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Linda Cardellini, Still Blooming

“You can play the ingenue or you could play the woman who’s got a hunch on her back. Hunchback was always my choice.”

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Christopher Kane dress, $3,895 at christopherkane.com. Photo: Jacq Harriet

It’s the day after her 44th birthday, and Linda Cardellini is already having the best year of her life. The night before, she joined her friend singer-songwriter Regina Spektor on Broadway to duet “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” for Spektor’s residency at the Lunt-Fontanne theater. She describes how Spektor instructed the whole audience to say “Happy Birthday” to her as she walked out onstage, and handed out cupcakes at a gathering after the show. The next day she is still basking in the afterglow of this sublime experience.

For Cardellini, a self-described lifelong “late bloomer,” it was another dream coming true on her own timeline. Cardellini was singing in the school hallway as a kid when a teacher overheard and drafted her into plays. A theater kid ever since, she tells the story of an NBC event in 1999, right after Freaks & Geeks was picked up. “I remember somebody asked me, What are you doing next?,” presumably asking about television roles. “And I was like, Oh I’m doing this medieval play festival in Italy.” She was just as excited about the Italian medieval play festival as booking the pilot. Her favorite musicals are Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. Asked who she’d play in JCS, she says “they’re all great roles, especially Judas.”

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She plays a Judas role of sorts, coincidentally named Judy, on her recent Netflix show Dead to Me. The details of Judy’s life spill out over the season, and gives Cardellini a rare showcase for her talent at playing multiple emotions at the same time. The show passes the Bechdel Test easily, hinging on the chemistry between two great actresses playing complex women who happen to be in their 40s. “It’s two strong female leads and that doesn’t come along very often,” says Cardellini, who plays opposite Christina Applegate. “A lot of times you read a script and the female characters can be interchanged. You could take one person’s lines and give them to the other character — they just dress differently, or one has a different color hair and one wears glasses.”

Cardellini grew up in Redwood City, California. She remembers her first role in a community theater production of The Music Man, as a “little old lady.” Her mom showed her Lon Chaney movies, which gave her the transformation bug. She still wants to play a role where she could become unrecognizable under makeup and wigs. “There were times in high school and college when they’d be like you can play the ingenue or you could play the woman who’s got a hunch on her back. And the hunchback was always my choice.” She moved to study theater at Loyola Marymount University and started auditioning, getting cast as “the sarcastic girlfriend or the funny friend” on family sitcoms like Step by Step and Boy Meets World and playing small supporting parts on the big screen in comedies like Dead Man on Campus and Good Burger.

But it was the Judd Apatow cult-favorite Freaks and Geeks that made her a kind of teenage-icon — despite that she was in her 20s at the time. In the single season of the show’s existence, she played Lindsay Weir, a mathlete who wants to break out of her “geeky” roots, so she befriends a group of “freaks” but never quite feels at home in any situation. Cardellini describes Lindsay as someone who “wants to rebel, but really loves her parents.” In the episode “Chokin’ and Tokin’” Linsday smokes pot for the first time to prove she’s not a goody-two-shoes, and then realizes she has to babysit. Cardellini plays the bad trip for all its layers — the giggly first high transforming into panic, disassociation, and walls-closing-in paranoia. And somehow, she plays it funny. Cardellini’s performance holds the show’s ensemble cast together, which is quite an accomplishment considering her cast members included future comedy stars like Seth Rogen and James Franco.

She met another member of that ensemble, actress Busy Philipps, when they were both students at Loyola Marymount. Cardellini was still involved in the LMU theater program, but “she was already the stuff of legend because she was working so much professionally,” Philipps says. “And so I knew about her before I met her. All the things people said about her were true. She was the coolest and so friendly and kind and obviously extremely talented.” Philipps was going out for her first season of casting at the same time Cardellini booked the Freaks & Geeks pilot. Philipps’s agent wanted her to try for a lead role on another show rather than the supporting role of complicated tough girl Kim Kelly. It was Cardellini who convinced her she had to take the show, at a chance encounter at the airport where they were both picking up friends. “She ran up to me and said ‘I heard they offered you Kim! Dude, I’m Lindsay. You’ve got to do it.’ And it was in that moment at LAX when I just knew for certain, I had to do this show. Just the way she said it to me — it was done,” Philipps says. “I had never worked professionally before and the comfort of this awesome girl who I already looked up to being on there with me. I knew that she would help look out for me, and I was right.”

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When I ask if she’s encountered sexism in the entertainment industry, she’s diplomatic. “I’ve certainly been paid less,” she says. “I’ve certainly had less to do.” She feels privileged to be working this much at all. (“I never thought being involved in Hollywood would be fair,” she said. “I kind of always had to have a screw loose to think that I could do it, but there wasn’t another choice for me.”) In the two decades since Freaks & Geeks, she’s played smart women of all stripes. Nerdy Velma in Scooby Doo; permed evil schemer Chutney in Legally Blonde; resilient single mom nurse Samantha Taggart on the final seasons of ER; and dark, depressed women like Sylvia Rosen on Mad Men and Meg Rayburn on Bloodline. On Bloodline, her mother was played by Sissy Spacek, which she says was another career-high moment. “Sissy Spacek is an incredible human being, an angel. There’s something otherworldly about her.” She says actresses with long, eclectic careers, like Spacek, are her role models. She was working steadily in film, appearing in Green Book and Daddy’s Home (and the sequel), and playing Mrs. Hawkeye in the Avengers franchise, when Dead to Me knocked.

She was hooked in immediately by the pilot’s script, although she assumed she was being considered for Jen, the repressed straight-arrow widow. But the show wanted her to play Judy, the wild-card friend Jen meets at a support group who has recently lost her fiancé. Their grief brings them together, a friendship forged through wine and weed and late-night phone calls; but a secret Judy is keeping drives the series’ tension, threatening to tear the women apart. The idea of playing someone who is in many ways, a very bad guy, scared her so much she decided to do it.

“I loved the people involved, and that it was predominantly women,” she said of Dead to Me’s female-dominated workplace. “It was very safe and open, and I think that is not always the case. So it’s a fresh feeling. It’s a new experience and it’s somewhere I felt really comfortable and really safe, as the characters go through so much really traumatic stuff.” The series premiered in the spring but in some ways it’s an ideal smart person’s summer show. It’s as twisty and fast-paced as a beach read, with stellar performances from the leads and a feeling of lightness despite overall the dark subject matter. The chemistry between Applegate and Cardellini is a stroke of casting genius — two underrated comic powerhouses in a vehicle worthy of them.

Showrunner Liz Feldman recalls one scene where Cardellini turned on her full power. “In episode three she’s looking at herself in the mirror. She’s going through this really intense array of emotions — guilt and self-loathing and grief and pain. Watching her do that and make that transformation. It was incredible. You know, I’m pretty sure that was one take. It was just mind blowing.”

As a working actress, Cardellini is extremely diplomatic about the availability of roles for women, especially women over 40, in Hollywood. She refuses to knock any wife roles she’s played, nor to knock any project she’s been part of, really. But it’s clear that Dead to Me was a special project for everyone involved. Rather than discuss the relative scarcity of complex roles for women in the past, Cardellini wants to focus on the present moment where the opportunities are being created and hopefully multiplying for stories about people whose experiences may have been previously marginalized on screen, of all kinds.

Philipps reiterates that the solution is women working together to dispel that myth of scarcity and competition. She thinks Dead to Me is part of a new wave of projects that allow women and other marginalized groups to create new kinds of workplaces for themselves. “A lot of us bought into what we were told by the establishment, that we will always be in competition with one another. And then I think we are realizing this is not doing any of us any good.” She says the misogyny of Hollywood is hopefully unraveling in larger ways like exposing sexual predators, but that the smaller scale stuff is insidious as well. “The dudes keep hiring each other and working together and like, what is happening? Where is our route?” She says the reason she looked up to Cardellini from the get-go was because of her refusal to play that game. “That is such an important thing when you meet a woman who’s like, ‘No, fuck all that bullshit. We’re going to be friends. We are going to make a sisterhood.’”

Cardellini sees it less as a sisterhood than a gathering of people of all genders that she has accumulated throughout her life. She says she’s friends with men who are “tender souls.” Her romantic partner, Steven Rodriguez, who currently does the primary childcare, is a friend she’s known since childhood who works as a makeup artist. “I was never a party person who had tons of friends. I have a lot of close friends and I keep them for a long time. My other half, he’s one of them. I guess I love to go through life collecting amazing people. And that’s one of the things I love about my job. I love people. I think I love working in ensembles because I think of it as teamwork.”

Next up, she’s playing Mae Capone — as in, the wife of the mobster — against Tom Hardy in the upcoming Fonzo, which takes place after Al Capone returned from Alcatraz. She’s started a production company, writing with a partner, and is thinking about directing in the future. “I’m working on finding things where I can be more in control of creating rich parts and projects, not even just for myself.” She looks forward to holding the door open for more women. As an actress, she says, “you’re at the mercy of looking for good material, and then you’re hoping that the good material wants to choose you. That’s a process that I’ve been involved with for a long time and it’s not always gone my way. And so the idea of having more control in that capacity and creating something for myself and for others would be exciting.”

As someone who’s come of age through several phases of life on screen, Cardellini doesn’t want to be the spokesperson for all actresses in their 40s. “To be honest, now that I had my birthday yesterday. It’s a gift to be able to have been this long in the industry, and if it’s people seeing me aging, so what? Great.”

Linda Cardellini, Still Blooming