Actress Linda Cardellini is having quite the year, from her acclaimed work in the final season of Netflix’s “Dead to Me” to reuniting with writer/director James Gunn for her role as Lylla the otter in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.”

With “Dead to Me,” series leads Linda Cardellini and Christina Applegate, both Emmy nominated for their work, deliver a touching final chapter to the stories of Judy and Jen in the dramedy created by Liz Feldman. “Dead to Me” has the rare distinction of being lauded by critics as well as global audiences. Netflix reported that an astounding 30 million viewers tuned in for season one during its first month of release.

Cardellini’s performance as Judy in the series’ second season earned her nominations from both the Emmys and the Screen Actors Guild Awards (Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series and Outstanding Performance for a Female Actor in a Comedy series, respectively). After Covid-19 delays and a production pause for Applegate’s health, the third season finally premiered in November 2022 and is completing its Emmy run now with voting underway.

Cardellini’s relationship with James Gunn goes back decades, to when the current DCU Studio Chief penned scripts for “Scooby-Doo” and “Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.” Despite already being in the live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe as Clint Barton/Hawkeye’s wife, Laura, Gunn saw her as the perfection voice for Lylla the otter. Lylla is a key part of the backstory for Bradley Cooper’s Rocket Raccoon, and she provided the voice while performing motion capture for the role.

Linda Cardellini spoke with Awards Focus about where she sees Judy after the close of “Dead to Me,” all things Lylla in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” and what she’s looking forward to doing post WGA Strike.

Awards Focus: Well, congratulations. This is quite a good year. I would say between Guardians 3 and Dead to Me, you’re just killing it.

Linda Cardellini: Thank you! Yeah, it’s a lot of nice fun stuff.

AF: Getting so many Emmy nominations for the first two seasons of “Dead to Me,” and with 30 million viewers watching season one in its first month of being on Netflix… this is pretty much the dream scenario for a new series. With this kind of quality material and Liz at the helm, did you feel like this was on the horizon when you were shooting season one?

Cardellini: You never know, you just really never know. I felt like Liz was really special when I met her. I felt like the scripts were special. I felt like the character of Judy was so incredibly special, something I had never played before as an actress.

I knew how wonderful Christina was, even though I had never met her. And so, I thought, well, this all seems like a lot of good pieces to put together. I also had worked with Jessica Elbaum and Will Ferrell before, so I knew that I loved the way that they produced things. So going in, you’re always sort of crossing your fingers and hoping things hoping for the best. But you never truly know until it’s out there.

Sometimes on set, I have to say, the first time Christina and I really got to go back and forth and sort of do our Jen and Judy thing where we do what’s on the page and then we also just do a bunch of crazy other stuff that we just improvised. Liz would tell us to go for that.

I’ve never felt any kind of improv partnership like I like I did there. And also, just the way that the scenes worked and the friendships worked, the way they had written the two characters, I had never experienced that being so specific… the two characters were not interchangeable at all, they were very well defined. They were completely unlikely friends in a way that was sort like an odd couple, but very different, very specific to being female.

There were a lot of things that we felt were special, but you never know if that translates to the audience and we were so grateful and lucky that it did.

AF: The reception at the TV Academy event was great. How was that for you to be back in front of all the fans and your peers?

Cardellini: It’s the best. I mean, it really is just so wonderful to do something that you love and to have people love it as well. I think that’s the goal and you’re very fortunate when something like that happens.

AF: Having James back as Steve’s twin Ben was such a treat. What was it like when you found out that James is going to be back in this new capacity?

Cardellini: Oh, I was thrilled. I mean, James is so good. You wholeheartedly believe him, not only as an audience member, in my opinion, but as an actor standing next to him that he is two completely different people without even doing anything that is that severe.

There’s no big prosthetic change or anything like that. It’s just these very small changes and he manages to really play it so well. He’s so fun to work with. He’s so generous and kind. Of course, he’s beautiful and talented, but he never lets on. He always plays—even in Jury Duty, he plays this egocentric person, but that’s not him at all.

He is just a wonderfully generous, kind, fun person to work with so we were thrilled that he was going to be back because we just wanted to work with him in whatever way we could. He’s just one of my favorites. I think he’s so great.

AF: When Liz floated the twin idea to James he thought it was a joke, what was your initial reaction?

Cardellini: Yeah. Well, we all thought that that was a joke at first. Once we knew that Liz was serious about it, she and our writers, they pull off really incredulous things, starting with the premise of the show that I’m a person who accidentally murders somebody’s husband and then the next thing you know, I’m living in their guest house and we’re taking care of each other. I love the idea that they take the incredulous and make it so believable and nuanced and that I think is the fun of the show.

AF: There’s so much fun in the series, but then you get to sink your teeth into the infertility of Judy as well as her terminal cancer… it’s a great weight put on her shoulders.

Cardellini: It is. It is. Poor Judy, she feels so much heartbreak. To turn out to be such a vulnerable, yet optimistic person after everything that she’s been through, it’s an incredible character to play. I love being in her skin, and in her costumes, and in her life.

AF: When you have to go to those very real places, is there a particular element to your process that you can highlight? If possible, I’d love a little insight into harnessing that emotion, which is very different than when you’re in that comedic energy that Judy exudes.

Cardellini: Honestly, it depends on the day… some days you’re really connected to whatever that feeling is, that you know you have to go towards and there’s no obstacles for you. It’s just sort of flowing naturally.

Other days, you sort of have to work a little bit harder to get there mentally. I think the one thing that works for me is simply connecting with the material, knowing the character inside and out, and being there with other actors who are incredibly vulnerable and malleable… everyone is working to have real moments between each other.

Christina and I really have to go from laughing, crying, joking, to laughing, crying, dramatic within the space of one scene, typically, and in any given day, by the end of the day, it’s acting-wise exhausting because you’re doing so many different turns and twists and the characters do that, too. But that’s what’s so amazing about the show.

I’ve never had that opportunity in a single day to go from A to Z like that. It’s these kinds of gymnastics that you look for and you love to play, and we’re playing them in a single day.

There was never just a day where we’re just kind of doing a montage where we just look out the window. There’s always these intense things that we’re doing, whether it’s intensely funny or it’s intensely dramatic. And that, to me, was the beauty of the script and of the characters. Christina and I, we really worked well and easily together.

I think we’re also very vulnerable people just in general, like we’re open to showing our vulnerability to each other and that helps it, on any given day, come out, and we’re also very supported and very surrounded by people who are there to support that whole process.

I think the whole show is about grief and we knew that going in. That’s a place where I think no matter who you are, you go through some form of grief in your life. I think that’s something that you tap into and then also within that grief, you find you have to find humor, because otherwise you’ll just sink.

I think those things were things that we really were able to tap into and sometimes it was painful, more painful on a day than you imagine. It would hit you like a wave, something you hadn’t thought about in a while, or a feeling that came back to you. And other days, you could laugh it off and think, sometimes, life is bleak but you got to laugh about it.

AF: That’s some incredible insight. With the idea of knowing the character inside and out, you must have an idea of how Judy spends her remaining months. Would you be willing to share?

Cardellini: I think Judy probably continues on to try to help somebody else. I think that’s where she finds her greatest joy and her biggest connection. She’s had a pretty tough go of it, if you look at sort of how her life was… she’s always been sort of longing to connect with people.

I think Judy being able to leave Jen, in a way where Jen doesn’t have to watch her suffer, is her way of taking care of Jen. She gets the reward of having created a family for herself and she feels that when she hugs Charlie, which is one of my favorite moments in the last season, where he really accepts her and loves her.

I think those are the moments that really sort of filled the hole that she talks about. I think Judy goes somewhere.I don’t know exactly what she does, I have some ideas, but if I say them I don’t want that to become what everyone envisions. I want everybody to have their own interpretation since that is what Liz intended. But I do think no matter what, she’s at peace, somehow, some way, and she’s trying to she’s trying to give that peace to other people in her path.

AF: Did you finish this entire season before you went on to Guardians of the Galaxy or were you kind of pulled back and forth?

Cardellini: No, I think I was finished.

AF: When you get to reunite with James, I’m sure it’s wonderful. And you’re doing performance capture which is great. What was the learning curve like for that?

Cardellini: Well, that suit is really something (laughs). You have to be mentally prepared to wear that tight suit, with all those things all over you, but I was really excited. I really love voice work and, of course, I love James. We’ve known each other for ages, and his brother, to be able to work with him and Sean and the other actors in motion capture.

We really formed a group very quickly and easily and those parts were really just heartfelt and playing those scenes, it was really fun. At first, when I heard about it, I thought we’d just been doing it in a studio, but the idea that we’re all actually on set together and being able to interact, it was really nice. It was a gift to be able to act with everybody else and to be part of that movie.

AF: With “Dead to Me,” you really get to express a whole range of emotions and your comedic skills. “ER” was a fantastic drama and one of the last great network series. What are you looking to explore next?

Cardellini: I think there was something really wonderful about “Dead to Me” and sort of being there and being able to be a producer and be on set. We didn’t do that much, but being able to have some say after being in the business for X amount of years was really wonderful.

I really just look for roles and things that I think are interesting or look for projects with people who are amazing at their jobs. Judy was an incredible opportunity because it was such an incredible character. I got to play so many different things at once and to play this person you should sort of hate but you actually have to get to know and realize that she’s not a bad person.

I don’t think Judy was like anybody else I had played and I love to play something that is unexpected for myself.

AF: Do you feel like producing is going to be something you really lean into going forward as well.

Cardellini: I would like to. I would really like to. It’s fun to be a part of the process and, yeah, I hope so. I’ve been writing. Well, I’m not writing now because of the strike, but there’s a movie that I was the process of writing and producing and hopefully being in so that’s something that I would love to do as well and just sort of move forward, do different things, try different things. It’s been a wonderful, long career so far and I hope it continues.

About The Author

Byron Burton

Byron Burton is the Awards Editor and Chief Critic at Awards Focus and a National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Award winning journalist for his work at The Hollywood Reporter.

Byron is a voting member of the Television Academy, Critics Choice Association, Hollywood Critics Association, and the Society of Composers & Lyricists (the SCL) for his work on Marvel's X-Men Apocalypse (2016). Working as a journalist and moderator, Byron hosts Emmy and Oscar panels for the major studios, featuring their Below The Line and Above The Line nominees (in partnership with their respective guilds).

Moderating highlights include Ingle Dodd's "Behind the Slate" Screening Series and their "Spotlight Live" event at the American Legion in Hollywood. Byron covered the six person panel for Universal's "NOPE" as well as panels for Hulu's "Pam & Tommy Lee" and "Welcome to Chippendales" and HBO Max's "Barry" and "Euphoria."

For songwriters and composers, Byron is a frequent moderator for panels with the Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) as well as The ArcLight's Hitting the High Note Oscar series.

Byron's panels range from FX's Fargo to Netflix's The Crown, The Queen's Gambit, The Witcher & Bridgerton; HBO Max's The Flight Attendant, Hacks, Succession, Insecure, & Lovecraft Country; Amazon Studios' The Legend of Vox Machina, Wild Cat, & Annette; and Apple TV+s Ted Lasso, Bad Sisters, and 5 Days at Memorial.

In February of 2020, Byron organized and hosted the Aiding Australia Initiative; launched to assist in the restoration and rehabilitation of Australia's wildlife (an estimated 3 billion animals killed or maimed and a landmass the size of Syria decimated).

Participating talent for Aiding Australia includes Robert Downey Jr., Michael Keaton, Jeremy Renner, Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey, Josh Brolin, Bryan Cranston, Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, JK Simmons, Tobey Maguire, Alfred Molina, James Franco, Danny Elfman, Tim Burton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Tim Allen, Colin Hay, Drew Struzan, and Michael Rosenbaum.

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