If you’re a voracious consumer of popular culture, then you’ll be familiar with the phenomenon whereby an actor suddenly rises from a cult part to seeming omnipresence. Jennifer Lawrence broke out in “Winter’s Bone,” and then thanks to her central parts in the “Hunger Games” and “X-Men” franchises and her role as muse to the director David O. Russell was suddenly a box office force and a critical darling. Chris Pratt spent years playing the joyfully oblivious Andy Dwyer on “Parks and Recreation” before transforming himself for “Guardians of the Galaxy,” bringing the same goofy glee to the voice of the main character in “The Lego Movie” and signing up for the lead role in “Jurassic World.”
The latest actor to achieve this sort of breakout, a phenomenon cemented by her surprise appearance in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” is Linda Cardellini. While her profile (and salary quote) might not be quite as high as Lawrence’s, Cardellini’s notched up an impressive array of appearances in “New Girl,” “Mad Men,” Netflix’s family drama “Bloodline” and now “Age of Ultron.” It’s striking to watch Cardellini, an actress whose most significant role was as a smart nerd drawn to a burnout crowd in “Freaks and Geeks,” emerge as an avatar of a certain kind of down-to-earth sensuality in a series of roles that explore the pressure placed on women to please.
Part of what was delightful about Cardellini’s performance in “Freaks and Geeks” was her lack of vanity. As Lindsay Weir, she played a sort of teenage girl who’s rarely been seen in mass culture before or since: an academic high achiever who begins to question all the different conventions she sees adults and her peers falling for. Her rebellion begins with dropping out of the Academic Decathalon, trying to befriend a classmate with learning disabilities and wearing deliberately unflattering clothes. Later, her vision of self-actualization becomes clearer: she recognizes she doesn’t have to date Nick (Jason Segel) just because he likes her, that being smart and a good student doesn’t mean she can’t smoke pot, and that she doesn’t have to channel her intellectual gifts in the most obvious or socially acceptable directions, punctuating all these realizations with a truly fabulous laugh:
Lindsay Weir was a once-in-a-career role, and it’s not particularly surprising that the work Cardellini took in the aftermath of “Freaks and Geeks” shied away from her disruptive power. Most notably, she landed in “Legally Blonde,” the movie that announced Reese Witherspoon to the world as a comedic force, in a scene where she played Chutney, the truly awful daughter of a murdered rich man:
But her other forays in movies were largely a disappointment, and Cardellini eventually returned to television, working on shows such as “ER” and doing voice work for animated series and video games.
The Cardellini comeback began in earnest two years ago when she appeared on “Mad Men” as Sylvia Rosen, the wife of a neighboring doctor with whom Don Draper (Jon Hamm) has a reckless affair shortly after his marriage to Megan (Jessica Paré). It’s hardly unusual for Don to treat a woman badly, whether he’s breaking promises to run away with them or feeling them up in restaurants as a way to make a power play on their husbands. But Sylvia, more than most of Don’s affairs, seems to know what she’s getting into with him: The ugliness is part of the point.
Despite the nature of their relationship, Cardellini plays Sylvia with a dignity to match the gravitas Maggie Siff brought to the part of Rachel Menken, Don’s first affair in “Mad Men’s” first season.
Sylvia’s a mature woman, and she could have signaled Cardellini’s transition to a different kind of part. So it was exciting to see her jump back a life stage on “New Girl” to play Abby Day, a Chaos Muppet of an older sister to main character Jessica Day (Zooey Deschanel). Abby’s the kind of person who sows drama in the drunk tank she’s getting bailed out from, starts an ill-fated jewelry line and seduces one of Jessica’s roommates for the lulz.
In the hands of another actress, Abby would be an irksome, shallow tart. As Cardellini plays her, she’s a figure of great melancholy. The lines around Cardellini’s mouth when she smiles or frowns, present since her “Freaks and Geeks” days, have deepened. They come out when she sneaks a look at Jessica’s phone and finds a text asking if Abby’s ruined everything yet, and when she tells Jessica “If it’s any consolation, I’m a woman in my 30s about to get on a plane to go live with my mother.” If Lindsay Weir’s rebellion was building toward something more substantial, Abby’s bad behavior is a mask for her indecision and fear.
This spring, Cardellini pivoted again to play Meg Rayburn in “Bloodline,” a convoluted family drama from Netflix in which the sum of the parts add up to less than the whole. Cardellini, along with Ben Mendelsohn, who plays the venomous oldest Rayburn brother, Danny, are among the best parts.
Unlike both Lindsay Weir and Abby Day, Meg is the good daughter in Rayburn family who’s gotten lost in her own desire to please everyone else. She’s strung along her boyfriend for years, unable to make a decision about whether she wants to marry him, and serves as the executor of her father’s will, passively expressing the ideas she’s too anxious to say aloud. While Cardellini has tended to lend depth and humanity to the problems of everyday life, in “Bloodline,” her exploration of how goodness constrains women leads Meg into dangerous territory: By the end of the show, she’s helped her brother John (Kyle Chandler) cover up a terrible crime, an act she justifies as for the good of her family.
In “Age of Ultron,” Cardellini gets to play a woman who’s at peace. She’s the movie’s big surprise as Laura, the wife Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) has been concealing from his fellow superheroes. To a certain extent, she’s limited to a limited backup role: “I totally support your Avenging,” Laura tells Clint in a pep talk encouraging him to bring his colleagues together as a team.
But in a franchise full of tormented super-people, she’s a welcome spot of calm, and not just because she occupies a tastefully restored farmhouse where the Avengers come to hide out after a disastrous mission to South Africa. She loves her children, is close to her husband’s female best friend (Scarlett Johansson) and diagnoses the super-team’s dynamics with clarity and wisdom. Cardellini’s crow’s feet have gotten deeper. Most of the time we see her on screen, she’s visibly pregnant and wearing loose clothing in decided contrast to the male and female Avengers’ skin-hugging getups. Her confidence and calm, though, are hugely attractive.
I like to think that the Lindsay Weir who ran off to spend a summer following the Grateful Dead in the series finale of “Freaks and Geeks” would be using that big, weird brain of hers to do something other than soothe savage superheroes. But watching Laura’s calm amidst the frenetic violence all around her, I like to think Lindsay would have reached that same sense of certainty.