"It's hard to admit that it's really over," the actress tells EW of the Netflix dark comedy series. "The idea that it's taken so long for it to actually end and we're still talking about it feels good 'cause it's a hard experience to say goodbye to."
Saeed Adyani / Netflix Linda Cardellini on season 3 of 'Dead to Me'
In the final installment of the Liz Feldman series, Judy and her best friend Jen (Christina Applegate) came this close to being arrested for killing Judy's abusive ex-fiancé Steve (James Marsden), Jen was shocked to find out she's pregnant by Steve's twin brother Ben (Marsden, of course), and Judy finds out she has cancer. After initially hiding the diagnosis, she eventually confesses to Jen, who helps her through chemotherapy. But it doesn't work — or so Judy says. That's the thing with her: You never really knew if she was telling the truth. They end up driving to Mexico, where Judy decides to stay. To die? Or actually cured, to have a clean break and start over?
"Judy makes a lot of bad choices and she does them with the best intention," Cardellini reflects. "I decided early on that she's never really trying to lie, she's never really trying to manipulate somebody. And if she is, she's doing it for some greater good in her mind because more than anything she wants to be loved and she wants to be a good person."
Below, Cardellini looks back on Judy's journey, as well as her experience working with Applegate, who filmed most of the final season after receiving her MS diagnosis.
Saeed Adyani/Netflix Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini on season 3 of 'Dead to Me'
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How far in advance did Liz tell you about Judy's journey? Or did you find out as you were getting scripts?
LINDA CARDELLINI: [Laughs] The thing she had in store I basically knew in the middle of the second season. We were standing on set and she's like, "I think I know what's going to happen to Judy." And I was like, "Oh no, what is it?" And she told me, and there's part of that that's heartbreaking and you think, "Oh, wow, okay. How do we do that?" And it's heavy. She didn't tell me everything all at once…
And to do that within a comedy…
Yeah! But that's the thing about Dead to Me: It walks this line, and the thing I love about the show is how it discusses grief in a way that seems true to how it actually feels — you can be laughing one second and the next minute it hits you like a ton of bricks and you're crying. Everybody in the show is dealing with some form of grief, and I think grief is a really hard thing to work through in life. We all are faced with it. Nobody gets out of it without feeling it, and nobody gets out of this lifetime alive. So I think it's something that is worth talking about in a way that can make people laugh so that it's not so hard to digest sometimes. And then it also hits a really serious note.
These characters kept the audience on our toes for many reasons — they're unpredictable in so many ways. Did you feel that unpredictability in playing her?
Yes, in fact, I thought that was one of the greatest challenges. It's very challenging to play unpredictable because you can't really play that. [Laughs] You just have to be in the moment and make choices that are wrong. Judy makes a lot of bad choices and she does them with the best intention. She's always trying to serve somebody else. When I first read it, I wondered if she was self-serving, but I think it's more interesting if she's doing it for somebody else, if she's selfless. And so I decided early on that she's never really trying to lie, she's never really trying to manipulate somebody. And if she is, she's doing it for some greater good in her mind because more than anything she wants to be loved and she wants to be a good person. But this life is just coming at her and these circumstances are coming at her and she keeps making decisions that, if you were to write them down, she's somebody who's not really doing a good job at being a good person. That was a fun push and pull for her, and I think it's really rare. To have some kind of unpredictability in a show or in a character is really difficult. But some of my favorite shows and some of my favorite actors have that quality where you're not sure quite what you're going to get in any given moment.
To that point, you never know when she's telling the truth, and just when you think you have her figured out, you don't. But did all of you know the truth, or did you prefer not to know so that you weren't playing toward anything?
I like to know a lot, and then I like to come around it the other way. So it's like, if she's lying, then in my mind I pick the one thing that I'm telling the truth about and I completely ignore what everybody else is saying. Or I pick a truth to justify the lie, which is what some liars do; I think they stick to a piece of the truth and the rest is a fabrication, so that little kernel of truth can trick the person next to them. That's sort of how I approached it. When those moments come up, it then becomes less about what Judy's saying and more about how she's trying to make the person across from her feel. And I think she's always really trying to connect with people, so she's trying to find that moment where she sort of ingratiates herself enough to let them think that the idea is theirs. And I think that's maybe something that her mother has taught her — her mother is really a con woman, and I think regardless of how different she is from her mother or wants to be, she has some learned skills.
NETFLIX Linda Cardellini and Christina Applegate on season 3 of 'Dead to Me'
In the final season, was there a scene or moment that you recall being nervous or hesitant about nailing the tone and delivery of?
The one thing that sticks out in my mind — even in the table read, we had a hard time even saying it — was the scene where Christina and I said goodbye. It's not the last scene of the show, but it is our last scene together and there is a lot of truth in that goodbye. I knew how they wrote it. There's such a beautiful line in there where Judy says, "I've had the best time," and Jen goes, "Yeah, me too," and I say, "No, I've had the best time with you." That reminded me of all the goodbyes I wish I could have said, the people who I didn't know I would never see again. For Judy to get to have that goodbye is about the greatest gift she could ever have because she's been looking to fill this hole of this lost little girl. She has never felt truly loved, and the idea that she finally gets that and is able to say that to a person and leave, to me it encapsulates the beauty and the hardship of grief.
And then it was, in turn, the goodbye for us in that show after a very hard year. Sometimes when you're handed something that you feel is beautiful, you don't want to mess it up, so the idea that we were able to be there and really feel it and Liz kept it for the last day on set, it was truly one of those things that I wasn't necessarily nervous about it, but it meant a lot to me. And I think sometimes the things that mean a lot to you can make you feel vulnerable and slightly anxious.
Do you have any unfinished business with Judy or do you feel you feel good about where you left her?
[Laughs] Well, I was always joking with Liz that Judy just goes and meets her mom in San Francisco and then they do another long con somewhere else so that I can just continue to play Judy. I don't know when I'll get another character as delicious as that. She is so much fun to play and — I was speaking of being anxious — I was terrified to play her 'cause I hadn't really played anything like that. When somebody describes somebody as free-spirited, I mean, nothing's more terrifying than that 'cause, like, how do you portray somebody who's just free? It's not really about being free-spirited, it's about how this person makes choices. So to figure out how to do that and make it seem realistic and yet heightened, it was really, really fun. The whole project was really quite a fun journey in that way.
Knowing that Christina filmed this season following her MS diagnosis which affected her motor skills, what was it like for you to witness her working through those limitations and still being incredibly funny and biting and witty and just delivering in every way?
She just doesn't miss. She's so good and she's so funny. And no matter what she's going through, she delivers these incredible things. Watching somebody you care about deeply go through anything that's difficult is terrible. You just want to be able to help or take somebody's pain away. Everybody felt like all they wanted to do was support her in whatever choice she made, whatever way she felt. And it was really wonderful that we had created this village of people who truly cared about one another and that we could all support whatever anybody needed at any time. Her performance is so phenomenal. She's always phenomenal. She's got such an exquisite, rare talent, and I think there's just no stopping that.
When you look back on this experience, are there specific things that you learned that you're taking with you either in life or in work?
Oh, there's a lot. It was wonderful to have people who cared about each other when they were going through hard times. So that friendship you definitely take away, for sure. And, for the people who love Jen and Judy, they can't imagine them not with each other. That was really a wonderful gift to be given. I'm really grateful for the fans. [Laughs] It's really interesting: I got approached by somebody who nearly had tears in her eyes and she's like, "Judy!" and I thought, "Oh my God, she probably thinks I'm dead." She was so nice and it was so heartwarming, but it was almost like she was seeing a ghost. But it has been a really incredible experience and I think that those two characters were so well drawn. That's the first time I've had that kind of partnership with a woman and going sort of full force like that all of the time. It was really fun, and I think it gave me a lot of confidence in things that I had never been able to do before.
You said you worried that the fan thought Judy was dead and had seen a ghost — do you firmly feel that Judy is alive?
I feel like Judy is one of those people who, even if she did pass, there's some part of her that's still floating around. I don't know. And I hate to say because I don't want to ruin somebody else's interpretation. It is left ambiguous on purpose, and I don't want to ruin what Liz had in store. There are times when I really truly believe that she is gone. And those cranes are about the saddest thing I've ever seen, 'cause I didn't expect that when I was watching the show the first time. I don't love to watch myself, but I love to watch what other people do, the scenes that I wasn't in. So it was really fun to see the impression that Judy leaves with those cranes. Sometimes I think she's gone and sometimes I'd like to pretend she's on that boat to somewhere…finding somebody wonderful.