If I envision someone else playing a role that I’m considering, I just want to jump off a bridge.
If you’ve never heard of Linda Cardellini then, frankly, which rock have you been under? In the ‘90s, her route to the top took her on a safari of tween TV smashes—Boy Meets World and Freaks and Geeks—and thus, she swiftly lassoed a cult following. Cardellini has since come of age. In addition to giving her most grown-up performance yet as an unraveling war veteran in Liza Johnson’s coming-home drama Return, the 36-year-old is about to give birth to her first child.
The heroine in Johnson’s feature debut is a different breed—a National Guardswoman who didn’t see combat but instead worked in a warehouse. Her name is Kelli, mother of two, who comes home to find that daily routines seem more inane than ever before. Light-hearted it’s not—she also discovers that her once-devoted husband (Michael Shannon) had been having an affair with their neighbor during her absence. Cardellini’s mesmerizing performance here shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Return opens in New York and Los Angeles on February 10. It will be available on VOD and iTunes on February 28.
It’s great to finally speak with you. We had a photographer shoot your portrait at Cannes last year, but I was unfortunately absent.
Was that on the rooftop?
Yeah! On the rooftop with you and Liza [Johnson].
That was great!
How far along are you right now?
It’s gonna be any day now! I have crazy aches and pains, and I waddle around. It’s a totally new world I have to say.
Is this your first child?
Are you going to take a break from acting?
I definitely want to take some time off and be with my baby, and go through that experience. I love working, but it’ll afford my family some nice things. I’ll definitely go back. We’ll see what comes up, you know? That’s the wonderful—and hard—thing about this business because you’re always thinking about the next thing. Sometimes you think you’ll never work again and other times, you worry about going back to work too soon. We’ll see what happens! I have no idea how I’ll feel when I have my child. I have no idea how that will change me. I’m lucky to have been working for a long time now and I have a little bit saved away so I can spend some time away with my baby.
Freaks and Geeks was your rise to fame. How did that come to you?
I just went through the auditioning process. I loved the script. I was already a working actress at the time, but I hadn’t done anything that people were all that familiar with. I guess I was a “fresh face” when that show happened. When I was reading the script for the pilot, there were several other shows that I was actually up for that seemed to have a brighter future in the network vernacular. But I was more drawn to Paul’s [Feig] script. With pilot season, if you test for something and you end up getting it before another show you test for, that’s the show you’re contractually bound to. I was up for three different shows so I held out for Freaks and Geeks and I got that part, luckily. The other shows didn’t really make it.
Was E.R. your most recent gig on TV?
I actually had a guest spot on Person of Interest. When I found out I was pregnant, I wanted to do something before I couldn’t work anymore. I’m a big fan of Jim Caviezel and J.J. Abrams, so I did an episode of that for fun. I didn’t tell anyone that I was pregnant. [laughs]
How would you compare TV work to film work?
Being on a series for a long time is a very different thing than doing a film because it feels like you’re running a marathon. I remember hearing about my character having a sister three years after I started a show. All this time I had a sister and I had no idea. [laughs] It really does feel like a marathon whereas it’s a sprint with film. With movies, you get a beginning and an end, and you know the trajectory of your character. With TV, it’s much more open-ended.
If I was an actor on a TV series and it got cancelled prematurely, I would be devastated that my character doesn’t get some sort of closure.
That was one of the great things about Freaks and Geeks because we shot the last episode before they cancelled us.
Yeah! We shot the ending early on. I think that’s one of the coolest things that they accomplished on that show. We got the ending we wanted before the network told us to get out. [laughs]
What were your goals when you first started out and how have those goals changed looking back?
My goal when I first started out was to make a living doing something that I liked. I had never known anyone that had made it as an actor when I started out. I think you have to be at least a tiny bit crazy to be an actor because you have to go so far against the odds in order to make a living off of it. As you grow, change and have some success, your choices become different. The choices that I was able to make at the beginning of my career—when you have to get your foot in the door, but you don’t know anybody—are different than the ones you have as you grow as an actress where you get to orchestrate and modulate a broader career. You can fall off the path sometimes, but you try to work hard and keep on doing what you love. You keep trying to reinvent yourself and hopefully that works for your audience.
What attracted you to your role in Return?
I read the script and thought it was an interesting look at a returning soldier, especially told from a woman’s point of view. When I first met Liza, I thought she was incredibly special. She had a really interesting take on how she wanted to make the film. The way that the script was written, it was different than anything else I’d read before. There were descriptions of scenes and characters that don’t appear onscreen, but still informed me like how the way things smell, and how things feel on the hands and feet. Small details like that made me feel like I was reading a novel. The way how Liza described this woman’s life unraveling—not necessarily through flashbacks or one catastrophic event, but through all the small details of everyday life that can’t seem to be put back together—was really interesting to me. And that’s on top of the fact that the story tackles something that’s happening in our society that I didn’t know enough about. I felt compelled to educate myself and do more research.
The film touches on an important fact: it’s not so much about witnessing something so horrifically violent in war or having a limb blown off that leaves this permanent scar for soldiers. Going to war changes you no matter what.
I hope that comes across. I remember speaking to this one soldier who said, ‘I don’t think you can go over there and come back unchanged.’ That really resonated with me. Some people come back and they can readjust more easily than others, but some people have a really hard time readjusting. Everyone’s story is a little bit different, but I don’t see how being in a war zone wouldn’t change you.
I’m sure you met a lot of soldiers who wanted to go back after returning from Iraq as well.
Oh yeah, definitely! There are people who are happy to go back. There are people who are gratefully returning to do their duty.
Michael [Shannon] is known for playing these abrasive, unhinged characters, but he’s the more subdued one here opposite your dominant character.
He’s great at playing a normal guy! [laughs] He’s such a wonderful actor and a great guy. Michael is such a warm human being. I think he’s capable of doing anything and he was a lot of fun to play off of. He adds so much to my character’s back-story. When Michael came in, it made things so much easier for me. It was appropriately challenging as well. He’s really malleable and we could easily change things on the spot if we needed to. We didn’t have much rehearsal time, so we jumped right into it.
What was the atmosphere like on set?
It was one of my favorite experiences on any set because everyone got to know each other so well. The movie took a long time to put together. During that year and a half or so, Liza and I spent a lot of time talking about the character, doing research, traveling to the location where the film takes place, going to marine bases, talking to a psychologist to figure out what it’s like for returning soldiers, and shooting guns together—stuff that you don’t see in the film, but things that my character would know. We spent a lot of time together and formed this wonderful friendship. We shot everything really fast. It was long days and not a lot of frills. I didn’t have a trailer. I was changing in the car or in a Dunkin Donuts bathroom. [laughs] Nobody was on this project for the money. We were all there for the love of the project. That made everything so much easier because we had already established such a trust and a similarity in our approach. Have you spoken to Liza yet?
I actually haven’t.
Liza has this really beautiful confidence about her. It’s not egotistical or maniacal. She’s willing to explore all different kinds of things. She’s an incredible listener. She knows exactly what she wants and exactly how she wants to get it. She worked so close to our DP, who’s also a woman, and it was really interesting to be on set with a lot of women. Typically when you’re on a set, it’s 80 to 90 percent men. To have those numbers be more balanced, it was a special experience.
It’s brought up over and over again how there aren’t enough interesting roles for women to play. Where do you stand in that kind of debate?
I think there can be amazing roles for women. Historically, they’ve been fewer and far between. You always hope that changes. I’m obviously an advocate for women. There’s a lot more that can be accomplished, but I also think we’ve come a really long way. I think there are amazing roles for women out there. It’s a competitive field for actresses. I think there are fewer roles for women than men, but when the marketplace changes, the supply and demand will change.
When you choose roles, do you look at it from a career perspective?
Typically, I like to look at the project as a whole—what does it mean and who’s involved? In terms of choosing characters, I don’t really like to be stereotyped so I try to do as many different things as possible. If I envision someone else playing a role that I’m considering, I just want to jump off a bridge. That makes me think that I should be playing that role. I’m sort of at the mercy of what’s available to me and who will accept me. A lot of the time, you can plan a trajectory for your career, but you don’t get the kinds of materials you’re looking for. I’ve been very lucky to choose from a diverse group of characters throughout my career and play things outside of myself. To me, that has been the most exciting part about being an actress. There are many different reasons why I choose to take on certain things.
When you sign onto do a project that deals with important societal issues, that must add more pressure for everyone involved.
It made me want to do right. There’s no one way to do something perfectly, but I really wanted to honor the people who I’d spoken to, and the people we were trying to represent even if it’s a fictional story and it’s not based on one specific person. It’s something that’s actually happening and something that, if you’re not there, I don’t think you can truly understand. As an actress, from the outside looking in, I wanted so badly to be able to be as honest and respectful as possible.