As Meg Rayburn in Netflix’s Bloodline, Linda Cardellini brings eerie dynamism and nuance to the screen: Meg’s a successful lawyer, living a cookie-cutter life with her longtime boyfriend in the Florida Keys. Meg’s the responsible, righteous baby sister of siblings who shun their brother. Meg’s the key to erasing her dysfunctional family’s dark past. Meg’s a liar. When her black sheep of a brother Danny comes home, Meg’s illusory persona and her family’s perfect-on-the-outside image are jeopardized. We asked Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks) to delve into her character’s complexities, and also talked bug suits and favorite Mad Men memories. (If you haven’t watched past episode five of Bloodline, beware: Some spoilers follow.)
Bloodline kicks off by trying to persuade us that long ago, Danny (Ben Mendelsohn) did something that nearly ruined the Rayburn family. Or at least caused the family to implode. At the time, Meg is very young. Why is she now so obsessed with fixing her family’s past?
One thing is that she’s been raised in a family that’s in the hospitality business. More than any of her other siblings, she’s proud of how hospitable she can be. Much like her mother has the same quality — even when there are parts when the mother, in reality, is very down, but she still puts on this face for the guests she [has]. So Meg has grown up in a home that’s also a hotel [or motel], so I think there’s a certain amount of saving face that is also saving our livelihood. On top of that, John [Kyle Chandler] says, “Family comes first” — when we’re sitting at the dinner table and I’m saying, “Why did Dad make us decide?” it’s this whole mantra of how we’ve been raised, where, regardless of who you may or may not have an allegiance to, or who you may or may not agree with in your family, the idea that you’re family, that’s blood, that bloodline is thicker than anything else. Blood’s thicker than water. The more people get along and the more peace that she keeps, the easier it seems life is, even though that’s not a reality.
So it’s more about the family in general, and less about Danny in particular.
I think the things that Danny starts to dig up put in jeopardy this ideal family that she has thought she was part of for so long. Danny is the catalyst for a lot of change for each of the characters, and he challenges each of their morality. In a lot of ways, he’s the truth. As unlikable as it might be for Meg to see Danny for the way he is, he actually makes them confront the truth.
It’s been interesting reading reviews and reader comments about this show’s characters—
That’s a dangerous, dangerous thing. [Laughs.] Luckily, I haven’t had time for that.
True, it can be very dangerous. But one of the most interesting comments I found was a viewer saying they believed all of these characters were corrupt people. They just thought some were better-functioning than others. Do you see Meg as a corrupt person?
Well, not entirely. I don’t think Danny is entirely one thing, either. I think you can really feel for him at times — his character is so beautifully played by Ben. Even though he’s the black sheep and he’s the force that’s caused a lot of trouble in everybody’s life, you can sort of start to feel for him and understand why he’s the scapegoat for a lot of people’s bad behavior. That’s what’s interesting about the characters and the explorations of them, I think that everybody’s very gray. They appear to be very black and white; they appear to be the peacekeeper and the hothead and the responsible one and the black sheep. But underneath it all, it’s much more gray than that.
One viewer also said that this show freaked them out because they said it was like watching real people.
Not only that, but the tagline, too: “We’re not bad people, but we did a bad thing,” to me is like, How can you go about doing bad things and still think you’re a good person? But I think a lot of people who do bad things don’t necessarily identify themselves [as] being bad people. And that’s what makes what they do almost worse.
It seems like there’s an inferiority complex going on with Meg. She’s always going to be stuck in her sister’s shadow. How will this inform her character’s development throughout the series?
She’s a person who has let other people’s ideas of what is good or what is important dictate what she thinks is good or important. That’s a dangerous thing because then you don’t necessarily know who you are. And I think when you don’t know truly who you are, when those people or those strong forces are no longer there to be your leader, you’re left with no moral compass. I think that absence of her father’s approval, or trying to gain that approval, makes her a little bit lost, in terms of who she is and what she truly wants. And what she’s doing — is she doing it for other people’s expectations, or is she doing [it] for her own? I don’t think she understands the difference. And to find out that difference is part of her maturation that hasn’t occurred yet. It’s something that Danny hits on right away. She’s a smart person, she’s a professional woman, she’s a lawyer, she’s gone to law school, she has a long-standing relationship — by everybody’s standards, she’s doing really well. Yet she still feels, at best, second-best. Whatever it is, she’s never really been able to stand on her own. She’s very, very tied to her family and that identity.
[Spoiler alert] I was particularly heartbroken for her when Papa Ray died. I wanted her to get his approval. I also felt for Danny, too. They both just wanted his love and attention.
I’m glad you pointed that out — that’s an interesting thing that Danny and I do have in common. He says it to me, too. “Dad hated me, but at least I got some attention” — which is a horrible thing to say to somebody. [Laughs.] For us playing that scene, though, it was so fun. Ben is so much fun to work with, he’s so great, and everything is so fluid when you’re working with him. We can both play. It’s like playing a game where you go back and forth and change things from take to take. Not even words. Energies within the scene, with each other. That scene was so much fun because there were takes where I felt like he was [saying that line] to be mean, and there were takes where I felt like he was doing it to help [Meg]. To be able to play both of those things in the same scene, on various takes, that shows part of Danny’s position in the family. He’s telling the truth, but is he telling the truth to be hurtful or because that is what it is?
Did you have the opportunity to help formulate any of Meg’s backstory?
I liked the idea of Meg being very uncomfortable with the closeness that she was seeing between the mother and Danny. That was something we talked about, and I worked it into my backstory. There was always room for discussion with things, but I haven’t yet seen the entire show. I’m looking forward to seeing how they craft it all, because there are things that we put down and things that are in the script, but because the show’s in a nonlinear fashion, there are things that can turn up in other places.
From your character’s perspective, how does the small-town paradise bring out the best and worst in Meg?
It’s very, very key to who they all are. The Florida Keys is a character in the story. Being in the Keys feels like a small town; it’s paradise. But it also has this history of nefarious things happening because of where it’s located and people being able to bring things into that area. It has this duality to it that’s representative of the family. They look perfectly blissful on the outside, yet on the inside, they’re decaying from all these secrets and lies. There’s more beneath the surface.
I don’t want to ruin this for people who haven’t seen the show, but Meg starts the series out with a web of lies. Can you shed some light on how those lies will impact the story?
The way you see her in the beginning, what I’m doing in the first scene, is definitely something that’s called into question. What I like is I love the relationship between Meg and Danny, I love the idea that two siblings, one being the oldest, one being the youngest, [with] two totally different experiences within the same family, with the same parents, with the same siblings. There are things she does not remember that other people cannot forget. The relationship between Danny and I, because of that, she gives him a chance more than any of the other siblings. I’m the one who says, “I think we should give him a chance. People can change.” She is the most optimistic about it, aside from her mother. That said, it’s very interesting that he takes something that nobody else knows anything about, and he’s the first person to turn against her. She’s seemingly the most benign, and he turns against her first. Of all people, why, then, do you turn on her? He’s really frightened of me, and I just love the idea of that within the story because it just doesn’t seem to compute.
You’ve been on a lot of shows that have been known for their cult followings — Freaks and Geeks, ER, Mad Men — do you get the sense that Bloodline has the same kind of allure or could create a similar type of fandom?
I’ve been so lucky. But no, I think you go into everything hoping that people receive it well. And you never know. But if you go in and look at all the different elements and variables, for me, I just choose characters and stories that I feel like being a part of, and I’ve been really, really lucky. Hopefully, people will love this show as well.
Do you have any favorite memories from those shows? Wondering about Mad Men in particular because the final season is around the corner.
I cannot wait for the last season of Mad Men, I love that show so much. It was a really extraordinary experience being on that show. It has such incredible fans and such intelligent fans, and it’s so much fun to be a part of that.
I have a very intimate episode in a hotel room, and it was great because John Slattery directed that. I had worked with John maybe a year or so before, on a movie called Return, so that was something that was really fun, to have him come in and work as the director on that specific episode.
I was talking to Ben about the future of Bloodline, specifically his character, because it’s a very explosive pilot. Do you know yet if your summer plans will involve shooting another season of the show?
We don’t know anything for sure. It’d be great if it wasn’t summer. If it was fall, that would be great because the weather would be nicer. I think they crafted the show in such a way that it could be the first chapter of many or it could be one complete story. I think the questions people want answered will be answered, and I think new ones will crop for it to continue if it does. Netflix makes really good choices in their programming, and I feel like they’re committed and invested in storytelling, so it would be great to see it go on another season.
That’s funny, you bring up the elements. I’ve read about your bug suit.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I do have a bug suit! Which I didn’t know existed until I saw one of the cameraman wearing a full net bug suit, and he was the only one whose nerves weren’t fried. [Laughs.] We were shooting by the water, which, you know, is very near the Everglades, which is protected by its wildlife. It has a beautiful ecosystem that lives there that’s very different from what I was used to on the West Coast. But along with it comes some mosquitoes, so a bug suit is actually a wise idea. I went home that night and ordered one off the internet.
Do you still have it?
I do, I do! I’ll be bringing it back if the show’s renewed.