The lunch set out on Christina Applegate’s kitchen counter is a succinct testament to the pains and pleasures of a 40-year-old working actress. She’s eager to tuck into the vegan faux-crab cake on a mesclun-lined plate. But she frowns at the bottle of green beverage set beside it. “Ugh,” she says. “I’m starting a cleanse.”
You play, you pay. Time to scour out the tasty toxins of summer hiatus here in the Hollywood Hills and fortify for a breathless fall of TV and movie work. She is about to begin a second season starring in the NBC sitcom Up All Night. The show triangulates her character, Reagan, a type A television producer and new mom; her husband, Chris (Will Arnett); and Reagan’s best friend and, as of this season, former boss, Ava (Maya Rudolph), a rock diva turned chat-show queen. Bobbing in their midst is the couple’s baby, Amy.
Applegate soon will also be on a movie set reprising her role as Veronica Corningstone, Will Ferrell’s feisty love interest, in a sequel to the hit 2004 TV-news spoof Anchorman. As with all Judd Apatow–produced films, there will most likely be warp-speed improv, flying fluids and bruising slapstick. Bring it on, says Applegate—she’s happy to have been asked back. “The female role is oftentimes interchangeable or expendable in a man flick,” she says. “I’m glad they recognized I was a part of that team.”
But after more than a decade of playing the duh-licious tart-in-a-tube-top Kelly Bundy on the Fox sitcom Married with Children, and after dozens of appearances in such lighthearted movies as Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, as well as the sitcoms Jesseand Samantha Who?, doesn’t she see herself as funny? “I don’t,” she says. “I know that comedy is the thing I’m going to be given because that’s what I’ve been doing for so long. I’m not being called to do After the Fall. But I never think of myself as that funny person.”
Maya Rudolph, a veteran of glib, nimble ensemble casts (Saturday Night Live, Bridesmaids), disagrees: “Christina’s sense of humor is such a strong voice that I can hear it in a text message or an e-mail. It’s really dry. She’s got a Pinot Grigio sense of humor.”
Applegate’s most unlikely comedic costar weighs in as well. Stevie Nicks, who made a guest appearance on Up All Nightlast season, says of her new friend, “Christina is that girl next door you really would love to know, really sweet and smart and dear. She is one of my favorite people in the whole world.”
A squeal erupts behind the kitchen island, and Applegate wonders aloud whether her upcoming workload might be less challenging than dealing with a toddler discovering the joys of “No!” Her daughter, Sadie, will be two in January, and the household dynamic is already getting wiggy. Here comes Sadie now, squarely into the criminally cute phase. She has jammed an oversize cap onto her head and a cell phone in her ear. “Mama! Papa! Buh-byeeeeeeee.”
Standing over the tot, Papa grins. Applegate’s fiancé is Dutch-born Martyn LeNoble, a former bassist for the alternative band Porno for Pyros. At the kitchen table, his 15-year-old daughter, Marlon, has been entertaining her little sister. LeNoble currently composes the music for Up All Night. Much of the time he works in their home studio. Lately they have been in deep huddles about Sadie’s new willful mode. “We don’t know the best thing to do,” Applegate confesses. “She’s starting to get really defiant when we say no and look back at us with an evil look in her eye.”
Sadie has also just dropped her afternoon nap, and Applegate stands ready to absorb the resulting late-day meltdowns. She is trim, strong and, according to the physical exam she underwent earlier this morning, robustly healthy. For several years before her 2008 breast--cancer diagnosis, she was one of the most scanned celebrity denizens of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Her doctors have insisted on regular diagnostics since her early thirties, given her mother’s two bouts: breast cancer at age 38, then an ovarian-related recurrence 16 years later. Applegate is sure that a breast MRI in early 2008 saved her life. “I had two lumpectomies, and I was supposed to start radiation. Then I found out I had the gene [the BRCA1 gene mutation that increases risk and recurrence of breast and ovarian cancers], and my decision was to undergo the prophylactic double mastectomy.”
She smiles as she recites a line from Anchorman, in which dishy Veronica Corningstone asks newsroom letch Fred Willard if he plans to deprive her of a spot on his news show “because I have breasts? Exquisite breasts?” Applegate appreciates the artistry of her reconstructed versions, which she got a few days before her 37th birthday. Nonetheless . . .
“Aw, I miss my exquisite breasts sometimes,” she says. Now she runs a foundation, Right Action for Women, which helps make early breast MRIs affordable for women at high risk. She says she is fine with taking on the sort of cancer career expected of high-profile survivors, from Melissa Etheridge to Sheryl Crow. She just wishes her double mastectomy hadn’t been outed by the media before the anesthetic had even worn off.
It happened when Applegate was still in the hospital. Though there had been a guard outside her room, doctor’s orders required that she “start walking right away. I was walking with my little IV drip thing, in my little robe. My friend said he saw someone take a picture of me. The next day I got a call from my publicist, who said, ‘It’s out.’ ” Still groggy from medication, Applegate sat down to draft a statement.
Only in hindsight did she recognize the personal toll of going public so quickly: She denied herself the time to grieve. “The good thing is that we got the information out, but talking about the facts of the disease, I didn’t have to see what was going on with me. I think when it slowed down, all of that came crashing down.” Applegate overcame what she calls a “total emotional collapse” with the support of family, close friends and her spiritual adviser from the church she turned to during her mother’s cancer recurrence. Most of her healing was done quietly, at home.
This is a woman who knows how to stand her ground, in many ways. “I’ve never lived more than five minutes from where I grew up,” she says. She was 24 when she bought her house—located, like her childhood home, in Laurel Canyon—with her earnings from her role as Kelly Bundy. At the time, she was fleeing a relationship that turned scarily abusive. “I just had to leave,” she says.
Applegate has lived in the house for 17 years, but never alone. There have been roommates, boyfriends, a husband (actor Johnathon Schaech, to whom she was married from 2001 to 2007), cats, dogs, actors, rockers and her beloved mom, who visits almost every day. Protective child gates now crisscross the landing above the cavernous great room where le tout young Hollywood once partied. It’s a home that has adapted to a series of upheavals and changes in Applegate’s life and kept her centered.
Resolutely, this is “Christina’s World.” In November of 1971, singer-actress Nancy Priddy and record producer Robert Applegate named their only child after the muse in the Andrew Wyeth painting of that title. But Applegate shares little else with Wyeth’s solitary, handicapped woman crawling across a windswept field.
“She’s extremely vulnerable and has always been that way,” Priddy says of her daughter. “But she’s very strong.”
Applegate cried in Priddy’s arms when she got her cancer diagnosis, but soon she took charge. She was facing a four-month lag between her lumpectomies and the double mastectomy she had decided to have; she was busy working, and doctors were confident the delay wasn’t dangerous. Still, she assembled her nearest and dearest and laid down the law: “There was to be no stress in this house. The heart rate had to stay even, and don’t piss me off. I didn’t want to feel my blood pressure go up. I still had cancer, and I didn’t want to accelerate cell growth. I just wanted to stay calm. I think for the most part I’ve kept that philosophy.”
It’s a practical outlook that goes back to her early childhood. Her parents divorced when Christina was three months old, and Priddy found herself perched, with her infant, in a tiny house on Lookout Mountain Avenue. At that time Laurel Canyon was home to many single mothers, for whom those ’60s summers of love had morphed into rent bills and thirdhand Toyotas. Christina first appeared on TV when her working mom had to haul her to a soap opera job as a babe in arms.
“The canyon does have homes like this one,” Applegate says. “But it also has 800-square-foot broken-down houses. We all lived in shacks here. And all those mothers struggled to provide for their kids. For most of them, the father was not really a role in their lives.”
Applegate spent weekends with her dad until he moved to Northern California when she was about 10; she still maintains a close relationship with him and two half-siblings, who live in L.A. Despite the civility of her parents’ split, there was more trouble at home.
“Badstepdad,” she says. “From three to seven, I had a stepfather who caused a lot of damage to my mother and to me. I think that put her off, and she never had another relationship.” A more benevolent male presence was a man she knew as Uncle Stephen and whom she still calls her godfather, musician Stephen Stills, whose early romance with her mother settled into a lifelong friendship. Back in the day, Stills might have been singing about the mothers of Christina’s little tribe of preteens who skateboarded through the canyon sporting buzz cuts and modified mohawks:
Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by.
And feed them on your dreams. . .
Priddy had musical aspirations beyond the album she recorded (with producer Phil Ramone) but says she has few regrets about scaling them down to make ends meet with voice-overs and commercials. There was parental discipline in their community, but with a decidedly hippie slant. “All the moms kind of let us do whatever we wanted to do,” Applegate says. “There weren’t a lot of rules, but there was a lot of mutual respect. I always made sure she knew where I was, and I would always be home by a reasonable hour.”
She doesn’t recall envying the material excesses of Valley Girls in nearby towns. “I never felt poor or that I wasn’t provided for,” she says. “There were months when we were on food stamps, but for the most part, we did OK. I was working, so it was a two-income family.”
She wasa trouper. Applegate was missing her two front teeth and wearing her “flipper” (a bridge crafted by dentists to conceal lost baby teeth) when it came loose during a canned-ham commercial. Christina asked the director coolly, “Can I see my mom for a minute?” Priddy reached into her purse for denture fixative, and her daughter nailed the take. She made good money; Priddy invested some for her in real estate.
Applegate does not remember much about her mother’s first cancer surgery, a mastectomy. “The only thing that changed in our life,” she says, “was that we started going to our church.” It was called the Church of Religious Science, “which is not Christian Science or Scientology; that’s not what we are,” she emphasizes. “It’s the basic belief that God is everywhere and you can really change the course of your life by having clear intentions.”
At 10, she began learning meditation, lying side by side with her mother: “She would say, ‘Visualize a chalkboard on your forehead. Now start erasing those thoughts.’ Then we would put in intentions, things we wanted in our life. I finally understood. It’s not a car or bike. It’s grace, gratitude, health.”
It was then that she built her survivor’s tool kit. Still, we have to ask: What “intentions” did a girl visualize at the dawn of the MTV age? She laughs. “I wanted to hang out with John Taylor,” the Duran Duran bassist. Years later, there he was, working with her on Samantha Who? She also visualized being on TV—and ended up as Kelly Bundy, beginning at age 15.
At 17, Christina declared her intention to move out of her mother’s home and into a tiny house they had invested in. Priddy let her go—a decision she still questions, even though she was only five minutes away. Maybe sticking around longer would have afforded her daughter a bit more protection.
“She’s kissed a lot of frogs, that poor kid,” Priddy says. In the Bundy years, Applegate brought home plenty of boy pals from the studio, nice guys just breaking into the business on Fox throb-a-thons like Beverly Hills 90210. Johnny Depp, then starring in 21 Jump Street, was an early friend. “Brad Pitt used to come up, and Jason Priestley. We’d do barbecues,” Priddy says. It did not help matters, though, that Kelly’s micro-skirted screen image sizzled into so many male viewers’ thick skulls.
Applegate’s TV dad, Ed O’Neill (now starring in Modern Family), confesses to some fretting: “We all went through her having boyfriends that were rather questionable. I would say, ‘Hey, you need a hand with these guys?’ She had a propensity for taking guys in that really weren’t on her financial level. She’d just take care of them, nurture and encourage them.” Then came the one O’Neill calls the fisherman, who showed up after Applegate’s marriage had crumbled.
During her Tony-nominated New York run in Sweet Charity, a friend introduced her to deep-sea fisherman and aspiring photographer Lee Grivas. Living together in L.A., they had a relationship that was stormy at best. “We had been apart for a couple of months because of his drug addiction,” Applegate says. “During that time, I found out I had cancer—when that relationship was dissolving.” She broke it off to work on saving herself. On July 1, 2008, Grivas was found dead in his apartment of an overdose.
Suddenly, at this grim juncture, Applegate laughs. For the past few hours, she has been gamely submitting to a speed recitation of all the rotten things she has endured. Nonetheless, 2008 was the worst: “Both of my cats died right after I found out I had cancer. The cats and the boyfriend died, all within three months. I laugh but . . . oh my God.”
Just when it seemed things couldn’t get much darker, “Martyn came back into my life,” she says. “We’ve known each other since 1995, but we hadn’t seen each other for 10, 11 years. We ran into each other at Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, where we were both volunteering.” Another visualization come true? She shrugs. “We had always cared deeply for one another when we were friends. And he came and put me under his wing. That was it—he was supposedto come.” They would like to have a second child, she says, but “because of some things that happened during my pregnancy, I don’t know if I can. I hope I can. We’ll see.”
Art and life overlap these days—sometimes a bit sloppily. So many babies on board. Sadie lunches with her mother nearly every day on the set of Up All Night. Other frequent child visitors are Arnett’s two little boys with Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph’s three children with movie director Paul Thomas Anderson, as well as the twins who play baby Amy. This is kid-friendly Hollywood: Good-night, moon. Good-night, Mr. Fuzzy Sound Boom.
So how’s it working for everyone? Arnett, previously known for what he sees as misunderstood connivers on Arrested Developmentand 30 Rock, loves playing a nice, normal guy. He admires Applegate’s approach to work-life balance: “Christina has set out to give Sadie this great environment, and she does it every day. She works hard on the show, but she really carves out time—Sadie is there a lot.”
To boost the serenity factor, she splurged on a Malibu beach house. She took it to heart, not long ago, when Stephen Stills, 67, gently suggested they all make the best use of “ETR”—estimated time remaining. There is no room in Christina’s world for recrimination or regret. “I don’t do anger,” she says. “It makes no sense to me to hold grudges or pine over things. Or overanalyze.”
There are some things it’s just best not to question, including her new friendship with 64-year-old Stevie Nicks. Nicks says she was “having a little TV night” at home when she saw the episode of Up All Nightin which the actors segued into a wee orgy of intense Stevie-worship, belting out her hit “Edge of Seventeen.”
Nicks got on the phone and insisted on guesting as herself. To shoot Night’s duet with Applegate, she raided her wardrobe vault for the lacy outfit she wore on her Bella Donnaalbum cover, circa 1981—“right down to the boots and leg warmers”—and offered it to her young costar. When she first spotted Applegate in her vintage togs, Nicks recalls, “my eyes filled. It was like looking at my sister, years ago, standing there.”
Applegate fingers the thick gold crescent moon suspended from a chain around her neck, a powerful amulet she wears every day: “The moon was a gift from Stevie. I like to tell people that, because I’m still in awe. She also gave me all these.” She holds up her right hand, displaying three rings of filigreed gold.
A huge smile breaks, and her gaze focuses on the love object reeling toward her. After making a beeline for a tiny rocking chair, Sadie traces the letters painted on it and recites, “S‑A‑D‑I‑E.” Her mother looks stunned that the 18-month-old seems to know part of the alphabet.
“Sadie? Sadie, did you just say those letters? Sadie, where’s Papa?”
The baby makes a grab for Applegate’s crescent-moon charm, now tangled with the scripted gold initial Sshe’s also wearing.
“Whoa,” says her mother. “This is all going way too fast.”
GERRI HIRSHEY recently collaborated with Ronnie Spector on the ex-Ronette’s one-woman show, Beyond the Beehive.
Next: Women We Love on TV
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