Since sharing the news of her multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis last year, Christina Applegate has been keeping a low profile — attempting to make it through the shoot of the third and final season of her hit Netflix show Dead to Me.
But now that filming has wrapped and new episodes are on the air, she wants to make people aware of her health battle.
On Thursday, the actor spoke with Kelly Clarkson about her journey, her diagnosis, and how she wants people to accept her new self. And as has been her way over the years as a comedic performer, she wants to use humor as a tool to connect.
"Yeah, my humor shields keep me OK, but, of course, down on the insides, you feel the things," she told Clarkson. "And I do it to kind of deflect and then also make people not be scared to be around me, you know? When people see me now as a disabled person, I want them to feel comfortable that we can laugh about it."
As an example, she shared a parody song of Santa Baby — with the words changed to be about her mobility.
"I have a song that I wrote called 'Dis-aby Baby,''' Applegate said before singing, "Hurry down the chimney tonight, I can’t because my wheelchair won’t fit down it.'"
Acting on her show was also healing for Applegate.
"The beauty of Dead to Me is that it gave me almost this weird platform of dealing with it, where I didn't have to be on all the time and I didn't have to make all the jokes and I could fall apart in a scene," she said. "And it was, like, me. It was my soul actually falling apart, unfortunately, in front of the world, but it was cathartic in a beautiful way."
Using acting to get through tough times isn’t new to Christina — and even though the physical act of getting through her scenes was tough, it also made her feel better.
"I've probably been going through grief and trauma my whole life, and acting was the place that I got to go to not feel it, you know?"
Still she described filming the final scene as the hardest thing she’s done in her life.
"Being diagnosed with MS last year and what happened to my body, to my mind, to my spirit, to my everything, of course I didn't want to be around anyone or talk about it, but I had to go to work," she said in the interview with Clarkson. "I was not forced to go to work, but I made sure that we finished the show."
"It was really incredibly difficult, and then I went to sleep for a few months," she went on. "And then all of a sudden now I had to come out again and be this person. And people had seen me as this other person for the last almost 40 years, and I'm different now, and it's incredibly hard. I'm going to do my best to get through it, I suppose."
Last month, Applegate first started talking candidly about her diagnosis. “This is the first time anyone’s going to see me the way I am,” she told The New York Times about the final season of Dead to Me.
“I put on 40 pounds; I can’t walk without a cane. I want people to know that I am very aware of all of that,” she said.
Applegate, 50, who has an 11-year-old daughter Sadie with her husband Martyn LeNoble, said she first started noticing subtle signs of her MS while filming the first season of Dead to Me, which premiered in 2019. She felt off balance, and her tennis game was faltering.
“I wish I had paid attention,” Applegate admitted to NYT. “But who was I to know?”
The tingling and numbness in her extremities grew worse over the next few years and, in summer 2021, Applegate received a diagnosis of MS, an autoimmune disease that disrupts communication between the brain and body.
Production of Dead to Me shut down for about five months as she began treatment.
“There was the sense of, ‘Well, let’s get her some medicine so she can get better,’” Applegate recalled. “And there is no better. But it was good for me. I needed to process my loss of my life, my loss of that part of me. So I needed that time.”
Applegate admits that she hasn’t fully accepted her diagnosis or the fact that it will completely alter the course of her life and career.
“... It’s not like I came on the other side of it, like, ‘Woohoo, I’m totally fine,’” she said. “Acceptance? No. I’m never going to accept this. I’m pissed.”
Earning Emmy nominations for Dead to Me and her portrayal of Jen, a real estate agent grieving the loss of her husband, Applegate is hopeful audiences can watch the final episodes without noticing her health struggle.
“If people hate it, if people love it, if all they can concentrate on is, ‘Ooh, look at the cripple,’ that’s not up to me,” Applegate said. “I’m sure that people are going to be, like, ‘I can’t get past it.’ Fine, don’t get past it, then,” she continued. “But hopefully people can get past it and just enjoy the ride and say goodbye to these two girls.”
Although there was talk to just scrap the season completely, Applegate fought to finish it.
“I had an obligation to Liz [Feldman, the series’ creator] and to Linda [Cardellini, her co-star], to our story,” she said. “The powers that be were like, ‘Let’s just stop. We don’t need to finish it. Let’s put a few episodes together.’ I said, ‘No. We’re going to do it, but we’re going to do it on my terms.’”
Some changes were made to scene blocking to hide any balance issues, but the script was kept intact. (The season does deal with illness, which “crushed” both Applegate and Cardellini sometimes.) Applegate told NYT that she struggled to walk down the stairs of her trailer and was taken to set in a wheelchair. And during some scenes, the sound technician and her good friend Mitch B. Cohn would be out of the camera’s range, on the floor, holding up her legs.
Some days she skipped work altogether, but insisted the support and love from the cast and crew kept her going.
Applegate — who also battled breast cancer and had a double mastectomy in 2008 — first shared news of her diagnosis on Twitter in Aug. 2021. The news came amid the release of the trailer for Introducing, Selma Blair, which details fellow actress Selma Blair’s own battle with MS.
“It’s been a tough road. But as we all know, the road keeps going. Unless some asshole blocks it,” Applegate wrote, in part, with her The Sweetest Thing co-star Blair commenting, "Loving you always. Always here. As are our kids. Beating us up with love."
"I love our two weirdos. They are so fun," Applegate tweeted back to Blair.
Here’s hoping both Applegate’s and Blair’s families offer support, love and weird humor for years to come.
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