Linda Cardellini is an icon when it comes to movies and TV. If you do a quick look at her IMDb, her credits really speak for themselves. From Freaks and Geeks to Legally Blonde to ER to Scooby-Doo to Mad Men to Bloodline to the freakin' Marvel Cinematic Universe and more, Linda has made her mark in every genre and has created some of the most memorable characters around.
Most recently, she's probably best known for playing Judy Hale in the hilarious Netflix series Dead to Me, a story she describes as being about "grief, loss, forgiveness, and friendship." The role earned her a much-deserved Emmy nomination and has cemented her and Christina Applegate as not only a powerhouse acting duo but also the definition of platonic soulmates.
So to celebrate the final season of Dead to Me, Linda sat down with me to discuss bringing this chapter of her life to a close. She shared some of her favorite stories from working on Season 3 and reminisced about the show's beginnings, and we even found time to look back at some of her other iconic movie and TV roles.
Here's everything we chatted about:
🚨 There are MASSIVE spoilers ahead for the final season of Dead to Me! 🚨
THEN: Before you booked Dead to Me, you and Christina had never met before. What was it like during Season 1 finding the rhythm of Jen and Judy's friendship while also getting to know each other behind the scenes?
Like you said, we did not know each other at all. We'd never met. We both are kind of no-BS people, you know? So that was really nice. Then you never know what it's like to work with anybody the first time you go to work. You don't know how people work — if they're loose, if they're very stringent. There's all these things that you have to consider. We just worked, and it was so easy. It was SO easy from the beginning. When we started in the first season, we were like, "What is, even, this tone?" Like, is it really out there? Is it really small? You're trying to find it. So we had, not only the two of us, but also we had an amazing partner in [creator] Liz Feldman because she loves and cares, and the story is so personal to her. So we really saw us like this trio.
I remember in the first season, we did this scene — I can't even remember what scene it was — but we were just laughing. It got to such a strange place, where it was funny but also very tragic. We're laughing and we're crying, and Liz Feldman just goes, "That's the tone!" When you're starting a show, you're finding things along the way because from the page to the screen, there's a whole lot that happens. So once we understood that tone, which came pretty naturally to us, it all sort of just happened, and the writing is so good. That just continued to grow for us. We just love being on- and offscreen together. It is really nice.
NOW: Christina has talked a lot about how finishing filming the final season of Dead to Me was challenging after her multiple sclerosis diagnosis in 2021. And she's said she leaned on you a lot to help her finish this journey. What has it meant to you to finish this chapter with Christina and working with her, specifically on Season 3?
I feel very lucky that the show is about friendship. Our performances are about friendship. Our relationship to each other, onscreen and off, is about friendship. I think I was very lucky when I first met her. We instantly got along.
Everything that we went through, throughout all the different seasons, with the last season being the most challenging, made us so close. Anything you go through in life that's very challenging — and we all went through different things, because you do go through things throughout the years, and they've been interesting years, of course — everybody leans on their friends. So you're lucky if you have those people at work, and I've leaned on Christina and relied on her, and I hoped I would do the same for her. So I think that's just what friends do. I think I'm lucky to be a friend who could be beside her. I think that her work is just as outstanding, if not more, in this final season. She's just so good, and she's just so brilliant. So I'm excited for people to see that.
THEN: Have you ever taken a prop after filming wrapped? If so, what have you taken?
Well, I have my Freaks and Geeks jacket. I have my Velma [from Scooby-Doo] outfit. I have the entire outfit. I mean, to give you a sense, I still have my Pink Ladies jacket from my high school production. So I keep a lot of things. I'm trying to think of other things I have. I always take something.
Do you have anything from Marvel?! Did they let you get away with anything?
Oh no! You can't take anything from there! [laughs] They often give you nice wrap gifts, like a blanket that says "Avengers" on it or something.
NOW: And did you keep anything from Dead to Me?
Of all the things I took from Dead to Me, I have the outdoor furniture.
All of those scenes when Jen and Judy are sitting outside or Judy falls asleep outside, I have all of the outdoor furniture; it's all in my backyard. And it's beautiful, by the way. It's totally beautiful, and amazingly, we kept it in great shape for all those years. But, you know, a lot of the stuff was going away, and so I asked if I could have that.
I also have some other set decorations of Judy's. I have some of Judy's crystals. I have, of course, a killer bird. I have a Judy painting, and I have lots of Judy's clothes because I love Judy's clothes. Our wardrobe designers did such a great job. I just loved Judy's style.
THEN: Legally Blonde is a project of yours that has taken on a life of its own since it premiered in 2001. What are your favorite memories from filming that movie?
That was great! Reese [Witherspoon] was so great to me. I'm only in it for a relatively short time, too. I remember I read the script and my agent was like, "Why are you interested in that part? That little part?" and I was like, "Well, it's so different from everything I've done. She's a bad guy." My agents said I didn't have to do it, but I loved the script. I just loved it. I thought it was so funny. I knew Reese would be amazing. I just thought there was something really special about it.
I loved the idea. I think I'd just come off playing somebody really, really sweet or something. I loved the idea that I could be this murderous villain. Not ever thinking that the movie would have the impact that it did. I had no idea it would become, like, a Broadway musical. Anyway, it was great. I mean, come on, that cast. Jennifer Coolidge is always so great. It's so much fun to be a part of that.
As you mentioned, Legally Blonde is really a classic film that so many people love. Have you had any fun fan interactions because of it?
I remember one time, I was taking my daughter to preschool, and one of the dads started saying something to me. And I realized he was quoting the perm scene, which I can't even quote. I can't even say, like...whatever that is—
"At the risk of deactivating the ammonium thioglycolate?"
[Laughs] THAT! He was doing the WHOLE speech. And I was like, "Oh! That's right! Legally Blonde." A lot of people know that entire speech. And that hairdo was something, wasn't it?
Was it a wig or—
It was my real hair. And they curled it. I remember at first, they curled the front of my bangs, and the curling iron was so hot, it burned off the top of my bangs. So for a while, I had just very short, like, spiky bangs after the movie. But I didn't care because, like, whatever, her hair looks exactly as obnoxious as I wanted it to!
NOW: Judy's final season arc in Dead to Me deals with her cancer diagnosis and, really, her coming to terms with dying and having to say goodbye to this found family she now has, namely Jen. When did you find out this was going to be Judy's story, and what was your reaction to it?
I knew that Liz was toying with that idea. I knew in Season 2. We had talked about it. Liz Feldman, and all of our writers, have just really crafted this story that keeps you guessing. I just love the way they write, I really do. So I knew that whatever Liz had in store for Judy was going to be meaningful. I think what happens to Judy really shines a light on how special her friendship with Jen is. I do think the whole show is about their friendship, which is such an unlikely friendship, but it's also so familiar to those of us who have a good girlfriend. I'm so lucky to be able to play that with Christina because we are truly friends. Working with her has been magical for me. It's just been so, so many things. I feel so grateful for that. That the friendship that Jen and Judy have is also — it's not the same, of course; we're not going around murdering anybody — deep. I was lucky enough to have that with Christina as well.
When I found out that Judy's cancer was going to happen, we often talk about [how] the themes of this show are grief, loss, forgiveness, and friendship. I think because of Judy's disappearing and what happens to Judy, I think that those things come into focus a little bit more for everybody because you have to contend with them in real time as she starts to get sicker.
All of the goodbyes between Judy and the various other characters throughout the season are so heartbreaking, but the one that got to me the hardest was between Judy and Charlie. Was that one that stuck with you, too?
It killed me, too! Yeah, we were all so shocked. I was like, "Oh my god! That was the hardest," because it's so earned. He's so great, and how much he's grown over the years. Both boys, they're so fantastic. After that scene, we were all just gut-punched, so I'm happy it resonates with you.
THEN: To this day, Freaks and Geeks is still considered one of the best TV shows, and one that was canceled way too soon. What has it been like to see new generations of fans discover and love the show?
When I made the choice to do Freaks and Geeks, I remember somebody — it might've even been the head of studio — called me because there were two other shows that were in house, which is what they call actual shows being produced by the studio, and this show was an outlier. It was different. It almost looked like it wasn't gonna make it from the start. So I got a phone call — because I was up for these two other shows — saying, "You know what? We really think you should take one of these other two. They're more of a sure thing." And I said, "Oh, no. I'm sorry. I really, really love this one." I was just talking to someone about how sometimes you have a gut feeling about something.
When it was canceled, you felt like, Oh god. Oh no. How could we all be so wrong? But the idea that it lives on decades later, it's just proof it was good. That script was so beautiful. [Creator] Paul Feig did such an amazing job, and [executive producer] Judd [Apatow] and everybody who was involved in the show. That stuff, when it resonates, it can stay, no matter how many people say, "No, thank you."
Also, it's a different age now. Back then, things just disappeared forever into some vault in the bottom of, I don't know what I imagined — like, the basement of NBC or something. And now you can find all kinds of things. So I think that's really given new life to things that sort of didn't get the chance, for whatever reasons, back then. The business was different at the time. I think now it allows people to see so much more. I love that show. I mean, I'm so proud of Dead to Me, but I'm also so proud of being in Freaks and Geeks. Someday I guess I'll have to let my daughter watch it.
I have to tell you, every time a new season of Dead to Me drops, I immediately fall back into a Freaks and Geeks rewatch. I love that show so much.
No way! Do you really?!
Oh, yeah! Every single time.
I appreciate that, thank you! Judy and Lindsay Weir, very different people. Both trying to do the right thing, but messing up a lot.
Do I have a green jacket because of Lindsay on Freaks and Geeks? Maybe.
I love that. See, I love that this show is still in the conversation. It makes me so happy.
NOW: In Season 3, the moment when Judy finally tells Jen that she really does have cancer, was so emotional. As an audience, you can tell the tears between you and Christina were genuine there. How was it filming that scene?
It was a lot. You know, you're saying goodbye in the script, and then, with the show being its final season, which we knew going in, we knew we were saying goodbye in real life, too. There was a lot of denial about it. I remember we texted each other when we read it because we were so emotional. There was one script where I said something like, "I know I've had the best time," and we could not even get through that in the Zoom read-through. We could not get through it. It's true, I've had the best time. When you think about saying goodbye to your friends, or your life or grief, even when it's not you, you can never quite sum up those feelings in any way. But that simple statement, I think, means a lot.
THEN: Have you ever had the chance to experience watching one of your films with an audience? If so, what was it like?
I missed the Legally Blonde premiere because I was working. So my friend and I went to see it, and it was a packed movie theater. I've told this story before, but it's true. It was one of the first experiences I had of experiencing a movie with an audience and getting a reaction that you're not prepared for at all. As soon as I came onscreen, I think it's my hand first and then it pans up to my face with this, like, really stinky look on my face. And somebody in the audience had the gut reaction to go, "[gasps] Ew!" On one hand, I was proud because I wanted you to hate her immediately, and on the other hand, I was like, "Oh, wow!" My friend sitting next to me was like, "Are you okay?" and I was like, "Yeah, I'm fine." But you know, it was one of my first experiences of watching anything with a full audience.
Have you ever done that for a Marvel movie you've been in? Like, seen it with a packed audience?
Opening night for any Marvel movie is pure fun chaos.
I bet! Honestly, I should have.
NOW: One of my favorite Jen and Judy scenes from Dead to Me Season 3 is when they get high on mushrooms. What was it like filming those hysterical moments alongside Christina?
We had so much fun! A lot of that stuff is just us. There's tons of stuff scripted, and then Liz, now, leaves empty spaces and she'll say, "Just do something." Then Christina has got these balloons, and she's doing all this stuff and making me laugh. It was really fun! Those are those moments where we get to step outside of everything happening and sort of have these moments of relief. That was really fun because Jen and Judy are often in a pickle, but they don't necessarily get to do that. They don't sit there and, like, laugh and joke. They're usually running from the FBI or something. That was just sort of a moment where we got to just enjoy ourselves.
THEN: You've talked about having a "gut feeling" when looking at projects to do. Did you have that same feeling when you first got the Dead to Me script?
Yes! Although I was terrified. I didn't know if I could do the character. She was so different than everything that I was doing. So I was like, Oh, I love this! This is great! How do I do this? I was just slightly terrified. It wasn't at all what I thought I was going to do next. I thought I would do a drama. I think I had just come off of Bloodline, and I had done a movie with Tom Hardy. I was coming off of a lot of drama. So for Dead to Me, I was like, Oh, can I do this? Can I find this? And then I realized there was just a lot of Linda that had gone unexplored and that Judy helped me sort of find. So that was fun. Judy taps into my goofier side, which I certainly have.
NOW: I loved that the Dead to Me series finale was very much just you and Christina for a majority of it, with Jen and Judy going to Mexico and coming to terms with saying goodbye. Do you have a favorite memory from filming that episode?
Oh my god. It was beautiful. The ocean — just what a beautiful setting. That's always nice because you could be doing something in, like, you know, a bunker underneath, or you're stuck in a tiny room. So whenever you're outside filming somewhere beautiful, that's always really nice. It was just really special to film that episode with Christina and be on location.
And finally, what Judy writes in her final letter to Jen is not disclosed to the audience. Was there something specific written in there?
I know what I would've written. But no, we didn't really discuss it.