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Linda Cardellini – Miss Versatality

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Linda Cardellini

Miss Versatality

by Jay S. Jacobs

Most actors have a very specific zone in which they are comfortable. There are wonderful dramatic actors, for example, who could not deliver a punch line to save their lives. On the other hand, many comic actors have trouble projecting pathos and tragedy.

Linda Cardellini does not have this problem. In fact, her career has been very specifically divided between those two different worlds – the yin and yang of styles which make up acting.

She has done her share of light, frothy comic roles. Cardellini played the uptight, mystery-loving, book-reading, clue-solving, glasses-losing, ghost-hunting Mystery Inc. member Velma in the Scooby-Doo! movies. She was the evil stepdaughter on an eternal bad-hair day in Legally Blonde. Now, she plays the only truly adult character in the farce Grandma’s Boy from Adam Sandler’s production company.

Cardellini has also done more than her share of dramatic heavy lifting. Her first breakout role was playing the brainy, beautiful but conflicted Lindsay Weir in the cult favorite TV series Freaks and Geeks. In recent years, she has toiled in the long-running series ER, playing Samantha Taggart, a nurse who has to balance her career, a troubled son, a ne’er-do-well ex-husband and an ultimately doomed relationship with hunky Dr. Luka Kovac (Goran Visnjic). Now she is playing a devastating supporting role in one of the most rave-reviewed films of the season – celebrated director Ang Lee’s (Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) moody modern western love story Brokeback Mountain with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

This diversity comes naturally to Cardellini, though she does recognize that it is a rare thing in Hollywood. However, for her the opportunity to mix it up with both types of roles keeps her career fresh and exciting.

“That definitely keeps me more interested,” Cardellini explains, “when I get to do things that are different than the last, or different from what people may expect. I love both sides of it. I think that’s what makes it challenging. That’s what makes it fun... They both have their challenges. But I think sometimes comedy is a little bit more specific and more hit or miss. Drama has a lot more leeway, I think.”

Early on in her career, as any actress, Cardellini took widely divergent roles – playing a victim in StrangeLand, former rock star Dee Snider’s (of Twisted Sister) stab at horror movies and appearing in such lightweight teen confections like Dead Man on Campus and Good Burger.

So, what does it say about Linda Cardellini's body of work that she is probably the only actress in Hollywood who has worked with both Ang Lee and Dee Snider? She just laughs heartily when the idea is brought up. “I don’t know, but it’s been fun, that’s for sure.”

She could have never known that her career would come together as it has when she was a little kid. In school, one of her teachers picked her out to be in a play. Cardellini had never even considered anything like that – she was a shy girl, and the idea was attractive to her but miles away from anything she thought she could do. But her teacher had liked her voice and had an intuition about her, pushing the young actress to later do a Christmas play and work in Community Theater.

By then the fever had caught, and when she went to Loyola-Marymount University in LA, Cardellini knew what she wanted to do with her life. Her parents were supportive of her plans to be a theater major – Cardellini laughingly recalls that as long as she was in college, they were happy. She did the typical young actress deal, searching for good roles by “ripping things off telephone poles, all that kind of stuff.”

Television and movie roles came to her quickly, but it was Freaks and Geeks that really made people take notice. Created by Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and Paul Feig (Arrested Development and The Office), the series was about losers, brains and burn-outs in an early 80s high school. The show debuted in 1999 and did not quite last an entire season; however, it was critically acclaimed and has spawned a rabid cult following in the years since the series faded away.

“I’m just happy about [the series eventually finding its audience], really,” Cardellini says. “I love the show. I’m so proud of it. It was really one of those moments in your life that can’t be repeated. It just was one of those special times, you know. It was a really great experience, although it had a tragic ending.” She chuckles. “But basically, it was like an incredible, magical experience. And the reason why the DVD even exists is because the fans asked for it. We really owe a lot of it to people just responding to the show, which I think is the greatest compliment. Although, I wish it would have been able to stay on the air. It has yet to die because people have really responded to it, which is sort of the most important thing.”

The show may not have lasted, but it did turn out to be a launching pad for the careers of its young stars. Beyond Cardellini, James Franco has become a movie actor in the Spiderman movies and Tristan and Isolde, John Francis Daley has done several series including Boston Public, The Geena Davis Show and the recently cancelled Kitchen Confidential, Jason Segel is part of the ensemble of the new hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Busy Philipps had a recurring role on Dawson's Creek and Seth Rogan was one of the stars of The 40-Year Old Virgin.

The cast's continued success does not surprise Cardellini. In fact, she always knew she was part of a special group. “From the beginning,” she says firmly. “The way that Judd and Paul went about casting it, it was a lot of improv. It was more informal and more in depth than any other casting process. We were sent in to improv with each other and to work with each other and to offer things about our own character. To create things once we were cast. Especially for a new show, that’s a rarity, because typically they are so watchdog-y over the new project that they don’t let people have as much freedom. They really let us have our own voices and our own freedom. That was pretty special. Not to mention that the majority of us – even for those of us who had worked before, hadn’t really ever been seen before in any kind of big way. So it was this group of fledglings coming up together and then learning how to live in the business. And we were all just really excited, and part of something that was different than anything else on television. Unfortunately, I think that may have been its downfall, its wonder.”

After the series ended, Cardellini did a memorable supporting role in the Reese Witherspoon comedy Legally Blonde. Then she heard of another role that intrigued her. They were making a live-action film version of the old Saturday morning cartoon series Scooby-Doo! Where Are You! Cardellini thought it would be interesting to play the character of Velma, but she knew that it was in its own way an iconic role with a lot of viewers having a very specific viewpoint towards the character. Cardellini didn't want to disappoint fans of the show.

“Oh, yeah, I felt a huge responsibility for it. In fact, when I auditioned, I went in a costume. I had studied the cartoons. I’d always watched it, since I was a kid. It was my favorite,” she laughs. “I felt most of all an obligation to myself in terms of how much nostalgia I had for that show, for that character. You know, of course, you’re always afraid. It’s always a little bit daunting when something is already established. But it was really fun. It was really a great time. The first one I got to live for six months in Australia, which is something I had never done before. I’d never had the chance to do, and I don’t know when I’ll have the chance again… It was just an incredible time.”

The Scooby-Doo! movie was a smash hit, spawning an even bigger sequel Scooby-Doo! 2: Monsters Unleashed. At the time of this interview there are no plans for a third film in the series. (“Not that I know of, no…,” Cardellini says) but it’s okay. Linda Cardellini was ready to move on again, and she received the biggest role of her career.

In 2003, Cardellini was one of the actors hired to give a fresh look to ER, the long-running and extremely popular Thursday night institution which is currently in its twelfth season. Her character was planned as a new love interest for the handsome European doctor Luka. The show is notoriously fast-paced and technical, which Cardellini experienced first-hand right away.

“[It was] terrifying.” she laughs. “I accepted the job on Monday and started working on Wednesday. I didn’t really have enough time to be scared about it. But, you know, you hit the ground running, and if you can’t keep running – you’re out. So, you have no choice but to run with it. It’s pretty amazing. You know, I knew about the dialogue being scary. But I had no idea how technical the actual job is. Physically you have to learn to do things and look like you’re doing procedures and look like you know what you’re doing at all times in a trauma room – where it is life and death. That takes a lot of learning.”

Her character was thrown into a dizzying swirl of stories as well. There was her relationship with Luka. She also had a series of fights and problems with her son, who was starting to act out and get involved with bad crowds. And her ex was always in the background, hatching schemes and scrounging for money and trying to win favor with the boy. Cardellini was thrilled to be thrown front and center on so many complicated storylines.

“It’s great,” she says. “In some ways I’m sad that Luka and Sam broke up, because I had so much fun working with Goran. He’s such a great guy. But at the same time, I think they needed [to be] apart. They were kind of getting into a repetitive pattern. So, I’m anxious to see what they’ll do with Sam now that she’s back on her own and she’s a single mom that sort of invented who she was.”

For an actress who always tended to disappear into her roles, suddenly people were recognizing her in the streets. “It’s mainly happened through ER,” she acknowledges. “It’s really one of the first times I’ve actually kind of looked like myself. It happened a little bit with Freaks and Geeks. I think that’s where people maybe started to notice first. And then I did Velma, and I don’t look like her when I walk down the street, so I was lucky enough to sort of escape that. With other parts – I love to disguise myself. So, this is the first time that I’m actually as is…”

This season, Sam’s storylines in ER have been less flashy and prominent, but that is not because Cardellini isn’t working. In fact, with three movies coming out she is busier than ever. The film work has impinged on the series a bit. (“At times it has,” she acknowledges.)

The first film to be released has been a shocking critical success. Brokeback Mountain, the story of the doomed love between two cowboys in 1960s Wyoming, has become the critical champion of the year, also winning award nominations for the actors and directors. “I read the script and I auditioned for Ang Lee. And I just hoped and wished for the part. I won the role, and I was really happy about it. I’m thrilled. I feel pretty privileged to be part of the movie.” The adulation the film has been receiving also touches her. “It’s fantastic. It’s a great ride. I can’t wait to see where it takes the film and where it takes the audiences, as well.”

The film, with its homosexual relationship, is a surprising success in a time when the United States has become quite conservative on such matters. However, Cardellini thinks it’s a good thing that a film like this can catch on.

“With any project that you hope has merit, you hope it changes people’s hearts and minds and it leads them to something that is socially conscious. It’s just a really beautiful story, regardless of what you think about any kinds of issues that it addresses. It’s a really gorgeous movie. I’m happy to see that it’s out there. Funny enough, when I went to the movies last night, the only two movies that were sold out were King Kong and Brokeback Mountain,” she laughs. “The two movies couldn’t be more different. It’s kind of interesting to see what’s happening in the box office, especially with the movie in such limited release.”

Another of Cardellini's socially conscious films which is in the can is American Gun, which was produced by IFC films. “It’s neither for nor against, it’s just sort of an exploration of the proliferation of guns in America,” Cardellini explains. “It takes about five stories [involving] the different sort of lives that guns take on and the circumstances that effect people, involving guns and gun violence. I play a granddaughter of Donald Sutherland. He owns a gun shop in Virginia. That’s where I’ve moved to go to school. It’s sort of that versus the life I knew, being from California. It’s not at all the same. Live in America and some of its parts are so different.”

On a much lighter note, she plays the romantic interest in Grandma’s Boy, the first starring film by long-time Adam Sandler collaborator Allen Covert. In it, Covert plays an arrested-development video game tester who has to move in with his grandmother (Doris Roberts) and her two friends (Shirley Jones and Shirley Knight) when his roommate blows six months’ rent. Cardellini plays Covert's boss-slash-love interest. She loved the filming, in fact so much that she is now dating director Nick Goossen.

This relationship did not affect their working together and how she reacted to his suggestions as a director, because, as she explains, “We didn’t start dating until after the movie was done. So, I probably was more attentive to his directions,” she laughs.

What was it like to work with such established actresses? “It was great,” Cardellini effervesces. “It really was one of the best times I’ve had making a movie. We had sooo much fun together. And, you know, I was doing ER when I was doing Grandma’s Boy. So, it was going from night today. Night and day-style work, in terms of being in a high-stakes medical drama to a big comedy for Fox. It was great. It was so much fun. I remember one of the ladies saying that it was one of the best times she ever had working on a movie, which is pretty amazing after the long and illustrious careers the three of them have had.”

Now that she has all three of her films in the can, she is ready to slip back into her ER scrubs for the long haul. The venerable series' ratings may not be quite as high as they were in the show’s heyday, but it is still a standard bearer for the network and is not going anywhere anytime soon. “As far as I know, they’ve got a contract until 2008,” Cardellini says. So hopefully Samantha will be working the floors of County General in Chicago for seasons to come.

However, if it were all to end, she would land on her feet. Cardellini is looking at her career as the long haul. She doesn't want to make a big splash and then maybe flame out. Instead, she plans to act for as long as she can, taking on as many roles as she will be allowed. “I’d really like to be seen as somebody who’s versatile. And I could do many things, not just one… Somebody who is a capable and versatile actress. And a good person.”

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: December 27, 2005.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2005. Courtesy of NBC Television. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2005. Courtesy of NBC Television. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2005. Courtesy of NBC Television. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2005. Courtesy of NBC Television. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2005. Courtesy of NBC Television. All rights reserved.

#6 © 2005. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved.

#7 © 2005. Courtesy of 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved.

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