Linda Cardellini on Return, the Emotional Toll of War, and the Legacy of Freaks and Geeks

Sometime after getting her start on NBC’s short-lived but well-loved cult series Freaks and Geeks, starring in two live-action studio Scooby-Doo movies, appearing for six seasons on ER, and turning in various screen performances (including a role as Ennis del Mar’s waitress fling in Brokeback Mountain), Linda Cardellini took a break to reassess her career. “I wanted to step back and reevaluate myself as an actress and find out what I was capable of,” she told Movieline, describing her turn as a shell-shocked female soldier readjusting to life at home in this week’s Return, “and this was sort of the perfect role for that.”

Return brought the actress in close collaboration with filmmaker Liza Johnson, who wrote and directed the drama about Kelli (Cardellini), a wife and mother who’s recently come home to her suburban Ohio town after a tour of duty in the Middle East with the National Guard. Despite the fact that she suffered no notable trauma overseas, Kelli finds that her familiar world has been utterly changed nonetheless; nothing seems to be in its right place anymore, in her home and in her mind. Despite her best efforts, Kelli’s emotional dislocation begins to sabotage her relationships and threaten her marriage as she grasps to keep control of it all.

It’s an unusual perspective on war and its tragic effects, and one that Cardellini eagerly poured herself into. And it’s a performance that’s garnered new acclaim and attention for the actress, who also added roles in Kill the Irishman and Super to her post-break resume. Cardellini rang Movieline last week – expecting her first baby any day, she joked that both of her big projects could debut at once – to discuss Return, her career moves, and more.

The director, Liza Johnson, workshopped this film for a while – how did it come to you and why do you think you tapped into it?
After I finished ER I went to New York and I was thinking about doing a play, I sort of took a step back and thought I wanted to do something different than what I had been doing for so long. While I was in New York I was sent this script, I read it that night, and the next day I met with Liza. Really, I just sort of fell in love with the role because even though it’s a giant undertaking it’s a fantastic role for an actress, and I just thought it was an unusual way to take a look at a soldier returning, especially from a woman’s perspective.

What kind of impression did Liza and her vision for the film make on you?
When I met with Liza I thought she really had an interesting voice; she had a lot of ideas about the silences and the small details that have caused the unraveling in this person’s life, rather than the one big traumatic and catastrophic event, which was a really interesting way to play it and hopefully for people to relate to this type of character. She had things written in the script about the way things smelled, and the way things felt on her feet, and it was different than other scripts that I had read. Liza’s idea of how to shoot it and who this person was, we really just fell in sync close to immediately. I was very lucky that she chose me! We had the luxury of time because it’s so hard to put together a truly independent film – we had a little over a year together, talking about the film, obsessing over the film. For me and for Liza, we really enjoyed educating ourselves as much as we could about people returning and their stories, and people’s stories surrounding them. I’m onscreen the entire time – I’ve never had such great trust between myself and a director, and that was a wonderful feeling.

We very rarely hear about, let alone see depicted, the experience of a female soldier. How did you learn about that world and that unique point of view, through talking to real life servicemen and women?
We tried to find as many people as we could that would talk to us, and people were very generous in speaking to us. People’s experiences were very different. There was one woman who was happily returning to her third or fourth deployment, and I spoke with another girl who, after one deployment, her life had been turned completely upside-down. The differences between those stories, and also the common threads – and I spoke with men as well, to get the generalized version of the story and to understand things that weren’t necessarily gender-specific, things that were common threads for men and women, so that the story could be accessible to many people since it wasn’t based on one person’s actual story. We spoke with psychologists and vets from other wars, people who had family members returning – and what it was like to be shut out from that – and went to places where we thought she’d have grown up. We went to places she’d have visited with her family; we did things she would have done in basic training even though you never saw them in the film. We just tried to fill her life as much as possible, especially because there are so many silences and so many small details and there’s so much restraint in her character, I wanted to be able to seed those silences with all the details I had learned.

There are many instances where we realize, after the fact, that she’s felt off despite being back home and in her “normal” routine – and many small details that are not verbalized, but come through in quiet, subtle cues.
Yeah. And the script didn’t tell me what to think, or how to think, but also as Kelli I don’t know how to say the things that I’m feeling, which is what I think happens in life. I don’t think that we’re always the most articulate we can be when we’re going through something traumatic or life-changing. Hindsight is 20/20 – you don’t realize for years to come that you’re going through and how they affected you. I imagine that Kelli, in the years to come, will understand more about herself than she does at the moment.

Things are very jarring for her from the moment we meet her; she’s just come home from a tour of duty and trying to readjust to her old life, not quite sure why things feel different. How would you describe her headspace? She frequently explains, when people ask her what happened “over there,” that “other people had it a lot worse.” She’s in denial, for sure…
I think she’s in denial, I think there’s some guilt, I think there’s some sadness…loss at her perspective of the world right now, I think there’s an innocence lost. I think she’s going through a lot of things that she doesn’t quite know how to put into words, but she certainly didn’t lose a limb like people that she saw, she didn’t lose her life, she didn’t get raped – she’s forced to count her blessings based on some of the things she’s seen but still does not feel her old self, and still feels changed by everything that’s happened, so it’s confusing. We spoke to this psychologist and she said sometimes people don’t have one specific trauma, but the idea of being in a broken and war-torn world where you see things that change your opinion of what mankind can be like is enough to cause trauma in your life. I think that’s an interesting thing; a lot of returning soldier stories have one big catastrophic event where someone gets hurt or there’s an outburst of violence, and I think those things do, of course as we’ve seen, really happen. And I think there’s another version of that, with people returning with stories that aren’t quite as explosive but that can be life-changing for them as well. I think that’s something that people come home with and can be healed from, but also some people are healed from it and some people are not.

The idea of “returning” is made exponentially stressful given the possibility of redeployment for many soldiers like Kelli, and that constant feeling of being torn between two worlds seems even worse than having to adjust even once back to normal life.
Absolutely. And what do you do with that commitment that you’ve made and the duty that you have – and the duty you have to your family? And what are your alternatives?

Not to mention that in focusing on a female soldier’s perspective you get the added element of maternal demands – Kelli’s husband at one point asks her to try to be a mother to her children. The idea of these two potentially conflicting duties, service and motherhood, pulling a woman in two different directions is even more complex.
Yeah, and I think it’s maybe just as difficult for men to do the same but we’re used to it. The idea of a woman leaving her children [to serve in the military] is a newer concept for people, so dealing with the fallout of that is something I think she has to deal with as well. Because the expectations of her returning home are different than they would be if she were a man. And the expectations of the man staying home are different as well, and Michael [Shannon]’s character is really interesting in that way too, in that he’s been holding things together waiting for her to come back and be normal and that just can’t happen. It’s really, really sad.

Did Michael come to the project after you were attached?
No, I think he was first! I don’t know if Liza knew him before or what, but he was attached first and very, very early on – it took at least a year after that, if not two, for the movie to be made. Then I came on and everybody else after that.

What was it like playing opposite Michael and, by contrast, John Slattery, who plays an interesting character in that he and Kelli seem to get each other through their similar military experiences even if it doesn’t exactly work out…
No, and I think he’s a surprise to her, too. I think she feels that she’s finally found somebody that maybe she can trust, and you get a glimpse of Kelli when she’s a little more carefree. She’s laughing, she’s having a good time, she’s talking, and she actually opens herself up a bit more before you realize how quickly that is an illusion, and how quickly she shuts down. Things are still not as she hopes them to be. I think it’s interesting, too, how he deals with his return – he’s a returning vet from a different war, versus her coming home from a more recent war, and it’s a common thread yet they have very different approaches to dealing with it. But John’s great; it was really fun to be able to play on set. It was very fun to have a different version of Kelli come out in those scenes, and I wanted people to understand what she was like when she could smile easier, and laugh, and relate to people a little bit better. With Michael, I had been on set a long time shooting by myself and when he showed up there was this whole family dynamic that came with him. For all the crazy parts he plays he’s a really wonderful, good person. Such a dynamic and amazing actor, it was a thrill to work with him and we had such a good time. We had this chemistry that just worked in terms of the opposition and the affection we had towards each other.

How has your process evolved over the years in terms of the projects and characters that you choose?
You know, it’s hard to say. It’s a good question. I’ve always tried to choose things where I could be different than what I have been doing, and I really like to be able to surprise people with what I’m able to do. I sometimes can shy away from the limelight a little, and I took a break after ER. I could have done several things but I just waited until I found a role… I wanted to step back and reevaluate myself as an actress and find out what I was capable of, and this was sort of the perfect role for that. I’m lucky that Liza trusted me with such a giant undertaking. It’s the first time someone’s been able to hand me a role like that, and it felt so good to sink my teeth into that and really understand myself again as an actress. But I love to do comedy too! I like to choose things that excite me and challenge me, and this was definitely one of them. [Laughs] It was very fast and furious shooting, too. And also I wanted to know more about that subject matter, so it was an education as well.

You mentioned those few years that you took off to re-assess your career direction and the kind of projects you wanted to take on. When you look back on Freaks and Geeks, it has such an enduring legacy and even Paul Feig, for example, has had huge recent success.
Yeah! It’s so great.

When you look back on that time, how do you feel about the fact that many people still associate you with Freaks and Geeks and have such a love for the series, even now?
It’s amazing. It really speaks to the power of the DVD because while we were on network television we got very much ignored, like the freaks and geeks of the industry. [Laughs] But I love it. I’m so proud of the show, I’m so proud of everybody who went on to do all the different things that they’ve done. It was such an interesting and unique group of people. Our [2011Paleyfest celebration] was like a high school reunion. We drove up and I said, ‘God, what are these people waiting for?’ And we realized they were here for Freaks and Geeks, to be part of the event, and I thought, wow – what a change, from being cancelled and not even getting to a full season! A line around the block a decade later. And I run into people who are still discovering the show. I think we’re all pretty proud of it.

You followed Freaks and Geeks with a number of roles in big mainstream films – the Scooby-Doo movies, for instance. Considering this more recent career refocus, are there any earlier roles that you might reconsider doing if you had to do them over again?

You know, everything I’ve done has brought me to where I am. Some people wonder where that is, but to me it’s the story of my life and I’ve had a pretty good life, so I’m pretty happy. And this latest role, if I would have stepped in a different direction I wouldn’t be in this film now, and to me it’s one of my greatest accomplishments so far.

Return is in select theaters this Friday.

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