In a year of whirlwind Tinseltown highs, Linda Cardellini tops it off with binge hit Dead to Me and rediscovers the magic of Hollywood.
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It's one of those big life questions that puts everything in perspective: If you had time to save only a few important possessions from a fire, what would they be?
For Linda Cardellini, that wasn’t just a parlor game. Around five years ago, the actress, best known for her TV roles on Mad Men and the new Netflix series Dead to Me, and as Hawkeye’s wife in the Avengers movies, lost some of her most precious keepsakes when flames swept through a storage unit she rented in Los Angeles.
“I was away on location and had my favorite things in there,” she says. Papers from high school and college, pinball machines she collected, a fireplace she won as a contestant years ago on The Price Is Right—“which is kind of ironic to lose in a fire, if you think about it,” she says.
What hit Cardellini especially hard was the loss of beloved artwork, including a painting by Margaret Keane, the 1960s artist famous for her big-eyed portraits. Cardellini grew up with Keane’s posters on her bedroom wall, and when she got her first big paycheck, the actress commissioned Keane to paint her picture from a childhood photograph.
“The idea that Keane was a real person fascinated me, and asking her to paint me was probably the most intimidating thing I ever had to do, so you can imagine how I felt when the painting burned,” Cardellini says. “It reminds you of how little control you have in life, even when you think you’ve figured some things out for yourself.”
At 44, and with more than 20 years of Hollywood roses, buds and thorns behind her, Cardellini regards her profession the same way. You manage as much as you can but ultimately leave everything up to fate. “The benefit of being a working actor for so long is you adapt yourself to peaks and valleys and plateaus and outright disaster,” she says. “Rejections used to devastate me. Now I know a career is all about cycles and patience.”
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Maybe so, but some cycles transcend all known patterns. Consider what happened over a stunning span beginning last February when the movie Green Book, in which Cardellini plays Viggo Mortensen’s ever-patient wife, won the Oscar for best picture. A few weeks later came her first studio headlining role in horror film The Curse of La Llorona, which went to No. 1 at the box office. A week later, Avengers: Endgame started its run as the highest-grossing superhero film of all time, followed a week later by the debut of Dead to Me, a tragicomedy USA Today called “the best binge of 2019.”
Cardellini is petite (she’s 5-foot-3) with a heart-shaped face that’s good at projecting girl-next-door earnestness, but with enough glint in the eyes to suggest she might have your number. It’s why she can portray a character like Judy Hale, whose secret in Dead to Me—and skip ahead now if you haven’t watched season 1—is that she killed the husband of the woman (played by Christina Applegate) she is supposedly comforting in a grief support group. Looking back on her remarkable year, Cardellini attempts to contain herself, but you can tell she’s truly astonished by the run of good fortune.
“This is an incredible moment, and it’s fun and I’m beyond grateful, but also there are parts of it I really can’t explain,” she says. “If there were formulas for having a string of successes like this, I’d share them, but sometimes I just have to say, ‘OK, this is an amazing time. I can’t question how it happened. I just have to enjoy it and be as present as possible.’” Cardellini grew up in the Bay Area of northern California, the youngest of four children to a businessman and homemaker. The family’s San Francisco roots go back several generations. Cardellini was homecoming queen at St. Francis High School and a theater nerd who, straight out of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, landed a starring role on an ABC Saturday morning live-action series, Bone Chillers. She later made the rounds on sitcoms such as 3rd Rock From the Sun and Boy Meets World, until her big breakthrough on Freaks and Geeks. That series famously launched the careers of James Franco, Seth Rogen, Busy Philipps and Jason Segel (whom Cardellini dated for several years after the show ended). But the Freaks bump didn’t quite bounce Cardellini into the same A-list orbit. Her big follow-up was a part as a free-spirited nurse on ER, and the role of Velma in the Scooby-Doo movies of the early 2000s.
“I always got work, but I knew there was more for me to do than what I was doing,” Cardellini says. “For a long time, I was cast as the slightly sarcastic person with purple lipstick and then as the sassy best friend or the wife, but in my heart of hearts, I wanted to change that.”
In 2011, Cardellini announced that she and her boyfriend—now fiance—Steven Rodriguez, were expecting a baby. Their daughter, Lilah-Rose, is now 7. Cardellini and Rodriguez, a makeup artist, knew each other as kids and reconnected much later as adults. “Having a family shifts all your priorities,” Cardellini says. “Your capacity for love grows and you suddenly feel the preciousness of time.”
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Not long after her daughter was born, Cardellini was cast as Don Draper’s brainy neighbor-turned-mistress, Sylvia Rosen, on Mad Men. The prominent recurring role— they had the affair that Don’s daughter, Sally, strolled in on—earned Cardellini an Emmy nomination and greater license to develop her own projects. Working with Will Ferrell on Daddy’s Home and Daddy’s Home 2 in part led to her current Netflix series, of which Ferrell is co-executive producer and Cardellini served as a producer on Season 1. Season 2 of Dead to Me is expected to premiere next spring.
“Whatever I do, I want it to be different from anything I’ve done before, which is what I love about producing, writing and directing,” Cardellini says. “I get to have more say in what I do.” She says she would love to collaborate with Tom Hanks or Ron Howard (“They seem like the most wonderful people”) and “would not say no to working with Stephen Chow in a Kung Fu Hustle-type movie!”
Then again, Cardellini knows from experience that the way forward is entirely unpredictable. Take that priceless portrait she lost in the devastating storage unit fire. In 2014, when Tim Burton’s biopic, Big Eyes, on the life of Margaret Keane, came out, Cardellini was shocked to spot what looked like that painting of herself in the background of a scene. She called Keane’s gallery and confirmed that a copy of the portrait had made it into the set design. For Cardellini, it was like a message from the showbiz gods.
“Even when all appears to be lost, you might just be rewarded again,” she says. “At this stage, I think that’s the true magic of Hollywood.”
Photography by: Photography by Mike Rosenthal; Styled by Annabelle Harron; Hair by David Stanwell, The Wall Group; Makeup by Stephen Sollitto, Tomlinson Management Group; Shot on location at Villa Carlotta, Los Angeles