When Christina Applegate was pitched on Dead to Me and its shocking Season 1 finale, she couldn’t help asking, “Can we earn that moment?” Centered on a tightly wound widow and a free spirit who meet in grief support group, the series was a complex meditation on grief, replete with twists, turns and shocking secrets, which didn’t fit into any familiar box. Like Applegate, co-star Linda Cardellini signed on in a leap of faith, feeling like the series took real risks with its storytelling. In the end, though, the ability to do so boldly paid off, becoming the show’s greatest asset.
How much of Dead to Me had been written by the time Liz Feldman approached you for the show? What about this series resonated with you?
Christina Applegate: Well, I had read the pilot. I think they had been writing for months before we even signed on. The ideas were there, because this had been around for a minute, but Liz came over to the house and talked me through what the season was going to look like, ending with the ending. That was where I was like, “I don’t know. Can we earn that?” And then the way that they wove it, they did. They earned it, I think.
Linda Cardellini: For me, Judy is such an incredible role. The range that I’m allowed to play within that role is so layered, and such a rare find, so the idea of playing her was exciting and daunting, at the same time. Because there’s so much…If she doesn’t conceal well, and then also work her way into [Jen’s] life in a way where you would believe that they would be friends, then it doesn’t work.
Applegate: That’s the part I wanted, too. I thought that they were coming to me for Judy. But [Feldman] was like, “Oh, no.” [laughs] And then watching her work, I realized: Oh, she has the much harder job.
Why was Judy the part you initially gravitated toward?
Applegate: I just figured that’s what they were coming to me for. It’s not often that people say, “Let’s get the tragic widow to Applegate,” but it ended up being very much a part of who I am.
What was most essential to Feldman, in her conception of the series?
Applegate: I remember just that it had to be as real as possible—really a slice of actual life. Because there’s such sensational things happening, we had to stay really true and raw, and not live in comedy land. The comedy comes really out of the tragedy; it gives you a little repose, a break from it all.
Cardellini: Another thing that was intriguing to both of us was that she didn’t want it to be one specific genre. She didn’t want it to fit into a box, and the show doesn’t. It falls in between comedy and drama, and tragedy and hilarity, and absurdity and reality, and that was something that was really fun, to go on that ride. We were making something that didn’t seem like everything else that we were seeing.
Applegate: We really had to trust her. Neither of us knew her all that well, but we can feel who she is. She’s this incredible human being, but that first couple of weeks, we would be questioning, “Tonally, are we doing this right? Because you guys were laughing, we’re on the floor crying, and we’re not quite sure.” We just had to trust that we were helping bring her vision to light, and really listen to her when she said, “No, do it this way. Do it again.”
Was navigating the show’s tone about playing contrasts? It seems like comedy of the sort seen here could fail if you were too direct in pursuing it.
Applegate: Oh no, the worst kind of comedy is trying to be funny. That hurts my heart, when I see people trying to be funny. But in this, we could not think about the comedy. It had to just be people that were kind of funny. Like, when I call Lorna a twat, [saying] that I’m going to stab this f*cking b*tch in the twat—which was, of course, one of the ad libs out of my dark, twisted head—that couldn’t have been played. That had to be real. In this particular show, we just had to play the reality.
Cardellini: I had a balancing act to do, as well, because in the first episode, the audience isn’t in on things that they will be in the next episode. So, modulating and arcing that, in terms of how much you know about Judy, and how much she’s willing to let you in on at any given time, was a really fun balancing act for me, and Liz helped us all through that.
Applegate: She tried to help me be likeable, which is really hard with Jen, and she would have to pull me back out sometimes, and be like, “Let’s in this one just have a lighter version of Jen.” Light Jen? And I’d be like, “I don’t feel like it.” [laughs] Because I’m so in Jen’s skin at that point, someone who’s living this pain. But she was right. We needed light Jen to happen. She didn’t have to be this dark all the time.
Actors working in serialized, twisty TV don’t tend to be in on the endgame up front. To my understanding, that wasn’t the way with Dead to Me.
Applegate: On this show, we would table read like four episodes at a time, so there really wasn’t a lot of mystery.
How did your early awareness of Season 1’s many surprises impact the shooting experience, or the approach you took with your work?
Cardellini: Liz was really great because you could ask her as much or as little as you wanted. If you said, “I don’t want to know that yet,” she wouldn’t tell you, and if you said “Tell me everything about that,” she would. And it also comes from a really personal place for her, so she would share things with me for my character that were really informative, and gave me more to draw on.
Applegate: For me, I don’t know. I’ve lived a parallel life to Jen in a way, so I just could feel her.
You’d only met once for lunch prior to shooting. What was it like, going into production on the first few emotionally heavy episodes?
Applegate: I think from the second we met, we trusted each other.
Cardellini: I know it sounds corny, but I was going to say the same thing.
Applegate: We knew who the other person was at the core by just our first meeting. We didn’t talk about the show at lunch. But because we’re doing the kind of content that we’re doing, and we have to go places that are uncomfortable, you need to feel safe with your partner. I think we felt safe enough to do what we needed to do, together and apart, and know that the other person had their back—in life, and also on camera.
And also, we had an environment of that. The set itself felt like a hammock of love and support, because we really had to go dark so much, and that’s a very raw, naked place to be. There’s not a bad egg in the bunch on that crew.
Were both of you improvising throughout the shoot, or was the line Christina mentioned a one-off?
Applegate: We did a lot of that.
Cardellini: We did. We did what was on the page, always…
Applegate: …Always, always. You always have respect for the page. There’s a reason that it’s there.
Cardellini: And our writers were so fantastic and open.
Applegate: They would just let us go. “Put down the pipe…penis,” that whole thing was all us. We improved that scene for a really long time. I could see Mitch [B. Cohn], the boom operator, having to hold this thing like, “Will they stop talking?” We went on forever with that one, and also, the beach, the pot smoking. Some of that ended up in there, but we went on for like 10 minutes. After we had completed the scene as written, we just kept talking.
Cardellini: And they just let us go…
Applegate: …Getting more and more high, and more and more stupid. It was fun.
This series really puts its characters through the emotional ringer. What do you think the value is in pushing characters through unimaginably low moments?
Cardellini: I think it’s life. And also, it creates a vulnerability, [so] that the two of them really need each other, and have this codependency that develops between them.
Applegate: But it’s so much bigger than that. Their bond is so much bigger than all the mistakes they’re making in life. At the core of this show is this relationship, and at the core of this relationship is something so pure.
Cardellini: It’s a show about female friendship, and friendship in general. I think that they really see each other at their best and their worst, even though Judy is a lot of things at once.
Applegate: But when someone understands you and allows you to be all facets of yourself, you trust them implicitly forever. They’re a lifer. So, there’s that, and I think they let each other be however they want to be, as ugly and broken as they are.
We tend to romanticize the dead, but Feldman made an interesting choice with Ted, having Jen see into her husband’s own ugliness only once he’s gone. What did you make of that choice?
Applegate: I think it was important to do that, because life is messy and nobody’s perfect. And I think if we had just immortalized him in a certain way, after a while, it would be like, “Oh, is she crying about her dead husband again?” But then, to go from grief to “You motherf*cker”? Wow. And having to deal with the emotions of that…There’s a scene that I have with Pastor Wayne, and I say that he was cheating on me before he died. He says, “How does that make you feel?” And I said, “Like I hate him, and I don’t want to hate him.” The guilt of hating someone who’s not alive anymore, having that resentment and the shame of that because you should just be mourning them…People feel that way, you know?
Cardellini: I think it’s interesting, too, because you never meet Ted. You never see Ted, but you feel like you know so much about him. I think they did a great job with that.
Applegate: There’s a psychological reason for the audience to never see him. He’s real in your mind, but he doesn’t have to be real in your face. There’s never going to be a flashback to him being alive; he’s always going to be a shadow.
Dead to Me was written and directed predominantly by women. It seems like that must have contributed to the level of depth and nuance we see in its portrait of female friendship. The series and its characters subvert expectations at every turn.
Applegate: They were all incredible. Liz is really a powerhouse of a human being. She’s funny, she’s vulnerable, she’s strong. She’s all of those things, and that is what we all are. We’re complex creatures, and it had to have that voice. It was very important to Liz to have the writers’ room be predominantly women. Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t great dudes in there. But eight out of our 10 shows were directed by women.
Over the last few years, it seems like there’s been a huge shift in the kinds of shows that are being made, with more female antiheroes on television, and more complex, female-driven series than ever. By contrast, just six years ago, Anna Gunn was getting death threats, stemming from her own complex turn on Breaking Bad, going so far as writing an Op-Ed for The New York Times in hopes of stemming the tide.
Applegate: I know, right? I remember that—going like, “What in the…Really, guys?” We’ve got a long way to go as females in all industries, but I do like that there has been some progress, and that we’re getting to tell these stories. But you know what had to happen? Big Little Lies could only happen because Reese Witherspoon was like, “You know what I’m going to do? Make it myself.” So, she found the book, she put it together, she got Nicole Kidman. She was like, “I can’t wait on anybody anymore.” And then out comes this masterpiece, which is one of the best things I’ve ever seen. We couldn’t wait around for other people to do it, so that’s I think what’s happening, is that women and anybody who has had the short end of the deal in all walks of life, we just have to step up and go, “Okay, ain’t nobody going to do it for us.”
Cardellini: I also think that the more we see these underrepresented voices speak out and have their own creative platform to do it, more people recognize themselves in things than they did before, and it sort of creates this awakening of, “Oh, wait a minute. I’ve never seen that before, but that is me. I’d like to see more of that.” And I hope that that wave carries forward.
Dead to Me runs the gamut, in the themes and ideas it explores. Which was most personal or most meaningful to you?
Cardellini: It’s all different layers of grief, and that grief is messy—the grief over things that will happen in life, things that won’t happen in life, things about people that we miss, people who have gone, people who are sick. I think for me, there’s great grief in the idea that I can’t find a family anywhere, but then I find it, [and] it’s fraught with so many issues and problems. But there’s so much in there.
Applegate: Everyone’s going to take away what they need to hear, but I think that at the core of this is support, women holding each other up, people holding each other up when we’re down.
The series was picked up for a second season just a few days ago. Do you have hopes as to where things might go?
Applegate: Liz has already got it mapped out, for the most part.
Cardellini: Yeah, she has a lot of ideas percolating. I keep coming up with ideas, but I don’t know.
Applegate: She likes to think about things; I’ll think about it when I get the call sheet for the next day. [laughs] And then my brain will switch off from being mom to creative brain. But you know me: I can’t multitask with that.
Christina, what’s your take on the phenomenon of binge-watching, having worked mostly in network TV?
Applegate: I’m still confused by all of this right now. I’m like, “What? How do you know if it’s done well?” I’m really kind of naïve about how this operates, so I’m just kind of sitting back and allowing it to unfold.