From Freaks and Geeks, Legally Blonde, Scooby-Doo, and ER, Linda Cardellini has been a staple of millennial youth and entertainment. But even with over sixty credits to her name, it feels like she’s just getting started. She’s back with the second season of everyone’s favorite “traumedy,” Dead to Me. Her tour de force performance is a showcase of spectacular talent and her character, Judy, allows for the display of emotion that makes the audience laugh and cry along with her. As Judy, she’s hilarious, but her performance is also heartwrenching – a punch to the gut. Although Judy has harbored deep, dark secrets and often has clouded judgment, the love for her is clear – from the audience and Cardellini herself. Dead to Me showcases a strong array of female talents, both in front and behind the camera, as it explores a complex relationship between women over 40 that’s still quite rare in Hollywood. In all its complexities, in its exploration of death, abuse, infertility, and more, it brings together two women with shared grief, just as the show’s second season is bringing audiences together during a time of uncertainty. At the time of this writing, Dead to Me’s return for a third season is also uncertain, but what isn’t is the genius of creator Liz Feldman, the show’s perfect balance of drama and comedy, and the brilliance of its two leads. Christina Applegate received a well deserved Emmy nomination for her performance as Jen last year, and the wait for Cardellini to receive her second will, hopefully, not be for much longer.
I caught up with everyone’s favorite Velma and we discussed her initial hesitation about promoting a show during a pandemic, her doubt that audiences would come to love Judy and Jen’s friendship, her hope for Judy in the future, and that “butthole” scene.
How have you and your family been adjusting to life in quarantine?
I’m very grateful that we are, at this moment, (knock on wood) healthy. That’s number one. I miss seeing the rest of my family and being able to interact with everybody. Of course, when anybody’s routine is broken, and there’s a lot of anxiety around, I think there are definitely challenges. But overall, I try to remind myself of how lucky I am.
Have you picked up any new hobbies? Have you gone through the bread baking phase yet?
No, I haven’t done any bread baking. I have not jumped on that bandwagon just yet. [Laughs.] I did jump on the puzzle bandwagon. I enjoy that very much. We do a lot of jump rope around here. I have an eight-year-old so we do arts and crafts and jump rope, and we try to do Zoom bingo with extended family. One of my friends had a scavenger hunt for the kids on Zoom. So just trying to check-in, and keeping a little one busy is important. She has school and all that kind of stuff so we’re doing a lot of homeschooling. Just trying to maintain some kind of normality.
What’s it been like trying to promote a show during a pandemic?
I was really hesitant at first. I started trying to gauge what people were looking to do, see, and engage with too. Then I realized how much joy I was getting out of watching television myself, and then I had several friends text me about how excited they were when it was announced that the season was going to come out. So then I felt like, okay, maybe this will actually be a bright spot for me and hopefully for some other people who will have something to turn on other than the news, and hopefully have a laugh or a cry at somebody’s fictitious life. I started feeling better about it when I started hearing from friends, especially a couple friends of mine who are working hard – one’s a nurse, one’s a doctor, one’s a teacher – and I thought, okay, if they’re looking forward to the show then I’ll go out there and talk about it. And, for me too, one of the things about it is that there are so many people who worked on the show so I’m trying to think of it as like the show being out there as a celebration of that community that worked together. Sometimes it can be over 100, sometimes 200 people working on something by the time you see it. You see only a few actors, but really, the amount of people who worked on it is much larger and goes far beyond that, and a lot of people worked hard to get it finished so that it could be out during this time. So hopefully, people are enjoying it as a celebration of that community that worked so hard and isn’t allowed to work in the same way right now. That’s how I’m trying to look at it and enjoy it.
That leads perfectly into my next question because we’re all watching Dead to Me under very different circumstances than last year. But despite season two still tackling heavy topics like breast cancer, infertility, mental health, abuse, it feels like comfort food as we get to laugh at other people’s problems and forget our own and the world for five hours. Did you expect a show of this subject to be such a comfort to viewers?
We hoped so because it’s the idea that when things are hard you can’t help but laugh sometimes otherwise we might not survive it, and that’s what we thought about last season and this season too. I hope you come to feel that Jen and Judy are your friends too and that it feels comfortable to sit in discomfort with them and watch them go through it. Or, at least, you just enjoy watching them go through all of that.
Speaking of Jen and Judy, their friendship is so complex and toxic and oftentimes emotionally exhausting to watch, and yet the audience loves them together. It’s so strange because I don’t think anyone would want a friendship like that. How do you feel about the audiences’ reaction to Jen and Judy’s friendship? Did you expect people to love them together as much as they do now?
[Laughs.] It’s emotionally exhausting to play them! But, no, I didn’t. I hoped. My great hope in the first season, my goal, was for people to root for that friendship. It’s something that seemed nearly impossible by just reading the first script because of what you find out about [Judy], and as time goes on you think, how are people going to root for these two to be friends? So for me, the idea that people love the two of them together is so much fun because, as an actor, I get to play these delicious things that are so complex. You’re looking at this on paper and you think, these two people should not be friends, but in the reality, in the behavior, and in the writing as well, you see this texture formed between the two of them where you realize that they kind of can’t live without each other. So from the first season, my goal was to make people want their friendship to continue despite knowing what Judy did and Jen knowing what Judy did.
How do you approach playing a character like Judy? How do you get into the headspace of someone so broken, who has a big hole in her heart essentially from all she’s been through?
I tried to base it on people that I knew that were happy people somehow even when stuff hit them hard, and people who were more spontaneous than I am in real life. Judy’s incredibly spontaneous which is very different from a lot of the other characters that I’ve played because they’re usually thinkers – they’re more logical. I think originally when the script was going around I think people would have thought of me at that time more as the straighter, logical character; more of a Jen-type character. I was so excited when it came to me for Judy because the stuff she does is illogical and what I get to do as an actor is take something that seems hard to believe and make it seem completely natural for Judy to behave in that way. It’s so much great fun for me.
And it’s great fun to watch.
Thank you! And, as somebody who just really seeks connection at every turn, I think this season when you meet her mother you realize that she’s never truly been loved or felt like she was really wanted and so she’s constantly looking for that. Yet when she gets that with Nick in the first season, and Michelle in the second season, she doesn’t know how to accept that so she goes back to her more complicated things. She can’t truly ever be herself too because of all the things that have happened so she’s constantly layering this thing on this soul that’s very buoyant. And that’s interesting to play too because I’m constantly playing two things at once. Here’s somebody whose natural buoyancy is almost always being pushed down by all the things that are happening around her, yet she still remains positive. Also, positive for other people too. She’s better at being positive for other people than she is for herself.
Speaking of Michelle, what was it like working with Natalie Morales and getting to explore another side of Judy’s sexuality?
I loved it! I think that it makes so much sense when you see how much Judy and Michelle get along. Natalie is funny, beautiful, kind, and generous. It was wonderful to work with her. I like her work and I was really excited when she joined us. It’s so easy to work with her. We improv-ed. There’s a back and forth flow between the two of them, like some of that stuff in the car when we’re talking about The Titanic is improv. It’s just really fun to be able to work with somebody and have such an easy back and forth.
I love how Judy and Michelle’s relationship isn’t made into a big thing. It is what it is. It’s refreshing.
Yeah. I love that it’s just something that Judy does. It doesn’t have to be talked about with much fanfare because there’s something there so why would she not fall in love with that person.
You mentioned your improvised moments with Natalie and it reminds me of fans’ reactions on Twitter when they found out the whole “butthole” scene was improvised. It’s one of the funniest exchanges between you and Christina Applegate and people were like, “What?! Omg! Where are their Emmys?” What were some of the other improvised moments between you both or other cast members this season?
[Laughs.] Christina and I do it a lot and we’re so lucky because Liz Feldman has drawn these characters that are so specific and so different from each other. Some of my favorite moments on set are when we get to go back and forth with each other and we’re both aiming for the same answers but we’re going about it completely differently. I think that’s the real fun in seeing that it’s between the two characters as well. A lot of times when you read a script with female characters, if there are two of them, you can interchange their lines. They’re not so specified. They’re not so delineated. And I just feel like Jen and Judy are so different and so real in their own way. So for us, when we get together and we do that, we just keep going. We always do what’s on the page, but we often keep going. Even in the beginning, when we’re talking about how something died in the pool. I think the original line just traced it to a dog and we started improv-ing after that. When I say, “I think it might have killed itself,” just to try to make Henry feel better, which isn’t a really nice way to comfort a child, but that’s improv. And Luke [Roessler]’s right in there too doing it with us. Everybody’s very loose and capable on set so it’s really fun. No matter who you’re working with you can always improv. A lot of the dialogue in the car about the sexually transmitted diseases, that talk that I have with [Sam McCarthy], that’s improv. And then when Christina comes back in the car and I tell her what I’ve been talking about then that improv continues. It’s wonderful because Liz is offset and she’ll go, “That works! Go off. Go further with that.” There are so many different angles that you end up having to do. Even if you find something in improv you have to do it more than once. “Eat my butthole, Judy,” was something that we were just laughing about, and we kept saying it over, and over, and over again because we just wanted it to make it in there. [Laughs.] And afterward, I said, “You know, that’s actually kind of how you talk with your friends sometimes as a joke, but I don’t ever really see women doing that on-screen that much. I think it’s so funny, please keep it.” So when I saw the show and it was in there I talked to Liz right away because I couldn’t stop laughing. That’s also me and Christina trying to make each other laugh. She says it to me and then I say something back to her like, “I would but I can’t. I’m taken now.” It all feeds into the story. There’s a lot of improv but it comes out of this freedom that we have that Liz creates within the characters. Her and the writers create these incredible characters and then they give us full ownership of them and it’s really wonderful. We have dramatic improv as well. There are improvs in the middle of the crying scenes. We’re really able to own our characters, and we are always paying respect to Liz too. We definitely do everything that’s on the page as well. It’s a really fun way to work.
I wanted to ask about Judy’s paintings. Was the idea behind them one you made yourself? I know you love Margaret Keane and it feels like there’s an influence there.
I dolove Margaret Keane. I had nothing to do with choosing those paintings [by Dion Macellari]. I think that was all Liz and our wonderful people who work behind the scenes. But when I saw them, when I was shown them and asked what I thought, I welcomed them and thought they were so great. And I loved in season one when [Judy’s] showing them to Nick when they’re laying there together and she’s trying to gauge his reaction to whether or not her art is really good because, the truth is, she probably really loves her own art but also knows that it was sold under nefarious pretenses so she may not even be 100% sure about her own capabilities as an artist.
Judy has a pretty big moment of growth at the end of season two. If Dead to Me gets renewed (which I have no doubt it will), how would you like to see Judy grow in season three?
Wow….I’d like to see if she can continue on that path. I think you may have a cathartic moment but to keep strong in that change is part of the daily work that you have to do when you make progress. She might be a one step forward, two steps back kind of person. [Laughs.] It will be interesting to see how that’s handled. I think she’s able to do it because she has come through so much, but she also has Jen’s support during that, and I think that’s more than she’s had in a long time – that unwavering support. It will be interesting to see how she can manage that moving forward. You can’t really grab a hold of Judy for too long. I think she slips through your fingers at some point and makes some more mistakes. I don’t know that she can totally be counted on to be completely consistent with that, but I think she’ll always be working at it, especially if it’s something Jen wants for her. She’s a person who’s eager to please, sometimes too much in the moment, and she forgets herself.
Well, let’s hope.
Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I hope her tear ducts get a break.
[Laughs.] Mine don’t in real life so I don’t know how that could happen! I’ve always been a person who would cry so it seems like that’s going to be natural for her, but what was so wonderful about Michelle coming into this season was that it was a moment of levity for Judy. It’s this beautiful lark that puts a window into something where she could actually have some happiness and some fun, and then it’s cut short. Anything that I could ever dream up, Liz comes up with something 10x more shocking and more exciting to play because you think, “How the hell am I going to pull that off?” And then when you do, it feels so good.
Season 2 of Dead to Me is currently streaming exclusively on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Sara Clements has been a freelance film/TV writer since 2017. She’s from Canada and holds a degree in journalism. She has written for both print and online and is an editor for Next Best Picture. She likes to pressure everyone into watching Paddington. You can find her on Twitter at @mildredsfierce