Even with MS, Christina Applegate wraps 'Dead to Me' with help from her loving co-star
By Lisa Rosen,
The dark comedy “Dead to Me,” which completed its third and final season on Netflix, is a riot of heartbreak, comedy, mayhem and wild plot twists. Star Christina Applegate can relate all too well.
She plays real estate agent Jen Harding, prickly on her best days, and raging with grief after the death of her husband. Jen’s path crosses that of Linda Cardellini’s Judy Hale, a free-spirited artist who’s holding her own pain, along with one hell of a secret. Themes of friendship and loss play out in unexpectedly personal ways from the moment the two women meet.
That could also describe the actors' relationship. “I cry when I talk about Linda because I love her so much,” says Applegate, speaking by phone from her Los Angeles home. “The next person who gets to work with her, I hope they realize how incredibly lucky they are, because not only is she an incredible human but she’s a divine artist and is right there, present for you, no matter what.”
In the middle of shooting the show’s last season in 2021, Applegate began having leg pain and tremors. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. After a break in filming to absorb the news and begin treatment, she insisted on returning to complete the series. The actor, who’s been working practically since birth, had to rely on others as never before, letting the production know what she could and couldn’t do. “They were incredible,” she says of the crew, led by creator and showrunner Liz Feldman, whom she calls “Jen and Judy combined into a human, in the most perfect and beautiful way possible.”
Applegate notes she has never worked harder on a job. “I was a wreck every day, but most of that wreck would take place in my trailer by myself. But there were times I’d break down on set and be like, ‘I can’t, we have to take a break, I need a half-hour,’ and everyone was so loving that it was OK.”
Despite the difficulties, she was buoyed by moments on set with Cardellini, and scenes between the two of them took on added resonance. “There is really never a moment when Judy and Jen are talking to each other that it wasn’t Linda and Christina talking to each other,” Applegate says. “The set disappeared, everyone kind of disappeared, and it was the two of us as best friends, supporting each other, loving each other and saying goodbye to each other. I’d like to say there was skill involved, but really, Linda and I just disappeared.”
She explains that throughout the series, the two have held each other up during rough periods in their lives. This last season, “She literally pulled me under her wing and protected me, and took care of me every single day,” Applegate says. “Also the tables were turned: Jen is taking care of her friend who’s dying, yet Linda was taking care of me as I was saying goodbye to the person that I’d always known — so part of me was dying.”
With comedic timing honed over four decades, Applegate then turns on a dime: “But no, it’s skill, because I’m nominated for a SAG Award, it’s skill! Skill! Technique! Skill!” she shouts, before dissolving into laughter. (She’s been nominated for female actor in a comedy series three times in a row for “Dead to Me.”) “Please put ‘ha ha’ after ‘skill,’ because I don’t want people to think I’m sitting here tooting my own horn. It’s a joke.”
She joined the Screen Actors Guild in 1975; this is her sixth nod. “When you go to that particular event, it’s all your people — you don’t have anybody but the actors there. And despite the reputation actors have, everyone is really lovely.” Her daughter Sadie will be her date, mostly because the 12-year-old hopes to meet her idol, Natasha Lyonne.
“It’s my last awards show as an actor probably, so it’s kind of a big deal,” Applegate says. “Right now, I couldn’t imagine getting up at 5 a.m. and spending 12 to 14 hours on a set; I don’t have that in me at this moment.” She’s considering next steps: producing, development, “doing a s— ton of voice-overs to make some cash to make sure that my daughter’s fed and we’re homed.” And she spends a lot of time in bed, bingeing all the reality shows she’s never seen.
But it took months before she could watch her own show’s last season. “I don’t like seeing myself struggling,” she says. “Also, I gained 40 pounds because of inactivity and medications, and I didn’t look like myself, and I didn’t feel like myself.” She watched alone, stopping periodically when it became too painful. “At some point I was able to distance myself from my own ego, and realize what a beautiful piece of television it was. All the scenes I wasn’t in were so much fun to see and experience for the very first time.”
If Jen Harding is, indeed, Applegate's last role, it’s a masterful way to go out — a culmination of all her experience, hard work, love, commitment and, yes, skill. No joke.
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