HEAT VISION

Linda Cardellini on Going Toe-to-Toe with Tom Hardy in 'Capone' and 'Dead to Me' Season 2

The actor recalls being "terrified" of slapping Hardy in a key scene: "I did not want to smack him hard, but he said, 'Go for it.'"
Linda Cardellini   |   Emma McIntyre/Getty Images
The actor recalls being "terrified" of slapping Hardy in a key scene: "I did not want to smack him hard, but he said, 'Go for it.'"

[The following interview contains spoilers for Dead to Me season two and Capone.]

On May 12, Dead to Me season two topped Netflix's top 10 chart while the compelling yet polarizing Capone premiered across digital platforms nationwide. That evening, Linda Cardellini trended atop Twitter as numerous users applauded her versatility as both Mae Capone in Capone and Judy Hale on Dead to Me's sophomore effort. After 2019's The Curse of La La Llorona, Cardellini's first starring role in a studio film, the California-born actor is truly getting her due.

As Mae Capone, the embattled wife of Tom Hardy's Al "Fonse" Capone in Capone, Cardellini went toe-to-toe with Hardy — including a confrontational scene in which Hardy urged her to lean into the two slaps she'd inflict on his character.

"I was terrified. I did not want to smack him hard, but he said, 'Go for it,' so I did," Cardellini tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It was a pretty nasty slap, and we had to do it several times. I really let him have it, and after each take, I would just look at him, and my heart would sink. I would say, 'Are you OK?' But, you know, he's strong."

On Dead to Me season two, Cardellini continues to handle the Netflix dramedy's tonal seesaw with ease. At any given moment, her character, Judy, will deliver a flurry of quick-witted jokes, sing Doris Day or break down and sob in private moments of grief and frustration.

"Every single day is packed with something that is difficult in some which way, shape or form," Cardellini explains. "We're not out there fighting a war or anything, but it's difficult in terms of acting. So, as far as acting gigs, it's one of my most challenging in terms of the gymnastics we do during any given day."

In a recent conversation with THR, Cardellini discusses the joy of working with Hardy, the unassuming way Dead to Me handled Judy's newfound relationship with Natalie Morales' Michelle and her presence at Tony Stark's funeral in Avengers: Endgame.

Everything you told me about Capone a year ago is true; I was riveted by it. When your director, Josh Trank, presented you with a compelling script with Tom Hardy attached, did Josh's previous bump in the road via Fantastic Four remotely affect your decision?

No, not at all. I saw Chronicle, and I thought it was great. I met with Josh, we had lunch, and I just really enjoyed him. He seemed like a funny, honest, passionate person. And then, going forward and reading the script, it was all his own vision and all of the things that he brought to it. It was really just a passion project, and I enjoyed that about him. I enjoyed being with him, I love Tom and the idea of working on that. And then, the cast that he put together: Kathrine [Narducci], Gino [Cafarelli], Matt [Dillon], Jack [Lowden], Kyle MacLachlan and Noel [Fisher]. Not only were they great in the film, they were great to be around. We really had a wonderful time making that movie. They were all just great actors and good people. We had so much fun making that movie, and Josh was at the helm of all of that. And of course, Tom's performance is the center of gravity. That world that we created for that amount of time is one of my favorite experiences.

How deep did you dive into the real Mae Capone, since this wasn't a traditional biopic?

I love a deep dive into the real-life stuff, so, for me, that was exciting. And then, when I got there, Josh was like, "OK, throw everything out of the window. Don't worry about it. We're doing our own thing." But there's not that much known about Mae. There's this picture of her walking off the boat onto Alcatraz Island, and there's some other really interesting pictures of her. And who she seems to have been was fascinating to me because she's not well known. She never really let anybody in. She never — after-the-fact — gave any interviews and never did any kind of tell-alls. She was very private and very loyal to him. There are various stories on how they got together. Whether or not it was an arranged marriage put together by his mother because it wasn't really her baby or if it was truly theirs and they were in love, there are all kinds of interesting tales about who she was. By most accounts, she was religious, went to church a lot and came from an Irish-American family. Just a smart woman. She was a year older than him as well — which was not necessarily that common back then — and they never had another child. It was fascinating to take a dive into that, and also, growing up in the Bay Area where Alcatraz is, you always hear the stories of Al Capone. I remember going as a kid to Alcatraz and being there and seeing where he was. So, there's a lot of folklore around him. And then, being Italian too, there's a lot of interest. I remember watching Geraldo [Rivera] open up the vault when I was a kid and being disappointed. (Laughs.)

The back-to-back slaps. Did Tom encourage you to lean into them?

Yes! Yes, I was terrified. I did not want to smack him hard, but he said, "Go for it," so I did. It was a pretty nasty slap, and we had to do it several times. I really let him have it, and after each take, I would just look at him, and my heart would sink. I would say, "Are you OK?" But, you know, he's strong. (Laughs.)

The film is about Fonse's last days with neurosyphilis, and I appreciated the fact that Josh was willing to show what it's actually like for someone to lose their mind and body at the same time. While some people have been critical of the film's depiction of Fonse soiling himself, I would've been more critical of the film if it sanitized what this disease is really like. What's your perspective on this?

I think that it's important. I actually think it's an important part for my character's development because that's sort of what's been happening. She gets spit on. She has that [soiling himself] happen while they're in bed. That's sort of the hardship of taking care of somebody who's going through something that is physically very challenging and deteriorating for him. I thought that the interesting take on this story, to me, was here's somebody who was literally on top of the world, and he's just as human and just as mortal as anybody. No matter what you seem to have accomplished, whether it's through infamous or nefarious means or not, he was reduced to that. Nobody gets out of this life alive, and what that does to you — no matter how much money, fame or any of that that you garner throughout life — you still have to face your mortality. And for Mae, I think she's waited all this time to have a quiet real life in the story that we're telling. She finally gets him back, and he's a shell of himself. He is somebody that she has to caretake. For her, for that character, the idea of loving somebody — but also reconciling within yourself that it's very difficult to take care of somebody who is ailing — is hard on her and her psyche. The last thing that she would ever want to do is hurt somebody, slap somebody or cause him any more injury. It pushes all of her limits, taking care of somebody who is so sick.

I love that moment where Mae says, "28 years I've had to wait for some peace and quiet. He don't scare me." As troubling as a dying Fonse is, do you think she's having a relatively easier time with him now — as opposed to when he was Al Capone proper?

I imagined that it was never quite easy to be his spouse. That was sort of my take on it. Raising their son, giving him a good life and making sure that his father was good to him were the main things. And then, that moment with Noel [Junior] when Mae says, "He's a good father to you," is important because there's probably not a lot of great fathers in their world at that time. I know that Mae had lost her father very young in real life. So, I feel like Fonse as a father figure — and preserving that for her son — is important. And that's why the arrival of the mystery child [Mason Guccione], as it is, is something that is hard for her to stomach. But, at the same time, she's very generous about it in the end.

I tend to think that Al Capone proper would've been the tougher task of the two.

Yeah, I would imagine it's harder to not know if somebody's going to come back home or if somebody is going to get killed. That lifestyle was fraught. She was walking on eggshells a lot more in that lifestyle, although this time she's still walking on eggshells trying to take care of somebody who hardly recognizes her at times. But I think the idea that somebody could be murdered at any second and is also partaking in some of that — if she knew as much as she could have known — was probably more nerve-wracking. I think he was gone for periods of time, and she was left alone to wonder if he was OK. I think he even went into hiding a few times before he was in Alcatraz. All of that was probably really hard. And then, to have him home finally, there really is no reward for her in our telling of it. It's sort of like she finally gets him back, and it's also very hard. And they're losing everything on top of it all! Quite literally, things are disappearing from their house, and they're trying to sell things off. They're trying to figure out how to live, which is interesting because if she was truly religious, she probably didn't like how their money was obtained. Yet, at the same time, they're still losing it. There are constant contradictions, I think, for her.

When you work with an actor like Tom who's going to 11 with his performance, did you ever feel an urge to go bigger than you normally would? If I was acting next to him, I'd feel like such a minimalist by comparison.

No, the thing that I found about working with Tom is that it was very cooperative, and it was a very open process. It was so fascinating to watch him work and work with him because I think he's just one of the greatest. For me, working with somebody is about the scene and about the people. So, to me, it was wonderful because there's this thing that's happening that is so alarming at times, and I get to react to that and try to manage that. That gives me a lot to work with. So, it was wonderful to go head-to-head with him like that, especially in those characters. And when she finally gets to unleash and smack him and let it out for a second, which she immediately regrets, it felt really good. In that scene, Tom gave everything to me. He let me hit him as hard as I wanted and wail at him as long as I wanted. It was a wonderful back and forth, and I loved working with him.

Shifting to Dead to Me season two spoilers … At first, I was surprised by the impact that Steve's (James Marsden) death had on Judy. Then, I realized that it's actually quite common to grieve over the loss of an abusive partner. That certainly doesn't mean one's sadness absolves the deceased partner of their abuse, but what was your initial reaction to the way Judy mourned Steve?

I loved it because it was complicated; I think that's how real feelings are. I don't think that just because somebody is not good to you, you don't mourn them when they pass. That's a complicated feeling for her, and I liked that it was messy. It was the first time that I had seen it like that, where there's a person who knows she shouldn't mourn for him, but can't help herself because there's something about him that she loved. And there's something about parts of the way that he treated her that she loved, and I think that's what's so confusing about an abusive relationship. If it were all negative, it'd be very easy for people to walk away, and I feel like it's difficult for her to untangle herself from that because it's been years of chipping away at her. There's part of her who believes that he loved her and that she loved him, and so she's still mourning that even though, as an outsider looking in, you can say, "You shouldn't do that." I liked the idea that those feelings are messy because in reality, it's hard for people to separate what they should and shouldn't do from their feelings.

The show walks such a tonal tightrope in terms of drama and comedy. One minute, you're performing quick-witted dialogue that's packed with jokes, and the next minute, you're collapsing in tears during a private moment. Does production ever group the lighter scenes together first, so you can then focus on the heavier scenes all at once? Or is that too impractical?

(Laughs.) No, not really. That's the creative challenge and the excitement of being in this show; it's all things at once. You're walking the line between comedy and drama all of the time. The emotions are real and raw, even if they are heightened. And so, a day at work on Dead to Me is probably more exhausting than a day of work that I've ever done. Because most shows, you get one or two scenes an episode where it's very emotional or something very dramatic happens, or it's funny all the way through. But this is a little bit of everything all of the time. A lot of the time on other jobs, you have a day where it's pretty light. You get to travel in a car and look out a window, and then it shows you walking from a house to a bus stop or something. Whatever that is, that's usually a day of shooting where you can kind of be like, "OK, well, I don't have very many lines today. I don't have to do very much." Dead to Me is never like that. Every single day is packed with something that is difficult in some which way, shape or form. We're not out there fighting a war or anything, but it's difficult in terms of acting. So, as far as acting gigs, it's one of my most challenging in terms of the gymnastics we do during any given day. For everybody, too. 

Judy's relationship with Natalie Morales' character happened without any fanfare. It was treated like any other relationship. What did you and creator Liz Feldman discuss in terms of its handling?

We knew somebody was going to come into Judy's life and she was going to be able to enjoy herself and somebody else for a short while. It can't last too long, you know? (Laughs.) You're always hoping that the highs can last a little longer, but they're short-lived. I loved it. Natalie is hilarious and beautiful and kind and generous and an incredible scene partner. She fit in so seamlessly with our whole world. And the idea of her mother being in Abe's [Edward Asner] room is nostalgic for Judy anyway. Their bonding just happens so naturally. I loved it. It really allows Judy to breathe for a minute in a way that you haven't had a chance to see yet. The funny thing about her relationships with Michelle this season and Nick [Brandon Scott] last season is that they're actually the people she should spend more time with. They care about her, and they're loving. They each have their own things, but they are ready to give her what she needs. And yet, those are the two people that she is walking away from, and I think that's very indicative of Judy's problems with herself. She's often looking for the person who loves her the least to love her the most, and in some way, she's searching for a hole that she can't fill to try to make herself feel OK about herself. That's something that people can relate to: getting into these relationships with the people that you shouldn't and walking away from the people that you should because you're having issues with yourself.

One of your finest scenes to date is when Judy chastises herself in the bathroom for saying too much. When you know you have to perform an emotional scene like that, do you expend as little energy as possible until you're called to set?

It depends on any given day; it varies. I'm very emotional as a person, as a creature, just in general, which I used to think was a weakness. (Laughs.) I was always told it was a weakness, and it ends up helping me in what I do for a living, which is nice. But some days you feel like, "OK, I've got a handle on this," and some days you think, "How the hell am I going to do this?" The first season, when Judy hits herself, that was something where they were just letting the cameras go, and I was supposed to just cry in the mirror and look at myself. And it just came out of me looking at myself, crying, and I started to hit myself. I felt like that was something that Judy would do. I've read that people who can't get angry at other people take it out on themselves, so that's where that came from. The idea is that Judy has a problem, and she cannot get angry at people, which is why she admires Jen [Christina Applegate] so much. She admires her anger. She even says this in the first season — even though she's afraid of it — which later comes back to bite her. But she doesn't have that in her because she so desperately wants to be loved. And when you meet her mother [Katey Sagal] at the end, you realize she's been so unloved that she doesn't know how to be angry at anybody. She doesn't let herself be. So, her version of being angry is a self-loathing anger that takes itself out violently on herself because she would never do that to another person. And within that, she's been limiting herself from expressing herself, and so it just sort of explodes within her when she's alone. She hates herself at that moment. The next morning after I first slapped myself, I woke up and my neck was sore. I thought, "What did I do to my neck?" and I realized I had been hitting myself really hard in the scene the day before. (Laughs.)

So, the second season came and slapping myself was written in. And that, to me, was harder to prepare for because it was something that I had to actually wrap my head around, do on a mark at a certain time and after a certain line … It just sort of sprung up within me in the first season. But once the scene took place — and I'm in this tiny bathroom — it becomes very easy to want to be mad at myself for all the things that Judy does. She is just punishing herself. That's her way of doing it, and she's punishing the world. It reminds me of that line in the first season where it's like, "Smoking is the best way to slowly kill yourself." And then, you see her smoking after that. She has a part of her that is self-loathing. When Jen says, "Oh, you made pie, I can't eat it, I’d gain 10 pounds," and then Judy says, "Well, you should love yourself more." She's talking to Jen, obviously, but she's also talking to herself. So, there's a lot of that in those moments. But, yes, I had to pace myself because it's painful when you're hitting yourself. (Laughs.)

I hope you said to yourself, "So, this is what Tom Hardy felt on the set of Capone."

(Laughs.) Yeah, exactly. That's what I get. It always comes back around. 

You also have a great moment where you sing Doris Day's "Dream a Little Dream of Me," which functions as a goodbye to the bird and Steve at the same time. I've been scanning your roles in my head, but have you done much singing onscreen over the years? For the record, I'm not counting Grandma’s Boy.

(Laughs.) I sang on Broadway last summer for my birthday with Regina Spektor at her show, which was, like, the highlight of my life. It was so much fun. It was the first time I'd been on Broadway, which had been a longtime dream, and I got to sing with my good friend Regina. That was wonderful. But, yeah, I sang onscreen a couple times. I sang in Scooby-Doo originally, but I think they cut it out. Did they cut it out? I think they might've cut out the song because Velma was drunk. (Laughs.) Originally, I took off my shirt and I had this crazy bra underneath, but they toned the movie down a lot. That scene got cut. I also sang in a movie with Andy Garcia a long time ago, one of my very first movies called The Unsaid. Oh, I sang "Pennies from Heaven" in The Founder with Michael Keaton. Yeah, I've sang quite a few times actually, so that's nice. I've sang in my cartoons. Sometimes, you do cartoon voices, and I'll sing on those. Yeah, I love it; I really do. It's fun. That's how I started. When I was in sixth grade, a teacher in school heard me sing and asked me to be in the play. And then, from there on out, it was all I wanted to do. (Laughs.)

Are you glad to no longer have the weight of Avengers: Endgame secrets on your shoulders?

Yes! But the secrets never end. It seems like every job I get, there are spoilers and there are secrets. I feel that it's most fun when you don't know anything about something and you go in blindly, you know? So, I hate spoiling anything. I hate spoiling it for my family even, so I don't tell them. I've been training myself to keep all of these secrets for a long time, so it seems natural at this point.

I can barely coordinate a phone call with one other person, and yet, Marvel somehow gathered half of Hollywood in one location for Tony Stark's "wedding." Is that the greatest act of producing you've ever seen? 

(Laughs.) The wedding! Yeah, that was incredible, actually. That day of shooting was incredible — to have everybody be there and see everybody come together in their little pockets of that world. We also had our anniversary shoot that same weekend, I think, or maybe the day before or after. There was that huge photoshoot for Marvel Studios' 10th anniversary. Just being with everybody there, it was gigantic. After 10 years, you start to realize how much they've changed things, how many movies they've made, how many people it's employed and how many great people were on that stage. It was nice to be a part of it.

Did you shoot all of the Barton family farm scenes on the same day — the disappearance, the reunion hug, etc.?

I think it was over a couple days. But, yeah, it was very close to each other, if not on the same day. Clint [Jeremy Renner] had a different haircut by the end, so that was maybe a day. So, there was some time in between.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Capone is now available on Digital HD and VOD. Dead to Me season two is available on Netflix.

  • Brian Davids
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