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Linda Cardellini on Playing a War Vet and Freaks and Geeks Nostalgia

Linda Cardellini. Photo: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

She’s had a steady career that’s included everything from Scooby Doo movies to a long-running role on E.R., but Linda Cardellini is probably destined to be remembered best for a TV role she spent just eighteen episodes playing: Lindsay Weir, the almost painfully realistic teenage girl at the center of the dearly departed Freaks and Geeks. Her latest role, as Kelli, a just-home veteran of an unspecified war in Liza Johnson’s Return, likely won’t banish the memory of Lindsay (because, really, what could?), but it may do something to place Cardellini in a new echelon of actresses. It’s a complex, quietly aching performance (opposite Michael Shannon) in which Cardellini often doesn’t say a word. She spoke to Vulture about playing a vet, Freaks and Geeks nostalgia, and who she still keeps in touch with from the cast.

This is the kind of story often told from a male point of view, but here with a female director and a female protagonist. How did that inform the storytelling?
Liza really has a very artistic soul and is a very genuine person, and working with her never felt like a dictatorship. It was a wonderful collaboration. When she cast me, the movie didn’t get made until about a year and a half later, so during that time, even though we’d get frustrated that the movie wasn’t being put into production, we got to know each other and trust each other and like each other, first and foremost. We did a lot of research and traveled together. It was like a wonderful obsession we had.

What kinds of stuff did you do together?
Oh, all kinds of things — we went to her hometown in Ohio, where she originally imagined the story taking place. We went to a football game; just normal things Kelli would have done in her everyday life in that town. We bought a cowbell for the game [laughs]. I met her parents. In L.A., we spoke with a psychologist who counsels returning veterans, and we went to the 29 Palms military base. We had a beer with some of the guys there and listened to stories; it was an education as an actress and as an American, and I felt pretty lucky to have a partner to do that with.

The movie really makes a point of never specifying where Kelli served or what exactly happened to her there. Did you feel the need to come up with a backstory for her?
Absolutely; I wanted to make it very specific. It was funny, Liza and I would disagree: “Well, I think this happened to her.” “No, I’m not sure that happened to her!” It was really up to me to fill my mind with whatever I wanted to. There are so many moments when the camera just sits on me being introspective that I wanted to make sure all those silences were filled with as many details as I could find.

So what’s her story?
Those are my secrets! But there were many things people said who I spoke to that I couldn’t forget. Like when I say in the movie there were dead animals by the side of the road, that was something someone told me they remembered seeing all the time that bothered them. There were really personal and awful traumatic events that once you hear, you can’t really forget. So in those moments when she’s just looking off, I could just conjure some images.  

You play these rather inward-looking characters well. But you seem like such a happy person!
I think I’m both; I love when people give me energy, but left to my own devices, I can be very introspective and sometimes self-destructive [laughs].

It must be impossible for you to speak to anyone without Freaks and Geeks coming up. Is it odd to still talk about it so much years later?
Oh, I love it. I’m so proud of that show, and it’s amazing to me that we could be on this show that was canceled, we were all crushed, nobody knew when we would work again, and for it to have such a long life afterward … one girl told me it saved her life. That’s a really hard time for people, and if you can relate I think it’s a beautiful way of looking at a really awkward time. It doesn’t get old to me at all. Busy Phillips and I were talking — I’m about to have a baby, and she has a little girl — and she was like, “You know, someday we’re gonna have to show them Freaks and Geeks.” And I thought, Oh my God, and I get high in that one episode! I don’t know if I can show that to my daughter!

What was your recent cast reunion like? Are you still in touch with everyone?
Yeah, most everybody. I spent some time recently with Sarah Hagan who played Millie — we were in France for a film festival and went to the Eiffel Tower together. I ran into Martin Starr at a restaurant the other day. It’s like a family; it was a really unique time in all of our lives and careers ,and seeing everyone, it was a lot like what I imagine a high school reunion would be like, although I have not been to a high school reunion. And it was amazing to see people’s families; a lot of the kids on the show were real kids, so you got to know people’s parents and some of them were at the reunion too. When we drove up I saw this huge line outside the Paley Center in Los Angeles and was like, “What is THAT for?!” And then realized, oh my God — those people are lining up for a show we couldn’t even keep on the air. It’s pretty amazing.

Jason Segel and James Franco feels so omnipresent in pop culture right now. Is that odd for you? And how do you and Busy feel about the fact that Judd Apatow never made star vehicles for you?
All those guys are so talented, and I’m happy they’re doing well. It’s nice to see people succeed and, you know, John Francis Daley’s doing his thing too. It’s a pretty amazing thing that everyone’s still going at it. And as for the Judd question, the funny thing is that we get it a lot. I still see Judd! I don’t know — I think it’s his question to answer.

Did Liza tell you what got her attention?
She was familiar with Freaks and Geeks and Brokeback Mountain, but she had this friend who thought I had pretty great taste, and he said, “Have you seen her in Scooby Doo 2?” At first she said, “What?!” but then she said, “And then I realized — that was my girl.” And it’s so funny, that performance has brought me several different meetings, introductions. There’s something about it that people react to! When doing that film, I never thought it would bring me to an amazing role in an art house film. But you never know what people see.

What are you up to now? Are you focusing on being a mom?
Yeah, I was actually having a couple contractions just now. I was timing them as we were speaking. I’m pretty excited about it. I’ll see what that’s like and do that for the moment. And can I just say — will you please tell David Edelstein, if you see him, thank you so much for all his kind words? Seriously. It’s a small film and we hope people pay attention to it, so I appreciate it.

Linda Cardellini on Playing a War Vet and Freaks and Geeks Nostalgia