When some people see actress Linda Cardellini, they think of the intelligent, angsty teen Lindsay Weir from the short-lived cult classic Freaks and Geeks. Others remember her long stint as Samantha Taggart on ER, or maybe the neighbor Don Draper had an affair with on Mad Men or even Velma Dinkley from the Scooby-Doo films. These characters have little in common with each other. According to the actor, that was the intention.
“What I tended to do, and what I think I still do, is try to take a left turn after each role and do something that’s different,” Cardellini says. “It keeps me alive inside my mind and and keeps me challenging myself.”
The youngest of four children, Cardellini’s earliest memories of acting are of putting on shows for her family in their Redwood City, California, living room. She’d perform sketches or host her own talk show, writing them tickets and selling snacks at intermission. “It was my hobby,” she recalls. “I really wanted to be like Angela from Who’s the Boss? She would write jingles for commercials and I thought that would be my job, because I didn’t think you could make a living out of [acting].”
She starred in the school Christmas show and appeared as an elderly woman on The Music Man at age 11, leading her to studying theater in high school and college at Loyola Marymount University. “It was a long road from there,” she says. “My mom would say to me, ‘Try it and see if it works. If somebody is going to do it, why shouldn’t it be you?’ All I wanted was to be able to do this thing that I love for a living.”
On Friday, the second season of Dead to Me arrives on Netflix, the dark comedy Cardellini stars in with Christina Applegate. “It’s a scary and sad time,” she acknowledges. “A lot of people are suffering. So the idea of going out and and talking about this TV show, at times you question yourself. ‘Is this really something important that I need to be doing?’ I also have relied on my television to keep me company and to change my mood — to be able to turn off the news and watch something that is fun has been valuable for me. So I’m hoping that this has value for other people right now.”
To celebrate the release of Dead to Me, we spoke with Cardellini about 10 of her key roles in TV and film.
Freaks and Geeks (1999): Lindsay Weir
I read the script and I just thought it was so beautiful. It was so different. A lot of the girls that I was seeing on screen…I related to them as somebody I knew in high school, but not somebody that was like me. I felt that Lindsay represented the struggle that I had, that she wanted to be grown up in some ways but was still a kid. As opposed to these other relationships on screen, where people are having sexy adult style relationships, they were still teenagers and the awkwardness of it felt so real to me. It’s that bittersweet feeling of high school. It had this sophisticated sense of humor and it was subtle. Even though it’s set in 1980, I believe all these people really exist.
I love Lindsay. I just think she’s so thoughtful and smart and I loved her relationship with her parents. One of my favorite moments is when she gets on the bus and she says goodbye to her parents. It’s funny, too, because I haven’t seen my parents because we’re all in quarantine, and my dad said that he was watching the show again because they’re home. My dad’s not very emotional, and he said that moment choked him up. I think for every child, there’s that sense of cutting those apron strings and making a decision that is a hundred percent yours, not your parents. Stepping on that bus…she becomes an adult at that moment.
The show got canceled, but we’ve sort of felt it was coming anyway, because we were like the freaks and geeks of the network. They would take us on and off, and they never sort of played [the episodes] all at the same time. We started to feel like they were going to pull the plug any minute. The writers wrote the finale that they wanted, so that no matter where the show got the plug pulled, it would always have the ending that it has, which I think was so brilliant. We had it in our back pocket in case they canceled us. And they did.
How has it been 20 years? It’s crazy! In one way it feels like it was yesterday, and in another way, it feels like so much has happened since then. The idea that it’s still something that is being talked about is amazing. I love it for the show, I love it for the cast, I love it for the creators, I love it for the fans. I’m happy people can appreciate it still, because we thought it would just die and go away.
Legally Blonde (2001) Chutney Wyndham
My agent said, “It’s small role. You don’t have to do it.” And because I’d come off Freaks and Geeks, I thought, “Oh god, this is so different. How fun to go from playing somebody like Lindsay to a murderer.” So that was that was part of my reason for taking it. I also thought the script was hilarious. I just loved it and I wanted to do it.
I missed the premiere because I was working, and I went to go see it with a friend. She was like, “Don’t worry, nobody will recognize you. We’ll just go in.” Of course, nobody would recognize me. Nobody gave a shit. It was a packed theater and I was really excited. I went for it, and I didn’t care if I looked crazy in that movie. And when I came on the screen, somebody audibly gasped and yelled, “Ew!” And my stomach sank, because I remember that somebody criticized Lindsay’s hair and that was the first time I’d ever been truly criticized in public. That hurt my feelings, even though it was supposed to be my hairdo. It was so confusing to me, because on one hand, I’m just a human. I felt terrible being criticized. On the other hand, I felt proud because I wanted you to think that that person was gross. So it was dealing with the mixed emotions of playing that character in real time, watching the movie with a whole theater full of people.
Scooby-Doo (2002): Velma Dinkley
I loved that cartoon as a kid; I used to rush home from school and watch it. And as an adult, when I couldn’t sleep, because sometimes I’ll have bouts of insomnia, I would watch Scooby-Doo to level me out and put me in this like happy childhood phase and fall asleep. So when it came out that there was a movie, I thought, “Oh, I’ll never get a chance to audition for that.” But I got [an audition].
I studied the cartoons. I pulled my hair back — I made like a faux bob. I borrowed someone’s glasses. I went to Ross and I bought a skirt and a turtleneck. I don’t normally rehearse in front of other people, but I was rehearsing it in front of in front of my roommates, [who] were actors. I went to the audition and it was like a who’s who of everybody who was a young actor at the time. I saw some famous faces, and realized very quickly that everybody was looking at me like I was an absolute moron, because I was the only person in the filled waiting room wearing a costume.
I was mortified. I start sweating. I wanted to cry. And when they called me in, I had done all of this research and come up with all of these things that I thought that Velma did. I pitched up my voice and made it a little bit more logical, where it seemed like it was a robot — all these things that to me were very Velma growing up. I went in there and I did it, and I felt like I was puzzling people. I didn’t know if I was if I was doing a good job or a bad job, but it felt horribly uncomfortable. I went home and my roommate said the only thing she heard were these sobs and this little orange turtleneck poking out from underneath my covers. And then I got the part.
I had never done a big budget movie like that before. I had to leave my family, my friends, my boyfriend and move to Australia for six months. I had so much fun, but I took that role very seriously. I had a tape where I would listen to Velma from the cartoon everyday before I went to work. “Jeepers! It’s the creeper.”
ER (2003-2009): Samantha Taggart
I was doing a lot of work playing a teenager, even though I wasn’t a teenager anymore. I thought, “Well, I’ll play young until I can’t do it anymore.” I was in no rush to make that happen. But I was wondering what I was going to do next. I had a lot of stuff happen in my real life and I’d been traveling a lot. I had lost some people and I just wanted to be near my family and friends.
I really wanted to stay committed to film, but I got this phone call and they said, “John Wells would like to meet with you, if you’re interested.” They said there’s this role of this woman who comes on ER, which I hadn’t really watched ever. She was a woman who had a child when she was young…she’s running from something, she’s always in motion and she’s going to get involved with the doctor. Then they sent me home with episodes to watch. I hadn’t seen anything like that on television. The acting was so fantastic and [she] was somebody I feel like I knew growing up, who was a nurse and had a job, was trying to make ends meet. That was something I hadn’t played yet.
I only wanted to stay for a year because I don’t like to stay too long doing one thing. And then as time went on, the community of people and the talent that I got to work with…it’s one of my favorite experiences, working on that show. We laughed so hard. I have a text chain right now during quarantine of like six of my ER friends. And we talk back and forth. We’re still very close. I ended up staying there until the show went off the air because I just loved it so much.
Brokeback Mountain (2005): Cassie Cartwright
I had it built into my contract that I could maybe be let out [of ER] if I had a chance to do something film-related. I got a phone call saying, “There’s an audition for you. It’s an Ang Lee movie,” and I think he is just capable of anything and everything. And the story was so, so beautiful.
I don’t know that I had the entire script before I auditioned, I can’t recall. But I knew that I got to audition for Ang Lee. I remember auditioning and being in there for at least a half an hour, working the scene in tons of different ways — I don’t like to do things the same way twice. I thought, “Well, I’ll probably never get this part, but I just got to work with Ang Lee for half an hour, so that’s a win for me.” Then I got the role. I’ve got to say, it’s a dream come true to have worked with that group of people. [Heath Ledger] was wonderful.
Mad Men (2013-2015): Sylvia Rosen
After ER, I decided that I would take a break because I had worked so much for so long, and I felt scared that I didn’t know how to do anything else. I have a hard time not working. But I hadn’t traveled or been able to make anybody’s birthday parties in a long time…so I took some time off. I found my life partner and I had a baby. And then Mad Men came along. It was four months after I had my daughter that I got a call. I thought, “Oh, God. I don’t know, I just had a baby, I’m not sure I’m ready.” An audition just sounded like torture.
But I went in, and I was in the room with Matt Weiner. We were in there for 45 minutes, and I was doing it every single way possible. At one point in the middle of the audition, I remember thinking, “This is either going really, really well or really badly, I can’t figure out which.” It made me cry, so then I just did the version of the scene where the character cries, because I was actually crying [laughs]. I just worked it into the scene. Then they hired me, and I said, “What is the role like?” And Matt said, “I promise you, you are going to be happy. Just be patient.” But I didn’t know anything about it. I couldn’t talk about it at all. I had long acrylic fingernails with a four-month-old baby. I was breastfeeding and pumping offset in these beautiful costumes that I was terrified I was going to ruin.
I had no idea what was in store for me, but I trusted the show because it was so brilliant and I trusted Matt. He kept telling me, “There’s gonna be something great. Don’t worry, it’s coming.” And then when I read the script and realized that it’s the first time that Don really gets caught. He gets caught by his daughter, which is terrible, but also was wonderful as an actor. She was a very complicated woman in some ways. And [Jon Hamm] is great. I don’t think you could ever imagine anybody else being Don Draper. I mean, what’s not to love, really?
Bloodline (2015-2017): Meg Rayburn
I don’t know that I completely realized how dark it was when it started. I went in and I met with Glenn [Kessler], and Todd [Kessler] and Daniel [Zelman] were on the phone…we just had a huge conversation about the piece. I knew that Kyle [Chandler] and Ben [Mendelsohn] were involved. A lot of times, what I choose has to do with the other actors, people that I just want to work with. To me, it’s wonderful when the product comes out and people enjoy it, but my experience is just on set. The rest of it has very little to do with me. So I like to make sure that the process is going to be something that is fun to do or I learn something or that I get to work with people that I admire.
In the process of talking about it, Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek came on, and I thought, “What a privilege to work with those people.” So we talked about my character and she’s supposed to be this put together sister, but you find out that she’s got a lot of things that she’s hiding. She’s not what she seems.
I loved the way that those characters evolved, and I liked the idea of being on Netflix. I had never been on a streaming platform before, and we were one of their very few original shows at the time. I think that it affords for a lot more storytelling. When I was young, people used to say, “You better get it all in now, because when you’re in your 30s and 40s, people won’t watch you anymore.” But there is more room for the other characters to be fleshed out in this long format, and it’s not in the traditional, procedural way. The streaming models go beyond what we’re used to on television. I think that more underrepresented voices are getting to be heard.
The Curse of La Llorona (2019): Anna Garcia
When La Llorona came around, it was called it was called The Children at the time. I thought, this woman’s husband is dead. It’s not about him. It’s about her, her children, about her protecting them at any cost. It’s about other women. It had a lot of strong females, and there are a lot of strong females in horror. It was a genre that I didn’t dabble in, and a role that I had never done before. That was what was important to me when I chose that.
It was set in the ’70s in Los Angeles, and I was able to be with my family and work on that and I just enjoyed it. It was a very small movie. I don’t think that they anticipated how well it would do. If you look at the [Conjuring] movies, this one was made for a very relatively small budget in comparison to the rest of the universe. It was a first-time director [Michael Chaves] and the little movie that could. It was like working on a small independent film.
Dead to Me (2019): Judy Hale
Typically, I feel like that script at that point in my career would have come to me for the other character — the “Jen” character. And they were like, “No, we want you for Judy. Christina Applegate is Jen,” and I thought “Oh, she’s great.” I read it and I thought, “That’s crazy. How do you believe this person? And then how at the end of it all, do you root for them to be friends? This is impossible. Yes! I’ll do it!”
I didn’t relate to Judy at that point at all. I pulled some of my good friends who happened to be great artists in their own right, and I said, “Do you think I can do this?” And a hundred percent of them said, “You have to do this.” And it was true. It was so different than anything I had come across.
The first season really hinged on her keeping her secret and the guilt and the shame and the responsibility of that. I think this season, she’s finally free of that in some ways. You’re able to understand more of Judy, because that’s not everything that’s happening with her. The idea of mourning this relationship that she had with this person that she loved that wasn’t a good person. I think that’s an interesting thing to watch, somebody mourning this toxic relationship. Here you are crying over somebody who hurt you immensely over and over again. Life is full of feelings that contradict themselves. They’re not so cut and dry.
With Jen and Judy, I think the behavior between the two of them, it’s got a lot of texture because of how Christina and I actually work together. She was a big reason why I wanted to do the show. I haven’t been in a situation with a woman who is my own peer and been able to play like that every single day on set. It’s really fun, and then then two scenes later, we’re hysterically crying and hugging each other. It’s our own little source of therapy.
Liz [Feldman, the showrunner] allows us to improv a ton, too. She’s like, “I don’t want to work with any assholes,” and I thought, “Great. Me either. Let’s go.” [She] doesn’t want us to be anything but our own age. It’s a testament to having female writers, having female directors and having female voices behind the characters who are accepting of us at any age, accepting of us at our messiest and our best. I think a lot of credit goes to the people who are creating the content, too.
Capone (2020): Mae Capone
There’s very little known about Mae Capone. She’s one of the very few people who was involved with somebody so high profile in that kind of world who never really spoke about it. I think she gave one interview once, and it backfired on her. She wanted people out of her front yard, it was scaring her kids and they twisted her words and then she never wanted to do anything again.
The origin of their relationship, nobody truly knows. There’s rumors that it was an arranged marriage. There’s rumors that it was not her child. But she was very loyal to him, and never, ever gave up anything about him, which I think says a lot, because most people feel that their story needs to be told.
Tom [Hardy, who plays Al Capone] is such an incredible actor…he’s just is so creative and so good at what he does. We were shooting in this little town outside of New Orleans, and there were about six of us who lived in a house that had been turned into a hotel. It was like a little bit like being at camp. I don’t think anybody can expect what they’re about to see. It’s very unusual. It’s not the down the line Al Capone movie you’re used to, for sure.