Spoiler alert! Contains details from the first season of Netflix's "Dead to Me," now streaming.
NEW YORK – "Dead to Me" gives Christina Applegate her juiciest role in years, but also her most personal.
In Netflix’s addictive new tragicomedy, now streaming, the "Anchorman" actress plays Jen Harding, a resentful widow who unwittingly befriends her husband’s killer, Judy Hale (Linda Cardellini), at a grief support group. The two become inseparable, talking freely about their dreams, insecurities and relationships and peeling back the layers of Jen’s tumultuous marriage to her late husband, Ted.
In the fourth episode, Jen reveals to Judy that she preemptively had a double mastectomy after her mother died of breast cancer.
"I have the gene," she explains. "I didn’t want my kids to lose their mom like I did mine."
The seemingly minor character detail is rooted in Applegate’s own life: In 2008, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had surgery to have both breasts removed. Given Jen’s sardonic, standoffish nature, the actress felt the revelation added some much-needed depth to her character that's authentic and relatable.
Reading the script, "it wasn’t clear to me sometimes why Jen was so angry and broken. There had to be some underlying reason," Applegate says. "Plus, it hasn’t really been discussed on shows before; I don’t think there’s a lot of characters out there with double mastectomies. But I went through it, and it’s a horribly painful process – emotionally, spiritually, physically – and I never really talked about it. I thought this was my chance to tell a little bit about me, but also all the women that have gone through that."
Viewers see the heartbreaking impact of the procedure on Jen’s personal life later in the season, when she tearfully confesses to Judy that Ted no longer wanted to sleep with her after the surgery.
Before he was killed in a hit-and-run accident, "he hadn’t touched me in over a year," Jen confides. "I just thought it wouldn’t matter, that he could get past all that, but he couldn’t. He didn’t want me anymore, but I needed him. He made me feel so disgusting, and I was so resentful."
Applegate, 47, reveals that more than a decade after surgery, she continues to struggle with her body image.
"I think about it every day," she says. "Girls who go through this, we say to each other, 'Yep, it’s been 10 years,' but you’re never not aware that that’s something you’ve been through. Everything looks different. You have to shower and you’re like, 'Oh, there they are. That happened.' "
Ultimately, she hopes that women watching "Dead to Me" who are breast cancer survivors or considering preventive mastectomies feel less alone.
"It’s such a personal choice," Applegate says. "I don’t know what anyone’s going to take away from that moment or scene, except for 'Wow, I felt that way, too, and I’m going to be OK.' Because you will. It’s OK to admit that you feel that way."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Christina Applegate on writing double mastectomy into Netflix show: 'You're never not aware' of it