On “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw once wondered whether girlfriends are really our soul mates. The women of “Dead to Me” know the answer to that question is yes. When creator Liz Feldman first began writing it, the episodes were a way to cope with her own grief over the death of a good friend, process her fertility struggles (she and her wife had been trying to have a baby for years) and simply pay tribute to the friends she’d leaned on along the way.
In Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, she’s found two more lifelong friends. And the three of them had to fight to make this final season of “Dead to Me” — through COVID and through Applegate being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the start of production.
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“Dead to Me” fans, and they are legion with this show, will finally get to see Season 3 on Netflix on Nov. 17, two and a half years after its second season dropped in May 2020.
Since its release, the show — which follows two young widows, Jen Harding (Applegate) and Judy Hale (Cardellini), as they navigate life after loss — has received four Primetime Emmy nominations, including acting nods for both Applegate and Cardellini, and a nomination for outstanding comedy series.
In their only interview together, Applegate, Cardellini and Feldman delve into what it took to make the show’s last 10 episodes, how they brought the stories of Harding and Hale to a close, and the forever-bond they formed since they undertook making “Dead to Me” in 2018.
The conversation, conducted over Zoom, took place three weeks after Feldman welcomed her first child, while Applegate perched comfortably in her bedroom and Cardellini set up shop by the front door of her home — the only place she has good Wi-Fi. The three women did not hold back their laughter and tears, which they delivered in equal measure.
Liz, when the show was renewed in July 2020, you said it would be the third and final season. When did you decide that, and when did you tell the cast?
Liz Feldman: We were halfway through shooting Season 2, and the ending of the show just dropped into my head — this idea that I had about how best to tell the story about grief, loss and friendship in the most full-circle, hopefully satisfying way. Do you guys remember?
Christina Applegate: She wouldn’t tell me what was going to happen because she said I’d be very, very, very sad. She was right.
Feldman: You get to know your friends and co-workers. Linda wants to know everything right away. Christina’s like, “Don’t tell me what I don’t need to know.”
Linda Cardellini: We all knew that it was the end, so that does parallel grief. Sometimes, in grief, someone’s ripped away from you; then there’s other times when you’re allowed to say goodbye. Knowing that we had one more season, it’s so much nicer than somebody just ripping it away. We had a little bit of that on “Freaks and Geeks.” We knew it was our last episode, and to be able to say goodbye to it …
Liz, with so many delays, did you have to alter the story?
Feldman: No. The truth is, this is the story I wanted to tell. If anything changed, it was that we had to pause production for various reasons. And maybe a location changed — but the story itself never changed.
In addition to filming during COVID, Christina, you were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis during production. You’ve been through so many challenges, but high points too. You just got a star on the Walk of Fame.
Applegate: “Walk” of Fame — with quotes. Sorry, MS joke.
Feldman: Welcome to the world of Christina!
Applegate: I’m not going to say that any of it was easy. I started having symptoms in January 2021 — very small, something you could just brush off. Right before we started shooting, it was as if I got hit by a truck and didn’t know what was going on. It was very scary for me, because this body that I had known was no longer mine. We had to kind of work around that 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.
There is no processing the fact that you have a lifelong degenerative disease. Maybe other people could have gone into acceptance. I’m just a year in, so I’m still in that mourning process. But if I didn’t have these two ladies, especially, I don’t know what I would have done.
Liz, did you consider scrapping the season?
Feldman: More than anything, my concern was as a person who loves Christina. We just wanted to support her in any way we possibly could. If that meant we should stop, then we would have stopped. A job is just a job; a show is just a show. We would have done anything that Christina wanted to do. We kept going because that’s what felt right.
Applegate: It had to be told, for us, and, of course, for our audience, who have invested the last four years loving these characters and learning about them. But for us three, this 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.” 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.”
If I didn’t have the compassion of the powers that be, I don’t know if I could have actually done it. 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.”
Cardellini: I just wanted my friend to be as OK as she could possibly be, whether we were in each other’s kitchens or on set. Christina and I have a habit of mama-bearing for each other. We just try to look out for each other always, and that didn’t stop. As challenging as it was, our friendship grew even stronger, because we do rely on each other.
Applegate: I love you, babe.
Cardellini: I love you too. And I don’t want to speak to your experience…
Applegate: It was all of our experiences. We were all let down by the shit stick.
It’s incredible how the way you lean on each other is mirrored in Jen and Judy.
Feldman: This show has always been a love letter to my friends. I always felt, watching other shows, that there was cynicism about female friendship that seemed to always lead with how women are catty; they fight and they want the same guy.
Applegate: They were written by men, that’s why!
Feldman: That’s probably exactly right. I just wanted to show female friendship the way I experienced it — unconditional, supportive, loving and hilarious. I wanted to show them together as much as possible so we could just watch their magic as much as possible.
Let’s talk about the show’s legacy. Linda, what do you think it is?
Cardellini: It’s about female friendship — that unconditional love. And the themes that Liz has always talked about: grief, loss, friendship, forgiveness. I’ve never had such a partnership, and I will miss the working relationship. I feel like it’s such a gift that I was able to be given these relationships in my workplace. Christina is my best scene partner ever. We were able to improvise, to laugh, to cry through life and through the scripts in a way that I had never experienced before. I’ll miss Jen and Judy.
Applegate: My life is so different now, and I miss these two women so much — not the characters, these two. I can honestly say with 100% conviction that I have never, ever worked opposite someone like Linda Cardellini; it was magical. I can’t think about whether it was good or not — I’m talking about just sitting there looking into her eyes every day. That was the gift of my life. Hopefully, that was not the gift of my swan song. But if it was, I am so happy that it was with you, my love.
Cardellini: We are very lucky. We feel so grateful. Liz, you put us together. Thank you so much.
Feldman: This show and this experience are beyond what I ever allowed myself to dream. It’s been very healing for me. This show came from a very real place: I needed to tell a story about loss, something that helped me process all the people who have passed, and my own stuff with fertility. Now, five years later, I’ve made so many incredible friends, and I’ve been able to tell these stories that helped me process pain and loss. I’m now the proud mother of a 3-week-old! This show has, for some reason, given me life. That would not have been possible without these two women.
Christina, what do you want to take from the character of Jen and bring into your own life?
Applegate: Jen is me; I am Jen. There’s so much there that is at the very fibers of who I am. I sometimes didn’t know where she started and I ended. That was very empowering as an actor. I felt very comfortable in her skin. She’s very complicated — I don’t know if I want to take that part!
Cardellini: I’d take Judy’s wardrobe!
Applegate: We all want her wardrobe. Those rings? I had a stupid blazer and pants, and she comes out looking like an angel. Here comes me in my realtor vest!
Feldman: Shout-out to Tracy Fields, our costume designer.
Applegate: She was so frustrated with me because I wouldn’t look in the mirror anymore, so she’d have to do my fittings with out me knowing what I was putting on. But she did a great job of keeping with the character after I decided not to look.
You guys mentioned doing improv — has that been happening since Season 1?
Applegate: In almost every single scene when it’s just the two of us.
Cardellini: We were never just free-wheeling and throwing the script out the window. We would not do that to our writers because they are so talented. It’d be a disservice to the show, but they’d let us go after we’d get everything we need.
Feldman: In Season 1, they have whole conversation about Steve’s penis. That’s something I wouldn’t have written — it’s not in my wheelhouse! They just improvised one line and I was like, okay, let’s pause there and then I want you to just talk about his penis and get back into the scene. That was maybe the first time we really did it where almost the entire scene is really just them. Absolutely some of the funniest moments from all seasons come from them improvising.
Cardellini: Never have I been on a set where the showrunner knew improv so well. It really encouraged us to stretch ourselves.
Applegate: Having worked with other people in my past where improv was their jam — I’m gonna say it — the women are not as much supporting and encouraged in that department. And I’m not talking about “Anchorman,” because that was like a love fest of support, but I have been in situations where I felt like, “The women aren’t the funny ones. You guys stick to the script, let’s have the boys rock it out!”
What did you learn about yourself throughout this process?
Cardellini: I have a lot of things that I’ve been processing about grief. I knew that, but having to recall those feelings — some of them very fresh, some of them older — stood to help me examine those feelings in my life. It challenged me to. Grief is an interesting thing because we all know it’s coming to us at some point, yet we still don’t know how we’re going to handle it. It doesn’t always come all at once. Sometimes it takes someone reminding you of something very small to hit you like a ton of bricks. This show, every season, has done that to me.
Christina, what about you? What did you learn about yourself through this?
Applegate: That I have MS. Just kidding — it never gets old! 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. I had breast cancer while I was on my favorite show at the time, “Samantha Who?” A boyfriend also died that year.
Having the biggest one 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 fucking time, be funny or get to the fucking 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.
Sorry, I’m crying so much, but I have my period! Just kidding — I’ve been in menopause for four years, so I’m good!
“Dead to Me” Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix.
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