Even with multiple sclerosis, Christina Applegate finishes ‘Dead to Me’ with the help of her loving co-star
The dark comedy “Dead to Me,” which has completed its third and final season on Netflix, is a riot of heartbreak, comedy, mayhem and plot twists. Star Christina Applegate can very well relate.
She plays real estate agent Jen Harding, irritable on her best days and furious with grief after her husband’s death. Jen’s path crosses that of Linda Cardellini’s Judy Hale, a free-spirited artist who is keeping her own grief, along with a big secret from hers. The themes of friendship and loss play out in unexpectedly personal ways from the moment the two women meet.
That could also describe the relationship of the actors. “I cry when I talk about Linda because I love her so much,” Applegate says, speaking by phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I hope the next person who works with her realizes how incredibly lucky she is, because she’s not only an amazing person, but she’s a divine artist and she’s there for you no matter what.”
In the midst of filming the show’s final season in 2021, Applegate began experiencing leg pain and tremors. He 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 actress, who she has been working with practically since her birth, had to lean on others like never before, letting the production know what she could and could not do. “They were amazing,” she says of the team, headed by creator and showrunner Liz Feldman, whom she calls “Jen and Judy combined into one human being, in the most perfect, beautiful way possible.”
Applegate notes that he has never worked harder at a job. “I was a mess every day, but most of that accident would take place just in my trailer. But there were times when I broke down on set and said, ‘I can’t, we have to take a break, I need half an hour,’ and everyone was so nice that it was fine.”
Despite the difficulties, the on-set moments with Cardellini buoyed her, and the scenes between the two acquired greater resonance. “There’s never really a moment when Judy and Jen are talking to each other that isn’t Linda and Christina talking to each other,” says Applegate. “The set disappeared, everyone disappeared, and it was just the two of us like best friends, rooting for each other, loving each other, and saying goodbye. 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 supported each other through difficult periods in their lives. This last season, “she literally took me under her wing and protected me, and took care of me every single day,” says Applegate. “It was also reversed: Jen is taking care of her dying friend, but Linda was taking care of me while she was saying goodbye to the person I’d always known, so a part of me was dying.”
With comic timing perfected over four decades, Applegate turns into a penny: “But no, it’s skill, because I’m nominated for a SAG award, it’s skill! Ability! Technique! Skill!” she yells, before dissolving into laughter. (She’s been nominated for Female Actress 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. blowing my own horn. It’s a joke.”
He joined the Screen Actors Guild in 1975; this is her sixth wink. “When you go to that particular event, it’s all your people, you don’t have anyone but the actors there. And despite the reputation that the actors have, they are all really charming.” Her daughter Sadie will be her date, mainly because the 12-year-old is looking forward to meeting her idol, Natasha Lyonne.
“It’s probably my last awards show as an actor, so it’s a big deal,” says Applegate. “At this point, I couldn’t imagine getting up at 5 am and spending 12 to 14 hours on a set; I don’t have that in me right now.” He is considering the next steps: production, development, “doing a lot of dubbing to make some money and make sure my daughter is fed and we’re home.” And he spends a lot of time in bed, binging on all the reality shows he’s never seen.
But it was months before he was able to watch the final season of his own show. “I don’t like to see myself struggling,” she says. “Also, I gained 40 pounds due to inactivity and medication, and I didn’t look like myself, and I didn’t feel like myself.” She watched on her own, 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 first time.”
If Jen Harding is indeed Applegate’s last role, it’s a masterful way to end it: the culmination of all her experience, hard work, love, commitment, and, yes, skill. It is not a joke.