Critical Questions: Linda CardelliniBy Josh Ralske
Fan-favorite actress leaps into her first film lead.
Linda Cardellini might be best known for her run on the popular medical drama ER, but, to an obsessed coterie of fans, she will always be Lindsay Weir, the confused and heartbreakingly well-meaning adolescent that she played on the beloved and criminally short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks. Cardellini had portrayed supporting roles in many films, including the hit comedy Legally Blonde and Ang Lee's acclaimed drama Brokeback Mountain, but had not starred in a feature until taking on the role of Kelli, a military veteran, in Liza Johnson's intimate, thoughtful drama Return. We talked to Cardellini about her breakthrough in Return, and about being the object of cult adoration.
CM: How did you come to be involved in Return? What appealed to you about playing Kelli?
LC: I read Liza's script and fell in love with the role. The film seemed to be a different way of telling the soldier-coming-home story. For those of us not involved with the military, we have a very different reality. It's a topic that was and is incredibly relevant to the world we occupy, and I wanted to educate myself. I also liked how the script left a lot unsaid. That always appeals to me as an actress, because film picks so much up in a person's face. I like when I feel like I can see someone's thoughts without them speaking a word, because I am not so sure that humans communicate best through words. I think most of what we understand and struggle with can be told through behavior, body language, and perhaps what is not said.
This is writer-director Liza Johnson's first major feature. Were you concerned at all about her ability to tell the story she wanted to tell?
I was interested to meet Liza and see how she imagined the film, and, after meeting her and talking about the film for over an hour, I was dying to play the role. I had no doubts. I thought that she had a beautifully unique vision for a coming-home-from-war drama. She was not set on serving an agenda or telling the audience what or how to feel. It was an examination of one fictional character's life. An exploration of something that was and is happening around us. In Liza's script, there were so many silences and tiny details that told the story of Kelli. It was different than anything else I had read or seen. I really responded to Liza's idea that we see all of the tiny or perhaps more everyday ways this woman's life unravels. She and I spent a lot of time together before the film got made (it took about a year and a half since I had signed on), and, throughout that time, we came to learn a lot and have a trust and respect for each other that was invaluable on set.
Although you've been acting for years, this is your first time carrying a feature in the lead role. How has this been different for you?
I think the main difference was that I felt more involved in the creative process. Liza was most certainly the captain of the ship, but she was very generous in including me, regarding me, researching with me, and listening to me to shape this character. It created this trust and partnership that I had not had with other roles. It was so vital that we were on the same page, because I am in every scene, and we shot the film at great speed. It was necessary for us to be in sync and, at the same time, trust each other enough to think differently and try new things in certain scenes. It allowed me to be more creative in a lot of ways.
Michael Shannon is another one of our favorite actors. He's known for more intense, offbeat roles than Mike, the essentially "regular guy" he plays in Return. What was it like working with him?
I liked seeing him in the regular guy role. He is a warm, intelligent and funny guy. And...he is great with kids. He is such a phenomenal actor. He is really capable of doing anything. I loved working with him. He brings so many things out in my character and the struggle that the two of them have communicating is tragic. We met and began working on screen very quickly afterward, but we were able to try things, change things, and trust each other very easily. It was a joy to work with someone so gifted.
The script is very naturalistic. Was there much improvisation, or is it essentially what Johnson wrote?
Liza was always willing to change things and throw ideas out at us. A lot of it was on the page, but there was a good portion that changed on the fly. If there was something that we wanted to try, it was always encouraged and considered.
The children in the film, particularly Emma Rayne Lyle, had to do some very dramatic scenes. What was it like working with them?
They were great. They were so important for me and my character because they show how much she wants things to be as they were, and how confusing things are for the whole family. She loves them more than anything. I think they have kept her going all along, yet she can't quite get it together for them or herself. I think their tiny innocent faces really help shine a light on her struggle and loss.
What kind of response have you gotten to the film and your performance from veterans or people currently in the military?
We have been very fortunate and honored by the responses we have received so far from the people involved in the military. Some of whom we researched with and spoke to before the film about their experiences have come back to us and been very moved and incredibly positive. So far, they have cited the film as being very honest.
What are your own personal feelings about the predicament Kelli finds herself in, and what do you hope people come away with after seeing the film?
I think that it is an important time to educate ourselves on the hardship that many of our fellow Americans are coming home with. They made a sacrifice for all of us, regardless of what you think of the policy that sent them there. Because of them, many of us were allowed to carry on with our lives as is, while their worlds were changed and their loved one's worlds as well. I hope this film lends itself to a better understanding and more communication for people.
You were on ER for more than 125 episodes between 2003 and 2009. Given the passage of time since the series ended, what are your feelings now about that experience, particularly considering the demanding schedule and the intense nature of the show.
When I finished ER, I was approached to do some things right away, but I knew I needed to take a step back for a minute. After working that schedule and doing the same character for that amount of time, I wanted to spend a moment to reevaluate myself as an actress and see what other newer things I was capable of. I was waiting for a role like this one in Return. It was amazing that it came to me. I also wanted to spend some of my time for my personal life, and I am going to be a mother any day now. I am very lucky. The time on the show was great, and the time after it has been great, too. I still feel like I am growing, which is a good thing.
Like many, we're big fans of Freaks and Geeks. Do you still keep in touch with members of the cast and crew? It seems like a few of them are still working on projects here and there.
Thank you. I do keep in touch with a lot of them. I ran into Martin [Starr] at a restaurant yesterday. I just got an email from Judd [Apatow] today. I see Busy [Philipps] pretty regularly. I was at a film festival in France with Sarah Hagen, a.k.a. Millie. We went to the Eiffel Tower together. It's funny, but there is a really special bond with that show. It is like a mix of family meets high school, for better and for worse. It's rewarding to see how successful everyone has become. I think there is still a lot more to come from all of us as well.
How has the show's status as a cult phenomenon affected you?
We have the greatest, most ardent fans. It never ceases to amaze me how many people are still discovering the show, especially after being cancelled prematurely back in the day. I love the show, and I was able to work with so many incredibly talented people. That time in my life and my career was really fun. We had the best time. It is nice that the show is something that lives on. That feels really good.