Christina Applegate on Women in Comedy, ‘Married… with Children’ Spinoff, and Surviving Hollywood

The gifted comedic actress opens up about her new film Vacation, why she’s interested in a Married… with Children revival, and her fascination with Chris Hemsworth’s abs.

Hopper Stone/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Christina Applegate is stuck in traffic on her way to JFK—a fittingly relatable scenario for one of America’s most well-liked, down-to-earth stars. Applegate has made a career out of her ability to portray pretty blondes who aren’t boring, and onscreen mothers who are as nuanced and believable as their off-screen counterparts. Even more impressive, Applegate has managed to maintain her “girl next door” authenticity in spite of her child star past and career celebrity status—a usual recipe for diva behavior and general disaster.

Ever since her breakout role as wild child Kelly on Married…with Children, Applegate has proven herself to be a commanding performer with a natural comedic flair. As Anchorman anchorwoman Veronica Corningstone, she showed that she could hold her own beside some of the funniest comedians and actors alive. Not content to rest on her comedy laurels, Applegate is getting back into the funny game on July 29 with Vacation, a new addition to the beloved National Lampoon franchise, written and directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. Vacation, which features original cast members Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, focuses on the next generation of Griswolds, helmed by Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) and his wife, Debbie Griswold (Christina Applegate). While the R-rated road trip romp features all of the dirty jokes and sexual innuendos befitting its National Lampoon forefathers, it’s grounded by Applegate’s performance as a wife with a real backstory and relatable quirks—a vast improvement on the naggy suburban mom archetype.

Applegate improvised many of the characteristics and comments that make Mrs. Griswold so relatable, like her sorority past as “Debbie Do Anything.” Applegate explains that her character was inspired by her own experiences, as well as those of her fellow moms: “We grew up in the ’70s, we were partying in the ’80s and ’90s, we started meditating in the 2000s to get our shit together and then became parents.” Leave it to Applegate to turn a summer blockbuster into an everywoman manifesto.

Taking advantage of the traffic jam, Applegate and I discussed Vacation, women in comedy, and the child star curse. Also, Chris Hemsworth’s abs.

With a big-name project like this, was there a lot of pressure to live up to the original franchise?

Of course when you first get the script you’re like, “Well, no…we can’t mess with that legendary, iconic franchise.” But we never wanted to reboot it, rethink it, or have the audacity to think that we could improve upon it—we just wanted to make a continuum. So that’s what I feel like we tried to do. And I believe we accomplished that. For the diehards that are angry, that are like, “I don’t want to see it because how could you do this to our movie,” I think that like he [Ed Helms] says in the beginning of the movie, it stands on its own.

Were you personally daunted by the task?

Well, you know, this is a movie of my childhood, it’s something that I’ve seen a great many times, so you want to make sure that whatever you’re doing you’re respecting the original, but also having your own voice. And I think that we’ve done that. And when Chevy and Beverly signed on, it just gave us this stamp of approval. Like, “OK, and they want to be in the movie? Well, that’s even better.” They’re agreeing to pass the torch to the next generation of Griswolds.

Was working with Chevy Chase intimidating?

At first, yeah, but when we sat down with them and we just started doing the scenes…and also hanging with Beverly. Beverly and I bonded really fast as people and we just sat and talked to each other for two days face-to-face, just about kids and parenting and things like that. It wasn’t advice; it was just us, like two girls talking about life. And Chevy was just such a great, wonderful presence on the set. It was really one of those moments when you realize that not only are you with Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, then you look over in the middle of a scene and you’re with Clark and Ellen. It was a very cool moment.

Was the character informed by your personal experience?

At the core and the heart of it my husband and I totally get the ships-passing-in-the-night thing, and it happens when you have a child. But I also pulled a lot from moms from a preschool group and their pasts, because a lot of them…you knew. We grew up in the ’70s, we were partying in the ’80s and ’90s, we started meditating in the 2000s to get our shit together and then became parents. And that’s sort of this generation that is right now. We were parented by moms and dads in the ’70s, they were a messed up crew of people, and I think it’s kind of produced this other generation of parents who actually are kind of better parents than our own parents were, but yet we still went through the gamut of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, which were interesting times…culturally.

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Can you relate to Debbie’s secret identity/past life as an infamous sorority sister?

Absolutely! I mean, I was on a show at the time, but at that time we didn’t have paparazzi, we didn’t have people following our every move. So yeah, I got away with a lot of stuff. Not to Debbie Do Anything standards by any means in my own life, but I know parents who were…I’ve got a group of moms, and they’re a wild group of chickies.

Do you plan on telling your daughter about your past exploits?

I think that eventually she can know. I wasn’t really that crazy. I think that she can know who I am, and she knows who I am anyway. I wear my past on my sleeve, so I’m not a hider of my past, I’m not precious about my past, and I live my life and I want her to know what a strong woman I’ve become—and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But I wasn’t a Debbie Do Anything, so there is a bit of a difference. I was just a teenager doing teenaged things. And I know that it’s inevitable that she’s going to go through that too, but I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that she doesn’t.

And this is not a kid’s movie.

No! My daughter will not see this until she’s like 27 years old.

Chris Hemsworth is getting a lot of attention for his underwear-only scene in Vacation, which is drawing comparisons to Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise.

I haven’t heard anything about the Brad Pitt comparisons, but I will say this: that scene would not have worked if Chris Hemsworth wasn’t such a fine comedian. And he really is a funny, funny actor. He’s so committed to the moment; he played it as if the man was completely, fully clothed. And that…had he played it so the penis was the main thing in the scene, it wouldn’t have worked. But he played it so beautifully; it was just beautiful. And I’m not talking about his body, I'm not talking about the prosthetic, I’m talking about just the way he navigated those moments and made them so true and so real. And that’s the only way that works. And that’s the kind of comedy that I love, where no one is playing into the comedy, you're playing the reality of it, and it was really cool to watch him do that, because it is really funny.

Was it hard to keep a straight face?

No, because we were just staring at his abs. Ed and I were just staring at his abs and then we would talk about his abs, and then I would go home and talk to my husband about his abs, and Ed would go home to his girlfriend and talk about the abs, and there was a lot of conversation about, “How can you be that ab-y?” It’s just a weird…an enigma.

How did your child star past impact your life, personally and professionally?

I was out there with all the kids that were doing stuff. And humility, being professional, that was all instilled by the parents. So if you had good parents, and you were not made to think that you were anything better than you were, made to think that you were anything bigger than just a kid, then you were going to be OK. I think that the kids, my friends who I saw, some of whom are not with us anymore because they passed away because of the lifestyle, they were given a lot of power. David [Faustino] and I were not given power. We were treated like kids, and you better be on time, and you get your own stuff, and you don’t ask for anything. It was kind of a different environment for us, and I think that’s why the two of us ended up OK. It was humility and gratitude.

Do you ever have an urge to try and mentor or advise out-of-control child stars?

I wish I could, but its all in the parenting and who’s around them, who’s giving them power. And it’s a terrible thing—don’t give kids power, they don’t have the capacity for it. Structure is something that children need—as a parent I’ve learned this. My daughter needs structure because it makes her feel safe. Once you take that out of the equation, they don’t feel safe anymore. And I think that a lot of times, back in the ’80s with the group of kid actors who were around, there was no structure. There was no responsibility. And we didn’t have the capacity to deal with that. Don’t treat us like adults, we’re kids! And once they started being treated like adults, I think they lost their way.

When I look at my daughter…if she wants to be an actress, she can study acting, and she can be the best actress that she can be, but she’s not allowed to make money doing anything like that until she’s of age, until she’s 18 years old. And when she’s 18, and if she decides to do that, that’s fine. I would prefer her to go to college and get her master’s in something else and focus on something else. But I know that my kid’s going to be creative in some way because that’s just the personality that she has—it’s in her DNA.

Many actresses have spoken out against misogyny in Hollywood. As a career actress, has that been your experience as well?

Honestly? There’ve been moments, but that was like 30 years ago. I’m a pretty strong lady, so I don’t really tolerate that kind of thing. It’s not on my radar. I’m sure it happens, and I’m not denying it in any sense of the word. I’m positive that that happens, because it is a male-dominated world. Although the tides are changing a little bit, now that we have Melissa and Kristen and Tina and Amy, who are making their own futures. But for me personally, I’ve never really felt that. I don’t think I pay attention too much. I just live my life as me.

But women often face a lot of adversity in comedy, especially.

Well, yes, I’ve felt that men don’t think that women are funny. I’ve felt that on sets; I’ve felt that before many times. But I think that we’re proving everyone wrong. I don’t want to lump myself in with that, but I can say that the girls that I’ve just mentioned have proved everyone wrong. These are women who have gone, “Yeah? Guess what? We’re actually funnier than you. We’re actually going to make more money at the box office than you are. Suck it.”

So are you a comedy buff?

Actually, oddly, no. My top movies are Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Sophie’s Choice, and All That Jazz, and of course Spinal Tap, that will go in there as one of the best movies ever made. That stuff is more my jam as far as my taste is concerned. But damned if I don’t love Bridesmaids with my friend Melissa saying, “Feel the steam from my undercarriage.” There’s nothing better than that. I just know where that comes from, and it comes from her weird brain. Great stuff. And I have yet to see Trainwreck but I’m very excited about that. I can’t wait to see it. I’ll probably have to wait until it comes out on Apple TV because I don’t leave the house because I’m a mom.

Are you still close with your Anchorman cast?

We’ll always be tight, that group and I, whether or not we see each other for 10 years. When we went back for Anchorman 2 and did the table read we all literally jumped on each other. It was like a weird reunion of excitement, everyone was just like, “Oh my god, I’m so happy to be with you again.” I think for all of us, Anchorman is probably in our top two favorite working experiences. And you can ask any of them and I think they’ll probably say the same thing, and maybe they won’t, but I think collectively, as a group, that was one of the greatest working experiences of our lives. And that’s why if they were to do another one in 10 years, I’m sure all of us will hobble on in there with our canes.

Whatever happened to the rumored Married…with Children spinoff?

I’m so sad about it because they have this show written by Michael Moye, Michael created the original show, and they were going to do a Bud Bundy now—a 40-year-old Bud Bundy. And Katey [Sagal] and I were like, “Yeah, we’ll be in the pilot for sure.” It was like no question, of course we would do that. And then something happened with the studio, I don’t know what happened, it just kind of went away. And it’s really sad for us. I think Dave [Faustino] deserves that, and we would have loved to have done it. I don’t know how I would fit into those dresses again, but I’m sure by now Kelly Bundy might be a big…like I like to call myself, cushy. I’m the cushy mom now. When somebody finally finds the mom bod sexy, then we’re all going to be good.

Like the dad bod?

The mom bod is totally different, there’s like a human inside there.

So is Married…with Children the number one project you’d like to revisit?

Yes, I think that would be a lot of fun to revisit. I would love to hang out with my family—that’s my original family. Whenever we’re together we pick up where we left off, and it’s a really special bond that I don’t have with anyone else.