It’s rare to find a televised female friendship that can deal with dead husbands, car crashes and other wild plot twists the way Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini’s “Dead to Me” characters do. Through years of filming the tragicomedy, the two actors learned to deeply trust each other. When Applegate was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while filming the last season, their bond only intensified.
In this episode of “The Envelope,” Applegate and Cardellini laugh, sob, describe why they love each other and ponder the possibility of working together again. They also discuss the importance of flawed-mom characters and recall how they were allowed to improvise lines until things got way too weird. Listen now wherever you get your podcasts.
Yvonne Villarreal: Hello, and welcome to “The Envelope,” where we bring you in-depth conversations with the creative talents behind your favorite shows and movies. I’m one of your hosts, Yvonne Villarreal.
Mark Olsen: And I’m your other host, Mark Olsen. Who did you talk with this week, Yvonne?
Villarreal: Oh, Mark, I’m warning you now, get your tissues ready. I spoke with the two women behind my favorite will they/won’t they get caught friendship: I’m talking about “Dead to Me’s” Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini.
Both women have memorably graced our screens separately. Christina, of course, is known for projects like “Married … With Children,” “The Sweetest Thing” and “Anchorman,” while Linda, of course, has starred in “Freaks and Geeks,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Scooby-Doo.” With Netflix’s dark comedy, they both have been nominated for Emmys for their performances as two women who strike an unlikely friendship.
Christina plays Jen Harding, a recent widow, and Linda plays Judy Hale, the woman who accidentally killed Jen’s husband in a hit-and-run. They meet in group therapy and become fast friends who then navigate the chaotic aftermath in a way only two besties can. The recent third season was the show’s last, and as anyone who watched it can tell you, it was an emotional and hilarious ride to the end — just like my conversation with them.
Olsen: Yvonne, I had no idea that was the actual storyline of that show.
Villarreal: It’s a weird meet-cute for a friendship, but somehow they make it work.
Olsen: I can only imagine. Now, the show itself dives head on into dealing with grief, on top of Christina herself facing an MS [multiple sclerosis] diagnosis while filming this season.
Villarreal: It was very powerful to hear their experiences while filming. “Dead to Me” may be ending, but the BFF era of Christina and Linda remains in full effect with the genuine love and support they give each other, which was very clear in our conversation. So let’s get into it.
Villarreal: It’s been some time since the final season of “Dead to Me” wrapped, and audiences have said goodbye to the story, but how has it been for you to move on from your characters? Linda, why don’t we start with you?
Applegate: Yeah, always start with Linda.
Cardellini: I miss it. I miss her, and it’s really nice to have an opportunity to talk about it. But I miss seeing everybody every day, all our friends. There was something so special about the show and the characters we played and the friendships we had. So I do miss it, but I’m so happy to revisit it with everybody today, really.
Applegate: Yeah, I needed the break, so for me, at first it was a good relief to just breathe and kind of focus on what had just happened. But I miss Linda so much it’s crazy. I don’t even know what to tell you.
Villarreal: I was going to say, does it feel any more different or jarring from finishing other projects?
Applegate: Absolutely. For me, absolutely. She’s like my best friend.
Cardellini: Well, and also I think we had a long time together too. It was like going to school and then having summer break and then getting back to school and seeing, you know, being with everybody again. But we had a beautiful thing. That’s the good news. Like to leave something and to have had such a beautiful experience. And the last season, it was tough, but I think we’re all so proud of it too.
Christina Applegate was honored with the 2023 Variety TV Fest Legacy Award on June 7, 2023 by Variety and was presented by her Samantha Who? TV mom, Jean Smart! The photo gallery was updated with 14 HQ photos of Christina Applegate from the red carpet and inside receiving her award.
Christina Applegate was very intentional about who stood at the podium last November when she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Watching from the crowd with her husband and daughter at her side, Applegate heard remarks from her other family — “Married… With Children” co-stars Katey Sagal and David Faustino, and her “Dead to Me” support system, co-star Linda Cardellini and creator/writer Liz Feldman.
For Applegate, the foursome represents the full breadth of her 40-year career in Hollywood.
“There was no mistake as to who I asked to speak, kind of my beginning and my…,” she hesitates for the moment, editing her thoughts in real time, before she continues, “…my possible end. That was really important to me. It was about where I came from and where I landed.”
She chooses those words carefully — “possible end.” It’s an acknowledgment that her 2021 multiple sclerosis diagnosis has left her future as an actress uncertain. But in the same breath, she isn’t resigned to it.
Just like those words, Applegate has carefully curated her four-decade career in film and television, for which she will be honored with the TV Legacy Award at the Variety TV Fest on June 7.
But if you ask her to pinpoint an early project that set the tone for all that followed, she can’t do it. That’s because the project that encapsulates everything she wants in a character is “Dead to Me,” the one she puts the “possible end” asterisk beside.
“This is what I had always dreamed of doing,” she says of the Netflix series, which aired its final season last fall.
Applegate played Jen Harding, a short-fused mother of two whose life is upended when she befriends Judy Hale (Cardellini), a woman involved in her husband’s hit-and-run death. Applegate locked into Feldman’s dark wit immediately, and forged a real friendship with Cardellini –– mirroring Jen and Judy’s inseparable bond.
“This just sat in a pocket inside my own soul that was very easy to access and portray,” she says. “It’s like you are in a ping-pong match with someone and I think that’s what is so fun about working with Linda. It’s not tennis, you don’t want to slam and get the point. You want to keep going.”
Jen wasn’t an easy character to live with, though. In the first season, the intensity with which she confronts the world physically manifested itself in Applegate’s body.
“Jen gave me knots in my neck because she was wound so tight like a cobra or a frightened animal,” she says. “It was good Judy softened her because I couldn’t do that for three seasons.”
Applegate became protective of Jen and her flaws because it is not the kind of role Hollywood wanted to give her after 11 seasons playing Kelly Bundy on “Married … With Children.” When the series ended in 1997, Applegate says the dumb blonde roles came rolling in — and she turned them all down.
Instead, she found characters that veered away from what the industry seemed to want to limit her to. She was hungry for roles that had an edge she could match.
But it cost her. “I didn’t get roles because of my edge,” she says.
She recalls one director passing on her because there was a darkness in her eyes. More recently, a directing duo initially offered her the pick of any role in their movie. But after meeting her, she was told she could have the antagonistic role because, she says with a laugh, “they told me I scared them.”
She wears remarks like that as a badge of honor.
“Hey man, if you’re calling me strong, I would rather that than being called a pushover or being malleable to the people you come across in this business,” she says. “I am so happy I am the one nobody would fuck with.”
The audiences still rose to meet her in films like “Anchorman” and “The Sweetest Thing.” But TV comedies are where she thrives.
One of her favorites was ABC’s 2007 comedy “Samantha Who?,” playing an amnesiac given a second chance to shed the mean-girl persona she had before losing her memory. The cast included Jean Smart, who won an Emmy playing her mother, and a pre-“Bridesmaids” Melissa McCarthy. Smart will be presenting her with the award on Wednesday’s event.
Applegate hadn’t had a series regular role in seven years when she took the part, but had just won an Emmy for her guest turn as Jennifer Aniston’s sister on “Friends.” In “Samantha Who?,” she returned to the top of the call sheet. But when the 2007 writers strike hit, ABC execs shuffled the series around the schedule and after the second season, it was canceled.
Still, it holds a special place in her heart.
“It was the most fun I had ever had,” she says. “‘Dead to Me’ has that place in my heart now. But after ‘Samantha Who?,’ I never thought I would have another experience like that ever again. The cast and the crew were sublime. The stars aligned and we were gifted this moment in time. When it was cancelled, I cried in bed for, like, a month.”
But the show is never that far away from her, especially on the final season of “Dead to Me.”
Mitch Cohn from the Netflix show’s sound department held her legs steady off camera during doorway scenes when the MS made it tough to stand on her own. “I first worked with him on ‘Samantha Who?,’” she says. “Every job I come to, I try to get the crew I had on ‘Samantha Who?’ That’s what they mean to me.”
Where she will take them next is not known. Applegate is upfront about the limitations she faces with MS. It is why she is effusive in her gratitude for how accommodating the “Dead to Me” cast and crew were in helping her cross the finish line with the series.
“We don’t know what my future as an actress is going to be,” she says. “How can I handle it? How can I go onto a set and call the shots of what I need as far as my boundaries, physically? I don’t know who is going to be as loving and understanding as this group of people were.”
Until she can answer that question, she’s developing projects behind the scenes. She’s attached to a voice role in a project she calls “one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” and she’s starting a podcast with a friend who also has MS and shares her dry humor for their shared circumstance.
Months after its release, she has also taken time to watch the final season of “Dead to Me,” which proved to be a challenge in emotional endurance.
“I could see the excruciating pain I was in every day I was there and I didn’t want to relive it,” she says. “I had to take it in little tiny doses but I think it is a beautiful piece of work. I’m so grateful to Liz for seeing I had it in me.”
And she’s thankful for Cardellini, the Judy to her Jen, adding, “If this is my last job, thank God it was with her.”
Christina Applegate will be honored with the 2023 Variety TV Fest Legacy award at the TV FYC Fest on June 7 in Los Angeles by Variety! Jean Smart will present the award to Christina, which recognizes her storytelling achievements as an actor and producer.
Christina Applegate isn’t mincing words: She “was quitting” acting prior to landing her role on Netflix’s Dead to Me.
“Let’s be honest. I was like, ‘I’m done.’ I didn’t want to do it anymore,” the Emmy nominee tells EW on the latest episode of The Awardist podcast, crediting Dead to Me creator Liz Feldman for seeing her for more than what she was being offered.
On the final season of the “traumedy,” as Applegate says costar Linda Cardellini described the show’s genre, Applegate’s Jen and Cardellini’s Judy deal with the escalating police investigation into Steve’s (James Marsden) death. If that wasn’t enough, Judy is battling cancer, which she eventually finds out is terminal, and Jen is shocked to learn she is pregnant by Ben, Steve’s twin brother (naturally, James Marsden). Through it all, Jen and Judy’s friendship never wavers — they are the epitome of “ride or die.” In fact, they ride together to Mexico, where the two spend a few days together before Jen wakes one morning to discover that Judy has — seemingly — left to spare Jen the grief of watching her friend die.
While the series has wrapped and viewers (mostly) know what happened to the two characters, Applegate isn’t as certain about what fate awaits her. Five years ago she was ready to quit the industry because of a lack of good roles coming her way; now, she is more worried about her professional future because of MS, which she learned about while filming season 3 of the show. While the production made accommodations, their kindness, she says, set the bar “pretty high” and she’s hesitant to think any others “would have that kind of understanding.”
Below, read portions of our interview, where Applegate reveals whether she has any unfinished business with Jen, how the show became an escape for her, whether she still finds comedy difficult after years of starring in comedic shows and movies, her inspirations, and more.