Christina Applegate pours one out for ‘Dead to Me’
By Alexis Soloski
When Christina Applegate looks back, she can recognize the signs. Filming a dance sequence during the first season of the Netflix wine-mom dramedy “Dead to Me,” she found herself off balance. Later, her tennis game began to falter. At the time, Applegate, an actress with an aversion to special pleading, didn’t make excuses. She had to work harder, she told herself. She had to try again.
“I wish I had paid attention,” she said during a recent video call from her home in Los Angeles. “But who was I to know?”
Over several years, the tingling and numbness in her extremities grew worse. And in the summer of 2021, on set for the third and final season of “Dead to Me,” she received a diagnosis. She had multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that disrupts communication between the brain and body. Production shut down for about five months as she began treatment.
“There was the sense of, ‘Well, let’s get her some medicine so she can get better,’” Applegate, 50, recalled. “And there is no better. But it was good for me. I needed to process my loss of my life, my loss of that part of me. So I needed that time.”
“Although it’s not like I came on the other side of it, like, ‘Woohoo, I’m totally fine,’” she added. “Acceptance? No. I’m never going to accept this. I’m pissed.”
This was on a recent morning. Applegate was sitting up in bed — her happy place, where she watches reality television. (“That’s my meditation,” she said.) She had pulled her hair into a scrappy bun. Black glasses sat astride her nose. And her resting face did have a certain indignant quality.
But she wanted to do this interview, because the last season of “Dead to Me” arrives on Netflix later this month, on Nov. 17.
“This is the first time anyone’s going to see me the way I am,” she said. “I put on 40 pounds; I can’t walk without a cane. I want people to know that I am very aware of all of that.”
In truth, her illness is nearly invisible on-screen — a feat of savvy blocking and Applegate’s talent and resolve. Still, she wanted to offer context.
Applegate has been acting since infancy. Growing up in Los Angeles as the daughter of an actress, she joined the Screen Actors Guild in kindergarten and has rarely been off-screen since. After appearing in commercials and soaps as a child, Applegate broke out as a teenage sexpot on the long-running Fox sitcom “Married With Children,” then won an Emmy for her work on “Friends.” Other starring roles included the sitcoms “Up All Night” and “Samantha Who?” as well as the “Anchorman” movies. If her beachy looks sometimes disguised her craft, that craft has always been there, as has her ethos, a sparky combination of spiky, dizzy and no-nonsense.
Adam McKay, an executive producer on “Dead to Me,” recalled casting her in “Anchorman.” Her character, Veronica, had to one-up the men around her. “That was not going to be a problem with her,” McKay said in an interview. “She was also a great hang — funny as hell and got the joke.”
Still, she was not an obvious choice for “Dead to Me,” a high-stakes, high-drama half-hour in which a character might move from tears to laughter to rage in a single scene, all with a heavy pour of wine in hand. But Liz Feldman, the series’ creator, had a hunch that Applegate could play Jen, a tough-as-acrylic-nails real estate agent grieving the loss of her husband.
“People ask me how I found such a specific tone,” Feldman wrote in an email. “The answer is I found Christina. The raw humanity, authenticity and depth of feeling that she brought to the role surprised me and in some ways, even surprised her.”
So that hunch worked out. Applegate earned an Emmy nomination for each of the show’s first two seasons. Another happy surprise? The bond that she developed with her co-star, Linda Cardellini, who plays the dreamy Judy, the lace to Jen’s leather — a friendship that both women describe as instantaneous and profound.
“I just had the immediate feeling that we were going have each other’s backs,” Cardellini said in an interview, recalling their first meeting. “Jen and Judy support each other, love each other, help each other through things. Linda and Christina, the same thing.”
There had been conversations about whether the shoot should resume at all after the pause, but Applegate insisted on it. “I had an obligation to Liz and to Linda, to our story,” she said. “The powers that be were like, ‘Let’s just stop. We don’t need to finish it. Let’s put a few episodes together.’ I said, ‘No. We’re going to do it, but we’re going to do it on my terms.’”
Defining those terms was difficult at first, because Applegate was still discovering her own limitations and because she prides herself on self-sufficiency, on never asking a crew member for something she could get, do or find herself.
“No one would ever call her a diva; no one would ever call her high maintenance,” McKay said. “She’s no pushover, but that’s not her thing.”
Now she found that she couldn’t work as hard or as long or in heat without her body giving out. She struggled walking down the stairs of her trailer. A wheelchair took her to set. During some scenes, Mitch B. Cohn, a sound technician and longtime friend, would be on the floor, out of the camera’s range, holding up her legs. Some days she couldn’t come to work at all.
Applegate said that finishing the series was the hardest thing that she has ever done. But the shoot had moments of grace, too. She couldn’t fall apart on set, at least not until a scene required it. And the love and support of the crew cheered her.
Besides, she wanted to make sure that the story received the send-off it deserved, even though she doesn’t think she will ever watch this season. She finds it too painful. She worries about what viewers will think of it, but only up to a point.
“If people hate it, if people love it, if all they can concentrate on is, ‘Ooh, look at the cripple,’ that’s not up to me,” she said. “I’m sure that people are going to be, like, ‘I can’t get past it.’”
“Fine, don’t get past it, then,” she continued. “But hopefully people can get past it and just enjoy the ride and say goodbye to these two girls.”