In the biographical drama “The Founder” directed by John Lee Hancock (“Saving Mr. Banks”), actress Linda Cardellini (“Avengers: Age of Ultron”) stars as Joan Smith, the wife of a McDonald’s franchisee, who would later go on to marry McDonald’s Corp. founder Ray Kroc (played in the film by Michael Keaton).
During an interview with me last week, Cardellini, 41, who has starred in a number of films over her 20-year career including “Scooby-Doo,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Daddy’s Home,” talked about Joan’s philanthropic achievements, how she is still obsessed with learning more about the Krocs and what it was like working with Keaton.
I’m sure you know the saying, “Behind every great man is a great woman.” Was that the case with Ray and Joan Kroc?
I think so! I think we can credit her a lot for helping him achieve what he achieved. You only see a glimpse of it in the film, but they had a love story all the way until his death. When he died, he left her his fortune and she went on to take that [money] do a lot of things [for charities] that I don’t think were necessarily Ray’s championed charities. She went on to give a lot of money to them.
Yeah, she went on to do some wonderful work as a philanthropist. Of that work, what stands out to you as the most impactful?
The interesting thing about her is that she did a lot of it under anonymity. I mean, there were certain giant, landmark donations that she gave like the Salvation Army. She created the Institute for Peace [and Justice]. She also gave a lot [of money] to National Public Radio. I like to listen to National Public Radio a lot. (Laughs) She did a lot of wonderful things and would help people whenever she could. She didn’t want the credit for it, which I think is funny because Ray, on the other hand, in the movie, would take credit for ideas and things that weren’t his.
Do you think Joan and Ray would be happy with yours and Michael’s portrayal of them in the film? I mean, your character is one thing, but Michael’s Ray is not very likeable in some instances.
Right. I don’t know. I think that’s always a tricky thing about doing true stories. You can never please everybody. But I do think it is a fascinating look at something you truly don’t know the story about. When I watch [“The Founder”], I feel more for the McDonald’s brothers than I do for Ray, of course. I think that’s sort of the wonderful thing about the story—you get to learn about people whose innovation and ideas led to what we all know today.
What kind of research did you do for this role and was there anything specific you were surprised to learn about Joan or her relationship with Ray?
You know, I did as much research as I could find. I’m still a bit obsessed with it. There’s a new book that came out that I’ve been reading that is about the two of them (Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away). It’s all surprising. [Their story] plays out like this very glamorous relationship. They compared it to [the relationship between] Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. They had a very tumultuous but very loving relationship, which I didn’t totally realize. We didn’t get into that [in “The Founder”]. That came in the latter part [of their relationship]. The thing that is most revealing to me is her charity and her sense of generosity and what she decided to do with her fortune. It was really impressive.
Joan, of course, passed away about 14 years ago. If you had the opportunity to ask her a question, what would you have wanted to know?
I would’ve loved to know what it was that drove the two of them together and made their relationship last. I think everybody is sort of looking for that thing that keeps people together. I think it’s really interesting to understand how people keep it together.
What was your experience like working opposite Michael Keaton during a time many people consider a comeback for him after his Oscar-nominated role in “Birdman” two years ago?
I never worked with him before, but I always wanted to. For me it was a great joy. I love to watch him. He’s one of those actors who is entirely unpredictable. You sit on the edge of your seat wondering how his character is will react to things. I think that is a very fun quality that not a lot of people have. People can be predictable. He manages not to be. He’s fantastic to work with. He’s a nice, funny, smart and kind person.
Be honest. When was the last time you went through a McDonald’s drive-thru and what did you order?
(Laughs) It wasn’t that long ago. I know I shouldn’t. But I always get a plain cheeseburger. So, it’s not that bad. (Laughs) Well, it’s not that good either. It’s OK every once in a while.