Earlier this year, Linda Cardellini had three very different projects come out one right after the other: a buzzy horror film, The Curse of La Llorona; Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, where she played the wife of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye; and Dead to Me, Netflix’s dark, twisty comedy about two unlikely best friends who meet at a grief support group. Cardellini has been a working actor for half her life, but those three fortuitous weeks were symbolic of the dynamic career she envisioned for herself when she first stepped in front of a camera in the mid-’90s. “It’s been an incredible year,” she acknowledges to ET during a late May phone interview. “Never have so many things converged at once for me.”
It’s her work on Dead to Me, the singular half-hour series from creator Liz Feldman also starring Christina Applegate, that may be Cardellini’s most compelling yet -- an astounding feat, given that the actress has quietly amassed a lifetime worth of memorable TV characters throughout her career, from intelligent nerd Lindsay Weir on Freaks and Geeks to nurse Sam Taggert on ER to Don Draper’s mistress Sylvia on Mad Men (for which Cardellini earned her sole Emmy nomination in 2013).
As Judy Hale, a free-spirited, New Agey art instructor at a nursing home, Cardellini portrays a woman in mourning who holds a devastating secret. She seeks out the friendship of Applegate’s Jen Harding, a tightly wound real estate agent whose husband, Ted, is killed by a hit-and-run driver, with the dubious intention of righting a wrong. Unbeknownst to Jen, her new friend is the driver responsible for killing her husband. The threat of Judy’s bombshell being revealed pulsates over the 10-episode first season, culminating in a stunning finale shocker.
When the script for Dead to Me came her way, Cardellini was initially fearful of playing a woman as complex and layered as Judy, who in one minute is in emotional purgatory over her infertility, and the next minute plotting with Jen to take down her late husband’s mistress -- a constant walking contradiction. “I was afraid of the character because it’s heavy lifting,” admits the actress, who wasn’t actively looking to return to episodic storytelling. “One of the reasons why I took the part was because I was afraid of it. It just seemed like an incredible challenge to have to do all the different things that she does.”
The “unusual” tone and the opportunity to work opposite Applegate in a true “two-hander” centered on a pair of well-defined women (more on that later) was what ultimately captivated Cardellini. Deftly straddling the line between heavy drama and absurdist comedy while also unraveling a suspenseful mystery with cliffhangers around every bend, the show is unlike anything currently on television. “It was so different from everything else that I was reading,” she says. “All of us on the show go from comedy to drama to suspense, and the many, many layers Judy has to sort of maintain at once -- it was unlike any other role that I had seen out there.”
Cardellini had questions about the tonal gymnastics required to make Dead to Me come to life. “We were curious about the tone, because it can go so many different ways,” she observes. An early conversation with Feldman, whose past credits include the NBC comedy One Big Happy and 2 Broke Girls on CBS, quelled any worries. “She really wanted the grief and the humor to both come from a very real place, which I think influences the tone -- and it does have a little bit of everything. That’s life,” Cardellini explains. “It’s not unusual for somebody to laugh at a funeral. Humor has to be injected into even the most serious things or you can’t survive.”
Much of Dead to Me’s success rides on the palpable chemistry between Cardellini and Applegate, who -- one may be surprised to learn -- had never crossed paths prior to this project. When they eventually sat down to talk about partnering up (both also serve as producers on the show), it was like two long-lost sisters finding their way back to each other after years apart.
“When we first met, Christina and I got along immediately. We both knew that was important. We were lucky because we just really like each other and we really did become great friends,” Cardellini recalls, crediting their real-life bond as the secret ingredient to making Jen and Judy’s onscreen friendship all the more authentic. “It’s very important to believe the friendship. It’s very important to believe that there are real people going through extraordinary circumstances. We had this wonderful ability to play off of each other and had this chemistry with each other that felt natural.” (Applegate praised Cardellini in May, calling her “an incredible human.” “When you find friends in life like that, you hold that dear to your heart,” she wrote on Twitter.)
While Applegate’s Jen starts off the series as the straight woman, Cardellini faced a monumental task in making Judy worthy of the audience’s compassion and love, even though many of her choices are eyebrow-raising at best. Cardellini found herself constantly recalibrating her approach to the character as the season wore on. As more secrets and lies came out about Judy’s role in Ted’s death, it became even more critical to keep her firmly on solid ground.
“She makes some decisions that are illogical, but to her they make sense,” she explains, adding it was top of mind not to play Judy as simply “weird or frivolous.” “Judy’s a loving person. She’s mostly looking for love in every person and every way that she can. From the outside, it looks selfish or manipulative, but that was not my intention while I played her. She’s somebody who is trying to make things right in the present moment as best she can, and sometimes she doesn’t think outside of the present moment, which gets her in trouble.”
Fine-tuning how much information Judy conceals or reveals was a “fun challenge” for Cardellini, who championed the way each half-hour ended on an unexpected surprise that could “turn at any second.” “In the first episode, you can’t give away what Judy has done. But if you go back, there are indications. Then, in the second episode, the audience is in on it with Judy, so there’s a little bit more of a range to play and the comedy comes from watching her squirm. Modulating all of that was really fun. She could be concealing more, she could be revealing more.”
“The jeopardy is that Judy always wants to tell. She always wants to come clean, she always wants to confess, and there are so many moments where it’s about to come out and she stops herself, or she’s about to be found out and she covers for herself,” Cardellini says. “It’s a balancing act for her, and the more intimate she and Jen become, the more she wants to tell, the more she realizes she can never tell because she finally has this love and friendship in her life that she’s been searching for.”
It all comes to a head in the penultimate episode, “I Have to Be Honest.” In one of Cardellini’s standout scenes from the season (and her personal favorite), Judy’s guilt over Ted’s death is too much for her to bear as she listens to Jen blame herself. “I drove him away. I hit him. I f**king hit him,” Jen crumbles through her tears. Judy closes her eyes, preparing herself to bring the fated blow: “No, I hit him.” Jen doesn’t believe her, so Judy confesses at least a half-dozen times more -- a not-so-small detail about a 1966 Mustang serving as the clincher. Afraid she’s lost her friend forever, Judy asks for forgiveness. Jen, quietly seething with anger and betrayal, coldly replies, “You can die.”
“The confession is what everything has been leading to. You’ve been waiting for that moment to happen,” Cardellini says. When Jen tells Judy to die as a result of her betrayal, Judy takes it “seriously,” the actress notes, hence the character’s near-death experience in the finale episode -- saved only by her estranged friend. “She’s like, ‘OK, well, there it is. My last wish from my best friend, so I will fulfill that wish for you.’ And I do think that’s what she would have done had Jen not called her. She really gets a call from the gods on that one, and that’s the one thing that could actually save her.”
On June 3, one month after its debut, Netflix gave Dead to Me asecond-season order, fitting considering the way its freshman run ended: In a shocking twist, Judy arrives in time to see a stunned Jen, gun in hand, peering over Judy's ex-fiance Steve’s (James Marsden) lifeless body floating in the pool. We’re meant to think Jen killed Steve, but Feldman warns, “Just like the rest of the show, it’s not exactly what you think it’s going to be.”
“What happens at the end of season one changes the dynamic between them,” Cardellini hints, careful not to reveal more. “The whole first season is built on Judy concealing a secret, while initiating this intimacy [with Jen]. The idea that they would both be aware of everything going into the second season -- the balance has been changed because of something that Jen potentially did. We don’t know why she did it or how she did it, and I feel like it will be an interesting turn of events the way they relate to each other going forward. They clearly need each other now.”
As Cardellini prepares for her next high-profile release (she plays Al Capone’s wife opposite Tom Hardy in the upcoming film Fonzo), she’s appreciative of how much Dead to Me has given her, both professionally and personally. Humble to a fault, when asked if this has been a long time coming, Cardellini deflects any praise directed her way.
“I’ve been really lucky to have a career that has spanned multiple decades. I always wanted to be a working actress, and I feel very fortunate for the roles I have done. I’ve been working a long time trying to carve a place out for myself. I just feel like…” Cardellini pauses for a second, trying to put together the right words to convey her gratitude. “I don’t know how to say it, but, yeah, I do feel very grateful for this time in my career. I feel excited about things right now. And you’re right, it’s one of the greatest roles I’ve been given.”