, which is better than somebody else hitting me.
AD: It felt so real.
LC: Thank you. It’s hard to explain those moments, too. I’m looking in hindsight, trying to explain something that is actually based on feeling in the moment…it’s something you don’t think too much about, you just go in with an energy and an intention and you let it go.
AD: The show puts forth the idea that there’s a little good and a little bad in everyone and that most live in the gray, which is a vital message right now.
LC: They’re very imperfect people. And I think that that is relatable. Even within that, there is still love to be found and forgiveness to be found and forgiveness to be asked for. And I think that (they) don’t exist without each other. We’re all looking for a connection and that’s what Jen and Judy have.
AD: You started out at a young age and have managed to carve out quite the career and it feels like you’re just getting started and have this great momentum. What do you attribute your longevity and steady rise to?
LC: That’s a good question. Not quitting. There are times when you question yourself. There’s good times and bad times…I have always tried to be about my work. And tried to work harder to be better. And tried to work hard to find things that will challenge me—and (I have) hundreds of people who I can count on the help me do those things.
AD: I know you are part Italian-American. It’s so refreshing when I see a film like Capone or Green Book to see an Italian American actually playing an Italian-American. What are your thoughts on that?
LC: Funny enough, with Capone, she’s Irish and I’m also Irish. Mae was Irish-American. I think Tom (Hardy) did a great job so…I don’t know. I feel like we have so many great Italian actors, too. I don’t know the answer to that question.
AD: I go back and forth as well, because Viggo was so great in Green Book.
Awards Daily: Speaking of Green Book, what did it feel like to be up on the Oscar stage when it won best picture? And were you expecting it to win?
LC: I was not expecting it, no. I didn’t get to sit down in the front with everybody, I was way in back. Luckily, I got to go. But I got one ticket. I was sitting back there with two other people from the movie, a producer and the composer, and we were just running to the stage because we didn’t know if we’d get up there in time…It’s one of those things you can’t imagine. Then it happens and it feels like a blur. It was definitely exhilarating.
AD: Looking back at your arc on Mad Men — I just rewatched Season 6 — do you have any takeaways or favorite memories from that experience?
LC: I loved that show so being part of that show was so much fun. But they told me nothing—I mean nothing of what I was about to do. I remember Matt Weiner (the show’s creator) said, just wait, it’s going to be great! And I got the first script…and I had one line at the end. And he said, I promise you, it’s going to be something great…Ultimately, when she is the reason why Don–who’s been doing what he’s doing for so long—finally gets caught by his daughter. Oh wow, that is something! It was a great part and so different from everything else that I had been doing. I had just had my baby and it was the first time I came back onscreen in a long time so a lot of it was daunting, it being a period piece—bra and underwear and all that stuff, after having a child.
The costumes were so beautiful. I remember the fittings and the drawings of each character…And the set and production design. I remember looking in the cabinets in Don and Megan’s kitchen and there were all these beautiful glasses that were period appropriate. All of the intricacies of that show and each department being so excellent…every piece of it was so well put together and so well thought out.
AD: What is up next for you once we can make art again?
LC: I really don’t know. Judy’s so heartfelt, I might just want to play a heartless bitch!
Dead to Me is currently streaming on Netflix.