Christina Applegate's Netflix "Traumedy" 'Dead to Me' Might Be Her Most Personal Role Yet

The actress talks with The Hollywood Reporter about how creator/showrunner Liz Feldman brought her out of "semi-retirement" and why she wanted to write her breast cancer into the story.
Netflix
"Dead to Me"

Christina Applegate doesn't have much of a filter.

That's a compliment, and not a back-handed one. The actress, best known for her work on beloved family sitcoms and raunchy, R-rated female comedies, doesn't fear vulnerability, she embraces it. She can be dropping F-bombs during a passionate discussion on toxic masculinity one minute, then opening up about her life-changing battle with breast cancer the next.

And she'll do both while assuring you over the phone that no, she's not peeing, she's just taking her dog for a walk around her backyard fountain.

Applegate's making her way back to television after a seven-year hiatus with the new Netflix grief-com, Dead to Me, a story about a woman named Jen who's recently lost her husband and, consequently, her grip on reality. She befriends another member of her grief support group, Judy (Linda Cardellini) and the two change one another's lives — but maybe not for the better.

Below, Applegate speaks with The Hollywood Reporter with about her return to TV, her shared connection of grief and heartbreak with her character, what she thinks of the new crop of female-driven comedies and if a Married … With Children reboot is in the cards.

This is the first TV series you've done in seven years. What about this show pulled you back in?

It literally took them like dragging me out of my semi-retirement, because I was very happy with my kind of not showering life and doing what I want, and just raising my daughter. So, what was it? It was a lot of things. It was really a unique premise and show, and I had known [creator and showrunner] Liz Feldman (2 Broke Girls) and really loved her as a human being. I feel like if I'm going to be doing anything, if you're going to take me away from my kids for three months, it better be with an amazing group of people that are of quality and are kind, smart and interesting.

I read the script and immediately I thought they wanted me for Judy. I was like, "What a great character, it's a little bit less work. I don't need to be the star. I don't want to be star of anything." And Liz was like, "Oh no, you're not a Judy, you're a Jen." How do I take that? "You are a Jen." Like so, I'm an angry drunk? And then I was like, "Oh, you know what, you're right. This is totally me."

This show is a mashup of so many different genres, and your character goes through a bit of emotional whiplash each episode. How did you relate to Jen amid the chaos happening in her life?

We like to refer to it also as a traumedy. What was interesting in shooting this and living in the shoes of this character is how much I already knew and understood and had lived through. So, going to those dark places was actually easy for me. Almost too easy. I was exhausted at the end of the day, when we'd have those kinds of scenes where it's so raw. I lived every take of that. It was a draining shoot for both me and Linda. We'd get so excited when we'd shoot scenes when it was just the two of us drinking or smoking pot or is just hanging out. It was just like, "Oh, I don't cry today? Fantastic."

What do you hope the show can teach people about grief?

There's no timeline on it. I went through some big loss in my life, and I remember I was annoying people because I was still in it. I was even asked like, "When are you going to let this go?" It's like, "You know what, there's no timeline here. And stop trying to make people have a fucking timeline to the pain that they're feeling." They will come out of it. There will be a light at the end of the tunnel, but you've got to let people process the way that they must process. Jen is not good at this. She's not good at grieving and she knows it. She has shame at how angry she is. So, there's just no timeline on it or how it should look, you know?

What do you think this show says about the way women deal with heavy emotions like grief and anger versus how men deal with them?

Men are sort of taught to just not cry, buck up and move on. Women of course have been unfortunately labeled as emotional and hard to deal with or difficult — all this crap that we've been kind of dealt. But pain is pain and whether we, as men or women, deal with it differently, the core of the soul feels it. I think, unfortunately, some people deny it, they deny themselves the grieving process, and what you see is how they then operate in the world and how they react to things. Eventually it's going to kick your ass if you don't have a chance to process the way that you need to process.

You and your character Jen share some similarities. You're both dancers, you've both faced breast cancer. Were those additions you made once you signed on to play this character?

Her having a mastectomy was something I brought to Liz in the middle of filming. I was trying to figure out this core pain that she has, and I thought we never really see women in television or in film really being [shown] having had this surgery. Jen did not have cancer, she did it prophylactically, but the surgery itself and the aftermath of that is hard emotionally and physically. I wanted to be honest about it.

I think after I had cancer and I talked about it out there in the world, I was trying to be a champion for myself, you know, almost like, lying to myself about the great thing about it. I was trying to be positive, and that was how I was dealing with it and surviving. But when I was just sitting there with myself, it's an incredibly painful thing to go through. It's an amputation of a part of you. It's part of being a woman, and I wanted to be honest. So I brought it to Liz and she was like, "OK, let me see how we can weave this in." I think she did it beautifully.

Both of these women are labeled crazy by the men in their lives for how they express and process their pain, and the connotations of that word are explained by Jen a bit more. How do you feel about men who call women crazy for showing their emotions?

Those labels are so dismissive, aren't they? If someone calls you that, they're dismissing all the things you're feeling and that makes you more frustrated because there's so much complexity to all of us, especially women. Thank God, because you know what, we have to do a lot. We've got to live in the man's world. We've got to be mothers. We're nurturers. We work. It takes a lot to balance all the things that we have to balance.

This show is an unconventional comedy starring women, which is something you have plenty of experience with. The Sweetest Thing was one of the first R-rated female comedies. How do you think the movie would be received today?

It's PG compared to what chicks are doing these days. The original script for it pushed way further than what we ended up doing, because the studio got scared with an R-rated, female-driven movie. So I think that right now people would be like, "What's this fluff about? Why aren't they taking a shit in a sink?" It's so tame, but it was one of the first female-driven R comedies that had ever happened and I'm so proud to have been a part of it.

Speaking of legacies, you cut your teeth on another loved comedy, Married … With Children. Since we're living in the age of reboots, will we ever see the Bundy clan back on screen?

There was smattering a few years ago. David Faustino was going to do like a spinoff show. That was actually going to happen, and I think Ed O'Neill and Katey Sagal and I had said we would definitely be in the pilot for him. It just never happened. That was a few years ago, and now I'm almost 50 and no one needs to see me in a mini dress. It's just not in the cards. That ship has sailed.

Well that frees you up to do more seasons of Dead to Me. Are there plans for more of the show on Netflix?

I mean, now it's this very complicated situation that my character finds herself in but it's not what you think. What you see at the end is possibly not what you think. So that's what we're going to kind of tackle for the next season, assuming there is a next.

Dead to Me drops May 3 on Netflix.