There’s a moment in the final episode of Dead to Me, Netflix’s dark comedy about best friends, murder, and a luxurious backyard pool, where a terminally ill Judy (Linda Cardellini) lies in bed alongside her partner in crime, Jen (Christina Applegate), and says, “I’ve had the best time.” To which Jen replies, “I know. Me too.” You’d have to be acutely dehydrated to not well up.
For Applegate, the tears flowed on that final day on set, and again when she revisited the memory last week during this interview. “It was knowing the journey the two of us had been on, not just as those characters, but as two dear friends and acting partners,” she said.
It’s hard not to look at that scene as another goodbye, with Applegate now saying she may leave behind acting on camera because of the challenges of living with multiple sclerosis. Nearly two years after her diagnosis (she found out she had MS while filming Dead to Me’s final season) and less than a week after a hospital stay, she looked back at the show’s final season, paying tribute not just to Cardellini but also to James Marsden, who played twins on the show, and the show’s creator, Liz Feldman. Excerpts from a conversation with an icon who’s utterly honest and zero-fucks-to-give-funny.
Vanity Fair: The final season of Dead to Me came out late last year but it’s back in the conversation because of the first Emmy-voting window. Does the show feel like a lifetime ago, or do you still think about Jen?
Christina Applegate: It feels like a hundred years ago at this point, just because it kind of was, and it was such a trying and taxing time for me to even film. So I think I just had to get away from it all, you know? I miss my friends. I miss Linda. I miss Liz. I miss James. I miss the experience of it, but at the same time, because it was such an incredible struggle this last year, I’m relieved that I no longer have to push so hard to get through my day.
How are you feeling today?
With the disease of MS, it’s never a good day. You just have little shitty days. People are like, “Well, why don’t you take more showers?” Well, because getting in the shower is frightening. You can fall, you can slip, your legs can buckle. Especially because I have a glass shower. It’s frightening to me to get in there. There are just certain things that people take for granted in their lives that I took for granted. Going down the stairs, carrying things—you can’t do that anymore. It fucking sucks. I can still drive my car short distances. I can bring up food to my kid. Up, never down.
Because MS affects your balance?
Yeah, and gravity can just pull you down and take everything down with you. So we have this little thing at the top of the stairs that we call “purgatory.” So if anyone’s done with anything upstairs, we put it in purgatory so one of my able friends can bring it downstairs.
You have a group of able friends who come by to help out?
No. I know that sounds like, “Yay!” But I actually don’t want to be around a lot of people because I’m immunocompromised. I have my friend who lives here during the week and she helps me take care of [12-year-old daughter] Sadie. And then on the weekend I have a caretaker. I also don’t want a lot of stimulation of the nervous system because it can be a little bit too much for me. I like to keep it as quiet and as mellow as possible.
Sometimes even the most well-meaning visitors…
It’s exhausting. Imagine just being in a crowd of people and how loud that is. It’s like 5,000 times louder for anyone who has lesions on their brains.
There are moments this season where we watch Linda’s character, Judy, battle a disease while knowing that in real life you are actually the person battling one. In one scene, Jen is looking in the mirror and talking to her reflection about troubling shadows on a scan. It felt very meta to watch. How was it to play those moments?
It was bizarre. Especially since the season was written over a year before this all was shot. So it was almost like a portent. None of us knew I was going to be sick and gain 40 pounds from medication and have immobility. It was really difficult to not have my own personal feelings shadow what Jen was feeling. A lot of the words were really difficult to say and a lot of the scenes were really difficult to do. I had to keep remembering that this is Judy’s disease. It was really hard to not take that on, especially when the words were so cathartic and so right-to-the-bone.
Were you and Linda always going to play Judy and Jen? No other actors were swirling around?
It was always the two of us. There was no one else. We met at lunch at Crossroads Kitchen with Liz and [executive producer] Jessica Elbaum. The second Linda walked in, I looked into her eyes, and I was like, Oh, we’re good. We didn’t talk about the show. We talked about family and anxiety and life and fear and pain and love and laughter. And the two of us—like the room went away the first time I met her. The room went away. Mm-hmm. So that’s where we started.
So there was always a connection between you.
Linda and I, from day one, were in love with each other and trusted each other and supported each other. It’s rare that you have an equal playing field and you get to play ping-pong instead of tennis. There’s a difference. Ping-pong is so much more fun when the other person is just as good as you are. I’m probably not going to work on-camera again, but I’m so glad that I went out with someone who is by far the greatest actress I’ve ever worked with in my entire life, if not the greatest human I’ve ever known.
You have said that you are Jen and Jen is you. Did you ever have a moment on this series where you told Liz you thought the character should go in another direction or act differently than what was written?
No, because I trusted Liz and our writing team so much. She’s so smart that I was like, Whatever you say, boss! Even to the point where, she told me between seasons one and two that Marsden was gonna come back as a twin. I was like, “You’re punking me. You’ve got to be punking me, right? This is a joke? This is April Fools? Wait, it’s not?” I think I even called Linda, and I was like, “Dude, what is up with the twin thing?” She was like, “Let’s just trust. It’s Liz.” And I was like, “Okay, I’ll trust it.” And I never said a thing to her about it. And you know what? That fucker made it work. In the hands of anyone else it would have failed miserably, but in Marsy Marsy’s hands, it was a believable Ben.
You also got to film scenes with your Married…with Children mom, Katey Sagal, this season, even though she plays Linda’s mother this time around. Did that feel like a real-full circle moment in your career?
Well, she’s still my Mommy and she always will be my Mommy. And she treats me as such even though I’m 51 and she is [insert A+ comedic timing here] 55. In the scene we’ve got to be pretty nasty to each other. And Katie and I love each other so immensely. She raised me, and that is not a flippant thing to say. I spent more time with Katey than I did with my own mom. So here we are doing this scene, and I’ve never been corrected more in my life. Liz was coming in and I could feel her getting frustrated because the scene wasn’t working. And finally she took me aside and she goes, “You guys are being too fucking nice to each other.”
Liz has talked about letting you and Linda improvise because you knew your characters so well. Do you have a favorite moment that made it in?
I’ve only seen bits and pieces of the show because it’s a little difficult for me to watch. The most fun was when the two of us knew that it was just going downhill and we would be like, “Please stop the cameras. We’re done.” I did text Linda the other day because I was in the hospital last week. I had some health issues. The TV didn’t play a lot of great stuff, but I was watching The Facts of Life by myself and we always had so many fun improvs about The Facts of Life. I texted Linda and said, “We had such a missed opportunity to talk about the Clooney years on Facts of Life.”
His mullet! She was like, “Oh my God, I wish we could go back and just do a whole run on Clooney!”
Do you have TV shows that are your comfort food right now?
Love Island UK and anything Below Deck. Um, and Ted Lasso, which is in my top two favorite shows of all time. The other one being Breaking Bad. That’s me. I am Walter White and Ted Lasso mixed together.
You were diagnosed with breast cancer while you were making Samantha Who? And you didn’t tell anyone on set for five weeks. Did that inform how you told Liz about your MS diagnosis?
I didn’t speak up for my boundaries back then. I should have asked for some more time after one of my surgeries. I went back to work two weeks after my reconstruction. And that was really difficult for me to do. And I should have asked for more time but the people that I was working for—not the showrunners, mind you, the people at the network—were not very sympathetic or empathetic human beings, to be honest with you. And I didn’t feel like I could have that voice to be like, “You know what, it’s only been two weeks, and I’m in a lot of pain and maybe we should just let me have a second.”
What made you speak up this time around?
I have friends who are actresses who have MS and they’ve said, “I wish someone had told me back at the beginning to say, ‘I need this. I need these boundaries.’” One of my friends has had it for 20 years. She’s an actress, and she hid it for 10 years and then pushed through and suffered because of it. She was like, “You need to tell them [what you need] now that you’ve let it out of the bag.” My girlfriend that I’m talking about is Jamie-Lynn Sigler.
It must help to have friends like Jamie-Lynn and Selma Blair who have navigated this industry while also navigating MS.
It’s impossible for anyone else to understand. And we know that. And we’re not trying to make people understand because they never will understand. But yes, it is imperative for me to have people who say, “It’s 80 degrees. What the fuck are we gonna do?” People don’t understand that heat makes us sicker. And the disease attacks different parts of our bodies. It can attack your organs, it can attack your digestive system. Hence why I sometimes have to end up in the hospital.
You recently called out Candace Owens on Twitter over a comment she made about a Skims ad featuring a woman in a wheelchair. How did it feel being in that position to have to school someone on the challenges of the MS community?
I had to say it because it’s crap. I know how hard I tried to get my bra on today and I was stuck. And thank God Skims, the beautiful company that has adaptive clothing for people, sent me the one that you can just put on like a vest and it has things in the front for you to clip. With the underwear, you can just pull it up one leg and clip it on the other. We sometimes sit on the toilet for an hour because we can’t get our pants on. It was sad that that person—whose name I don’t speak—took so much space in my fucking energy field.
Do you find yourself having to educate even the people who aren’t trying to be offensive?
Everyone’s like, ‘Why don’t you see if this works? Why don’t you go do this?’ And I’m like, because I’d rather just lie in my bed and be alone and watch TV, to be honest with everybody. “Why don’t you get up and exercise? Why don’t you get on the treadmill for five minutes?” It’s like, why don’t you fuck off? I’d rather just lie here and cry or do whatever I need to do right now to process this.
You’re such a gifted comedic actress, from Anchorman to The Sweetest Thing to Samantha Who? Even at a young age, you made Kelly Bundy on Married…with Children an iconic character. And yet, it seemed like people weren’t talking about your talent, only your looks. Was it frustrating to have to constantly remind people that it took skill to act like Kelly Bundy when they just wanted to talk about how hot Kelly was?
Yeah, totally. I was never on the receiving end of any kind of lasciviousness from anyone before [Married…with Children] because I was wearing bells around my ankles and moccasins and wearing patchouli. I was a gross little hippie kid. Looking back on it in hindsight, it’s pretty gross. Yeah, that part of it kind of sucked. Men had posters of this little 17-year-old, with me holding pearls. Like, who let me do that? I didn’t even know what the connotation was.
I imagine when you left the show, your agent got billions of offers for you to play another version of Kelly.
Billions. Billions. I never took one of them. I would audition for stuff and people would be like, “Oh my god, she gave the best audition of anyone, but it’s Christina, and we can’t have that name associated with this masterpiece.” That happened more times than you can even imagine.
Is it true you were up for Rose in Titanic?
No. Who said that?
Oh, you know, the always factually correct internet.
That would not have come across my desk, if I had a desk.
Were there shows or movies of yours you couldn’t wait to show your daughter?
Well, she loves Dead to Me. She’s seen Don’t Tell Mom [The Babysitter’s Dead]. She’s seen Anchorman. And she follows this thing on TikTok which is like memes or GIFs or videos of me constantly. So she’s very proud of her mom.
Was there anything you did get offered that you wish you hadn’t turned down?
I wouldn’t toy with the idea of Legally Blonde because it felt too fresh getting out of Married…With Children. It was very similar on paper. I started to read it and I remember calling them and going, “Oh, it’s too similar. Can’t do it.” Um, big fucking mistake. I’d have Witherspoon money! No, just kidding. You can’t imagine anyone playing Elle Woods other than Reese Witherspoon. I would have completely screwed it up.
You mentioned that Dead to Me may be your last time acting on camera. Do you think about your future in the industry or have you back-burnered that for the time being?
I can’t even imagine going to set right now. This is a progressive disease. I don’t know if I’m going to get worse. I can do voiceover stuff because I have to support my family and keep my brain working.
Last year you were attached to an animated Married…With Children. Is that still happening and is the premise about the Bundys 30 years later?
I can’t really say much, but all I know is that all four of us are attached to it. It’s not in our hands now, so we’re just kind of waiting.
Do you think you’ll ever sit down and watch season three of Dead to Me?
I will. It’s just that sometimes I get cringey about the way I look. It’s so hard to look at myself as this other person and I don’t look like myself anymore, obviously. And it’s really, really hard for me because so much of my life was my image and then I see this person and I’m like, Who is this person with 20 chins? To be really brutally honest, that’s kind of what’s really hard about it for me to watch.
You were nominated for Emmys for seasons one and two of Dead to Me. How does it feel thinking about going to the awards show if you’re nominated?
I’ll get my [Christian] Siriano to make me something because he’s so good with women with curves. I’ll have my Neo-Walk stick. Well, I have a custom one coming out that’s going to have my name on it and it’ll say “Fuck you MS.” It’s going to look kind of groovy and cool and it’ll probably light up and the proceeds are going to go to MS charities.
When’s that coming out?
I don’t know so I probably shouldn’t have said anything about it. But, yeah, of course I’d be honored to be there and if I’m not, cool, then I’ll watch. Well, no, I probably won’t watch, not for any other reason than I’ll probably be watching Love Island UK.
Source: Vanity Fair