The ''Married with Children'' actress -- who is soon to be married?with her own child -- will soon make us crack up again in ''Going the Distance''

By Benjamin Svetkey
August 06, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

This morning, she was swarmed by photographers as she left the gym. Yesterday, they followed her home after she taped Jimmy Kimmel Live! Sometimes she finds them waiting for her, parked outside her gated, château-like house in the Hollywood Hills. ”I hate the paparazzi,” Christina Applegate says. ”I get so angry, I want to Sean Penn them all. I mean, really, how many pictures of my bump do they need?”

The bump in question, along with the rest of the 38-year-old actress, is plopped on a sofa in her big, airy Los Angeles living room, where Applegate is holed up with Tallulah, a miniature mutt with the legs of a dachshund and the ears of a Chihuahua (”We did a DNA test on her,” she says, ”but it said she was a basset hound, which can’t be right…”). The last time Applegate found herself under this sort of photographic siege was two years ago, when news broke that she had breast cancer and would be undergoing a double mastectomy. This time, at least, the paparazzi have a happier reason for snapping her picture: Last month, Applegate and her fiancé, Porno for Pyros bassist Martyn LeNoble, announced they were having a baby. Hence, the bump.

”I went numb when I found out I was pregnant,” Applegate says, giving Tallulah a tickle under her chin. ”I was like, ‘Huh? How did that happen?’ I knew how it happened, of course, but I went into a state of shock for a couple of days. When I came out of it, I was really, really excited. You’ve got this amazing creature in there” — she taps her belly — ”and you get to see it grow on those ultrasounds. The only thing about pregnancy I don’t get: Why does the baby need your ass to get so fat?”

Applegate does that a lot — fire off funny little lines that make you think about how underrated she is as a comedian, lines that sound like they belong in one of her movies. Movies like, say, Going the Distance, opening Aug. 27, a romantic comedy about long-distance relationships in which she costars with real-life on-again, off-again couple Drew Barrymore and Justin Long. ”She’s naturally funny,” says the film’s director, Nanette Burstein (The Kid Stays in the Picture, American Teen). ”I’d seen her on TV and in movies like Anchorman and always really loved her. She ended up only working on the movie for about two and a half weeks” — Applegate has a supporting role, as Barrymore’s uptight housewife sister — ”but we used every single frame we had of her in the film. She has amazing comic timing. We didn’t want to waste a bit.”

That keen timing has been keeping Applegate employed in Hollywood for decades. She started while literally still in diapers, doing a Playtex baby-bottle ad when she was only a few months old. At 10, she was playing no less an icon than Grace Kelly in a TV biopic (Cheryl Ladd took over the part of the grown-up princess-to-be). At 15, Applegate landed the role that would make her an icon in her own right: Kelly Bundy, Al Bundy’s dingbat daughter on Married…With Children. The show ran on Fox for 11 seasons, from 1987 to 1997, and continues in reruns today, in some markets airing multiple times a day. ”Kelly Bundy actually started out as being really tough, more like a kick-your-ass biker,” Applegate recalls. ”But then, over the years, she devolved into this airhead, until it got to the point where she didn’t know how to use a doorknob. But I didn’t have a problem with it. I loved the show. If I hadn’t done it, I never would have learned to be funny.”

A role so indelible might have kept Applegate pigeonholed in miniskirts and big hair for the rest of her career, but her post-Married résumé is actually pretty eclectic. She’s played everything from a teenager with braces and acne in the 1997 indie drama Nowhere to a survivor of a murder spree in 2003’s Wonderland (Applegate grew up in the Hollywood Hills, not far from the notorious Wonderland Avenue murders in 1981; she remembers seeing the bloody mattresses at the crime scene) to Rachel’s sister on a couple of episodes of Friends. She starred opposite Cameron Diaz in The Sweetest Thing and further solidified her comic chops by holding her own against Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, and Paul Rudd in 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Before returning to TV in 2007 with Samantha Who?, her well-reviewed sitcom about a woman with amnesia, Applegate even tried singing and dancing on Broadway, taking on the lead role in a 2005 revival of Sweet Charity.

But then, in 2008, a breast exam revealed cancer. ”I got the news over the phone,” she says. ”At least I was home. I could go lay on the floor and scream and pound on the ground for five or six hours.” As if that weren’t bad enough, ABC decided to cancel Samantha Who? while Applegate was recovering from reconstructive surgery in 2009. ”That show was keeping me okay,” she says. ”During the darkest time of my life, it was making me happy. It sucked when that got taken away.”

A year later, though, things are looking decidedly less sucky. Sure, the paparazzi are a pain, but Applegate’s health continues to stay strong. Her career is back on track (although she may want to lay off animal voices after she finishes that third Alvin and the Chipmunks movie later this year; she also voices a feline spy in the just-released Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore), and she’s got that much-photographed new bump to keep her happy. Most of all, she’s still making people laugh, both on screen and off. Glancing down at her belly again, she picks up right where she left off: ”What nutritional benefit is the baby getting by my bum getting big? Or my face or my legs? Couldn’t it just feed off the fat on my sides?”