Linda Cardellini had her work cut out for her in her latest role as Kelli in Liza Johnson‘s subtly riveting “Return,” which premiered in the Directors Fortnight at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. She’s in virtually every scene.
She plays a returning soldier, thrilled to see her husband and two daughters and ready to pick up her life in the Rust Belt town she has always known. However, she is slowly disturbed by her familiar surroundings. She enjoys seeing her friends, but doesn’t seem to relate to their trivial dramas. Her husband Mike (played by Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon) is understanding but cannot relate to her experience and growing distance; her children need more attention than she is able to provide. Kelli’s return home becomes a tinderbox as she is increasingly alienated from her everyday life.
[Editor’s Note: This interview was originally published during the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. “Return” hits select theaters this Friday, February 10 and is available on VOD February 28.]
In Cannes, Cardellini talked with Indiewire about how she prepared over 18 months for the role as well as why she thinks the film might make some people upset because it refuses to polarize. Cardellini also shares her thoughts on life after “ER,” writing, theater and why she loves not speaking on film.
What attracted you to the role of Kelli and how did it resonate with you?
I thought it was interesting to see a woman coming home from war and she’s a bit of a messy character as well. In other ways, even though she’s a woman, her story applies to men coming home as well. I think it’s a relevant topic, and the way [Liza Johnson] addressed it was in a way I hadn’t heard yet.
Plus, it’s just a fantastic role for an actress. Even reading it, I didn’t think I grasped that I’d be on screen every second of the film, which was probably good because it would have terrified me at the time. It’s a beautiful role. While reading it, there is so much between the dialog. Such great description that Liza included, like, how Kelli puts her feet in the grass for the first time and spreads her toes after returning.
When did you begin shooting?
We started working in October in upstate New York. I had been involved with the film for a year and a half I think at that point, and I had been waiting most of that time while the funding was finalized. I spent a lot of that time doing research and spent time with Liza and talking with her about the character. I didn’t meet any of the other actors until we got on set.
How did you go about preparing to understand your role and what a returning soldier might experience?
We did a lot of different things. I went to Liza’s hometown with her and stayed and ventured about the town and saw the kind of home Kelli would live in. The setting of the film is a character in this film and seeing Liza’s short films — coming from an art background — and we even did things that would never be included in the film.
We went to an Army base and hung out in the bar with both women and men there so it wouldn’t be gender specific. We went and shot guns together and even learned how to clean a rifle that Kelli would have used. I just wanted to learn the the language, the feel and the physicality of certain things and the place where Kelli would be and how she would speak.
There’s a real subtlety in the film in that there’s a quiet unease that arises as opposed to being beaten over the head with a point. Was that something you were conscious about in your portrayal of Kelli?
I loved that it didn’t hit the audience over the head and the audience is left to make decisions about what they think did happen and what will happen with her and her family. Normally, everyone is waiting for the one cathartic event that defines the story and ties it up in a bow and I think that this is just beautifully messy and beautifully unresolved — talking about Liza’s work, I mean.
Post-traumatic stress disorder lurks in the background throughout this film but it’s never mentioned.
That’s the thing, you as a viewer can decide if that’s what it is. It’s never expressed as such. During the time we were doing research, we went and talked to a psychologist and she didn’t use that term ever. She explained other people’s situations without using that term and I think if you label it as such, it becomes only that. And I think what Kelli goes through is an evolutionary process and it’s an unraveling of some kind of condition and it’s up to the audience to define it for themselves.
The story of a soldier coming home is not entirely a new one, but this one is in fact unique because there has not been a lot of attention on screen to women coming back to their husbands and children.
I think there are all these things that do exist, and our movie is just one account of one returning soldier and this woman’s life. And there are things that are gender specific because she’s a woman and a mother. Her choices are different in terms of how she can deal with her situation. She has different avenues and responsibilities than a man would. And Liza always says — and I agree with — that she has different expectations than a man would.
Kelli’s husband is supportive and trying to be understanding. He’s far from a jerk, but there ultimately is a breakdown in their relationship.
That to me was one of the sadder aspects of the film because here’s clearly a relationship with a lot of love and a lot of history and the idea that she could no longer communicate with him was sad. There’s a disintegration in their relationship that was hard to take.
“Return” is not political, really. I get the feeling that people of any political persuasion will not have their politics challenged by this film. Would you agree with that?
I agree and that’s a very valuable thing. I think it may be criticized by some because there are people who want it to be polarizing. But the beautiful way that Liza tells this story is that it doesn’t take a political position. It’s not telling you how to think about war or PTSD, soldiers or people’s families. It’s just showing you one person’s life and how she deals with her return. Many people have different experiences but there are also common threads to their experience.
When meeting and talking to people who had similar experiences, we noticed commonality in Liza’s script, which to me was an affirmation of what we were doing in some ways even though this is ultimately a fictionalized version of one person’s story.
What do you look for in a role? Obviously you’ve had quite a diverse range in both film and TV.
I like diversity, I want one character to be very different from the next. I love to live with a character for a long time if I can, but I like one character to be different from the next. One of my favorite things to do is not to speak on screen. In theater it’s different because there’s a lot of emphasis on language — it’s a different medium. But that is one of the most wonderful things about film. A person’s face can say so much more than their voice can. Liza and I have talked about how what people say isn’t what they mean and we dealt with that in this film in the subtext.
Usually in a role, I look for it to be more than one thing and maybe something that can surprise people about me – or surprise myself.
What do you have coming up? Are you looking to do more film or what areas most interest you now?
I’ve been working on writing. After being on “ER” for awhile, I stepped back because that was a marathon and doing a film was more of a sprint. I’d love to do some theater and I’m looking at other films. I’m writing something for a cable network now as well.
I love the idea of being able to create something for somebody else or for myself because so many times as an actor you’re at the mercy of the material you’re presented and then once you find something you’re at the mercy of somebody choosing you. So to be able to be in a bit more control of that would be wonderful.
[Check out Indiewire’s interview with “Return” writer/director Liza Johnson here.]