It’s mid-May 2020, and Christina Applegate is exactly where she belongs: lighting up someone’s screen. Sure, Season 2 of Liz Feldman’s acclaimed “Dead to Me” has just premiered on Netflix, but on this particular afternoon, she’s taking to Zoom, dialing in for an hourlong break from her two cats, one dog, musician husband, and 9-year-old daughter—all of whom are occasionally heard just out of frame during this unprecedented time of quarantine. “It’s weird to be talking about stuff like this when the world is what it is,” she admits, “but what’s nice is that people are getting an escape in. We all have to escape somehow.”
Here, sitting makeup-less in front of her fireplace with her hair in a bun, wearing a gray hoodie, AirPods, and dark-rimmed glasses, Applegate is a vision of fuss-free comfort. It’s well-deserved—considering she doesn’t allow herself that luxury at her
“You should always be challenging yourself; if it gets too complacent or easy, then you’re not doing it right. This shouldn’t feel easy; you shouldn’t be comfortable,” Applegate says with a shrug. “Being comfortable,” she adds, “that stagnation is where you die—you can’t be stagnant. You’ve got to push. You’ve got to expand.”
The lifelong actor has had this career MO since wrapping her 11 seasons as Kelly Bundy on “Married…With Children” in 1997, and she shares it with the kind of gruff but sincere wisdom of someone who, decades in, knows a thing or two of what she speaks.
Applegate first began “acting” before she could even formulate words, appearing with her actor mother, Nancy Priddy, on an episode of soap opera “Days of Our Lives” and doing a Playtex commercial by the age of 1. She continued doing commercials for TV and radio through her childhood, and became a card-carrying SAG member at age 4 in 1975 for a project lost to time. (“My mom doesn’t remember—I obviously don’t remember, I was born in 1971—so no one really knows!”) Films began filling her résumé around age 10 with “Jaws of Satan,” “Beatlemania,” “Grace Kelly,” and others, and the bit work continued. But it wasn’t until landing the role of Kelly, a bombshell teen with an ax to grind, on “Married” that Applegate became a household name.
Hers was a rather untraditional and untamed route into the arts that would eventually lead to everything from 1991’s “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” to “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” “The Sweetest Thing,” a Tony-nominated “Sweet Charity” run, and a string of Emmy wins and nominations—including a surprise nod last year for “Dead to Me.” But the inroads she made alongside her single mother began more out of necessity than gumption.
“Being comfortable, that stagnation is where you die—you can’t be stagnant. You’ve got to push. You’ve got to expand.”
“It was something that I was always doing because I had to for survival,” Applegate says. “My mom, you know, that was how we made our money, me doing radio commercials or commercials or whatever. It’s how we were fed. It’s all I’ve ever known.” Asked if and when the flip ever switched from acting-as-survival to acting-as-passion and fulfillment, she doesn’t miss a beat: That only came when she decided to quit acting for good.
“The moment it became a choice, I think I was 13 years old, and I said to [my mom], ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to go on auditions anymore, I want to be with my friends.’ And she said, ‘OK, I’ll call your agent,’ ” Applegate recalls. “I’ll never forget, in our little 750-square-foot house, I went upstairs and all of a sudden I got a panic attack. I ran downstairs within 10 minutes and was like, ‘No, don’t call her.’
“At 13, do you even understand what having a passion for something is? I don’t think so. All I knew is that the idea of it going away didn’t feel right to me. Didn’t sit right. I
don’t know what I would’ve done if I’d just gone off and [had] the freedom of being a normal kid.”
At the end of the day, forgoing the opportunity for normalcy has been to her benefit as an actor, so she can’t begrudge it—especially in 2020, when “Dead to Me” finds her turning in career-best work. Her performance as Jen, a widowed mother who befriends the offbeat-but-tenderhearted Judy (Linda Cardellini) during a group therapy session for the bereaved, is at times so raw you’ll find it hard to watch.
While the series is nominally a comedy, it’s often paced like a crime thriller, and emotionally, it serves as an exploration of how trauma and pain sit in the body and weigh on the mind. Applegate’s Jen is broken by her loss and hardened by her anger; in other words, it’s an out-of-left-field powerhouse vehicle unlike any the actor has previously been afforded, and she wouldn’t be able to play it without imbuing it with shades of her own hardship.
“Oh, man, it’s all there. It’s all me. I don’t think that it would’ve been what it was had I not had a lot of pain in my life,” she says, “I had to be able to relate to her because she’s someone who is going through great trauma.” Applegate, who is also executive producer on the series, notes the Season 1 revelation of Jen’s breast cancer diagnosis and double mastectomy, a real-life battle Applegate fought herself in 2008. It’s a character detail that she fought to include as an in-passing building block of Jen’s backstory; something not shown onscreen that is
nonetheless absolutely intrinsic to her day-to-day life.
“I think, for some reason, my soul needed to do this,” Applegate says of why she signed on, admitting that at the time, she was looking for a lighter commitment on an ensemble series. “My soul needed to say the words that I had to say and feel the things that I had to feel, talk about the things that I had to talk about, show the world what pain and trauma can look like and how messy it is, and to not feel bad about the fact that you’re not doing it ‘right.’ When that happens, you can’t say no.
“My soul needed to say the words that I had to say and feel the things that I had to feel…show the world what pain and trauma can look like.”
“I’m sure there’s someone who had a great childhood and both parents and they lived with a picket fence and grew up at summer stock and went to Harvard and worked in this and that and was perfect and could go and perform and do that, too—that’s friggin’ art right there,” she continues. “But then there are those of us who have had a pretty scrappy life and who have seen a lot of heartbreak who can just tap in from our own personal experiences.”
That’s not to say, of course, that Applegate has never herself trained. She may have been born into acting, but her mother had her in technique classes early on. She was a pupil of Uta Hagen until “Married…With Children,” and the years following it had her booked solid—“There was no time for that anymore.” But training came back to Applegate later in life. She’d turned 30 and found herself itching for more from her acting, and so she enrolled for some years in a class regimen that had her mining scenes she otherwise would never be hired for. It reached all her untapped nooks and ultimately prepared her for the work she does today.
“It wasn’t about a professional thing, it was more a personal thing,” the actor says of her drive to do more. In the craft, she found therapy. “I wanted to go to the places that I needed to go for me as a person who had been through the life that I’d been through, to be in this really vulnerable, personal space and feel OK about that.”
Now, her character development process can look any number of ways. She’s written journals for some roles that run 150 pages long just to get their psyche down on paper; someone like “Anchorman” newswoman Veronica Corningstone, on the other hand, required more work from the outside in. “She’s putting on a character for the world, so what does that mean? Where does she hold her tension?” Applegate poses. “Everyone gets something special; it just depends on who the person is.”
For “Dead to Me,” Jen wasn’t as mapped out. “I read it and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t need to work on this.’ She has to be erratic. She can’t be planned. She’s gotta ping-pong.” The approach allows for heart-on-her-sleeve spontaneity and at-times harrowing authenticity.
Likewise, Jen lives with Applegate in ways she’s not used to. The actor has a laundry list of moments where things got a little too real to deal—where her body began shaking involuntarily, her sobs became unstoppable. “I felt like my skin was falling off of my body,” she recalls of a particularly trying Season 2 scene that has Jen revealing her truth to Judy. But Applegate, for better or worse, goes there, and has learned what she needs to cope: She’s no stranger, for example, to turning to the on-set medic—who was called in after she busted her rib filming an action sequence last year—to make sure she’s not actually having a heart attack.
“He basically was my emotional support system,” Applegate says with a laugh. “He’d see me kind of spiraling out in my head, and he’d come over and be like, ‘You’re OK. Take a deep breath.’ That was my self-care. Because there was no other way to have self-care. The opportunity to take care of me couldn’t happen until I was done.”
Which brings our conversation back around to that acting career MO: Never get too comfortable.
“You’ve got to be able to be pliable,” Applegate concludes. “You can’t just head down one road and say, ‘This is the way it should be. I feel this about this and I’m snooty about this and I don’t do interviews and I don’t do this and I’m an artist.’ You’ve got to let all that go—and then the universe will give you more than you think you even want.”
Indeed, her approach has paid off and the universe has provided. But for now, Applegate rests.
This story originally appeared in the July 9 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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Photographed by Emily Shur/Netflix