I had the opportunity to ask Donna Lynne Champlin, who has a role in the TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a few questions. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, described as a “groundbreaking” show by Donna Lynne, is about Rebecca, a young, successful lawyer who moves from New York City to West Covina, CA to pursue her old boyfriend Josh. In West Covina, she gets a new job and finds new friends. The theme song explains the situation perfectly:
Donna Lynne plays the role of Paula, the sweet and passionate paralegal, who becomes Rebecca’s new best friend. But before she got that role, she mostly played in theater: “I’m a working mom who’s spent most of my career in the theater (Broadway, Off-Broadway, etc.) and am now enjoying a new adventure as a TV series regular (“Paula”) on The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
Her career was already formed when she was three years old, when her mom took her to a local dance studio for a tap class: “They did their warm up and I was fine. Then the kids went into their routine where they apparently sang, “Don’t forget your tap shoes!” wagging their fingers adorably or something, and I went (uncharacteristically) ballistic. I was so out of control my mom had to remove me from the studio. When we got outside, she asked me what was wrong and I launched into a tirade of how upset I was that she would bring me to a tap class UNPREPARED without tap shoes crying, “And they even SAID, ‘Don’t forget your tap shoes!!! Mommy! How could you!”? So I think it’s safe to say I was bit by the performing bug at the age of three.”
Theater and TV are two totally different things. “As far as the acting goes, it’s exactly the same.”, she explains. “Because at the end of the day, acting is truth. And truth is truth, no matter if you’re 1000 feet away or 6 inches, you know? So there’s no difference in the acting, for me.” But besides that, from the different vocabulary that was used, to the rehearsals and audience, “TV is a complete 180 from the theater.”
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is now at the end of its great first season. The show has proven to be unique, with funny storylines, but also serious dialogues: “I love that we’re kind of anti-sitcomy in that the show doesn’t revolve around jokes. The show revolves around what’s true and from that, come the jokes. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend reflects the honest (yet still unexplored on TV) truths that surround us every day; like gender bias, sexual orientation, minorities, women’s bodies, mental illness, etc. A tip of the hat to The CW. Our writers could come up with the most brilliant, honest, hilarious, musical, truthful moments in the world but if we were on a network that censored everything because it was “too different” or “too risky”—no one would ever know it existed. So kudos to The CW for providing a platform for Rachel’s [Rachel Bloom, creator, writer and lead actress on the show] and Aline’s [Aline Brosh McKenna, creator and writer of the show] unique voices to be heard.”
Not only that is what makes it unique, but the show also features different songs every week, written specifically for that episode. “[The] musical numbers only help to heighten the authenticity of the show, as weird as that sounds. Yes, the musical numbers come out of fantastical sequences, but they always serve to heighten the true emotional reality of wherever that character is at that moment.”
Examples of these songs are Face Your Fears and His Status Is Preferred (both sang by Donna Lynne). “Ahhhhh Face Your Fears! I loved doing that song. We actually recorded that song before we even started shooting so it was the ‘first’ thing I did for the show after we got picked up by The CW.”
But her favorite song of this season is Settle For Me, where Santino Fontana’s character, Greg, tries to convince Rebecca to just go for him instead of Josh. “It just hits all my personal happy buttons. Fred and Ginger, that time period, the black and white, Santino and Rachel, the choreography, the costumes, the lyrics, the tune…it’s just cohesive perfection. Everything about it lines up for me. Even Rebecca’s live reprise in the porta-potty was genius. And even when they use it for underscoring in other episodes…I love everything about it.”
Paula and Donna Lynne share some of the same characteristics. “[We] are both fiercely loyal, romantic, passionate, truth tellers and big believers in shaking things up for happiness. I know people say “Rebecca just moved across the country for some guy” but I’ve never seen it that way. She moved across the country because she was extremely unhappy, and she took a huge risk to be happier. I’ve always been 100% behind that move. Paula and I both would probably hesitate to stand up for ourselves, I think? But we would both absolutely rain down a storm of pain in a heartbeat on anyone who goes after anyone we love. I am a Momma Bear and so is she.”
Of course there are differences too: “Paula’s WAY more tech savvy and much quicker to break the law than I am…and I have clearly had way more therapy than she has. Paula is also very unfulfilled in her career and her family and fortunately, I just couldn’t be happier in that department. I’m so grateful to have an amazing job, an awesome husband and just the best little boy in the world. So, I hope Paula can pull it together someday and get a little taste of the good life I’ve got going on over here.”
The cast, besides Donna Lynne and Rachel consisting of Vince Rodriguez III, Santino Fontana, Pete Gardner, Gabrielle Ruiz and Vella Lovell, goes very well together and have a great chemistry on screen. The atmosphere on set is great as well. “It’s actually very much like a theatrical company. Very cohesive, very supportive, very light and funny…very loving. I forget who told me during season one but apparently “word on the street” is that our set is super happy, and that’s why everyone wants to come and guest star on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Because it’s like going to a really well run, super happy theater camp.”
“Oh my God, she’s a huge pain in my ass.”, Donna Lynne says about working with Rachel. “I’m kidding. I’M KIDDING!!!! I love her. I think she’s amazing and I am constantly in awe of not only how many jobs she’s doing at once, but just how masterfully she’s doing ALL those jobs.”.
Again she is in the same position Paula is in: “I find myself vacillating between being her buddy and goofing around to also wanting to Momma Bear her. I try not to pester her with dumb Mom questions like “Are you sleeping enough? When do you get a break today? Can you nap?”. I mean, she’s a grown-ass woman with her own television show; she can clearly take care of herself. But I do find I ride that balance of mom / friend with Rachel (like Paula does with Rebecca) a lot.”
The days on set can be long, depending of course on how many scenes Donna Lynne is in. A full day could be about 15 hours, from hair and makeup until the final scene that needs to be shot that day, but that doesn’t happen all the time. Shooting the scenes is not the only thing that needs to happen for an episode: “Occasionally, there’s a table read, a song recording in the booth, a costume fitting or a dance rehearsal thrown in there to spice things up.”, but there is also time to chat with the rest of the cast and crew until it’s time to shoot.
Of all the takes that are filmed, one or two are exactly the way like they are written in the script, but there is also the ‘fun run’, where the actors can improvise as much as they want, “As long as we hit the main plot points in the scene that our character has to hit – we can pretty much say whatever we want. As you can imagine, the fun runs can get pretty crazy.” .
In case you were wondering, this was Donna Lynne’s favorite scene to shoot:
“I remember reading “Paula falls off the chair” in the script and immediately emailing the writers saying “This stage direction has made me happier than any line you have ever written for me. Thank you.”. Unfortunately, what Crazy Ex-Girlfriend audiences didn’t get a chance to see was all of our subsequent improvs after my pratfall. I can’t even remember where Rachel and I went with it, but I definitely remember all of us belly laughing long after the director yelled “cut!” Good times. Good times.”
And surprisingly enough, her favorite episode is one where she was hardly in: ‘I’m Going to the Beach with Josh and His Friends!’ (episode 9). “It’s called a “bottle” episode because it traps a bunch of characters in a location [a party bus in this case] where they’re forced to work things out which is very much like a “one room” play in the theater. So, I might also be drawn to it because it’s structure is familiar to me in a theatrical way. But, I just thought so many wonderfully awful, and awfully wonderful things happened in that episode for so many characters. And it was written in such a raw, funny, honest yet simply economical way – I was quite proud to have the honor of ‘buttoning’ it at the end with Rachel. Where Rebecca and Paula walk away and I say, “never lie to me again” and she says “okay momma”. I mean…. come on.”
As it turns out, Rebecca did lie to Paula again as we saw in last week’s episode and tonight’s season finale will show us if the friendship between Paula and Rebecca survives this. Right now Donna Lynne and the rest of the cast are on a hiatus. At the moment Donna Lynne is rehearsing for a play called The Taming of the Shrew in New York City and has also just finished working on the new Alexander Payne movie called Downsizing. “I’m not gonna lie…it kinda blew my mind that I was just hanging out with the likes of Matt Damon and Kristin Wiig, who are both astoundingly lovely people, by the way. As is Alexander Payne. Just the whole experience was fantastic. I kept pinching myself, honestly.”
And for all aspiring performers she has one advice: “Be yourself. That’s your ace. No one can be you. The real trick is figuring out who you are, of course. But, I wasted so many years trying to be someone else; someone I thought ‘they’ wanted me to be because I never thought that anyone would just want “me”, as I was. Wherever you go, there you are. Be there. And be authentically you, there.”
Watch the season finale of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tonight at 8/7c on The CW!
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is will be back for a second season!
You can find the entire Q&A with Donna Lynne here.