Linda Cardellini's lengthy acting career veers more toward popular fare than high art. To movie fans she's best known for her role as nerdy Velma in the Scooby-Doo movies; TV fans remember her as Lindsay Weir in Judd Apatow's short-lived, cult favorite series "Freaks and Geeks."
But Cardellini wants to be recognized for her most recent work, playing a military veteran in the indie film "Return." With no money available for an awards push on her behalf, Cardellini is launching her own campaign, a somewhat risky and costly proposition executed with the hopes of drawing more attention to both the movie and her performance. Call it do-it-yourself awards campaigning.
"It was an actor's dream," said Cardellini of her star turn in the movie, which costars "Revolutionary Road's" Michael Shannon and "Mad Men's" John Slattery. "They don't come around that often. They certainly don't come around that often for me. I decided it would be a shame to not even throw our hat into the ring. For us, it's just about more people seeing the movie."
"Return," which opened in a few theaters in February, had the potential of being a career-making turn for Cardellini, playing a war-torn vet who has trouble adjusting to home life after returning from a tour of duty. The actress appears in every frame of the film, often with no makeup on. The film garnered high praise, specifically for Cardellini's performance. Slate's Dana Stevens called the role "big, prickly, demanding" and wrote it was "thrilling to watch [Cardellini] operate at full throttle," and Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum said, Cardellini "conveys dislocation with eloquent silence, sometimes just in how she looks at a TV screen."
The film was made on a shoestring budget. Cardellini was paid scale for her 21 days of work, even though she prepped for the role for a year before writer-director Liza Johnson rolled the cameras. It's grossed only $16,000 in theaters, but according to distributor Focus World the film has turned profitable from its video-on-demand run, which ramped up this past week in honor of Veterans Day.
Still, there was no money available for an awards season push.
So Cardellini, with help from a few of the film's producers, is launching one herself. Cardellini is making DVDs and distributing "Return" to all 2,200 members of the SAG nominating committee plus additional screeners for the director, producer and actors branches of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, an endeavor that can cost upward of $10,000 according to two Oscar campaigners with knowledge of the process.
"This is not necessarily about an award. That's a hard baton to grasp," added Cardellini. "In the past few years there have been movies that have been very small that I never would have seen: 'Pariah,' 'A Better Life,' 'A Separation,' had it not been for DVD screeners that people got for free and then talked about because they were worth talking about. It felt like that was where our movie could be seen and appreciated."
Johnson, a first-time filmmaker, chose Cardellini for the role because she believed the actress' outwardly warm demeanor could successfully transform into an inward-looking character. The two worked closely for over a year while Johnson was trying to secure financing, visiting Johnson's small hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio — a town similar to the blue-collar location of the film, speaking to veterans, and meeting with an Army psychologist.
Johnson commends Cardellini for taking a gamble on both the role and her own awards push.
"She's a very brave person. She's very consequented. And I think she just made an assessment that it's better for her if people in her industry see her big achievement than if they don't," said Johnson, filming "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" in New Orleans with Kristen Wiig and Guy Pearce. "I don't think it's an act of hubris or self-promotion. It's a smart business decision. That's how the people who will hire her next are going to see the film."
Cardellini isn't the first actress to engage in a self-promotional Oscar campaign. Others have done it, to various degrees of success.
In February, Jodie Foster sent a copy of her film "The Beaver," which she directed and starred in, to the entire academy membership. The screeners arrived after the nominations for the event had already been announced, and the Mel Gibson-starred film failed to earn recognition.
Still, Foster said in a letter to the members that even though her distributor Summit Entertainment declined to mount a campaign for the film, she wanted her peers to see it.
"My motivation is simple," said Foster in the letter. "I love this movie. I am so proud of all of the actors' performances.... It was too sad for me to watch something I love this deeply disappear without being seen by my own community."
A year earlier Oscar nominee Melissa Leo mounted her own ad campaign in Hollywood's trade papers complete with glammed-up photos of the actress adorned in faux fur and the word "Consider" at the top of the page for her role in David O. Russell's "The Fighter." The ads were widely ridiculed within Hollywood, but they didn't prevent the 52-year-old actress from nabbing a statue on awards night.
Cardellini will not attach a personal letter to her DVDs and she has no plans to purchase ads promoting the film.
"Why not?" asks veteran Oscar strategist Tony Angellotti of Cardellini's effort. "Used as an industry calling card, it's far more effective than a reel, head shot or ad in the trades, reaching out directly to those who might work with her on a future project. And you know what, as a member myself, I often find myself watching some of these left-field screeners, and many have been pretty terrific."
Still, Cardellini was initially apprehensive about underwriting her own promotional effort.
"An Oscar is so far away, that if it happened, it would be kind of unbelievable," said Cardellini. "As long as I didn't think of this [as an attempt to win an Oscar] I felt OK about that. For me, for Liza, for the other actors and the crew to be seen for the work that they did, that's a great thing. At worse, more people have seen the movie, and that, to me, is wonderful."