HEAT VISION

How 'Curse of La Llorona' Gave Linda Cardellini the Shot She'd Never Had

The actor, who steps into her first leading role in a studio movie, also discusses rumors she'll appear in 'Avengers: Endgame' and her upcoming turn opposite Tom Hardy in 'Fonzo.'
Linda Cardellini   |   Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for AFI
The actor, who steps into her first leading role in a studio movie, also discusses rumors she'll appear in 'Avengers: Endgame' and her upcoming turn opposite Tom Hardy in 'Fonzo.'

Linda Cardellini has explored nearly every genre as an actor, and with Friday's release of The Curse of La Llorona, she can finally say that she’s led a horror film, one of only a few boxes she’s yet to check in her varied 23-year career.

From Oscar winners like Green Book and Brokeback Mountain to prestige TV dramas such as Mad Men and ER, Cardellini has played a wide variety of dramatic and comedic roles, including what might be her most enduring role as Lindsay Weir on the cult TV classic Freaks and Geeks.

Despite a career spanning two decades, La Llorona is her first leading role in a studio movie. In the latest installment of The Conjuring universe, Cardellini plays Anna Tate-Garcia, a widow in 1970s Los Angeles who’s struggling to balance the needs of her two kids with the demands of her career as a social worker. Eventually, Anna’s family and career collide with La Llorona (aka “The Weeping Woman"), a female ghost from Latin American folklore who preys on children as a response to her own self-inflicted tragedy.

Cardellini is also a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as she made her debut as the Barton family matriarch in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. With Avengers: Endgame nearing release on April 26, questions about Cardellini’s Laura Barton have been swirling since the official trailer depicted an ominous family picnic involving Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and the rest of the Bartons. When asked about the trailer that seemingly sets up tragedy for the Barton family, Cardellini plays her cards close to her vest.  

“I am not allowed to confirm nor deny, but I do get to go to the premiere. So, that will be fun," Cardellini tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Later this year, Cardellini portrays Mae Capone, alongside Tom Hardy’s Al Capone, in Josh Trank’s anticipated biopic Fonzo, the Chronicle filmmaker's first since his ill-fated 2015 feature Fantastic Four.

"Josh Trank, it’s really his brain and his baby, and it’s really an interesting look at Al Capone that I don’t think anyone will be expecting," says Cardellini. "I loved it. And Tom Hardy, it really doesn’t get any better.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Cardellini also spoke about motherhood and its impact on her career, her new Netflix show, Dead to Me, which launches May 3rd, and her memories of the Bloodline set.

You’ve had such a varied career, as you’ve played a multitude of dramatic and comedic roles. Is this array of parts mostly a byproduct of you constantly striving to switch things up, or were these the cards you were dealt for the most part?

I really like to switch it up. You’re also at the mercy of the cards you’re dealt, but it excites me when I get something that’s very different from the last thing that I’ve done. I think it’s important for me as an actor that I do things that keep me interested and excited. When La Llorona came around, I’d never done anything like that, and it was shooting here in L.A. I also liked the people that were involved, and I thought, “Well, I haven’t done this yet so let’s do that.” I had just come off Daddy’s Home 2, so it was the polar opposite of that movie. While I was shooting La Llorona, I actually left the set after a twelve-hour day, borrowed clothes from wardrobe and had Eleanor [Sabaduquia], our wonderful makeup artist, doll me up so I could Uber to the audition with Peter Farrelly and Viggo Mortensen for Green Book. I shot La Llorona way before I shot Green Book, but it just so happens to come out after. I went from playing a screaming mother from the ‘70s, wrestling this ghost, to auditioning that night for a woman from the ‘60s, who lived in Brooklyn and had never left Brooklyn, and was talking to her husband about going on a road trip.

Since you’ve acted in many period pieces, including La Llorona, what period or decade do you enjoy working in the most?

It’s always fun to do something that’s nostalgic. Freaks and Geeks was really fun with it being ‘80. It wasn’t totally “‘80s” yet; it was right at the turn of the ‘70s into the ‘80s. It’s fun to do a period piece because it’s pre-technology. You don’t have your phone; you can’t Google everything; you can’t get answers or contact people quite as readily. There’s more human interaction in some ways. Although, my character in Green Book relies on letters, and a lot of other characters relied on phone calls, so it’s definitely a part of your everyday life. Hindsight is 20/20, so we can look back at characters and period pieces and have more of an opinion on them.

Historically, Hollywood has treated horror films as either a launching pad or a last resort for actors and filmmakers. However, over the last six years or so, the quality of the genre has increased — a trend that James Wan’s The Conjuring gets some of the credit for as of 2013. Did the genre’s upturn in perception play a partial role in your commitment to La Llorona?

I’ve had great supporting roles, but it was really fun to have a great role at the center of the story, where I was a part of the story’s beginning, middle and end. So, that came to me as a studio film in the horror genre before it came along in any other genre. So, that was nice, and I thought, “Well, I had never done anything like this; it seems really fun, and I get to shoot it where I get to stay close to my family.” 

When you’re shooting on a horror set like La Llorona, is the vibe genuinely creepy even though there’s a boom operator standing over you?

Oh, yeah! We shot in a house that people said was haunted. I don’t always buy into all that, but there was one time when I was locked in the basement of this very old house. So, there was part of me that was maybe more afraid that there was black mold down there than something spiritual. The idea of being trapped in this basement by myself… it didn’t seem like you should be in a house that you were not familiar with, a house that people had just told you stories about. An A.D. and I were both in there at some points, and we were both creeped out.

In La Llorona you play Anna, a widow who’s trying her best to raise two young kids while struggling to maintain their livelihood as a social worker. Since you’re a relatively new mother, how did motherhood inform you of this character? Has it unlocked a new dimension to your acting ability that wasn’t there previously?

The one thing I can definitely relate to is the mama bear instinct that happens to kick in during the film. Also, working with kids — now that I have my own child — is different to me, too. Now I understand a lot better how children work. So my instinct to protect them happens very easily, and probably even the way I handle, hold and talk to them is different because I know it from real life and how I speak with my daughter. The idea that something could happen to your child is the most terrifying thing in the world, and this movie plays on all of that. That was easy to relate to, especially because I’m a mother.

For a character like Anna, do you channel terrifying experiences from your own life, or do you trust the script, your performance and the circumstances of the scene to elicit the proper emotion?

I do both. I love to keep it open enough to where I haven’t made all of my decisions before I get to set. I like to be able to be open enough to really work with the other actor, to take in what they’re doing, to listen to what they bring and have that affect me as well (and us) in the scene. That was something that was great about Bloodline. We sometimes didn’t know exactly where the whole scene was going, and I got to work with so many incredible actors that, on the day, you would go for it. The same thing with Dead to Me; the same thing with La Llorona. Patricia Velasquez and I have a great scene together, and it was really wonderful to be there with each other. It’s a horrible scene, but we could do it a hundred times because we were so enjoying the back and forth to it. It didn’t get stale. To me, the fun part of acting is being able to play off the person or people that you’re in the scene with. I’m really lucky these past few years, and throughout my career, I’ve been able to work with incredible actors. Not to listen and not to be present when I’m in the scene with them would be stupid. It’s so much fun to be there and to work with incredible people.

Did your previous relationship with Netflix via Bloodline pave the way for your involvement in Dead to Me?

I’m sure it did help. I like the people over at Netflix; we have a really great time together. Cindy Holland [VP of Original Content] has been really great to me. So, I think there was interest. There were a few other shows that I had looked at. There was a show that I really liked but I didn’t end up doing because it was too much travel and I like to stay closer to home because I’m a mom. But, yeah, Netflix was definitely somewhere I wanted to work again, and I think that the feeling was mutual.

Practicality aside, how did Dead to Me turn your curiosity into commitment?

The script is great. The character was so different than anything I had played, and that was something that was really important to me. It was daunting at first. I kept asking my friend, “Do you think I can do this?” I had also just come off two period piece dramas, and everybody I asked said, “You gotta do this. It sounds perfect for you.” ... Creator Liz Feldman helped a lot. I also knew Jessica Elbaum, who’s the producer, because we had done Welcome to Me and Daddy’s Home together. So, I knew her, Will [Ferrell] and Adam [McKay], who are producers. And I like their company; they have a wonderful company. They work with great people and their sets are very enjoyable. ...

Also, it was hearing what she had in store for the script. We call it a traumedy because there’s so much trauma that happens. The story, which is a dark comedy, has humor, but it’s also suspenseful. It really does twist and turn. 

Since Avengers: Endgame is upon us, I presume you’ve seen one of the recent trailers where the Barton family is enjoying an ominous family picnic?

I’ve heard that that’s there, yes. (Laughs.)

Would you like to take this opportunity to issue an “I can neither confirm nor deny” Glomar response regarding your involvement in Endgame?

I am not allowed to confirm nor deny — but I do get to go to the premiere. So, that will be fun.

When you reflect on Avengers: Age of Ultron, what moments or memories have stuck with you from between takes?

I was lucky enough to come into the Marvel world and have all of the characters in my front room. So, to me, that was really fun. Sometimes, you work on a big movie, and you only have scenes with one character, so you don’t really get to know anybody else in the process. I thought it was really great to be there and to be there with all of the characters in our front room in that scene in Age of Ultron. I just enjoyed being with everybody. They seemed to be having a good time. They were all friends and they were all friendly. It was just a very enjoyable experience all around.

Director Josh Trank recently hyped “Film Twitter” when he proclaimed Fonzo to be his best work yet. How was your experience on the film?

Ah, my God, one of my favorite experiences I’ve ever had. What a group of people; we had so much fun. Josh Trank, it’s really his brain and his baby, and it’s really an interesting look at Al Capone that I don’t think anyone will be expecting. I loved it. And Tom Hardy, it really doesn’t get any better. We had a great time making that movie. Several of the actors, including me, were put up in a hotel that was actually once a house. So, in essence, there were four or five of us that lived together for six weeks, and we had the greatest time.

Michelle Williams told me that Tom is rather unusual in terms of his choices within any given scene. Is this description consistent with your experience?

Absolutely. He’s so creative. He really is so creative. There’s so much power there and so much depth in everything that he chooses. The way that he talks about the character is so imaginative; it’s just inspiring in general. Working with him, I found it so easy. I play Mae Capone, Al Capone’s wife, but the relationship that they have gets more complicated because of what is happening to him towards the end of his life. Just the idea of being a team with him was wonderful.

What comes to mind regarding your time on Bloodline?

What a group of people, my God. Ben Mendelsohn is such an incredible actor. I had so much fun working with him because he’s so malleable. I really like to work that way, too, where you can change it each take if you want based on how you’re feeling or what’s happening in the scene. I remember doing a scene with him in the office, and we just sort of played. We did it as many ways as we could. A lot of times, parts of the script were not available to us for whatever reason. They either didn’t want us to see it or it wasn’t actually completed; I don’t know what it was. There were question marks all of the time for us, and the show worked like that as well. So, it served its purpose. It was really fun to work with Ben because there’s just something so alive about the scene when you’re working with him because he’s truly listening and you can be completely present. It’s very fluid. I remember after a scene thinking, “Yeah, that’s exactly what you want it to feel like when you’re working.” He’s incredible.

Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard played your parents. That’s quite a bragging right.

There was a moment where they stood on the steps and we were all on the beach. I literally pinched myself because it was like looking at acting royalty. And I got to pretend to be related. One of my favorite things was when we got there, we had to find a place to live, and I was having trouble finding a place to live. I had my daughter with me, and her father. She was two and she was hot and cranky. We kept trying to find a place, but things just weren’t working out. I saw Sissy, who I barely knew, and she said, “Come stay at the place where I’m staying; it’s lovely.” So, I thought, “Okay, well she looks happy so we’ll go to that area, wherever she is, and I’ll try to find an apartment in that area.” So, we found an apartment, and when we pulled up to the apartment, my daughter was tired; I was holding her and we had all our luggage. And then, there was Sissy, with four or five people, ready to help us unload all of our luggage and get all of our stuff into the house. She had also asked friends that she had made to come in and help us remove anything in the house that was dangerous for my daughter, if it was a sharp surface, a glass table or anything that wasn’t steady for a two year old since it wasn’t a child-equipped place. She even gave us sheets that she had brought from home and made a bed for us. Literally, she put us to sleep. She’s absolutely an angel, onscreen and off.

***

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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