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Donna Lynne Champlin Explores Paula’s Dramatic Side in ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’

Joey Moser geeks out with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s Donna Lynne Champlin about Paula’s big emotional moment, her favorite Season 2 musical number, and the distance between Paula and Rebecca.

You can tell that Donna Lynne Champlin loves her job. You can just hear it in the tone of her voice.

As Paula Proctor in the hit The CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Champlin got to play an extremely (overly?) supportive best friend to Rachel Bloom’s Rebecca Bunch in the first season. She also got to perform some awesome musical numbers with unparalleled verve and gusto.

For the sophomore go-around, however, Paula gets time to focus on herself a lot more, but she must face problems in her marriage and make unexpected decisions about her body. Oh, and she gets to perform as a Disney princess and a hair band rocker.

You know, as one does.

Do you like being the only show on television that is a full-fledged musical?

Hell yeah! That’s not to say that I don’t root for any other musical show that comes along. Any musical on a big platform like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a win for musical television. Anything that exposes people to musicals or musical theater is a win in general. I did hear that the director of La La Land is developing a musical drama, and I thought, “Aw, yay!”

I have to admit that I missed you and Rebecca together on the show this season.

Oh, I know!

(Photo: The CW)
As I watched this season, I was very upset that you didn’t have a lot of scenes together at the beginning. How did it feel to explore that dynamic away from her?

I so love the scenes with Rachel. When we have a hiatus or she is doing scenes that I am not in or I am doing scenes that she is not in, I physically miss her. It felt similar to how Paula was feeling a lot this season which was stressed out.

I felt I spent a lot of time thinking, “Is this Paula feeling this feeling or is this me?” I enjoyed the autonomy of the scenes in Season 2. They broke Paula out of Whitefeather. Paula is usually only shown at work at Whitefeather or at her house with her family. You got to see Paula at law school and see her in scenes with Sunil. You want to know something that I hope people catch this season?

Of course!

One thing that I’m not sure a lot of people caught was how we were dressed. Milena Root is our amazing costume designer, and she allowed both Paula and Rebecca’s clothes to change depending on the state of their relationship. When they are getting along fine, you can notice that they are wearing similar colors or similar hues. Like Rebecca will be wearing a deep purple, but Paula will be wearing something lighter.

When they are at odds with one another, their color schemes are clashing. In the second season they kind of swap clothes almost. Rebecca would be wearing stuff that Paula would normally wear like flannels or a fanny pack or a dress with owls on it. Paula sees Rebecca’s style as how the ultimate lawyer should dress. I thought that was a beautiful Easter egg for the second season.

Well, if that’s not a reason to go back and watch the second season, I don’t know what is. I always hate when people assume that modern costuming isn’t complicated or structured. That’s such a great example. When the show first started I read that you had never really been on a television set before. Are you totally a pro now on set?

It’s gotten a lot easier. Wouldn’t that be sad if I didn’t learn anything after being on the show after a year? Everyone on the set would be like, “Oh that poor thing—she’s so slow.” I remember once we were looking at the monitor and there was something called a black box around it, and every time someone said black box, I kept looking around for a black box. And the camera guys were like, “Right here dummy.”

They used to call me “Sabotage” for totally legitimate reasons. I have a new nickname. It’s “Downstage Center” because I’m really good at hitting my mark. I recently did my first recurring role on another show, and it was the first time that I was there for a few weeks. It was fascinating to see what’s the same and what was different. I have clear handle on the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend set. I have a slightly fuzzy handle on other sets.

How do you guys control yourselves on set?

We don’t—that’s our secret.

There’s one particular moment where Stephnie Weir is running around in a catsuit and there’s lube involved and no one can get you out of the bathroom. It’s nuts! I had to pause it for a few minutes because I was laughing so hard. How do you not crack up? 

In theater, you want to give other actors laughs to support them, to show them how hilarious you think they are. You can’t do that with television, because you’ll ruin their take. I had to untrain that muscle. When Stephnie Weir did that scene at first with the Astroglide and the doorknob, we were all literally biting our fists to stop from laughing. And it was funnier because then she actually couldn’t open the door because it was on her hands. We were laughing our balls off. Rachel backed up into a camera.

And it’s not just us! The crew behind us was desperately trying not to laugh. It’s not my goal in comedy to not laugh while someone else is doing something. My husband and I were watching outtakes from Friends, and it’s the difference between our show and theirs. Friends is different because it’s multi-cam, and they had this huge status and they had the money in their budget. We are really like the little show that could.

Matt LeBlanc was pulling pranks on set. If we did anything like that we would be so fired. We have negative time and negative time. They could do that kind of stuff because they had the status at the time. If any shot gets ruined on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, it’s because it’s legitimately funny. Sometime I have to do my scenes with Scott backwards in order to not ruin his shot.

How much input do you have with your characters? I’ve read that you’re allowed to have a good amount of say.

Aline Brosh McKenna is very generous in listening to ideas and incorporating it if it’s appropriate. The show has been clearly mapped out for four years, so seasons one through four have been planned before it was even brought before Showtime.

Oh, I didn’t know that. I had heard some of it was mapped out, but I had no idea that it all was outlined.

Yeah, it’s planned. It’s helpful with the scripts if we say stuff like, “I don’t know if she’d say that.” For Paula in Season 2, the biggest plot issue was whether she stayed with Scott after he cheated on her or if she got a divorce. I thought about Hillary Clinton. She was damned if she did, damned if she didn’t. If she stayed with Bill, she was a doormat, but if she left him, people would say that her vows mean nothing. He’s never judged, but no matter what she did, she was going to be judged.

On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, we always want to explore the feminist angle, and the feminist argument is for Paula to leave. Aline and I went back and forth and weighed the pros and cons of both sides. And I felt grateful as an actor, because she put those arguments in the script. As Paula, I’m allowed to air my side, but that’s an influential as it goes.

(Photo: The CW)
You have some amazing musical numbers this season, and they all seem so fun since they’re so heightened and nuts. What was your favorite?

Song-wise, I love the princess one, and that Heart-inspired one is ridiculous. I grew up in the 80’s. Rachel has to do research, but I lived that shit. I grew up when MTV and VH1 was new! For “You Go First,” I learned how to play the keyboard because I wanted to be sure that I was playing the right notes. I mean, come on, there’s nothing more fun than a wind machine, smoke, and kicking for Jesus.

What’s better than that? That’s the dream, right?

I seriously can’t believe that they pay me to do this. My favorite scene was the graveyard for many reasons. It was Kabir Akhtar’s first time directing. He’s our amazing, Emmy®-winning editor. Secondly, they let me play around in an open grave. When it was time to apply the dirt to make me look dirty, they handed me this dirt bag. In theater, you have to make it read to the very last row, you know, all the way in the back. So I just dumped it over my head, and you could hear our makeup guy just screaming, “Nooooooo!!!” That’s me and my subtlety.

You got to really go into some more serious territory this season when Paula had her abortion. Was that scary to tackle?

It was scary, because at the end of the day you don’t want to make it look like you are making fun of it. As a comedy, how do we tackle women’s rights without taking it too seriously, without making it a “very special episode?” That was a very delicate balance. I was so worried, but I trust everyone there.

It felt like unchartered waters—without handwringing. We always want to throw a grenade at stereotypes. As an actor, I was nervous about tipping the scales in the post-abortion scene. We weren’t sure on how to put it together. I did it a variety of ways. Once I was weepy. Another time I was drugged up. Another time I was okay, and another time I was happy.

We wanted to be able to go into the editing bay armed. I’m so happy with how it came out.

I had no idea that you were in the revival of Sweeney Todd when John Doyle directed it. Since you are on a musical television show and live musicals are really hot right now, I wanted to know if there was any role you’d kill to play?

I’m getting into leading lady territory, so I’m up against some icons. People say you should play Dolly or Mama Rose, and I don’t want to play them. They’ve been so done by amazing women. I would kill to be Mrs. Lovett.

Should we try to make that happen?

I don’t know. They might have a problem with the whole cannibalism thing. It might raise a few eyebrows…