Linda Cardellini (‘Dead to Me’) on the ‘tragedy’ of Judy Hale [Complete Interview Transcript]

Linda Cardellini earned her second and third Emmy nominations this year, her first for playing Judy Hale on Netflix’s “Dead to Me” (along with one for producing the show). She joins her co-star Christina Applegate in the Best Comedy Actress category, who plays Jen Harding.

Cardellini spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Joyce Eng before nominations about the twists and turns of Season 2 of “Dead to Me,” working with Applegate and exploring Judy’s psyche. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: This show can and does go in so many different ways and I don’t think anyone could have guessed where Season 2 would come down. So what were your expectations heading into the second season? 

Linda Cardellini: I knew that Liz Feldman had some good tricks up her sleeves, and I knew that James [Marsden] would be coming back in the fashion that he’s coming back in and that was exciting to me. I knew that we would be doing some fun stuff, and really, I think the greatest thing about the character that I play, which, she’s written so well, is that I get to do these outlandish things and my job is to earn them feeling natural to her so that you just say, “Oh yeah, well of course Judy would do that.” So to me, there was so much of that in Season 1 and then more of that in Season 2 and that is so much fun as an actor to get to play. 

GD: Well, I talked to James recently and he said you and Christina teased him about returning as a twin. So what was your immediate reaction to the Ben of it all? 

LC: I thought it was hilarious and I was just happy to have him back because he’s such a great guy and he’s such a good actor and we had so much fun working together the first season. And then he comes back in such a different way in the second season. I love the interaction between our characters because it’s completely different, even though it’s the same person, but it’s completely different for Judy. She has an entirely different relationship with Ben than she does with Steve and she doesn’t even see that they look alike. In her mind, I decided that they don’t look alike at all to her.

GD: They’re only semi-identical. 

LC: Right, right, right. And that’s big for her. So it was really fun and when James came to set, I thought, “Well, is he going to have some kind of beard or is he going to have some kind of giant physical difference than Steve?” And it really is so subtle and it works so well because of how he does it and because of how it’s written, that it was so easy to forget him as Steve and to even talk about those scenes to him as if it was a totally different person. So I think that’s just a credit to him and a credit to the writers and what makes the show so much fun is taking something that is unbelievable and making it seem completely natural. 

GD: Totally. Well, Judy is so sweet and she’s so nice and she tries to do the right thing and be good. She reminds me of another Netflix heroine, Kimmy Schmidt. 

LC: (Laughs.)

GD: She has all these parameters of how she wants to dispose of Steve’s body, whereas Jen is the pragmatic one. But she also has these moments where she knows she can be her own worst enemy and you see a lot of that colored through pain and self-loathing. So how do you find that balance in showing her optimism without coming off annoying and Pollyanna-ish? 

LC: I mean, it’s always rooted in trying to get the person next to her to feel better and to feel loved, which is something that actually Judy wants for herself so badly. So she gives it out, hoping to receive it and it’s this boundless energy that she finds to give to others. Sometimes against her own best interest or against somebody else’s best interests because in the moment, she’s incredibly spontaneous. She just reacts to what she sees before her and doesn’t really think much about the future or the past in that very moment. So it’s fun to play in that way and it comes out of a real love for other people. So I think whenever she’s with somebody, it really is her trying to feel earnest in the moment, even if she is lying. So it’s a fun balance to play because in her mind, in the moment, she’s never truly lying and in the first season especially, she does so much lying. But for me, it’s really fun to play it like a glimmer of truth because the audience is in on it with you. So you can see little cracks in the veneer if you know her secrets what’s actually happening and that is really fun to play, too.

So I try to sort of balance out, Judy’s done a lot of bad things and knows it and she’s trying so hard to still keep her soul intact and that’s sort of her struggle always is to try to keep her soul intact while she’s reconciling herself with all these terrible things that have happened to her and that she’s done. But yeah, she’s a very buoyant person and she’s not able to get angry, which is something I had to wrap my mind around because it’s very easy when you’re acting, because it’s fun to get locked in with people and go back and forth. And Judy instead steps back or says, “Sorry.” As an actor, it’s been a really fun thing to play because it’s different from your typical kneejerk reaction to when somebody attacks you or says something you don’t like. She instead turns it into self-loathing, is the choice that we made. 

GD: Well, also, the cruel thing is she’s so full of love, but most of the people she wants to love, they never properly love her back and we see this season it dates back to her mom. So do you think Jen is the first person she loves who can see who she is and love her back, even though they started off complete opposites and you would never think of them as friends? 

LC: Yeah, well, that’s the funny part of the show, is that you are rooting for these two people because you love the relationship between them, but it’s sort of a foundation of lies in both seasons for various reasons. That relationship is fraught with lots of different things in it, too. I mean, there are times when Judy is giving too much and it makes Jen uncomfortable. So it’s a back and forth there. I think it was important this season to see, relatively important in terms of the show, to see her mother because you realize why Judy never really felt the love, she isn’t really ever able to feel truly loved just because she was never really loved by her mom. I think she’s still looking for that and she also blames herself for landing her mother in jail. So there’s a lot of guilt and shame and a lack of love there and I think she carries that into every relationship. But I think for her, I mean, even in her relationship with Steve, she’s trying to get somebody to love her who is maybe the hardest person to love her. I think that is sort of a mirror to her mother and I think if she feels if that person loves her, then maybe she is lovable. And as a result, she turns down relationships that are more loving and more accepting. Michelle and her have this beautiful relationship where Michelle really sees her for who she is and loves her. But Judy has all these secrets and can’t be seen and has to walk away from that. And in the first season, Brandon [Scott], who plays Nick, is ready to love her and she can’t do that either. So she sort of turns towards more complicated relationships that tend to be a little dangerous. 

GD: Yeah, well, I really loved the development of Judy and Michelle’s relationship because it felt so organic and I also love that it was treated like how a male-female relationship would have been treated on these shows. There’s no big coming out for Judy or labels or anything. What kind of conversations did you, Liz and Natalie [Morales] have about that relationship?

LC: We just wanted it to feel like it evolves, like there was this place where Judy runs into her and she meets her and there’s suddenly this connection between the two of them that evolves beautifully into this attraction between the two of them. What I really love about it is it happens in Judy’s life and this thing feels like such a breath of fresh air for her. And you see a glimpse into what Judy’s life could be like if she could be free from all of the things that she’s carrying with her. She could have a loving relationship with somebody who truly sees her and who she really enjoys, and it’s just impossible for her, which is sort of the tragedy of Judy. 

GD: And I also love when she and Jen talk about it, it’s just so natural. It’s just another thing. It’s like, “You like her?” And it’s like, “Yeah.” I love that the Jen and Judy relationship, it’s just about female friendships, which is, I think, also not really showcased a lot on TV. And then she has this different love interest with Michelle, and they’re both really intimate and different and it just works so naturally with the two of them. 

LC: Yeah, and I think your best friend, if they truly know you and see you, they know exactly when you’re in love and they know exactly when you like somebody and I think that’s something that Jen and Judy have. Their relationship is so strong and I love that Jen is rooting for her and then at the same time, of course, in true “Dead to Me” fashion, it can’t be. She’s the first person to say that she can’t have that relationship, because of Michelle’s ties. I mean, how many spoilers are we giving away?

GD: Everyone’s seen the season now. It’s so popular.

LC: Yeah. But because of Perez, there’s a whole lot going into that relationship that cannot be. 

GD: Well, we have to talk about Episode 9, the garage fight. One of the things I love about the show is how it oscillates between tones and then that whole reveal of Jen telling her that she killed Steve and then just reading her to filth, saying, “You get off on abusive relationships,” and Judy going to the car and letting out that cathartic scream. Like you said, she’s always held things inward and then she could finally let this anger out. So how did you approach that scene? 

LC: I mean, that’s one of the hardest scenes, for sure, of the whole series and one of my favorite because of that, too. I have no better partner than Christina. I’m so lucky. She’s so wonderful and so good. And to go back and forth with her, we just hold each other up when we need it and we battle each other when we need it and I think that we go and we cry it out after the scene and we work really well together, both in the comedy parts and the very dramatic parts, and so that scene is very much a dance of both of our energies together and going at each other and sort of finding out this new information and the shoe is on the other foot for duty this time. So all the information coming at her, and for somebody who can’t stand up for herself against it, to have to take it in and try to figure out what to do with it, it leads to this eruption that has been inside of Judy for a long time that she’s been holding back for, from what we’ve seen, for two seasons, but probably for a lifetime for her of hurt and pain and shame and all of those things. And the one person that she trusts the most in the world right now, that she relies on, has betrayed her in that moment and she can only blame herself. Then Jen gets to see what Judy does to herself when she’s unhappy and when she’s angry. It was a great scene the way that they wrote it and the way that Christina and I did it so many different ways on the day. We have been written these two wonderful roles and they don’t come along that often. So it’s a joy to play that material, even though it’s hard and it’s actually not a joyous experience when you’re doing it. But it is truly wonderful material that we are given to do and it’s very rare to get that kind of material and to be able to do with Christina is great. We get to really go for it together. 

GD: Well, I know you guys also do some improv. So what moments from Season 2 were improvised? 

LC: We always do what’s on the page and on the page is really, they write such incredible things for us, but because Liz Feldman created these characters who are so specific, and she really has drawn these people out for us, these characters out for us, and then given us ownership of them, that we can really go for it. I think that Christina and I really enjoy that, too. And there’s improv even in the dramatic stuff as well. But there is a lot of stuff. It usually ends up happening towards the end of the scene that you sort of keep the camera going and then her and I will just keep going. We’ll just keep going and going until things happen. There’s a lot of improv with her and I even in the first episode about what’s in the pool when we’re telling Luke what’s in the pool and then there’s about the dog and it killed itself. And then there’s after when Ben is there and we’re talking about the Sugar Ray concert, that line was scripted and then the rest of that is made up. There’s a butthole line in there. That was just us joking around with each other and her trying to make me laugh. And then I come back with what I said. Those are just fun things that happen on the day. And then I’ll talk with Charlie in the car about syphilis. A lot of that was made up. With Natalie and I in the car about the Titanic and her heart will go on, that stuff, there’s just lots of extra stuff.

The pudding cup was something that wasn’t written. I just saw it there and I figured Judy was starving after everything that she had been through and she was just depressed. And so I thought I would eat that thing. Liz and our writers and producers, they’re there to say what works and what doesn’t, ‘cause a lot of stuff doesn’t work and a lot of stuff does. So then we sort of keep going with what works and get guided through what works and what doesn’t. And then you have to do it from different angles. So it’s pretty fun, though. It’s really fun. Never have I been able to work with another woman onscreen so hand in hand and have this back and forth improv with somebody and Christina and I, I think it’s just the most fun. Sometimes Liz will call it, “Just do your Jen and Judy thing,” and Christina and I will go back and forth with trying to justify something terrible we’ve done and the way we’re lying about it is different but we come to the same point and lots of those are sort of scripted and improv. 

GD: You guys need to release the outtakes.

LC: It would be fun (laughs).

GD: Yeah, well, the season ends on a doozy, another huge cliffhanger. So what do you make of what happened there? Do you think Ben knows who he’s hit and what do you think or would like to see in Season 3? 

LC: I always say whatever I can think of, Liz always comes up with something a million times better, and the writers. You think you know where they’re going and then they take another turn and you didn’t see it coming. But I am excited to find out. I guess Ben is pretty drunk and he just got that news on the telephone. His mother doesn’t know yet. There’s that whole portion of it. Then there’s us in the car and we’ve been hit pretty badly. I don’t know physically what happens to us. I don’t know what is happening. My mother’s in the picture now. There’s a lot of loose ends that could be really fun to see how they incorporate themselves into the next season, if there is one. 

GD: I think there will be. You’ve been on some of my favorite shows, “ER,” “Freaks and Geeks,” “Mad Men.” And you’re also in the MCU and there’s going to be a Hawkeye series. Are you gonna be part of that? What are you allowed to say? Do you know anything? 

LC: I have no idea. I really don’t know anything. The future is a big question mark in general in terms of filming anything. So I don’t know anything, but I love being part of that world. It’s fun. 

GD: Would you be up to do the show? 

LC: Sure! Sure. 

GD: And do you put mayo on hot dogs in real life? 

LC: I don’t. I’m not a big condiment person. I’m not. I’ll maybe put some ketchup on fries. I eat like a child. I like it just plain and separate. 

GD: Just get the flavor of the hot dog. You don’t need all that other junk.

LC: I mean, if I’m going to go as far to eat a hot dog, I might as well taste every bit of it (laughs).

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