The 50-year-old actress spoke to Variety about the final season of Dead to Me, now streaming on Netflix, and how as production began, she experienced "scary" symptoms that ultimately led to her diagnosis. MS is a disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain that can cause unpredictable physical, mental, and emotional symptoms.
"I’m not going to say that any of it was easy," said Applegate, 50, about finishing the show. "I started having symptoms in January 2021 — very small, something you could just brush off. Right before we started shooting [in May 2021], it was as if I got hit by a truck and didn’t know what was going on."
She called it "very scary for me, because this body that I had known was no longer mine." At first, they had to "kind of work around" her mystery symptoms "until, finally, I had answers. I found that I had MS while we were shooting on a Monday. I went home, and the doctor said, 'I need to do this meeting with you.' I could feel that this Zoom was not going to be good news. It sucked, I'm not going to lie."
After Applegate's diagnosis, the show shut down for five months so the Married … with Children alum could process the news and start treatment. However, "There is no processing the fact that you have a lifelong degenerative disease," she said. "Maybe other people could have gone into acceptance. I’m just a year in, so I'm still in that mourning process."
She credits her co-star Linda Cardellini and showrunner Liz Feldman, who she was interviewed alongside, for helping her be able to complete the series. By the time she returned to the set — which she insisted on doing — she needed a wheelchair. She had to physically be held up, by an off-camera crew member, for shots. She'd take naps to get through the long tape days. Sometimes, she just had to leave and go home.
"If I didn't have these two ladies, especially, I don't know what I would have done," Applegate said.
Applegate was given the option of not returning. Feldman said they would piece together what they had to bring closure to the story about two widowed best friends. The Emmy-winning actress said finishing it "was personal."
"The conversation had come up, like, 'Should we just stop?' I was like, 'No, we have to finish this for ourselves. We have to tell our story. And I’ll do whatever I can — I’m just going to need your help,'" she said. "When I’d say, 'Hey, you know what? I can't work today,' they’d go, 'OK, we're gonna not work today,' or 'We'll find other scenes.' I was profoundly grateful that I could say, 'I need a half an hour,' or 'I need to go lay down — I can't walk.' … My day started hard, so it was only going to get harder as we went along during the day. So we just tried to pace ourselves as much as possible. We just went, 'Let's just rely on the story and this relationship. All that other stuff doesn't matter.'"
Applegate now uses a cane to get around and has gained 40 pounds after her diagnosis. She said while making the show, she "wouldn’t look in the mirror anymore" while doing fittings with the costume designer.
Asked what she learned while making the show, Applegate — not afraid of making jokes about her diagnosis — quipped, "That I have MS. Just kidding — it never gets old!"
She then got serious, saying, "I don't think of life poetically. I don't self-examine. I've always been go, go, go, go, go. I'm almost 51 years old. I've been in SAG since 1976. I've worked a long time. During the course of that, I have had some incredibly hard things happen to me in the midst of work, and work always made me push through it. I broke my foot while I was living my dream of being on Broadway [in Sweet Charity]. I had breast cancer while I was on my favorite show at the time, Samantha Who? A boyfriend [Lee Grivas] also died that year."
She continued, "Having the biggest one [MS] happen to me during this, I have to honor help. I have to feel the pain that I think I've always wanted to feel for all these other things, that I wasn't allowed to because I wasn't given an amazing space to do so. I had pushed everything down for so long. Through these characters — getting a chance to not have to be on all the f***ing time, be funny or get to the f***ing punch line; being able to play these characters that are so broken, that feel so deeply and so painfully — it really taught me: Christina, you've got to be able to honor that in yourself sometimes."
Applegate isn't sure what her future holds with acting, she'll continue to produce for sure, but said that "the gift of my life" was co-starring opposite Cardellini on this show. "Hopefully, that was not the gift of my swan song. But if it was, I am so happy that it was with [her]."
Earlier this week, Applegate made her first public appearance since her diagnosis, attending her Hollywood Walk of fame star ceremony. She debuted her new cane and appeared sans shoes, as footwear can be restricting for people who have MS. Her former TV mom from Married … With Children, Katey Sagal, held her to help her keep her balance at the podium.
Applegate was accompanied by Cardellini and Feldman, who both spoke on her behalf, as well as Sagal and David Faustino. Applegate's husband, Porno for Pyros musician Martyn LeNoble, 11-year-old daughter Sadie and step-daughter were among those there to honor her.
She shaded the disease that's made her lose control of her body, and made it clear she's not accepting of any of this, rocking a special manicure for the occasion that said: "F U MS."