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 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 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.
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.
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.
Source: LA Times