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Emmys 2013: Linda Cardellini on ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ and More

Emmy nominee Linda Cardellini chats about her turn as the saucy Sylvia Rosen on ‘Mad Men,’ and more.

Amy Sussman/Invision/AP

Linda Cardellini has played some interesting characters, to say the least.

There was the bespectacled Velma in the live-action Scooby-Doo films; Sam Taggart, a nurse, single mom, and recovering alcoholic, on the NBC television series ER, a floozy waitress who has a fling with Heath Ledger’s character in Brokeback Mountain, the list goes on. Cardellini’s probably best known for playing Lindsay Weir, the good girl turned burnout, on the short-lived TV show Freaks and Geeks.

For her turn as Sylvia Rosen, the reluctant mistress to suave ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) during the sixth season of AMC’s Mad Men, Cardellini received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, the actress remembers Sylvia’s most memorable moments, from getting walked in on by Sally Draper to her S&M scene with Don, and how the role of Sylvia brought her back to her home-wrecking days on Boy Meets World.

How were you cast as Sylvia Rosen on Mad Men?

I was asked to come in and audition for Matt [Weiner]. I had just taken time off before having a baby, and then I had the baby, and then took a little time off after, so I really wasn’t sure what I’d do next. The last thing I’d done was this movie called Return, and then this came up, and I thought it would be a really interesting move since it was so different. The audition was a bit nerve-racking because I didn’t know what character I was to play or whom I was to be playing against. I usually like to do a lot of research for parts, so to go into a situation without much context was tough, like a cold reading. Matt had me do a scene in about 40 different ways, and when I left I felt like I’d done some acting acrobatics. The whole thing was an exercise in trust, and if you’re going to trust anybody in television, it might as well be Matt Weiner.

Don is Don, so of course all women love him, but why does Sylvia keep going back to him?

There’s a physical element that she enjoys—a sexual element—since he can press all the right buttons, and on the other hand, she has a husband who is out doing all these great things as a doctor but he’s not home a lot, and her son just left, so she’s home alone and feels a little lonely and less needed than she normally does. She and Don have this amazing sexual relationship, but when she tells him, “I pray for you that you’ll find peace,” I think there’s a part of her that feels needed by him in some philosophical way.

And how much of it has to do with Sylvia’s Catholicism? The dangling crucifix around her neck seems to serve as pretty overt symbolism, and she’s married to a Jew.

I think it’s something that’s real for her, and she’s never done what’s expected of her. She’s a Catholic woman who probably got married in the early ’50s to a Jewish doctor and had only one child—I’m Catholic, and most women have lots of kids—and so I think she has a rebellious streak. And like Don, I think she often thinks of herself before she thinks of the damage she inflicts on others. She’s in the moment, and she’s pleasing herself. There’s a duality with religion. It’s like when you see mafiosos and they have the cross around their neck and they’re going to church, or all the people with crucifix tattoos who aren’t necessarily doing what they should be doing.

Sylvia’s big scene, and one of the biggest of Season 6, is when Sally walks in on Sylvia and Don.

It’s very intimate, and then it’s shocking, and then she has this volatile reaction about it that’s a mix of horror, grief, and anger at herself. It was one of the toughest moments I had on set. I think we nailed it in about three or four takes, but it was very late at night.

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Have you ever walked in on anyone?

[Laughs] Not in a situation like that where it’s one of your parents in a compromising situation. It’s bad enough when you see one of your parents naked by accident.

[Laughs] That is bad. Sylvia was also bound to a bed by Don. Shades of Fifty Shades, there. It’s sort of the moment where the relationship really goes south, and Don transforms into Dom.

It’s an interesting turn for her character because now there’s another level of her illicit relationship to contend with. When she’s left alone in the hotel room, she’s left to her own mind and maybe it’s her guilt that eats her up or her love of her husband, but whatever Don has done has made her change her mind about what she’s doing. But she’s still there willingly.

Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey?

No, I haven’t!

Probably saving yourself some time there. So I read that your first TV appearance was on The Price Is Right?

It was! I won a fireplace. I’ve saved it all these years, and I always wanted to put a plaque on it that said “Linda’s First Appearance on Television: The Price Is Right,” and my friend actually got me the plaque for my birthday this year. Then, when I told my mom I got nominated for an Emmy, she said, “Well, you better dust off that fireplace in case you win so you can put it on top of the mantle!”

That would really take it full circle. You know, I found your role on Mad Men as “the other woman” to be sort of a full-circle moment, because one of the first times I remember seeing you on TV was on Boy Meets World. You were the girl who came between Cory and Topanga.

The first time I ever experienced someone hating something I did on television was on Boy Meets World. I remember these kids coming up to me and calling me a “home-wrecker,” and so I had flashes of that going into my role on Mad Men. I was like, “Are people really going to hate Sylvia because of what she does to Don?” I thought the reactions would be much more vehement, but the reaction is pretty mixed about her.

Those Boy Meets World fans don’t mess around.

Kids! They were mad. And I was like, “Why don’t they blame Cory? Why are they blaming me?”

I have this fantasy that when the cameras stop rolling on Mad Men, the entire cast hits the bottle … hard. Are there any martini glasses clinking when filming is done?

You know, I was a breastfeeding mom when I was doing the show, so I wouldn’t be involved in any of that. But it’s a wonderful set and in between takes people are laughing and having a great time.

Fantasy ruined! Just kidding. I’m also a big Freaks and Geeks fan. How crazy is it that so many famous actors came from that show?

It’s so great. Working with all those people at that time, everyone was so talented, so it’s fitting that everyone is so successful now.

Was there a lot of weed smoking going down on set with Seth [Rogen] or any of the other guys?

Well, Seth has amazing parents, and his mom was on set a lot. He was only 17, so he had to have his parents on set, since he was underage. There were actually a lot of parents on set since so much of the cast was underage.

Do you still have Lindsay’s green army jacket?

I do!

Where do you keep it?

I can’t tell you! [Laughs]