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A New Bundy of Energy

October 04, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The creator and executive producer of NBC's new Thursday comedy "Jesse" believes that its star, Christina Applegate, has a lot in common with her character, a young, serious and single working mom.

The 25-year-old actress hasn't experienced motherhood, but "when you meet her," says creator Ira Ungerleider, "she is very serious. She seems to have the weight of the world on her shoulders. She has this maturity beyond her years, and yet she is a young woman. You can relate to her. I don't want to say she's working-class, but she is down to earth."

Curled up on a white, shabby chic sofa in her cozy dressing room at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, Applegate is indeed serious and introspective, as well as exhausted from her workload on the show and doing publicity. It's hard to believe she ever played the blond bimbette Kelly Bundy for 11 years on Fox's ribald "Married ... With Children."

"I had seen work of hers that showed that she was much different than Kelly Bundy," Ungerleider says. "She has a reel with all of this dramatic work [she has done]. I knew there was much more than met the eye."

Applegate wasn't looking to do a series after "Married" ended its remarkable run in the spring of 1997. "I didn't have any intention of going back to television to do a show," she explains, covering her legs with her comforter. She had set her sights on the silver screen, appearing in "Mafia!" and "The Big Hit."

The Los Angeles-born actress had even been offered her own spinoff series after "Married" ended, but she turned that down. "I loved playing Kelly Bundy. I loved being the one who came in and did my one-liners. I thoroughly enjoyed it. But 11 years doing anything is a long time," she says. "The joy of what we do [as actors] is that we constantly get to be these different things, these different people and experiences."

"Jesse," though, appealed to her. In the comedy she plays Jesse Warner, a 26-year-old divorced mother who tries to juggle her job, her dreams and the responsibilities of the men in her life--her 10-year-old son (Eric Lloyd); her father (George Dzundza), who owns a German-themed restaurant-bar where Jesse works as a waitress, and her brothers (John Lehr and David DeLuise).

Bruno Campos rounds out the cast as a sexy new neighbor who sweeps her off her feet.

"This was so different from Kelly," says Applegate. "I loved the idea of a young single mother." And having David Crane, Marta Kauffman and Kevin S. Bright of "Friends' fame as executive producers certainly was a strong calling card.

"It was pretty much guaranteed on the air for at least 13 weeks," she says. "It was guaranteed a Tuesday or a Thursday time slot, so you really couldn't go wrong. Whatever happens from this point on is left up to the heavens. But if anyone read it on paper, I guess it would be pretty stupid to say no."

Applegate herself was raised by a single mom, actress Nancy Priddy. "I had the best training in the world for this job," says the actress, who began her career at 5 months old by apearing on a Playtex nurser commercial. "My mom and I talk about [single moms] sometimes. Today she called me and gave me some advice about some single mom stuff, so she adds her two cents about it. It's great."

The series, Applegate says, is much darker than "Married." "We have a couple of episodes that get pretty heavy, pretty dark for her emotionally," she explains. "Every episode is a big emotional conflict for her. So it's wonderful to be able to have that much diversity within 22 minutes."

"Jesse" will also touch on the fact that she had her son when she was just 16. "It's positive in a way," she maintains, because it shows a young woman taking responsibility for her actions by raising the child that resulted from her sexual activity.

"She didn't resent the child or leave the kid at home with the grandparents. [And] when the unfortunate thing happened with her ex-husband [leaving], her world didn't crumble. She had the support of her family."

Despite the fact that she's made her mark in comedy, Applegate finds it's much more difficult to do than drama. Before "Married," says the actress, she didn't even know how to approach comedy.

"I was not a funny person," Applegate reports. "When I was a kid, I had to go into some meeting with an agent or something like that. They said, 'We really can't send her out on sitcoms because she is too dark, too vulnerable.' This was at 10 years old! So 'Married' was like this huge comedy acting class for me."

Her advice to any budding farceurs: "You never want to play the funny. In this show, the comedy comes out of the situation. It comes out of the conflict of the character. Everything has to be played very real and very true. We will find the funny."

Besides starring in the series, Applegate is also one of the producers.

"I was involved in the casting of the series," she says. "The other thing that [the title] allows me to do is have a voice for the cast. Everyone of us, when we have an issue on something, we can talk about it. We are very close, this cast. We are like best friends now. [The executive producers] listen; whether or or not they change anything is a whole other ballgame!"

Despite the fact that the series is called "Jesse," Applegate feels it is an ensemble piece like "Married."

"I always say my name comes first because it starts with a 'A.' Everybody has their own insecurities about their roles. Because of 'Married,' I kind of know how to keep everybody up--keep them uplifted. It's all about keeping us one unit."

"Jesse" airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.

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