It’s the end of a long press day to promote Netflix’s new dark comedy “Dead to Me” and someone’s deodorant is failing. Or it isn’t, but they are afraid it is. Or it is, but the other didn’t mind. They are a little punchy and a lot relaxed, so the conversation is a little hard to follow, but what is clear was that in the process of filming, the pair discovered the comfortable camaraderie that comes with genuine friendship.
It’s a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that before being cast in their new show, and despite each woman’s lengthy Hollywood career, the two had never met.
In “Dead to Me,” a half-hour series that straddles the line between comedy and drama, Jen (Applegate) is a mother of two whose husband was recently killed in a hit and run. She is drowning in her grief and rapidly losing the ability to quell the anger threatening the erupt at any moment. At a support group for grieving spouses, Jen meets sunny, funny Judy (Cardellini) and the pair become begrudging, if genuine, friends. And that’s about all that can be said about the series without spoiling the show.
Those twists and turns are partially what drew each actress to the series, they explained in an interview with IndieWire.
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For Applegate, “Dead to Me” marks her first series regular role on television since 2011’s “Up All Night” on NBC, which was canceled after two seasons. But she’s no stranger in front of the camera, breaking through in 1987 as Kelly Bundy on “Married with Children” and going on to star in several network sitcoms including, “Jesse” and “Samantha Who?,” in addition to winning an Emmy for her guest role on “Friends.”
After all that, plus a successful career in film and on stage, Applegate had earned a break from the TV grind. So why come back?
During her downtime, the actress had been in development on a political-themed project with “Dead to Me” creator and showrunner Liz Feldman and executive producer Adam McKay that never came to fruition, thanks to the current state of American politics. When the show’s casting directors mentioned to Feldman that Applegate would be perfect as Jen, the showrunner knew it was meant to be.
“The very first person they suggested for the show was Christina and it was one of those moments where I got the chills,” Feldman said. “So that was just kismet from the beginning.”
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For her part, Applegate needed slightly more convincing, including a home visit from Feldman laying out the entirety of the first season.
“I was like ‘That is farfetched, that will never work,’ but it does,” Applegate admitted. Plus, there was so much more to the characters, something dark, something difficult, something she couldn’t turn down. “It’s not often that people ask me to go deep, where I have to go somewhere that is scary and also be funny,” she said. “These characters are unraveling and it shows you how complex we all are.”
Once the series had locked in Applegate, it was time to search for her co-star.
“I met with [Linda] and I saw this side of her that I felt like I hadn’t seen in her previous work,” Feldman explained. “She was so light, hilarious, and endearing in person. She exudes such warmth and I thought it was really important for Judy to be someone that you love despite some of the actions that she takes in the show.”
For Cardellini, the series offered a stark change of pace after recently filming two period piece dramas, a horror film, and, yes, “Avengers: Endgame,” coupled with the brilliance of Feldman.
“The best things I’ve been able to work on in television were with a showrunner that had a very specific vision and stuck with the project all the way through,” Cardellini said, having previously starred in series including “Freaks and Geeks,” “E.R.,” and Netflix’s “Bloodline,” as well as earning an Emmy nomination for her guest role on “Mad Men.”
“I been trying to just say yes to things that scare me or challenge me or are completely different from things I’ve done before,” she continued. “This fit in all of those categories for me. It was a total adventure.”
Without giving away too much, the heart of “Dead to Me” revolves around how people process – or don’t process – trauma when it befalls them. During the interview, the pair expand on this idea.
“Trauma from our childhood effects the way that we act in our forties,” Applegate said. “It effects the way that we are in relationships and effects the way we deal with ourselves and the world, the person that we portray to the world, the mask that we wear is never really the truth of who we are.”
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“For me, when great trauma has hit, it can’t hit you all at once because you can’t process it. Like [Christina] said, you can process something from when you were a child and it changes well into your adulthood,” Cardellini added.
“We’re not linear,” Applegate jumped back in. “A trauma can happen 20 years ago and you dealt with it the way you dealt with it because you were 20 years old. But then another trauma will happen and break the previous wound wide open. I think that’s where these people are at.”
Far from the light-hearted ridiculousness of the interview’s start, the two actresses are earnest as they speak about the pain that people endure every day and the attempts to move forward at all cost, spurring Applegate to share a moment from their second day of filming, during which the actress vandalizes a car.
“I kept beating the car and every time I would get back into the [other] car I couldn’t breathe and I’d start bawling,” she said. “We’d drive and we’d go down this cul de sac and I couldn’t breathe and I said to Linda ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t know what’s happening.” Then I’d go back and do it again. I did this 15 times and every time I’d get in the car, almost barfing, like ‘What’s going on?’ Finally, [Linda] says to me ‘Your body doesn’t know you’re faking.” And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m having therapy right now, this is therapy.’”
The memory is powerful. And just as quickly as they grew somber, the pair are back in their groove and Applegate asks if Cardellini could smell her. (She couldn’t.) Later, Cardellini will accuse Applegate of having $22,000 in Netflix DVD fines, which the latter is mock offended by. It’s the easy banter of two friends comfortable in their own skins who know a thing or two about life and about the challenges of the industry they’re in.
“Be kinder to yourself,” Cardellini said, when asked what advice she’d give a younger version of herself. “It’s a long road. Some of the clichés are true and you’re gonna have to contend with that, the good and the bad, but you can do it as long as you don’t lose sight of what you love.”
“What would I say to my little self?” Applegate pondered. “None of it means that much now. At the end of the day, when you’re middle-aged, none of it means anything. It’s the moments that mean something, it’s the connections that you make in life and that’s what you’re gonna take with you. All this other shit doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean anything.”