While Rebecca Bunch may be the soul of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Paula Proctor (Donna Lynne Champlin), her work and life bestie, certainly is the heart. Fast friends ever since Rebecca moved to West Covina to take up residence at Whitefeather & Associates and hunt down Josh, the duo soon became inseparable through their romantic schemes, and forged a unique, genuine bond in the process. But this season, something has changed in Paula — unfulfilled with her life as a paralegal, she applies to a local law school and makes Rebecca sign a contract that stipulates Paula will be barred from any and all future ruses. (She’ll be a damn good lawyer.) It’s the first few steps in Paula's attempt to fulfill the dreams she never could in the past, and so far, her future is looking bright. Earlier this week, Vulture called up Champlin to discuss the show’s second season, the “amazing” reason why Paula’s weight is never discussed, and what musical number she’d like to have for herself in the future.
How did you become involved with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend?
I auditioned — there was no inside track for me at all. I couldn’t believe it when I first read for Paula, because I had never seen a breakdown of a character that described me so well, physically, for television and film. It just doesn’t happen. The casting directors sent me the audition scripts, and I remember saying to my husband while reading them, I feel these people have bugged my apartment. Because the way Paula speaks, it’s exactly the way I speak. The cadence, the vocabulary choice, the humor. I was freaked out. [Laughs.] And then I joked they would never cast me because I’ve never been cast on television. So I went in, it was a simple audition with the casting director and me. They put me on tape and I briefly sung some a capella. I loved it, but I called my agent and was like, I had a great time but they’ll never call me back, what else is going on? But they called me back, I met with new people a few weeks later, and I had a blast again. I called my agent afterwards and was like, Ugh, I had the best time again but I know they’ll never call me back and I wish them the best. And then they called me in once more; this time Rachel [Bloom] and Aline [Brosh McKenna] were there. Every time I went in it felt like having a little party. I never in a million years thought that they would cast me. I’ve become accustomed to not being cast for television and film because of how I look. That was actually the first audition I’ve ever had for a pilot in my entire career.
And it was such a fun and positive experience!
Yeah, it was ridiculous! I remember at the final callback, I saw the sign-in sheet that had all the names of the other people going in, who you figure you're up against, especially late in the day. When I saw the names of all of these women that I think are so amazingly talented, I called my agent and was like, Look, they’re looking at all of these incredible women, some of whom are my friends, it’s going to be a fruit salad. If they want a banana, they’ll hire her, if they want to hire grapes, they’re hire her. They got the cream of the crop as far as talented character women. It just so happened that the Wheel of Fortune landed on my name this time.
When you read those first few scripts, why did you want to play Paula, and how did she connect with you?
The crazy thing was it was such a visceral connection from the very beginning, which happens very rarely, at least for me. In the pilot, Paula wasn’t originally as smart as she is now. There’s a big difference between somebody being smart and someone being educated. Clearly she’s blue-collar, clearly she hasn’t had the same opportunities in life as, say, Rebecca has, going to Ivy League schools. But one of the things we realized early on is that it’s much more fun to have two women who are really smart be together. Then things can move a lot faster. I remember doing improv and I kept saying, There’s a very fine line here between being smart and being crazy. Do we want Paula to look crazy? I’ve been allowed to bring my own view of the world to Paula from the get-go, because of the generosity of Aline and Rachel. Paula is me before intensive therapy. [Laughs.] I’ve had a lot of therapy in my life. We come from similar backgrounds — we’re from humble upbringings, we come from upstate New York, we come from Irish Catholic families, anything that we got we had to scrape for. I understand that world very well; that's the world I come from. I think Paula is very close to who I am prior to therapy. She has a lot of gusto, but is all gooey on the inside.
You mentioned the improvisation you did as a group to flesh out the pilot. Are there a lot of opportunities for improv on set?
Oh, yeah. It’s pretty consistent, even though every episode has a new director and you have to respect the director and how they want to work. For the most part, we do a couple of different takes for each scene. I don’t look at the script and go, That could be funnier. I never think like that. [Laughs.] But I’ll look at a script and go, Oh, there’s three ways to go to this. She can go this way, that way, or the other way. The first take or the first couple of takes will be as close to the script as possible. After that, we loosen up and add a bit more personality and color to the scene. Then, if we have time, we do a “fun run.” They’re when, as actors, we have to make sure we obviously hit our plot points, which you have to hit to keep moving the story forward, but beyond that we’re able to go totally off the rails if we want to. That’s tremendous fun. They do keep a lot of that, too.
I think what I enjoy most about Paula is that she isn’t your typical “sidekick” character, and has complex, three-dimensional qualities to her.
Exactly, I agree. I read an article recently, I can’t remember where it was, where Rachel specifically mentions that she didn’t want Paula be “sidekick-y.” It was very much a mission this season to flesh out her character further, as well as Greg and Darryl, so that they have more dimensions and not just archetypal plot devices. Another thing I love about our show is that Paula is a size 14 and looks like a good portion of American women, you could argue the majority. [Laughs.] Speaking as a woman, if I was watching this show, it’s amazing see a size 14 women live a normal life. There's no discussion about Paula’s weight. See’s not obsessed with her size. She takes care of herself, she’s neat, she loves donuts, you know what I mean? It’s like how they treat the bisexuality of Darryl. With his coming out, they don’t make a huge thing. Paula is who she is, and she happens to be a size 14, and it’s never part of the plot. It’s not like she’s throwing out lines like, Oh no, I’m late for my Weight Watchers meeting, bye! She just goes about her life.
It’s really refreshing.
Isn’t it, though? It’s shocking how it’s not done on television. It’s so wonderful that this show is breaking ground like that, but when I think about it, it’s like, Dear God, how has it taken this long? With shows with plus-sized characters, there are all of these lines of being jealous at so and so or mad at so and so for being skinny and their great diets. It’s so all-encompassing and exhausting. I’m not saying that’s not some women, but it’s just not all of us. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Paula are alternatives to what we, as plus-size women in America, have been told is our narrative. Which is — you should be hating yourself or hating others for how you look. Honestly, we’re busy. We’ve got kids, we’ve got jobs, we have stuff to do. Paula is a woman who lives her life, she enjoys her life, and she doesn’t punish herself for not being so meticulous to a physical ideal. I love it.
So far in season two, Paula is having quite an evolution. She applies to law school, and even makes Rebecca sign a contract that bans her from participating in various shenanigans. What has changed within Paula since last season that prompts this behavior?
For me, it was the “Mama Rose” number. She went to such an extreme with her reaction. We joke that she literally pulls a groin muscle because of yelling at her so hard. That was a turning point for Paula. She walked out of that hotel room and thought, Jesus, what happened? And then her pride got in the way and she talked herself into a place where she was in the right and Rebecca was in the wrong, and Darryl calmed her down. That was definitely the watershed moment for Paula. She lost it, and it probably scared the pants off of Paula as much as it scared Rebecca. Have you ever had that moment where your life's like a boiling pot and everything explodes at the person you love most, and you realize in that moment, Holy shit? That was bananas. That’s not what Paula wants to be, that’s not how Paula wants to feel.
Her wheels starting turning for that contract at the end of season one. At the wedding, she says she’s not going to give Rebecca advice anymore. And the three weeks that follow between that and the premiere, she tries very, very hard, and fails to help her find Greg. She gets pulled back in. The only language that Paula knows is legalese. She knows she’s good at it, and for her it’s a last resort. She thinks, I’m going to try to speak to Rebecca in a language that we share, because all of the other ways I’ve been trying to communicate with her have been unsuccessful. It’s a last resort to go to a language of legality. You have to remember, it’s a language they both share and love. Is it a bit overboard? Of course. It’s Paula. But it comes from a good place. And I was so thrilled with that line where Rebecca says, “Don’t you trust me?” And Paula says, “Of course I trust you, I just don’t trust myself.” That’s what makes the whole thing forgivable. When I first read the script with those developments I immediately was like, Oh my God, who would do such a thing? But then I understand and realized it was perfect.
Why do you think Paula became so motivated to help Rebecca with her various schemes in the first place? What started as a fun, seemingly harmless way of female bonding soon became an obsession.
There’s a lot of reasons. Paula has lived with a lot of regret, and there were decisions and choices she wished she had made when she was Rebecca’s age. She looks at Rebecca as a chance to make those regretted choices have some meaning if she can help her new friend not make the same mistakes. Perhaps correct her own history by saving someone she loves from the same fate. On a big level Paula, has had an emptiness in her life; she’s one of those people who lives for other people. She lives for her children, she lives for her husband, she lives for her job. She takes care of everybody at work and at home. She does nothing for herself. I don’t think she has much of a social life, either. So Paula was primed to be happy to have someone to connect with on so many levels. She loves the romance novels and believes in magic. [Laughs.] She’s deeply rooted in authentic love for other people. She wanted to sprinkle rainbow magical unicorn dust on everything, and by the end of the season-one finale was like, Shit, this is not sustainable and this is not reality, we have to figure out how to be friends and have it rooted in reality, or else it will never last. Season two is about both of them setting boundaries so the friendship can be based in reality. At the end of the day, the two love each other unconditionally. They’re both incredibly smart, and realize that if they want it to last, they have to put their feet on the ground.
How would you define their relationship? And do you think it’s a healthy one?
I would define it as codependent, which technically isn’t healthy if you look at a mental-health textbook. [Laughs.] But if you want to get nitty-gritty, there’s no relationship that is perfectly healthy. It doesn’t exist, it’s an unattainable goal that you can work towards your whole life to achieve. Speaking as someone who’s had multiple years in therapy, it’s a lofty goal that keeps you constantly improving. But is it reality? No. I think their codependent relationship serves them very well in season one — it makes them both happy in different ways. Relationships are constantly evolving, organic things. I love the fact that the writers are constantly evolving their relationship as we evolve as characters. It’s thrilling to see all of the layers the writers go through with us. It’s like, Where is the character now, and how would the character react now to the situation? Is it different in season two as opposed to season one? It’s such a tribute to the writers and their work, and their constant quest for authenticity. There’s nothing more frustrating than watching a show where your main characters never grow. Season one was very codependent, but that brought them great joy because that’s what they needed at the moment. But as they grow in season two, the dynamic becomes something different. We haven’t finished shooting season two, so I don’t think I could even give it a label. It’s different because we’re different, which I think is fantastic.
If you could choose any song-and-dance number for Paula to have in the future, what would it be and why?
Oh, that’s a bold one! I would love a tap-dance number because it’s something that I do really well. You just don’t see a size 14 woman tap-dancing. [Laughs.] There’s so many weird, unspoken taboos. I’m a national tap champion, I’m a hoofer. I would love, selflessly, to give Paula that language to communicate in, mostly because it’s a language I’m proficient in. I want to give Paula another way to express herself.
This interview has been edited and condensed.