EXCLUSIVE: Linda Cardellini Makes a Big ‘Return’

Linda Cardellin stars in "RETURN." ©Focus Features/Dada Films


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Linda Cardellini has two big productions due this month. The former “ER” star is about to give birth to her first child. She also stars in a powerful new drama called “Return,” in which she plays a National Guardsman trying to readjust—mostly unsuccessfully—to her home life after a long overseas deployment.

The 36-year-old has been receiving some of the best notices of her career in the Liza Johnson written and directed drama, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

Johnson was impressed with Cardellini’s performance, particular the moments where the character is silent.

“Her research gave her a lot of confidence, and there is a lot of depth in her choices,” the filmmaker says. “Since the character doesn’t say everything in words, I think her work in these other ways is really important.”

Cardellini recently spoke with Front Row Features about her star-making role and pending motherhood.

Front Row Features: The release of “Return” couldn’t be better timed with American troops coming home Iraq.

Cardellini: Yeah. We were lucky. We shot this in late 2010, and we were wondering when it would be the right time for it to come out. It’s just a lucky coincidence that so many soldiers are now returning. It’s interesting that the window never closed. It just kept opening up because it’s a relevant topic. Hopefully, people will continue to come home from Afghanistan and Iraq. “Return” will be available on video-on-demand (VOD) and iTunes Feb. 28.

Front Row Features: Did you have to audition for this?

Cardellini: I was in New York and I was sent the script. I read it that night and the next day I met Liza, and the next day and we had a meeting and we sat and talked for over an hour just talking about everything. There were all these details in the script that were some of my favorite things about the script. We thought about things the same way. Especially the way she spoke about the film, coming from a visual arts background, it was different from the way I heard other people speaking about roles or films or projects and I remember coming up and thinking she was really special. I had a good feeling about the project and wanted to do it. I’m lucky enough that she picked me.

Front Row Features: I think you’re in every scene of the movie. I bet it was intense. Did you feel it was all on your shoulders?

Cardellini: I tried not to think of that too much. (She laughs.) It was a wonderful experience to live with the character so much and we worked such long hours and really fast. To be able to stay with the character that much was a gift for me as an actress. It was really hard, though, because I got sick in the middle of the shoot and I had to be taken to the doctor in the middle of the day and brought back to set. He said, you should stay home and rest, and I said, there’s no way I can stay home and rest. I’ve got to go to work. For all of those things, they all ended up working out. There were so many people working on it because they just loved the film. It wasn’t about the money. They believed in Liza and the script and the project. They were working so hard that I never felt alone. I never felt everything was on my shoulders. There was a community of people working on something they thought was relevant and important.

Front Row Features: How did you prepare for your role as Kelli, a returning Guardsman?

Cardellini: I spoke with some women on the phone and some in person. I tried to find out as much as I could, as gently as possible. I tried to educate myself as much as I could because I knew it is something that’s happening and I wanted to pay as much respect to that as possible. A lot of us go through our everyday lives and we hear about the war and the soldiers. We care about it but it’s not part of our every minute function in daily life and people over there are making these giant sacrifices. So I felt an obligation to get as educated as I could about as many people as I could.

I also talked to people whose families have returned and asked them questions about what that was like and how hard it was to communicate with them. Some people have problems (readjusting) and some don’t.

I also spent some time talking to a psychologist who counsels returning veterans and she offered a lot of insights. One thing she said that resonates in the film is that some people don’t have one specific trauma to point to. Just being in the situation, they have vivid memories of things that have affected them.

Front Row Features: Did you prepare physically as well?

Cardellini: We did things like shoot guns and I tried to learn things that would be part of Kelli’s basic training. We had the luxury of time because we couldn’t get the budget together at first. It gave us a lot of time that were very useful by the time it came time to shooting.

Front Row Features: The film is set in a small town in Ohio, but where did you shoot it?

Cardellini: We shot it in Newburgh, in upstate New York. It always was set to take place in Ohio in the town that Liza grew up. Liza and I got close during that time preparing for the film because it made it so much easier when we shot the film. The filming was so fast and furious that we had to have shorthand between us by the time we were shooting. It lent itself to a great amount of trust, which was really a joy.

Front Row Features: What was it like working with Michael Shannon, who plays your character’s husband?

Cardellini: I love Michael. He’s really capable of doing anything. That’s what I really liked about him. In this film, he’s really just a normal husband. I don’t know if he gets to play that very often. But he’s very warm and funny and a very talented person.

Front Row Features: Have you had an opportunity to watch the movie with American servicemen and women?

Cardellini: I’ve mostly seen it in foreign countries. I’ve mostly seen it with subtitles. I’ve seen it subtitled in French. I haven’t seen it yet with an American audience.

It’s interesting that people have such strong reactions to a story that I thought was a very American story—a woman from small town America. She works in the factory and has a husband and kids. She serves in a war that a lot of people think is unpopular. They seem to get it and react well to it.

Front Row Features: Without giving away the ending, it’s interesting to see what Kelli ends up doing.

Cardellini: It’s like a punch in the gut. Right? The limitation of choices; it’s a little hard to take.

Front Row Features: Many young people join the Guard like Kelli thinking they will be rescuing Americans from natural disasters but end up fighting in foreign conflicts.

Cardellini: The reality is people who work in the Guard still help out with the tornadoes and various natural disasters, but there’s another group of people who imagine that would be their job and surprisingly found themselves in other situations, and dealing with that expectation and surprise and having to adjust to something they didn’t think they’d have to deal with.

Front Row Features: It’s never said where Kelli was stationed overseas. It could be Iraq or some other place of conflict. Was that purposely vague?

Cardellini: Yes. Liza was intent on making things up to the audience and not telling anybody anything more than they needed to know, which I found very interesting. As an actor you play specifics, and I have my own ideas of things. We talked about a lot of things that are secret to the audience but not to myself. I thought it was a great way to play a character because so often things are overwritten. That’s certainly not the case in this movie.

Front Row Features: What’s next for you?

Cardellini: I’m about to have a baby. (She laughs.) It’s coming up pretty soon. We joke that I have two projects coming up. I’m going to take some time (off) and be a first-time mother. I’m really uncomfortable at this point; I’m ready for her to come out.

Front Row Features: What have you been doing to prepare for motherhood?

Cardellini: I’ve read a lot of books. I have humorous books about it and serious books about it. Plus, I’ve canvassed my family and friends of what I should feel or do. Luckily, I have a lot of doctor friends from “ER.” So I’ve consulted them too.

Front Row Features: What would you like to do when you get back to work?

Cardellini: I’d love to do whatever’s different from the last thing (I did). This was the first time anybody had given me a role of this size and I’d love to take on some more things like that.

Front Row Features: Do you stay in touch with your friends from “Freaks and Geeks?”

Cardellini: Yeah. I just saw Judd (Apatow) a month or so ago. I see Busy (Philipps) all the time. When I was at the Deauville Film Festival, I spent most of my time with Sarah Hagan, who played Millie, my best friend on the show. We saw the Eiffel Tower together. It was a special time in my life being on that show. A lot of the friendships have lasted.