It’s the morning after Super Bowl XLVI and when Linda Cardellini calls I’m in the process of replaying the halftime show in search of M.I.A’s controversial middle finger. “I watched it twice in a row but I couldn’t find it,” says Cardellini, who’s perhaps best known for her work on television’s Freaks and Geeks and ER. “I actually thought Madonna’s performance was amazing, and I’m normally so underwhelmed by the Super Bowl’s halftime shows. Then again, I’m a mega-Madonna fan.”
Although she’s appeared in films such as Scooby-Doo and Brokeback Mountain, Cardellini has never had to carry a film like she does in Liza Johnson’s Return, in which she plays Kelli, a National Guard reservist returning home to her husband Mike (Michael Shannon) and their daughter after an 18-month deployment overseas. While trying to reintegrate into the simpler, slower life she once knew, Kelli throws a few lightning-quick middle fingers of her own at everything from everyday errands to the family with whom she’s trying to reconnect.
Have you been doing quite a bit of press for the film?
I haven’t been able to do as much as I would like. I’m incredibly pregnant. On one hand, it’s a complete joy to be having a baby, but on the other hand, I’m like, What timing! I can’t really go anywhere and I can’t really, you know, do too much.
At least you were able to tour the European film festival circuit a little bit.
We actually did a lot of press in other countries, but I haven’t yet been able to see the film with an American audience.
Do you typically like to watch your work among an audience?
I find it really hard to watch myself. But I also realize that I need to get over myself and usually it’s easier the second time around. There were so many people who gave their whole heart to the film, and to not see their work would be disappointing.
I’d imagine it’s tough to get past your own performance and appreciate the bigger picture.
It’s your performance, but it’s also the way you look. Liza didn’t let me wear a stitch of makeup, and so, of course, vanity comes into play. It’s very nerve-racking and there are things that I haven’t watched, but this film was a labor of love. It was Liza’s first feature and to see how she orchestrated and created the film with such restraint was really rewarding.
It’s always a leap of faith when actors collaborate with first-time filmmakers. In what way did Liza assure you that she knew what she was doing?
She has a really graceful confidence. She’s positive and forthright about everything. When I met her in New York and read the script, I thought, Wow, what an amazing part! But I’d also seen the story of a returning soldier before and was worried about how it would be told. Would it be something we’d all seen before in a television movie? Could it be as special as I’d hoped? The way Liza spoke about the film and the tiny details that unravel this woman’s life, and the way that it was written—there were things in the script that were descriptive unlike anything I’d ever read before, about the way things smelled, or the feeling of grass between my toes, or the way that the chair felt on my back. I also love that Liza didn’t want to tell people exactly what to think or what to feel about Kelli and what she’s going through. It was the most I’ve ever had to trust a director because I’m in every scene.
While researching the part, you spoke to a number of veterans. Did you notice many common threads between them and their sense of displacement?
It seemed hard for them to figure out when and where and how to talk about it, both for the people who were returning and the people who they were coming home to. I felt a strong desire from everyone to understand each other, but there was an inability to do so. That was what most resonated with me, Kelli’s inability to communicate with anybody and her isolation because of that. I met so many people, many of whom had no signs of PTSD and some who were getting happily re-deployed. Others still came home from their deployment and were struggling with their inability to put themselves back together. Despite a few common threads, there is no single story of how a returning soldier feels—or should feel.
Was the veteran experience gendered?
Yes and no. Part of what I liked about the movie is that my character, although she is a mother and wife, doesn’t confront gender-specific issues, in terms of, say, sexual assault. Abuse and rape does happen, of course, and it’s a real issue—but for every woman who says it was difficult to be over there, there’s another woman in a high-ranking position who hasn’t had that experience. It really runs the gamut. There are so few of us who are involved in the military, and who even know anything about what’s going on. It was really important to me as an American, not just an actress, to educate myself.
Setting aside the many horrors of war, I’ve always been devastated by a more subtle, quieter tragedy, which is that people come back from fighting overseas only to realize that life has gone on in their absence.
Absolutely. Kelli comes home, and people are doing things that seem pretty mundane compared to the work that seemed so meaningful to her while she was over there. Regardless of how you feel about the war, its stakes are incredibly high, so it’s difficult to come home and just sit around watching America’s Funniest Home Video. But all of that seemingly mundane stuff—shopping, TV—is still an important part of your world, so you have to reconcile the two. Kelli is an incredibly capable person and so for not to be able to put her life back together is terribly disappointing. And heartbreaking.
I noticed in your character a sense of superiority or cynicism toward the more vapid aspects of everyday life.
I’m sure that’s something some people feel but I don’t know that all people feel that way. Some people come home and are very happy to get back to the simple things—family life isn’t simple, I don’t mean that. I read somewhere that the first thing they want to do is have a beer.
There’s a line in the film about “all the Oprah assholes up your ass,” directed at people who try to analyze or understand or empathize with those who’ve just returned from war. I couldn’t help but think about you, Linda Cardellini the actor, speaking with actual veterans in that moment.
Right, as the person who comes in and asks someone suffering from PTSD, Hey! How was your experience? To me, that whole thing sounded so off-putting. With one of the first people I met, I made sure she was okay just to meet me at the veteran’s hospital—if she wanted to talk about things, she could, and if she didn’t want to talk about things, she didn’t have to. She was reticent to speak at first, which was fine, and eventually she told me what amounts to probably the tiniest tip of the iceberg, but I will never forget the things she said.
Have veterans responded well to the film?
A few, yes. It’s a relief and an honor that they are, especially people in the military because that was sort of the question mark. One person said they thought it looked like a documentary and another woman we depicted the very things she’d been going through. It’s been rewarding in that way, to shed light on something and start a conversation about it.
It doesn’t hurt that, at the other end of the spectrum, critics are comparing it to a Terrence Malick film.
It’s so incredible, especially because it’s truly an independent film. We didn’t have any studio backing, or anything like that.
Are you interested in making more small films like this?
I’d love to, but for now I’m focusing on motherhood. I’m going to take a step back and pay attention to my private life. I have a movie that I really am excited about—one of the greatest roles I’ve been able to have—and now I’m having a baby. I have no idea what it’s going to be like to be a first-time mom so I’m trying not to make too many plans for myself. I know I’ll go back to work, I just don’t know how soon.
Are you entirely excited?
I’m nervous beyond belief!
Return is in theaters now, and will be released on VOD via Focus World on February 28.