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When Dead to Me star Christina Applegate was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the summer of 2021, the Netflix show was halfway through production on its third and final season, and it was unclear if filming could or should continue.
“We just wanted her to know that it was up to her, whatever she wanted to do we were OK with,” Applegate’s co-lead Linda Cardellini told The Hollywood Reporter at the show’s premiere on Tuesday of that time. “If she wanted to come back, if she didn’t want to come back, I just wanted her to make a decision that suited herself, not anybody else.”
Production shut down for five months while the actress started treatment, and then the team came back together to finish the second half of the show at Applegate’s request.
“Christina wanted to finish the season, she wanted us to tell the story and she wanted to be able to give that gift to the audience,” said creator Liz Feldman. “She wanted to give that closure and she wanted to give us closure, and so we did it on her terms and I’m extremely proud of how it turned out.”
“It didn’t surprise me that she wanted to come back,” added co-star James Marsden. “She’s just one of the most remarkable human beings, with or without the diagnosis; she always has been. And just a tremendous talent and funny as hell and a great friend.”
The dark comedy, which in its first two seasons saw Applegate (as Jen) and Cardellini (as Judy) as two unlikely friends navigating grief and a whole lot of secrets, made whatever accommodations Applegate needed when she returned to set after her diagnosis, Feldman said, but “we didn’t change anything in the story, really anything in the script; maybe there are scenes where she sits more or leans on a door or something like that but really pretty minimal.”
“To me, Christina is who she’s always been from day one, which is a strong, hilarious, brilliantly talented, tenacious, incredibly supportive and protective den mother. Nothing changed in terms of her role on the show,” the creator added of watching Applegate push through to finish filming. “That’s who she is, she’s the best no. 1 you could ever ask for and I can only hope to work with someone that amazing again.”
On Cardellini’s end, serving as both an onscreen and offscreen friend, “you never want to see your friends or your family members go through something that is challenging or hurts, so there’s always those feelings, but also we still managed to have all the laughs and tears and we got to do some incredible work,” she said. “I was always just hoping I could be someone she could lean on.”
Shooting those final days was a mixture of laughter and tears, much like the tone of show, added Cardellini, who had known how her character’s arc would end since Feldman told her her idea in the middle of season two.
“It was really beautiful because Liz was directing the last episode and so she saved the scene that Jen and Judy are saying goodbye to each other — but not saying goodbye because they don’t know it’s really goodbye — but she saved that scene for last,” Cardellini remembered. “Christina and I sat in that bed on the Mexico set and had this incredible laugh and cry, and then we looked behind the camera and everybody else was crying and laughing.”
Marsden, who plays twins on the show, said that when he first read how the show wrapped up, “I thought people are going to lose their minds and all their hearts are going to get broken.”
“I always wondered what she was going to do and how she was going to end it, and as much as you can anticipate twists and turns and anything she might have planned, it was a surprise for me,” he said of Feldman’s writing. “I just thought ‘Wow, you’re really going to crush people with this,’ but I think that’s sometimes how life can work. The show holds a mirror up to what it’s like to be human and find friendship and go through loss and grief and I think that’s why people like it.”
Dead to Me‘s final season starts streaming Thursday on Netflix.
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