Emmy contender Donna Lynne Champlin takes the traditional Rhoda/best friend role into the modern era with great success on The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Theater and television actress Donna Lynne Champlin is a refreshing Hollywood rarity. In sharing her experiences on The CW’s critically acclaimed comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Champlin gushes about the improvisational set and about working with Golden Globe-winner Rachel Bloom as if she were a 20-year-old ingenue on her first big break into television.
And that’s half-true. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is Donna Lynne Champlin’s first recurring role on a major series, but she’s far from the young starlet who typically portrays Champlin’s level of unbridled enthusiasm. That’s not to say she’s ancient – far from it – but it is extremely refreshing and promising to see a 40-plus actor hit it big in an unlikely role on an unlikely series.
Donna Lynne spoke with me fresh from fourth-week rehearsals for her upcoming stint as Hortensio in Phyllida Lloyd’s (Mamma Mia, The Iron Lady) all-female take on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. It’s clear she’s an actress enjoying blossoming success in both television and theater. Plus, her enthusiasm and passion for acting resulted in a supporting role in Alexandre Payne’s 2017 film Downsizing alongside Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig.
As the Emmy nomination window approaches, some insiders are starting to whisper about the potential strength of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and its crazy great cast, including Donna Lynne Champlin. While star Rachel Bloom has most of the Emmy heat for the series, there’s always room for surprises in the Comedy Supporting Actress category.
Just think back to last year’s surprise nominee Niecy Nash (Getting On). A deserving Emmy nomination would be a great way to cap Donna Lynne Champlin’s crazy great year.
AwardsDaily TV: So, Donna Lynne Champlin, tell me how you prepared yourself for a dual career in theater and television?
Donna Lynne Champlin: I kind of didn’t honestly. I pretty much was straightforward theater. I actually majored in musical theater at Carnegie Mellon and then I did a semester at Oxford where I was on scholarship to study in Shakespeare and Chekhov. So, I was pretty focused on theater and happily so.
Once I got an agent, I started going out for day player stuff like auditioning for “cop on Law & Order.” It wasn’t really until a few years ago on this web series called Submissions Only, written by Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kate Wetherhead, and they’d seen my theater work since they were both theater people. It’s a really funny series, sort of a behind the scenes series about what it’s like to be a theater actor in New York. They’d asked me to come and do this funny bit in season two that lead to a series regular role in season three. It was this wonderful way for me to learn the ropes, not only learning about on-camera logistics but also these amazing guest stars (Joel Grey, Harriett Harris). It was such an education watching these heavy hitters come in one after the other and watch them work. It really opened something in me where I became more receptive. Before that I’d never considered on-camera work before. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was the first series regular part I’d ever auditioned for in my career.
ADTV: That’s so interesting because you show such a comfort level on camera and deep camaraderie with the cast. I would never have known that that was your first big role.
DLC: Oh, thank you! I’m not going to lie to you for the first couple of episodes… You know, I’ve always been comfortable with the acting, but I was very nervous about the logistics of everything. It was a very big learning curve for the first four or so episodes, and I was just so grateful because the directors and crew were so patient and kind and understanding. The first episode, I felt like I was in a foreign country, and our AD gave me this great book [Strike the Baby and Kill the Blonde: An Insider’s Guide to Film Slang] so I could understand all the terms and what the hell everybody was saying. Just the blocking was so different and nuanced than from the theater. On stage, you have a foot here or there to hit the mark or be in the light, but on television you have to be within the inch. I’m not ashamed to admit that it was a learning curve. I messed up a couple of shots ’cause I didn’t know what I was doing. (laughs)
But by the grace of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend cast and crew, they ushered me through what I needed to know. I thank God every day that I had the opportunity to learn the ropes on this show. Everyone is just extraordinarily kind and funny. I learned later that my nickname on set was “sabotage,” and somebody told me by accident. They were horrified that I found out, but I thought it was the funniest fucking thing I’d ever heard in my life. I’m getting t-shirts made!
ADTV: So, how did the show come to you? How did you find out about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend?
DLC: You know, it’s not a very exciting story. It was through a standard submission, and because it was on camera, I had this freedom in the audition thinking they would never cast me. It was kind of crazy because the sides for Paula were so similar to how I actually speak. Plus, it was so surprising that there was a role for a not thin, middle-aged woman that was three dimensional and not just a dramaturgical device. So that was shocking, and I just walked in and was completely myself.
After the audition, I called my agent and said, “I had the time of my life. They’ll never call me back, and I wish them the best.” And then I got a call back. I went in and had the same second experience. My third audition was my big test, and Rachel [Bloom, star and co-creator] was there with Aline [Brosh McKenna, co-creator] and we just had a ball. We tapped into this playful energy where Rachel kind of gave me this look like “We’re going off-script a little bit. Are you coming with me?” I was like “Oh I coming. I’ve packed a bag. Let’s go!”
ADTV: With the character of Paula Proctor, did you imagine a backstory for her as you were prepping?
DLC: Well, in the theater, you know the whole play before you get the audition. A pilot is kind of a one act play. I didn’t really find the character in the pilot until I got to California and got into a room with [the creative team] when we had to work out that hairpin turn Paula makes in the pilot [going from suspicious near-antagonist to best friend material]. At that time, we were shooting for Showtime, and it was only a 30-minute pilot. We had even less time to sort of work out that hairpin turn with Paula.
So, Rachel and I sat in this random office room and did a bunch of improv of the scene outside the party where the whole thing flips around. Fifty percent of that scene came from the original material, and the other half came from the improv I’d done with Rachel. It was really so wonderful and very unexpected because I’d been brought into the process and make that hairpin turn less tight. I think in the original script, Rebecca hadn’t technically lied to Paula from the get-go… but I think we added the definite lie so that we could touch on it again in the last scene where I tell her I’m just busting your balls because you lied to me [a theme that is echoed later in the series]. That whole line about Rebecca being so brave, that came from the improv as well.
ADTV: My personal favorite episode of season one is “That Text Was Not Meant for Josh!” One of the things I like best about it is where you explore the emotions and stability of Paula’s marriage. How did you prepare for such an emotional and true episode?
DLC: Personally, I was engaged before my current husband to another man. We went to couple’s counseling, and I just had a personal relationship… where you do everything you can, you break shit, you break a law… and at the end of the day you either move forward or you break it off. I, personally, had a similar relationship [to Paula’s], and in my life we ended up parting ways. When we did the couple’s counseling scene, I asked the props department for a pillow because every time I went to couple’s counseling I always took a pillow and pressed it against my stomach. It’s just visceral for me… I felt like I needed protection. That’s why when you see me in that scene I’m holding a pillow because when I went to couple’s counseling I always had to have that pillow on my stomach to protect myself from what was going to come up.
ADTV: That’s really great and such a huge personal touch in your work.
DLC: It’s the environment that’s created on set by the crew and by the writers. I know that I can [improv] and nine times out of ten they’re going to go along with it. I don’t think it’s like that on every set. I think most sets are like “Do what the script says and shut up!” (laughs) I’m able to do that because our set is very open to allowing the actors to bring our personal ideas and touches. That was a very particular memory for me…
ADTV: So given the improvisational nature of the show, what’s it like approaching it as a musical and all of the preparation that has to go into that?
DLC: Well, it really depends on the number. “After Everything I’ve Done For You” was the most choreographed. That was the first one I’d even had choreography one. Coming from the Broadway musical world, there’s a huge difference in the amount of time we have. I think for my finale number, we had like three hours of rehearsal. In a stage musical, that would have had hours and hours dedicated to it. Even then, you rehearse in a room, but you don’t get to see the set because they’re still building it hours before you step onto it. I got on the set and realized my shoes were slipping, so we had to modify tons of choreography because of that. You have to be willing to let go of all that and be flexible to say “OK, we’re going this way.” The theater training comes in extremely helpful with that. When you’re filming numbers like that, you kind of have to treat it like you’re on a theater in the round. You have to really make sure you have all your angles covered because they may be whizzing around you with the camera. All up in your nook and crannies.
ADTV: I actually think Paula fits comfortably into the sitcom tradition of the best friend. I’m thinking about Rhoda or Ethel from I Love Lucy. What do you think Paula brings to that tradition? What does she bring to the table that’s different?
DLC: There’s a few ways I think she’s different. Just the way she’s written is different because she’s sexual. Generally if you see a sidekick best friend female, they’re not allowed to be sexual. They’re paired with the lead female who is usually sexual. [Paula] breaks that fallacy of two women not being allowed to be sexual at the same time. They’re not in competition for the same man at the same time. It’s interesting to see two women who are both sexual and not fighting over the same guy. I don’t really think that’s ever been done. The sidekick is always very safely asexual.
ADTV: Oh, that’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought of [Paula] that way. In fact, it’s quite the opposite because Paula’s so in love with the concept of Rebecca being with Josh that she’s usually scowling at Greg or every time his name is mentioned.
DLC: I know, but it’s also really fun though that Paula fully admits she wants to jump his bones though. That’s the element that I think is different. She’s like “Look, he’s a nice guy, and he’s not for you. But I wish he was a search term on porn sites because he’s half Italian, and I would throw that man down in a second if I wasn’t married.” The think I love about Paula is that she’s not cut and dry. She doesn’t have ninety degree angles which usually the second banana is. She’s got her own fallacies and her own weaknesses… Another thing that I love is that I am a size 14. I am 45 years old. And neither my age nor my weight is ever mentioned. In any way. Positive or negative. It’s just not an issue… There aren’t any lines like “Whew, I’m gonna be late for my Weight Watchers meeting!” There’s no apologizing or even commenting on how I look when my type is not a common one on television. It’s really great that I’m on a show that doesn’t comment on that.
Another thing that I love is that I am a size 14. I am 45 years old. And neither my age nor my weight is ever mentioned. In any way. Positive or negative. It’s just not an issue… It’s really great that I’m on a show that doesn’t comment on that.
ADTV: Yes, that is really great. She doesn’t have to pay penance for eating that doughnut with Rebecca. So, what’s next for you in season two? What do you think is the next evolution for Paula as a character?
DLC: You know, I have no idea. I literally just got an email from the creative team asking for ideas on musical numbers if it works with our storyline. They’re going back into the writer’s room soon, and I sent my email. Aline wrote back and said, “We’ve got a lot of plans for Paula that I think you’ll be very happy about.” I don’t know, but apparently they think I’m going to be very happy next season.
ADTV: I love what you’ve described about the behind the scenes of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I love the collaborative nature.
DLC: It’s really is great. I don’t really have anything to compare it to since this is my series regular role, but I do get the sense that our show, our set, our writers are uncommonly open and generous. I don’t think it’s like this on other shows. I guess that’s why we have a long list of guest stars that want to come on the show. Word has gotten out that our show is a blast. It’s like going to summer camp! A really well run theater camp! That word has gotten out and a lot of heavy hitters have asked The CW to come and play.
ADTV: So, what’s next for you as an actress outside of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or Taming of the Shrew? What would you like to do as an actress in your next stage?
DLC: Well, I just wrapped some work on Downsizing, the new Alexandre Payne film. That was just thrilling. And again I was so grateful to have had a full season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend behind me before I walked onto an Alexandre Payne set. I would really love to explore more feature or indie film stuff. I would love to experience that. This whole television thing has been such a happy surprise and such a wonderful adventure that it’s opened my mind. You know, why not investigate film work and see what that’s like? I had so much fun on the Downsizing shoot. I had a scene with Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig, and they were the nicest people – they could not have been nicer. I’d love to explore more opportunities like that if the chance arises. I love theater though. Just coming back to Shrew has been just great. I’ll never forget where I came from.
ADTV: So, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me. I know you’re in the middle of rehearsals for Shrew, but I do have to ask before I go… When you’re not rehearsing Shrew and when you’re not making movies with Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig, what are you watching on television? What are your favorite shows right now?
DLC: Ohhhhh… I love Schitt’s Creek. It took me like three or four episodes to really get into it, but I love it. I love Game of Thrones. I love Silicon Valley. I love that whole HBO Sunday lineup, honestly. I like Lucifer. I like to watch our show, and then I like to watch Lucifer. I think the lead [Tom Ellis] is marvelous. What else do I watch? I don’t have much time. I think The Grinder is hilarious, and who know who else likes that show? Carol Burnett. Carol Burnett likes our show and The Grinder.
ADTV: Have you met her?
DLC: Oh yeah! I played her on Broadway. She wrote a play based on her life, and I played her. We actually know each other very well. We’re very close. She’s a big fan of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and of Rachel [Bloom].
ADTV: Oh you’ve got to get her on the show.
DLC: We all would, but she’s so busy. She’s got a book tour and then she’s coming back to Broadway in the fall. That lady never stops!
The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend will return in the fall for a second season. Season one is currently available free for a limited time on iTunes for a For Your Consideration Emmy campaign. Donna Lynne Champlin can next be seen in Shakespeare in the Park’s The Taming of the Shrew at The Delacorte theater from May 24 through June 26.