'Dead To Me' Star Christina Applegate: Loss 'Lives In The Fibers Of Your Being'

Aug 29, 2019
Originally published on September 4, 2019 2:12 pm

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's Emmy week on FRESH AIR featuring interviews with some of this year's Emmy nominees. Christina Applegate is nominated as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her performance in the Netflix series "Dead To Me." She was 16 when she became famous for her role as Kelly Bundy, the daughter in the hit sitcom "Married... With Children." She went on to star in other TV shows and to star with Will Ferrell in the movie comedy "Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy."

The people behind her current series "Dead To Me" describe it as a traumedy (ph), a comedy-drama that deals with trauma and with guilt. Applegate plays Jen, a grieving widow raising two children. Her husband was recently killed in a car accident. She's expressing her grief through anger, like in the opening scene, when a well-intentioned neighbor knocks on Jane's door offering a dish she's prepared for Jen and her children.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEAD TO ME")

SUZY NAKAMURA: (As Karen) So you just heat it up at 300 and leave it in for 35 minutes.

CHRISTINA APPLEGATE: (As Jen Harding) Thanks, Karen. You really don't have to...

NAKAMURA: (As Karen) It's my take on Mexican lasagna.

APPLEGATE: (As Jen Harding) Great.

NAKAMURA: (As Karen) It's nothing. We just don't want you to think you're alone. Jeff and I are here for you if you ever want to talk.

APPLEGATE: (As Jen Harding) Thanks.

NAKAMURA: (As Karen) I just can't imagine what you're going through.

APPLEGATE: (As Jen Harding) Well, it's like if Jeff got hit by a car and died suddenly and violently - like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Jen starts going to a grief support group, where she's befriended by Judy, played by Linda Cardellini, who explains she's there because her fiance died of a heart attack. But nothing is as it seems in the series, which is filled with surprising plot twists and character revelations. All of Season 1 is streaming on Netflix. Christina Applegate, welcome to FRESH AIR.

APPLEGATE: Thank you very much.

GROSS: It's really hard to talk about the storyline of the series because there are so many reveals, so many kind of surprising twists and turns that I feel like almost anything I can say is a spoiler.

APPLEGATE: Yeah.

GROSS: What we can say for sure is that the two main characters, yours and Linda Cardellini's characters, are both dealing with grief. And what did you think of the idea of dealing with grief comedically?

APPLEGATE: Well, as Liz always says...

GROSS: She's the creator of the series.

APPLEGATE: Yes, she is the creator of "Dead To Me." There is always - in that darkest parts of your life, you are trying to find the humor in life because you need some repose. And I think that the way it's written is not jokes. It's people just trying to, like, have a minute away from all the pain that they're feeling.

And I love the idea of this grief being so completely messy and unexpected and unapologetic, especially for my character Jen, who is operating in the world not from any kind of, like, thoughts. She's really just trying to survive. She's trying to keep her head above water, and there's a lot of shame in that. There's shame in, like, not stopping your grief when everyone wants you to stop your grief.

I mean, I've been there. I've had times in my life that were so incredibly painful, and I, in other people's eyes, wasn't dealing with it the way I should have dealt with it. And that's really hard because you don't know how else to deal with it but the way that you are feeling.

GROSS: Were you grieving for a person when you went through that or the loss of something else?

APPLEGATE: I've lost people and, you know, had health issues and things like that all kind of around the same time a few years ago. So that was a really, really dark time, so I really related to that when I got the script. And it's not something I had to really pull from. It just lives there. It lives in the fibers of your being and in your spirit and in your soul. It stays there.

GROSS: You mentioned grieving for health reasons, for body reasons. I'm thinking you're probably referring at least in part to your double mastectomy.

APPLEGATE: Well, yes. That was a really tricky time.

GROSS: Yeah. This was in 2008.

APPLEGATE: Yes.

GROSS: So can I ask you a few questions about that? Is that all right? You've been public...

APPLEGATE: Sure.

GROSS: ...About it. A lot of women go through this, and I think it's helpful to hear people talk about it. There's nothing shameful about it.

APPLEGATE: There's nothing shameful about it, but there is that feeling that's there, and I think that's one of the reasons I wanted it to be in the show.

GROSS: Yeah. We haven't mentioned that yet. It's in the show.

APPLEGATE: Yeah, well, it's in the show.

GROSS: And we find out about it a little deeper in, but it's one of the things that has kind of interfered with intimate relations between your character and her now-late husband. So was it your idea to put that in the show?

APPLEGATE: Yeah, and I think they beautifully put it in there - that it wasn't something that we harped on. It was something that Jen, like, very flippantly kind of mentions that - you know, like, wants to sort of dismiss it at first. But then come Episode 9, when she talks about the pain of it, I think it was important for women who have gone through this to be heard because so often, we're told, like - you know, people would constantly say to me, well, you know what? I mean, the good point is that you saved your life and this - but God, man, when you're going through it, those kinds of reactions are really disturbing because no one really understands how you actually feel.

And I think I did a disservice to myself at the time in a way by kind of being a champion for it and not being really honest with my own self about how I felt, and I think that's why I wanted to sort of live that out and let women who have gone through it know that we all feel, in Jen's words, disgusting sometimes.

GROSS: Yeah, so what were some of the things you felt you weren't being totally honest about because you were trying to be, like, a role model?

APPLEGATE: I was trying to be a role model, but I was also lifting - trying to lift myself up, you know, and denying myself sort of those feelings because those feelings were there. It's been many years for me, so I'm much more used to my life, my body now, you know? But it's an amputation, and you physically and emotionally go through so much when you lose a part of you, especially a part of you that defines you as a female and all of those other things. And it gives - you know, it feeds babies and all. There's a lot of reasons that it's a very personal surgery.

GROSS: Yeah. So you had breast cancer in one breast, but then you got the genetic test. Your mother had had breast cancer, too. She survived, and you...

APPLEGATE: Yes.

GROSS: ...Got the test, the genetic test, and found that you were positive for the BRCA1 gene, which is the gene that is believed to be connected to breast cancer. And that's what made you decide to...

APPLEGATE: Yeah, and ovarian.

GROSS: Oh, I didn't know about the ovarian. Really?

APPLEGATE: Yeah. My mom had both breast cancer and ovarian cancer, and...

GROSS: Oh.

APPLEGATE: ...She's BRCA. My cousin passed away right after my surgery from ovarian cancer. She was BRCA. There's definitely, you know, apparently a tie between those two things. Your chances of getting ovarian cancer when you're BRCA are 50%, and your chances of recurrence of breast cancer is somewhere between 75 and 80%.

GROSS: Was this a hard decision to make, or were you confident that you had to do it?

APPLEGATE: I was very against the idea of it for a long time. My doctors were trying to convince me, and I was very against the idea. And then it hit me one day just - do I want to be having this hanging over my head for the rest of my life? And no, I didn't want to be living in that kind of fear forever. You know, I mean I still get checked up. I'm checked up all the time. But it was just - it just was the right thing for me to do.

GROSS: So just one other thing I want to say about the mastectomy is that you went public with it, but I would suspect, in the back of your mind, you were wondering not only how it will affect your life and relationships, but will it affect your work? Will it affect your roles? And I love that you...

APPLEGATE: Well, considering I don't show my boobs anywhere (laughter), it wasn't, like, a concern for me at all. And I didn't want to go public. I had actually kept it a secret for many, many, many, many months. And then I'd had two surgeries before my mastectomy. I had two lumpectomies months before, and it wasn't until I was in the hospital for more than a few days that someone saw me and called the tabloids or whatever. Is that, like, a thing? Do they still exist - tabloids?

GROSS: Yeah, they do.

APPLEGATE: I have no idea. OK, unfortunately - and had called. So they had outed me, basically, that I was in the hospital. And we had to make a statement, but I wasn't - like, my plan really wasn't to talk about it because it didn't really matter. It was my personal story.

But then at the same time, you know, an MRI saved my life, and because of that, I started my foundation, Right Action for Women, which - we provide funding for women of high risk for their annual MRIs and also a website that can educate you to know what it means to be high-risk and what kind of steps you can take. So there was a silver lining in there as well.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here, and we'll take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Christina Applegate. She stars in the Netflix series "Dead To Me." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOAM WIESENBERG GROUP'S "DAVKA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Christina Applegate. She stars with Linda Cardellini in the Netflix series "Dead To Me," which has been renewed for a second season. All of Season 1 is streaming. So you became famous when you were 16 for your role as Kelly Bundy, the daughter on "Married... With Children." I'm going to ask you to describe the character.

APPLEGATE: Oh, Kelly Bundy.

GROSS: And I'm curious if you're going to use the word ditzy because that's the word everybody seems to use.

APPLEGATE: Ditzy - yeah, lazy thinker, I guess. You know, I had to play her as a genius. You know, in her own mind, she's a genius and a virgin, actually. Those were my little secrets that I had about her. You know, she was really a kind of a product at that time.

The script had - you know, the show had been written, and they actually had shot the pilot with two other actors playing Kelly and Bud that just didn't work out, so they came back and had us do it. And originally, Kelly was kind of, like, a tough little rebellious almost, like, biker kind of chick. And it just didn't - something wasn't, for me, fitting. And luckily, at that time, no one saw Fox that first year.

GROSS: This was, like, the first sitcom that it had.

APPLEGATE: It was the very first show that that ever aired on Fox, and it wasn't even really a network. Well, that's what they used to tell us when it would come time for negotiations. Like, but we're not really a network, so no, you don't get that kind of money. Anyway, it kind of evolved - or devolved, if you want to call it that - after I had seen this girl in this documentary and I went, oh, my God. I need to - that's it. That's her.

So we kind of changed her up to be sort of the product of the '80s, of this generation of girls that felt they needed to use their bodies to get further in the world. And the music was heavy metal, and there was - you know, sorry, pardon me - like, rock sluts in videos, and it sort of kind of evolved from that idea.

GROSS: What was the documentary you watched?

APPLEGATE: It was called "Decline Of The Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years."

GROSS: Oh, I saw that. Yeah. OK.

APPLEGATE: There was a girl in it who - she had just won Miss Gazzarri's, and she was sitting there, I believe, in a white minidress, which I had never really seen anyone wear. They asked her, like, what she wanted to do after winning Miss Gazzarri's, and she said, I want to continue with my modeling and my actressing (ph).

GROSS: (Laughter).

APPLEGATE: And I went, that's the best thing I've ever seen in my entire life. And literally the next day, I went to the wardrobe people, and to everyone, I said, we got to - we're changing this up - going to change it up.

GROSS: Let's hear a clip from "Married... With Children." So this was on for 11 seasons from '87 to '97.

APPLEGATE: I think it was '86.

GROSS: '86 to '97 - OK.

APPLEGATE: I think so - something like that.

GROSS: So, you know...

APPLEGATE: I was 15 when we started, so...

GROSS: Oh, you were 15? I thought you were 16.

APPLEGATE: I was 15 when we shot it.

GROSS: Oh, OK. So, you know, the series is about a suburban family. The father's a shoe salesman. He hates his job. He's very condescending to his wife, who he expects to cook and clean, but because she sees herself as a bit of a suburban goddess, she hates to cook and clean, so she just sits around and watches TV all day. And you're the kind of sexualized daughter who you say is actually a virgin.

So usually, when you entered a scene the first time in the show in each episode, there'd be, like, these cheers and whistles and everything. So here you are making your entrance in this episode of "Married... With Children."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARRIED... WITH CHILDREN")

APPLEGATE: (As Kelly Bundy) Hey, where's Bud? I want to tell him that I've got a big date tonight. I love ruining his Saturday nights. Oh, my God, it's Sunday?

(LAUGHTER)

APPLEGATE: (As Kelly Bundy) I've got to be at work. How did I lose a day?

(LAUGHTER)

APPLEGATE: (As Kelly Bundy) I must have magnesia.

(SOUNDBITE OF , "")

APPLEGATE: (As Kelly Bundy) What did Gilligan do when he had magnesia?

(SOUNDBITE OF , "")

APPLEGATE: (As Kelly Bundy) Oh, my God. I don't remember. Gadzooks (ph), I'm losing my short-term memories.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I'm sure gadzooks is a word you say a lot.

(LAUGHTER)

APPLEGATE: Gadzooks.

GROSS: So what was it like to make an entrance with such hollering and hooting? And how much of that was real, and how much of that was, like, a sign flashing to the studio audience?

APPLEGATE: Oh, no, no, no. There was no signs. This was all real. In fact, most of the time, we had to tell them to stop because it would go on for too long - for any of our entrances, for Eddie's, for mine. And we would - it would actually start to kind of, like, mess up the timing of the scenes.

So we would actually have to ask the audiences to, like, cool it. We didn't have a laugh track, none of that. This was all like those 200 people, like, at a sporting event basically. You know, I tried to tune it out because if I had, like, played into that, it would be a whole other ballgame. But I had to stay in my scene and do my work, do my job. And hopefully they would stop at a certain time so I could say my first line.

GROSS: So the series was considered very raunchy in its time.

APPLEGATE: It's so tame compared to what's out there right now.

GROSS: Oh, I know. I know. I know. But there was pressure from the right that this was like an anti-family show that was too sexualized. There was a letter-writing campaign. How much attention did you pay to that?

APPLEGATE: None. It actually made us more popular.

GROSS: Made it seem more controversial and more edgy.

APPLEGATE: Yeah. We actually used to send like a fruit basket to Terry Rakolta every year.

GROSS: Who started the letter-writing campaign.

APPLEGATE: God bless her because thank you, we'd had a great run because of that.

GROSS: So you were born into show business in a way. Your mother was an actress and singer. She sang backup on Leonard Cohen's first album. I thought that was interesting.

APPLEGATE: She did.

GROSS: Yeah. So tell us a little bit about her career.

APPLEGATE: Her career started in New York. She was in a group called the Bitter End Singers for many years back in the '60s, early 60s. And then she made this really beautiful album called "You've Come This Way Before" in the late '60s. This was around the time she met my dad. And then they - she was in LA then at that time and continued to act here and there. But then she had a baby, and she was on her own.

GROSS: That was you. That baby was you.

APPLEGATE: That was me. That baby was me. There's only me. I mean, I do have a brother and sister through my father and his previous wife. But, you know, she was alone. And so that's kind of how I started doing it is that she couldn't afford child care. So I would end up going on auditions with her or going to - she was part of a playwright group. And I would end up - she'd just - they would put me in the plays because she couldn't find anyone to watch me. And that's kind of where it all sort of happened.

GROSS: You were on screen when you were 3 months old and 5 months old. What were the roles, and were you playing your mother's child?

APPLEGATE: Did they call them roles? Yes, I was playing my mother's child. That's the thing. I was...

GROSS: Is it an infant walk-on?

APPLEGATE: Yes, it was - no, I was playing - it was with my mom. She was on "Days Of Our Lives" like one or two episodes or something, and That character had a baby. And luckily she had a baby. And then she did a Playtex nurse commercial, but they - she had a baby. So it was perfect. And it's really funny because she's like - she spits up less and has less gas. And that's what my mom said.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Christina Applegate, who became famous as a teenager for her starring role as the daughter in "Married... With Children" and many roles later. She is now starring in the Netflix series "Dead To Me" which has just been renewed for a second season. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Christina Applegate. She stars with Linda Cardellini in the Netflix series "Dead To Me," which has just been renewed for a second season. All of Season 1 is streaming.

So in addition to doing movies and TV, you did a Broadway revival of "Sweet Charity." The music in that show is so good.

APPLEGATE: Isn't it the best? Oh, my God.

GROSS: Yeah. And you had to basically audition for the composer, Cy Coleman. What was that like?

APPLEGATE: (Laughter) Rest in peace, Cy Coleman. But now I can talk about how it was (laughter). It was really difficult. The audition process was really was something else. You know, I'm a huge Fosse fanatic. I've - "Sweet Charity" was one of my favorite movies. "All That Jazz" is in my top five of all time. I mean, this is like - was like my dream come true.

But I went to New York to audition. And I was there for - I mean, it felt like 10 hours. And it probably was 10 hours of singing audition and then, you know, the - all the scenes I had to do and then the dancing. And I was there for - just for hours. But apparently, at the end of the day, after the audition was over, and - Barry Weissler came into the dressing - Barry and Fran came in and said, can you give us a year? And I was sat there. And I said, can you give me a minute?

I mean, I was like drenched in sweat. And I had kind of wanted to go just to have the experience of having a New York audition. I didn't even know if I had wanted to really make the commitment to do this at that time. I just wanted the experience of that. So I needed a minute. And then I get the call that Cy was not convinced of my singing, which I don't blame him. I mean, that's not my strong suit. And he wanted to have another work session in Los Angeles with me, and it was really, really challenging.

The way they operate - and not everyone in New York, but the way they talk to you is not fluffy like they do out in Hollywood. He was tough on me, really tough on me, and I thought I was going to, like, burst into tears many times during that work session. It was really, really hard.

And I got back in the car, and I called them, and I said, look. I don't even want to do it because if they're going to be, like, this, like, you know - and they said, well, Cy Coleman just called, and he completely, like, thinks you're magical, and you've got the job. I was like, say what? How did that happen? I thought he hated me. It was so scary. But it was amazing to be around him, this man who's, you know, written all this incredible music.

GROSS: You said he was tough on you. What did he do that seemed so tough?

APPLEGATE: Stop moving your arm. Stop doing it that way. Why are you singing it like that? Start it again. Start - like, really what you think would happen in those - in a work session - like, literally, like, the ingenue getting completely, like, verbally abused. But I think that's just who he was. You know, he was just a very strong man with - he knew what he wanted.

No one's, like, fuzzy in the Broadway world, you know? It's a tough job, and they got to make sure you're doing it right. So, you know, when we got there, it was wonderful - I mean, incredible. The rehearsal process was just so much fun and so filled with so much joy for me. But they're - you know, they can be tough on you.

GROSS: Well, let's hear you sing from the cast recording.

APPLEGATE: Oh, boy.

GROSS: This is "If My Friends Could See Me Now," which has such a great lyric by Dorothy Fields. So here's my guest Christina Applegate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF THEY COULD SEE ME NOW")

APPLEGATE: (Singing) If they could see me now, that little gang of mine, I'm eating fancy chow and drinking fancy wine. I'd like those stumble bums to see for a fact the kind of top-drawer, first-rate chums I attract. All I can say is, wowee (ph), look at where I am. Tonight I landed - pow - right in a pot of jam. What a set-up. Holy cow. They'd never believe it if my friends could see me now.

GROSS: That's Christina Applegate from the revival of "Sweet Charity" recorded in 2005. Do you just love Dorothy Fields' lyrics?

APPLEGATE: Oh, my God. The whole score is just so - it's so amazing. I mean, and with Cy's music, I mean - you can't go wrong when you hear, like, (Singing) doo-doo-doo-doo boo-doo. I mean, come on. It's like, I get chills when I hear that. It's just perfect.

GROSS: So you've been critical in tweets about President Trump, and you've been - you've gotten a lot of hate tweets as a result. And some people say, like, why do celebrities, like, weigh in with political opinions like this? Like, you know, what do you know? And what gives you the right? And you've had some...

APPLEGATE: And yet, you look on their Twitter, and they're doing the same thing. What gives you the right?

GROSS: Yes, exactly, which was...

APPLEGATE: You work in a bank.

GROSS: That was...

APPLEGATE: What are you talking about, man?

GROSS: So one of the things you were criticized for is, like, you don't get it. And I think what you didn't get is, like, well, what is it really like to be, like, a working American? And you tweeted back, I grew up in an abusive home. Now I make it public. Don't you dare say I don't understand. Don't you dare say I don't understand the struggles. We lived on food stamps. Don't you dare say I don't know.

APPLEGATE: God, I was so mad that day.

GROSS: Yeah. It was like your character...

APPLEGATE: I was in a pissy mood - bad Christina.

GROSS: But what's this about an abusive home?

APPLEGATE: I don't want to get into that, but I will say that I come from - my past is no different, and also probably a lot darker, than a lot of people's. And I'm not going to say a lot darker than most people's. I'm saying that I have lived along the same lines as some of the horror stories that you hear out there, and I've lived it. I've seen it. I've lived through it. So I don't - I really do take offense when people think that I've had a silver spoon in my mouth and that I haven't seen the dark side of life.

GROSS: Yeah.

APPLEGATE: And you know what? And if I hadn't, then I don't know if I could have played Jen the way that I did. So, like, that's how I kind of feel about that.

GROSS: All right. Well, Christina Applegate, thank you so much for talking with us.

APPLEGATE: Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Christina Applegate was recorded in June. She's nominated for an Emmy in the category Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her performance in the Netflix series "Dead To Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SACKVILLE ALL STARS' "JOHN HARDY'S WIFE")

GROSS: Our series of interviews with Emmy nominees continues through Labor Day. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed in the series with Bill Hader, John Mulaney, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Ava DuVernay and Michael K. Williams, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF SACKVILLE ALL STARS' "JOHN HARDY'S WIFE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Kenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SACKVILLE ALL STARS' "JOHN HARDY'S WIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.