Interview: Linda Cardellini Talks Character Flaws, the Power of Silence, and ‘Return’

By  · Published on February 15th, 2012

The premise of Return lends itself quite easily over to the plot synopsis of a Lifetime movie. Conveying the unsteady returning home of a soldier isn’t exactly breaking new ground, and it’s not the easiest type of story to tell. Night terrors, big breakdowns, and digging holes in the backyard, all tonally difficult and usually trite scenes. None of those scenes are in Return.

In fact, writer/director Liza Johnson’s film relies a good deal on silence, not so much on “loud” drama. For the film’s star, Linda Cardellini, that’s what she seemed the most taken with. As Kelli, Cardellini plays messy, flawed, and extremely difficult without ever giving a “big” scene to explain it all.

Here’s what actor Linda Cardellini had to say about how to pronounce Cannes, how little details can inform a performance, and relying on silence:

Did you enjoy bringing the film to Cannes? Is that how you pronounce it?

I know, it took me forever. It’s Cannes (sounds like “can”), as far as I know. And then some think it’s Cannes (sounds like “con”). I don’t know. You never know.

Nobody knows.

Yeah. No, but if that was me and I had always wanted to go to the Cannes Film Festival, and I always wanted to go with something that I was in. I didn’t want to go as a spectator. So it was really…especially with this film because we worked so hard on making it. It’s a very, very independent film, so going there was just kind of amazing. [Laughs] It was really juxtaposition between the size of our film and the size of that film festival. And it was funny because the film wasn’t even finished when Liza sent it in. So the Wednesday before it actually premiered she sent in the final version. So it was really early on. It was the first place that we ever saw the film.

I’d imagine she’d be a little hesitant about sending an unfinished cut, right?

I know. I think she was just like, “Why not? Let’s go for it.” And then they picked us. It was pretty amazing.

That’s great. I’d imagine with Liza the challenge was the fact that this very easily could slip into being a Lifetime channel type of drama. Was it clear in the script she got around that?

I think that’s something that Liza…I think that’s something that’s really special about Liza. I met with her, I read the script. I thought it was a great role. It could go one of two ways. It could go the way as you’ve seen it ‐ you know, overdramatic, and it’s more about some horrific trauma being told in some kind of way that tells you exactly how to think and feel. With Liza, it felt just special. You know, she can turn the visual arts background and everything. Even the script was different, though. Like, there were things in there about the way things smelled and the way things felt. You know, the way the grass felt on her feet, and the way that she sat down in the rocks and it was the first time she sat in a chair in a long time of her own. Details like that you don’t normally see in a script that aren’t going to make some director’s shot-list, but inform the character in the narrative. That, too, was something that was very special about the script.

On set, even if those details aren’t explicitly pointed out, do you constantly think about how to portray it?

Oh yeah. I think there are so many silences that Kelli has that are very poignant in some ways, and some are very evasive. I think that having so many details. We did a lot of research together and separately. But we did a lot together to try to find out as much as we could and educated ourselves as much as we could to try to fill the silence. For me, as an actress it is important to fill the sciences so that she has a working psyche.

Do you find that exciting or as a daunting challenge, having to pretty much act silent for a lot of takes?

Oh, I love it. I love it. I think we’re expressing… I think words are hard to come by. I think people say a lot of things they don’t mean in real life. I think sometimes in scripts people say too much of what they mean, and that doesn’t seem realistic to me. So I really like the idea that she didn’t know how to communicate well enough for certain things. But that was something that resonated in what we learned as well, is that people were having a hard time communicating with their loved ones. That’s the period in the relationships when they returned from being in the Middle East.

Do you get a lot of scripts like that where you get to say a lot more with silence?

You know, I’ve been lucky enough to have…For instance, Freaks and Geeks was like that for me, too. There was a lot of stuff that she did…there was a lot of stuff that you read on her face that wasn’t necessarily said. That, to me, helps. If the camera can get close and see into somebody’s eyes, and the shift of your eyes can tell people something that you couldn’t quite articulate as well.

What about in theater?

Theater you have a little bit longer way to go. I think it’s a little bit more dialogue driven! [Laughs]

Do you enjoy working in theater?

Yeah. I haven’t done it in a really long time, and I would love to do it again. I would love to do it again. I was actually out in New York when I got this. When I got Liza’s script I was out in New York, so I was really thinking about doing a play. Then I got Liza’s script and that was something I ended up doing. But yeah, it’s something I love to do.

Has it just been a scheduling problem; you just haven’t been able to?

Yeah, it has never worked out for me. But it’s funny, because I’ve been working pretty consistently from the time I started working. After ER, I did a long time on ER, and after that I was just like, “I’m going to take a break and I’m going to sit back and I’m going to wait, and I’m going to reassess the kind of things I do.” And I went to New York, and that’s when I got Liza’s script. I felt it was something I’d really love to get deep into. And it was great because, on one hand, it was sometimes devastating because the financing kept taking longer and longer and longer. On the other hand, it gave us all that time for Liza and I to spend together to sort of understand and educate ourselves about each other and for me to educate ourselves about different soldiers and do a lot of different research. At first we were upset at how long things were taking to put together, but at the same time, that time gave us a lot, a lot to go on when we started shooting.

And I would imagine when you started shooting you don’t have a lot of time to discuss those things.

No, no time at all [Laughs]. It was very no frills, which I didn’t mind at all. There’s no makeup and I was changing in the Dunkin Donuts bathroom, and then I was changing…that I had to sneak into because I didn’t buy a donut.. And then I had to change in the car. It was just really…we were on the run making that movie, and everybody who was involved was just so committed to it. It was a pretty amazing experience.

How long was the shoot exactly?

It was 20-something days, I think. I feel like 22 days.

With a fairly short schedule, how’s the process of trying to find an honest moment, when you maybe only have a few takes?

For me, the way that Liza directed it was…I don’t know if it’s because I trusted her more than I trusted anybody or because we had such a rapport because we started. But stuff like that, I never really felt rushed. I think we had so much preparation. And then when Michael [Shannon] came in, he’s so talented and he can do anything. I think that she really made us feel comfortable and we never felt the time crunch, other than when we were tired and things like that.

What made you trust her as a director?

You know, I just met her and we thought about it very similarly. We could talk about any portion of the script at any time and know exactly where each other was. And if we had differing ideas, that was okay too. We trusted each other enough to disagree as well.

How would those disagreements usually end? Would you just try different things?

Yeah, we tried a lot of different things. Liza has a very clear vision of how she sees the film and how she saw the film and how she wanted to direct it and what kind of film she was making from the beginning. But she was still malleable in terms of letting us try anything we wanted to try. She’s a really generous spirit and really cooperative soul. So it was really easy to work with her. And it was a very positive set. There was a lot of women on set, which is really nice. A lot of times it’s mostly men, which I like that too.

I’ve talked to a lot of actors who say when you’re on set for a TV show, it’s extremely disciplined, where you pretty much have to stick 100% to the script. Has that been your experience?

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. I think some people are more…I mean, like on Freaks and Geeks we adlibbed. We were pretty loose. But ER, you know, if you adlib someone’s blood pressure you could kill the patient in the line, so that’s not something you really want to do. I think in general, most of the stuff I work on, I like to stick to the script. There’s a reason why I chose the script, and I trust the writers, and I trust people to do their jobs, their various different jobs. But I think there are times when people let you go off script and that’s really fun too. So I’ve had those experiences. I think anybody who is unwavering, that becomes…it’s a little strict. I don’t think anybody really likes to operate under very, very strict dictatorial rule. So I think the more you can feel like you are trusted the better it feels to be involved in that project.

Have you ever worked under that type of dictatorship?

That’s a good question. I don’t think so. Most people are pretty cooperative. And it really takes so many people to make something happen. And so few people actually get the credit. Like, for instance, in Return, I’m onscreen by myself a lot of the time, and I’m onscreen a majority of the film….I mean all of the film. But I never really felt that way because I was so heavily supported by the people behind the camera and sort if preparing for the role that I never really felt totally alone or totally like it was on my shoulders.

That’s always an interesting dichotomy, where you see something very intimate onscreen, but there’s probably like 50 or so crew members surrounding that performance Are there ever days on set where you are thinking about that, or do you get over that fairly quickly?

You think about it when you have to take off some of your clothes or you have to make out with somebody. You know what I mean? You definitely notice it. You know, sometimes when you are having a very private moment or a very emotional moment, there’s a lot of people to look out and see. So you definitely are aware of it. But it’s your job as an actor to sort of make that be normal and invisible to you.

When it comes to Kelli, she is a very flawed person, and not just in the damaged way. She says and does unkind things.

That was something that I wanted to…You still have to make her a human being. You can’t just make her like a two-dimensional person who can’t get along with anybody. So it was an interesting task as an actress to find like the love and the care in there that makes her make such bad decisions. And the reason why she’s making bad decisions is really out of love for something, and it usually is for her family. And, to me, I hoped that would give her more dimension from just doing something bad.

[Spoiler Alert]

And it’s pretty surprising she doesn’t get a big cathartic experience by the end of it all.

Yeah. You’re waiting for it.

Exactly. Did Liza discuss the importance of not giving the audience or Kelli that sense of relief?

I think that, to me, I think life’s messy. I think that people who are going through traumatic events, I don’t think it all comes in one fell swoop. I think sometimes it does, but the fallout can take years. I think that for my character, the way that she unravels slowly and sort of in small ways, and then makes some bad, bigger choices, I think it speaks to how human we are. I don’t really think we understand what we’re going through when we’re going through some of the hardest things in life. I think sometimes years later you can understand yourself better or communicate what was going on in your life better. But sometimes you never truly understand and somebody else understands you better, or you go to therapy and try to understand yourself better. I think that Kelli’s inability to communicate what’s happening to her and to really grasp any one thing and point to any one thing to blame it on is very human to me.

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Return is now in limited release.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.