Spoilers below for Dead to Me’s first season.
In Netflix’s Dead to Me, Christina Applegate’s character Jen fluctuates between grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and anything but acceptance after the death of her husband. If it’s not Applegate’s best role, it’s certainly the one where the TV comedy veteran has had to display the most range, whether she’s destroying a car with a golf club or revealing her character’s double mastectomy in a plotline inspired by her own experience. Applegate made her name on TV with Married … With Children, but she wasn’t looking to do a TV show when the offer came in for Dead to Me, and it took some convincing to sell her on the part. Vulture spoke with her over the phone about what it was like to inhabit Jen’s anger, whether her character’s love of dance was inspired by her own career, and why she isn’t particularly interested in jumping into another show at the moment.
As Jen, you have to be so angry. You swear constantly and you use “fuck” like every sentence. What was it like to inhabit that anger?
Very cathartic. We had to go so raw with this. [Creator] Liz Feldman really created that space for Linda Cardellini and myself to go to the darkest parts that we know in our souls, so it was exhausting, but it was cathartic as well.
Was it hard to get out of that zone?
There was only one scene that I couldn’t shake — the flashback where Jen is screaming at [her husband] Ted at the door even though you don’t see him. I remember Liz saying to me, “You’re gonna hate me,” and she’s like, “I know we’ve done a lot of crying in this show and a lot of rage. This is your bottom.” Once we started doing it, I couldn’t stop sobbing. When they would be changing the cameras, I was laying on a couch, Liz holding me as I sobbed. I couldn’t stop. That was the only time that I fell apart.
I’ve read that you describe yourself as being in “semi-retirement” for the last few years since Up All Night. What sold you on Dead to Me?
Just the script and the human who wrote it. Liz Feldman is just a dream human. I always say “semi-retirement,” and then I was like, Oh, you did seven movies in the last six years? I also wanted to raise my kid, so that’s what I’ve been doing. What [Liz] wrote was something unlike anything that’s come across. It took a minute to convince me. It took a lot of my manager and agent being like, “You have to do this one.”
What’s funny is that they had asked me a few months before, “What do you want your life to look like?” I was like, “I want to be on an ensemble show where I work two to three days a week and don’t have that much to do.” Cut to being in every single scene in this show, basically.
I’ve read that Liz said she had nearly the whole season planned out in her pitch to you and Linda, including many of the twists. Was there anything you suggested to her that you felt you needed to understand the twists, or land the emotional beats?
In the middle of shooting, I called Liz and said, “I think that Jen should have had a double mastectomy,” [which Applegate herself had in 2008], because it will add something to her pain and then validate all the reasons that she is the way she is. She’s like, “Are you willing to go there?” I said, “It’s important to the character and important for me to talk about it.”
We didn’t want to make it like a whole other story line, that’s the thing. We didn’t want the audience to feel sorry for her. People who’ve had the surgery are like, Oh, no, it’s good. It’s all good; it’s all good; it’s all good. Then, we get to episode nine and we see the pain that is involved with this.
What was the response like from people who’ve seen the show?
I’ve gotten some responses from women who have gone through it, saying thank you for representing us and being honest, and it frees us up a little bit. I didn’t want to do a public service announcement. It wasn’t about that; it was really about trying to find the core of her pain. Because she’s so tough and her coping mechanism is to be the way that she is.
There’s a deep connection between Jen and Linda’s character, Judy. They’re dealing with grief in such different ways, but still bound together. How did you develop that relationship between them?
When you find someone who’s like-minded in your pain, they become otherworldly to you, especially when no one else understands. When I was going through my health stuff, my doctor said, “I’ve got a couple of women who are your age who have gone through it, and I think it’s important for you to talk to them.” These people became invaluable to me. I could call them at 1 o’clock in the morning, sobbing with questions and fears and anything, and they would just talk to me for hours. They’re still in my life because we got each other on a level that nobody else could possibly understand. That’s the same with Jen and Judy — this loss that they’ve felt, and the messiness of grief, and that you don’t grieve in the way the world wants you to.
Jen has this backstory where she always wanted to be a dancer. You actually dance in the show. I know you did Sweet Charity and you were a dancer. Was that originally a part of the character?
Abe Sylvia, who’s one of our executive producers and writers, was also a Broadway dancer and singer. He had seen me in Sweet Charity. I think he got it written in there. He came to me, he’s like, “You’re gonna be dancing.” I’m like, “Oh, hell no. I’m not gonna be dancing. I haven’t danced in ten years.” He’s like, “No, you’re gonna be dancing.”
There’s only a mention of it one time, where she says, “I wanted to be a dancer. It’s stupid.” They wanted to have a moment where Jen’s finally coming out of her pain, with dance. Judy, on the other end of it, is now suffering. They wanted to find what would make Jen actually smile.
What was it like for you to do the dancing?
It was horrific. It was so hard. It hurt a lot because I didn’t have, really, any rehearsal. Our schedule is so tight that I had maybe one hour for us to choreograph. That was it. Then we shot it.
I know there was a whole brouhaha around you in Sweet Charity and your foot injury, but I was wondering if you had wanted to dance again.
It was nice to not be dancing on a broken foot. I’ll tell you that. ‘Cause every night of Charity, that was a pain extravaganza. That was nice to be healthy.
Well, maybe you can do more dancing in the next season.
Oh gosh, I’m gonna need to start stretching now.
Speaking of which, with Jen shooting Steve in the season finale, is there anything you’d like to see happen in a second season?
Liz’s got an idea. Basically, we’ll be exploring the dynamic that it’s an equal playing field at this point. I don’t know what that’s gonna look like, as far as Jen and Judy’s relationship, because Jen is heartbroken and horrified and angry and resentful and all of the things that you would feel when someone tells you, “I’ve been lying to you this whole time. I’m the one who killed your husband.” Now, that that’s happened, I don’t know how she’s gonna weave it. But she’s got a pretty great brain and I’m sure she’ll figure it out.
What was it like playing the scene where Jen discovers that Judy’s been lying to her?
I hated having to yell at Linda. The scene that ends with Jen saying, “If you even come near me, I’m gonna shoot you in the fucking face,” that was really hard. But it was easy, too — at that point, I’d lived in Jen’s shoes so much that I was feeling as angry as Jen was feeling. I actually pushed Linda really hard. I wasn’t supposed to, and I didn’t mean to. Afterward, I literally started crying. I’m like, “Linda, I’m so sorry.” She’s like, “No, no, it’s okay. It’s okay.” I pushed her so hard and my heart was broken because I love Linda so much and just was caught up in the moment of it.
Did they end up using that take?
It’s the one they used, yeah. You can see, I push her and then her face just … I thought Linda was gonna start crying. One of those moments.
You’ve been on so many network shows, like Up All Night and Samantha Who? and Married … With Children. Does it feel different to be making a show for Netflix?
They are the greatest group of people. They leave you alone. They just say, “There’s all the resources you need to make it look beautiful, to get the right people, and we’ll talk to you later.” You can not only be creatively free, but with language and subject matter and all the things that would be censored otherwise. And you work for three months! It’s not nine months of your life. I mean, shit, that was a long three months. That was a hard three months. But it was three months.
It must be nice to be away from network notes as well.
That’s where they can go wrong with the show, too. With this, we can just shoot it all. No one can say anything. Then, you know, “Here, you can sit down in one sitting and watch if you want to.”
Up All Night, for instance, went through so many different iterations, which was frustrating to watch.
Yeah, it was frustrating to do.
Has doing Dead to Me changed what you’re looking for now?
Right now, I’m really good with not doing anything. I’m fine. They’re like, “Do you wanna work this summer?” No, I don’t. I’d rather just be with my daughter. I’m good not getting up at, like, 4:30 in the morning for a while.