Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, who star as unlikely best friends in Netflix’s “Dead to Me,” are cozied up on a sofa in a nook of a West Los Angeles hotel when the conversation quickly turns to baby weight and leaky boobs.
For context: “Dead to Me” marks Applegate’s first TV series since starring in NBC’s short-lived 2011 parenthood comedy “Up All Night” — which coincided with her becoming a new mom to daughter Sadie.
“I remember I was doing some play or something before starting that,” Applegate says. “I had just had the baby, so I was baby-size, you know? And I told this guy how I was about to do this pilot. And he goes, ‘Wow, good for you, doing that. Like, he looked at my body and was like, ‘Good for you. Wow, that takes a lot of guts.” I was like, ‘OK, anyway ...’”
Cardellini interjects to share her own working mom experience: “I think Lilah was 4 months old when I did ‘Mad Men.’ So I was pumping in the trailers and wearing one-of-a-kind beautiful vintage clothes that I was terrified I was going to leak on. But I felt great. My boobs were huge, and it was fun … Past tense.”
“Hashtag sorry,” Applegate says, launching them into laughter.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in mid-April and one would be forgiven for thinking the two actresses go way back. They know each other’s quirks. While talking about the driving routes they took to today’s destination, Cardellini stresses that Applegate doesn’t like to be late; they encourage the other’s hankerings in one breath — like when Applegate wants to order wine, and Cardellini wants to order waffles — and rib each other the next. At one point in the conversation, they whisper mischievous answers to a question before eventually divulging it to the reporter sitting across from them.
That familiar demeanor and mutual appreciation has made their portrayal of female friendship on “Dead to Me” something to behold — even if it takes some mind bending to comprehend as you get deeper into the season.
Now available to stream on Netflix, the dark comedy from Liz Feldman (“2 Broke Girls”) centers on Jen (Applegate), a guarded and cynical Laguna Beach real estate agent whose husband was recently killed by a hit-and-run driver, and Judy (Cardellini), a free-spirited art teacher at an assisted living facility — and the friendship they develop after meeting at a grief counseling group. Think of it as “Broad City” meets “Fargo,” with a lot of twists and turns. So, yes, that first script was quite the read.
“I was like, ‘What is this?’” says Applegate, who was ambivalent about working again because she preferred her days volunteering at her daughter’s school library.
“Agreed!” Cardellini says enthusiastically.
“ ‘Like, what am I reading?’ ” Applegate continues. “And then what we find out at the end of the pilot, I was like, ‘Um, wow. I did not see that coming.’ ”
“And I didn’t see the tone coming after that either,” Cardellini says. “Because you have a show with two lead characters who are interesting, and it’s about their day-to-day lives, and going through grief is something that they’re dealing with. And you think, well that’s what the show is about. Which it is, but it’s got some things going on. The plot keeps moving in different directions. Every episode ends with somebody finding out something.”
Adds Applegate: “I love that it was suspenseful but also funny. The comedy’s coming out of complete and utter pain and grief.”
And while the show features a character mourning the death of her husband — showing the bouts of rage and sleepless nights and all its other manifestations — grief is explored beyond its ties to death. As the season unfolds, there are revelations about infertility and betrayal and the notion of people not being who they thought they were.
Warning: The rest of this story contains spoilers from the first season of “Dead to Me.”
The series was born at a delicate time for Feldman. A week before her 40th birthday — a time when many grapple with their own mortality — she was rocked by the death of her cousin. At the same time, she was having challenges with fertility while finding out many of her close friends were pregnant. And there she was, not long after, in a pitch meeting with producers seeking ideas for a two-female lead project.
“Something came into my head, but I was like, ‘Don’t say this because you should flesh it out; don’t be immature with your idea,’ ” Feldman recalls. “But I just blurted it out: One of them is a widow and she meets the other one at a grief group — only her guy didn’t die, he broke up with her. When I sort of stepped away from it, knowing what’s been going on, you can see how it starts to color the DNA of the show.”
Those producers eventually passed. But Feldman took it to CBS Television Studios, where she has an overall deal, and they scooped it up. Applegate, who had known Feldman previously, was the first to be cast. In addition to Applegate and Cardellini, James Marsden also stars in the series as the love interest to Cardellini’s character.
Unlike their characters, Applegate and Cardellini’s friendship meet-cute was a lot less fraught. After signing on to star in the series, they gathered with Feldman and executive producer Jessica Elbaum at the Melrose Avenue vegan restaurant Crossroads for lunch.
“I know it sounds like jeez mcgeez, but I remember she said something and I was looking into her eyes and thought, ‘Oh, I know you. And I love you.’ And that was it,” Applegate says of Cardellini. “The work that we had to do and the places we had to go — you have to have a trusting partner and a loving partner and a supportive partner. Someone who gets you and allows you a safe place to go with the rawest emotions you have to feel. And that was what we had.”
Applegate shares some similarities with her character: They’re both dancers and have faced breast cancer (the latter of which she suggested be incorporated in the middle of filming). But she says she found herself emotionally exhausted by her character’s journey in Season 1, describing Jen as someone who navigates life like she’s being punched in the face by 10 different people.
“That’s why she punches back,” she says. “She’s like, ‘I’m going to punch you first so I don’t have to feel the pain of being punched anymore’ — metaphorically, of course. But I think she blames herself for why her husband is dead and the reasons leading up to that. The personal problems she was having with her own self, and her own anger, her own loss of her body and not being the best of everything, even though she wants to be. It’s a lot and it’s how we all feel sometimes. I have those days where I’m failing at everything. But she’s not the kind of personality that wants to admit she doesn’t have the answers. And Judy allows her to fall apart when she really needs to in order to get back up.”
Cardellini, who says she’s more cynical than her character, appreciated the layers she was able to explore in Judy.
“I think Judy’s grief is something that she doesn’t necessarily feel entitled to,” Cardellini says, careful to word her response in a way that doesn’t spoil too much for the viewer. “And I think that’s something that’s really interesting to tackle. I think it shapes her entirely. It put her in a position where what happened, happened. She wasn’t in her own mind and body enough to be able to make a decision that would have helped save somebody.”
I loved the idea of two female leads who are totally separate from each other, and different from each other, who also really relied on each other.
It gets the two pinballing off each other with enthusiasm about the portrait the show paints of these two women — together and apart. Whether it’s the way Applegate’s character has a penchant for a four-letter curse word that rhymes with duck — “I was like, am I saying it again? It’s awesome because I have an 8-year-old, so I can’t be free with that word” — or the way the show explores the idea of “crazy,” a term often thrown around when it comes to describing female behavior. And, of course, the friendship — the kind that includes a disagreement over which “Facts of Life” character they are most like.
“I loved the idea of two female leads who are totally separate from each other, and different from each other, who also really relied on each other for better and for worse, and against better judgment,” Cardellini says. “And I loved the idea of toying with what the audience knows and doesn’t know.”
“This was written primarily by women, directed primarily by women,” Applegate adds. “We know what female friendships are. God bless men, but they have a skewed view of what female friendships are. And as remarkable as what happens at the end of the season -- and the lies and everything that’s revealed -- their bond is something that’s bigger than all of it.”
Applegate and Cardellini’s friendship seems to be just as strong on this Saturday. Even when you get them talking about “Facts of Life” characters.
“That’s what I have in common with Judy. I thought calling Christina a ‘Blair’ was a compliment, and I love that you were totally offended by it,” Cardellini says.
“That was like the worst thing you could say,” Applegate declares. “Ugh, dude. Seriously, no.”
“I mean, she wasn’t hip,” Cardellini adds. “But she was, like, beautiful, and … that hair.”
“No. I always knew I was a Jo. When I was a kid, I was like, I’m a Jo. I’m a Jo.”
“I love them all,” Cardellini says.
“I love them all too.”