Ever since landing the lead role as Lindsay Weir on Freaks and Geeks over ten years ago, Linda Cardellini has had her own cult following. But in the time between the 36-year-old actress has taken on a series of captivating roles in both television or film, working on everything from big-budget Hollywood pictures to praised indie dramas. It’s her latest role in Return that may just be her most dynamic performance yet. Cardellini plays Kelli, a solider returning home to her husband and children and struggling to adjust back into her daily home life. Cardellini and first time director Liz Johnson worked closely together to make a passionate and stirring film that sheds light on a relevant and poignant issue that seems neglected in today’s cinematic portrayals of soldiers. Rather than push any sort of political agenda or throw a message down your throat, the film unfolds as a story about a woman trying live through her disassociation with the world she once called home. The film was released this past Friday in New York and L.A. but will be available for all audiences through Video On Demand February 28th. We chatted with Cardellini to discuss her decision to take on the role, recognizing the distance between herself and her character, and working with actor Michael Shannon.
So are you doing a lot of promotion for the film right now?
You know, I’m doing as much as possible, but I’m due to give birth any day now so I haven’t been able to do everything. I wasn’t able to go to New York and see it open at MoMA. But there are two very exciting things happening in my life so I can’t complain.
Congratulations! I wanted to start off by asking, what attracted you to the role?
After ER I was waiting to find a part that I really, really wanted to put my whole self into. I read Liza’s script and I thought, Wow, what an amazing role for an actor. I met with her the next day. Instead of having a short meeting, we met for an hour and a half and sat and talked about everything, and we really had a similar idea of what made the film great and what we could do together. The way she spoke about the film seemed so different to me than I would have imagined. I loved her perspective and the way she believed in the tiny details that sort of informed this woman’s unraveling. There were things most people would think are mundane things, but [they] happen [to] change her world. Her readjusting [is] very difficult, but without the typical flashbacks or huge cathartic moment, which I thought was really interesting. And it was definitely a story about a woman, but it felt more universal to me. It was about something I had been hearing about and continue to hear about, and it seemed like something that was actually very relevant to the world I was living in. I didn’t know enough about and I thought I could use the education on this and I’m sure other people could, too.
Do you find that it’s hard to find these roles in Hollywood a lot of the time?
I think, for me, it’s the first time I’ve been given a part like this, so I was incredibly excited and honored to be entrusted with such a unique and challenging and heavy duty role in a film. There are better roles for women and things are being more marketed towards women, but I think there’s a long way to go. I think great characters are hard to find regardless [of gender]. I would say it’s probably the same for men, but it just so happens that men tend to helm films more often than women.
Did you see yourself at all in Kelli?
I couldn’t dare to imagine that I would know anything about truly serving in the military or in a war. But I tried as much as possible, regardless of the circumstances and the traumas and the secrets, to understand her on a more human level with her anger and her guilt and her sadness in her joys — all of those things are very human. And the dislocation and the alienation… I think people know that, and the disappointment of a relationship falling apart. I tried to educate myself as much as I could and research as much as I could.
What did you do to prepare for the role?
The movie didn’t get made for a year and a half, which was frustrating at the time because we really wanted [it to be] put in production. But it’s an independent film, and that’s always not so easy. Waiting for the movie to be made was actually a great gift because we had so much time to do research and so much time together or to talk on the phone. We met in Palm Springs and went to a Marine base, and we really spent as much time as we could. [It was] the most time I’ve ever spent researching anything — meeting people, talking to people about the film, going to places that the film would have taken place, learning things that my character would have known. We spent as much time as we could just getting acquainted with the world because once we started shooting it would be very, very quick. It was really wonderful for us as an actor and a director to create this bond where there was such trust on screen every second of the film. To have a director I could trust so much, and to have [my ideas] be heard and accepted and sometimes directed and corrected — it was just wonderful. It was a really extraordinary experience as an actor.
You were really becoming that person.
It made me feel like I could really trust myself when we were finally on set, and I could trust everybody around me because I was so well-acquainted with what we were about to do. [There were] plenty of surprises because it was very fly-by-the-seat-of-our pants because of the budget and the time constraint, and we really didn’t know what we were getting into until we were shooting.
Did you find it hard to separate yourself from your character? Do you carry the weight of your character with you, or are you able to let it go and get back into it when you’re on set?
For the most part I can let it go and rest, but [I was] working on something I knew was actually happening to people. There are days when you’re doing something and you realize, I’m playing this as fiction but this may actually be somebody’s life right now. That’s heavy. I did at times feel that there was a responsibility to try and be as honest as possible for those people whose collective stories I’m representing.
It wasn’t trying to push any political message it was so much more about the family and adjusting to relationships, which made it really unique. Did you talk to any women who have gone through this?
I did, and one woman I talked to was high-ranking and wasn’t having the same issues as the woman I spoked to who was suffering from PTSD and was in the program for the second time. People were just very different; some people were more forthcoming and some people were less, and it’s a delicate issue. You don’t really want to pry on people’s experiences and exploit them, so I just tried to meet people and observe and listen if they wanted to talk. We spoke to psychologists and they had a different insight into people, and that was fascinating.
What I thought was a great was the decision not to say that she had PTSD, because everyone’s experience over there is so different and their reactions are going to be so varied, so to put that one label on anyone that can’t adjust — it’s very general.
That was something that Liza was very conscious of, and I don’t know how people can go through some of the changes you must go through when you go over there and not be affected. So whether it’s PTSD or whatever it is, I think it’s completely natural in some way.
Is it something you’re very proud of?
Oh, I’m really proud of it. It’s something that I’ve been working towards in my career: for somebody to give me the chance to play a role like this. It’s a huge role and it’s a giant gift to any actress, and I’m really lucky to be able to have landed it, especially with somebody, who on her first film, has proven to be really special.
And how was it working with Michael Shannon? This was such a different role for him.
Amazing. I think he’s so great at it. He’s warm and he’s funny and not black and white. Michael’s an unbelievable actor and capable of doing anything, and working with him is just an absolute joy. He’s just so open and so talented, and when he showed up on set I thought we had great chemistry and were able to work together in scenes where there was a lot of love or a lot of hatred. I just couldn’t have had more fun with another actor. He’s as good as it gets and I think he’s capable of so much, and on top of it all I love him as a person.