Christina Applegate knows all the nonsensical rama-lama-lama “Grease” lyrics of “We Go Together” by heart—thanks to a particularly traumatizing audition for “Grease 2” when she was a child actor. “My mom was an actress, and she worked on this with me to the point where we never worked on my auditions together again because it caused such insane problems,” Applegate now remembers with a laugh. Thankfully, the lifelong screen actor has found her footing and then some, scoring an Emmy win and four more nominations for her varied television roles (most recently Netflix’s tragicomedy “Dead to Me”) and proving herself as adept at drama as comedy in the latter half of her career. Here, the actor answers our Backstage 5 questionnaire with some revealing responses, some cringey—but all with an unapologetic directness. “Don’t be so fucking sensitive,” she quips.
Do you have an audition horror story you could share with us?
Yes! When I was a little kid, I auditioned for “Grease 2,” and I had to go in and sing a song. My mom was an actress, and she worked on this with me to the point where we never worked on my auditions together again because it caused such insane problems. Such turmoil—don’t work on your auditions with your parent, it’s the worst. But I sang, “We go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong,” and I went there, and, you know, it’s a hard song! Like, “shoo-bop sha wadda wadda.” You know, there’s no lyrics, it’s just a bunch of words! And I remember being in there, and my mom was like, “When they get to the ‘wah-wah’ part, be Helen Keller and go, ‘Wa wa wa wa wa,’ [as if to reenact “The Miracle Worker,”] I swear to God. I froze up and started crying and ran out of there. Needless to say, I did not get that job. I had a full-on panic attack when I was 10 years old because I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to do with her bizarre choreography.
How did you first get your SAG-AFTRA card?
OK, here’s the thing: I don’t know. It was 1975. My mom doesn’t remember, I obviously don’t remember I was born in 1971, so no one really knows. But I have it, and it says I’m a member since 1975.
“I always say the secret to my longevity: mediocre success. The day you make $20 million for a movie, you’re done.”
I know “Sweet Charity” in 2005 marked your Broadway debut, but was Equity also early in your career?
Equity came with “Sweet Charity” because I had only done some local theater here in Los Angeles with my mom when I was a little kid, and then I did something else when I was little bit older, but nothing substantial and nothing significant. So, I did get my Equity card when I did “Sweet Charity,” and now I’m not longer in Equity because it’s been a long time.
Is it something you hope you go back to?
My body can’t do that, that eight-shows-a-week thing; 2005 was hard enough doing it with a broken foot. I remember how I felt at the end of that year and they wanted me to extend, and literally every part of me was bandaged. Underneath my costume, there were just bandages all over the place, and I remember going, like, “I gotta go home. I can’t do this anymore.” It’s just too hard. Those people are crazy!
Well you crossed it off the bucket list, at least.
I did. And it was the one musical since I was a little girl that I’d wanted to do. I grew up going to musicals. I had family in New Jersey, so my mom would take me to New York City every year, and I saw everything. I saw Patti LuPone in “Evita,” I saw the original cast of “A Chorus Line,” I saw the original cast of “The Wiz,” I saw the original cast of “Dreamgirls.” I saw everything original in the ’70s and early ’80s. It was a dream. And being a Fosse freak, like, “Sweet Charity,” watching that movie “All That Jazz”? I wanna show it to my kid, but it’s so [rated] R. When I was a kid, like, my mom didn’t care. I got to see “All That Jazz” when I was 7 or 8 years old, and I was blown away. I saw “Cabaret” when I was a little kid. So to be able to go and play Charity Hope Valentine at the time was really a dream come true.
What is one screen performance that every actor should see and why?
I would say “Sophie’s Choice,” because the performances are some of the best work from all of them. Meryl [Streep], obviously, but Kevin Kline, [Peter] MacNicol—there are moments in that that are just so incredible. And the iconic “choice” scene is one of the greatest pieces of performance that I’ve ever seen in my life. The silent scream that she has to do, I’m going to throw up just thinking about it.
What is the wildest thing you’ve done for a role?
I don’t know, weird stuff. I think [of] stuff like sitting in gross mud and putting it all over your face for “Vacation”—moments like that, I don’t like the way that feels. That felt real gross. I guess that’s not really “wild,” but I don’t want to spend my day doing that at all!
It’s all for the sake of the performance, right?
The performance of the art that is “Vacation”—which, actually, I think is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever been in. I have to say, I don’t think I’ve laughed harder at anything that I’ve been in than that movie.
What is one piece of advice you would give your younger self?
I was going to say, “Don’t be so fucking sensitive.” But then I’m like, maybe that did help me, being so sensitive. But: Don’t take yourself so seriously. There was a period of time before “Married…With Children,” and then kind of halfway through “Married…With Children,” where I just took everything so seriously, and it wasn’t until I finally abandoned that idea [that I] could be free. You’ve gotta be able to be pliable. 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 gotta let all that go. And then the universe will give you more than you think you even want. And also, I always say the secret to my longevity [is] mediocre success. The day you make $20 million for a movie, you’re done. You’ve gotta make, like, under-the-radar paychecks and stay kind of mediocre in this nice little zone.
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