“Movies are sprints,” says actress Linda Cardellini. “TV series are marathons.”
She should know. At age 40 Cardellini has had long runs on the small screen (“Freaks and Geeks,” “E.R.,” “Mad Men” and Netflix’s “Bloodlines,” about a Florida family whose members include a cop, a lawyer and a career criminal).
She’s also a familiar face at the cineplex (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Welcome to Me” with Kristen Wiig, and “Scooby-Doo” in which she played the turtlenecked Velma).
This holiday season she stars in the comedy “Daddy’s Home” as a woman torn between her second husband, a schleppy good guy (Will Ferrell), and her first husband, a roguish charmer (Mark Wahlberg) who wants to reclaim his family.
“As an actor you have to approach TV and movies a bit differently,” she said. “With a movie you have a script, you know how it turns out, you know the arc your character must take over a couple of hours, and you mold your performance to carry the audience to that final point.”
An actor in a movie may introduce elements that will pay off later, Cardellini said in a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles.
“But a TV series is open-ended. Often you have no idea what fate the writers will come up with for your character. So in many ways it’s more demanding,” she said.
“For starters, after a certain number of episodes you have to make sure you’re not falling back into habits. You’ve got to find ways to keep it fresh while remaining true to the character, which is always evolving.
“In the first season of ‘Bloodlines’ I had a scene in the third episode that only pays off in the 12th episode. When I played the third episode, the 12th hadn’t even been written.
“So with television you are concentrating on the character rather than the story. You have to trust the producers and writers implicitly, give them a fully rounded character to work with.
“And even then there’s a lot of flexibility. It’s fun to take a scene and play it several different ways, believing that they’ll pick the best take for both the story and your character.”
Turning to “Daddy’s Home,” Cardellini said that just because a film is a comedy, she doesn’t try too hard to be funny.
“If your character is real, the comedy will spring from your interaction with other characters,” she said. “That’s especially true when you’re sharing the screen with Will Ferrell. He’s got enough comedy to lift everybody’s game.”
The challenge for Cardellini was to make the audience believe that she could love both men in different ways.
“The first husband was too wild, and she made a choice for a more stable relationship with a guy who really loves her kids and will stick around,” she said. “But at the same time she can’t deny that she’s still attracted to the first guy.”
Cardellini said she was all too aware that happy sets can result in bad movies and that miserable sets can produce masterpieces.
“In the case of ‘Daddy’s Home,’ it was a very happy set that produced a very happy movie. I was so excited when I finally saw the film, because I walked out feeling better than I did walking in,” she said. “That’s a rare thing for sure when you’re an actor — you give up lots of control to the director, the editors — but also because making the audience feel good is so satisfying. I like knowing that a movie I was in made Christmas a little better for the audience.”
Read more of freelance critic Robert W. Butler’s features and reviews at ButlersCinemaScene.com.