Kether Donohue on Standing Out in You’re the Worst, Learning to Dance on Grease: Live!, and Doing Anime Voice-over Work

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“Oh, Lindsay,” Kether Donohue laughs when you ask about her character on FXX’s You’re the Worst. Of all the characters on FXX’s You’re the Worst, Lindsay Jillian may actually be the worst. Married at the beginning of the show and navigating a separation from her husband in season two, she is selfish, often drunk, and almost totally incapable of acting like an adult. Still, with a committed performance, and crackling timing, Donohue makes you laugh, and often sympathize, whenever Lindsay’s onscreen. The same goes for Donohue’s turn in Fox’s Grease: Live!, where she played Jan, the ditziest member of the Pink Ladies — the one who sings the “Brusha Brusha Brusha” song. With that and her role in the Pitch Perfect movies, you might expect that Donohue came from a musical background, but she promises she started out with almost no idea how to sing, or dance, really. Vulture caught up with Donohue to talk about how to fake a vocal audition, whether Lindsay will get her life together (probably not), and what you learn from years of dubbing Japanese animation.

Last we saw Lindsay, she had her duet with her husband Paul at the end of the season. Are end-of-season songs going to be a thing? Also, where does that leave Lindsay?
I hope that the end of the season always ends with a song. But the cast, we’re just like the audience, we’re on the edge of our seats throughout this because Stephen [Falk, You’re the Worst’s creator] keeps us in suspense. We do block shooting, and we just got the scripts for block one, and we have no idea what happens in the remaining blocks. So I will not know the answer to that question until probably the end of the summer.

In response to the second question, Lindsay is in quite the conundrum. I just got the scripts from block one, as I said, and they’re so good. I didn’t know how Stephen and the writers were going to top what they did last season. Stephen came up to me recently and was like, “I’m just warning you, Lindsay does more effed up stuff this season.” I’m like, “How could a human being get more fucked up?” But she does! I mean, she’s just in a pure state of confusion of about life.

It seems like she spent last season trying to figure who she was apart from Paul and as a grown-up adult. But it’s very hard to be a grown-up adult.

It is! I’m still trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing. When I started shooting season two, I moved into my own apartment and it was the first time I lived alone, and I didn’t have furniture for eight months. I literally just had a mattress. We were shooting, and I wanted to focus on that. When I got home after I was done shooting the season, I’m like, Wait, I feel like I’m not really an adult either. I don’t have furniture.

You didn’t make a trip to IKEA or anything?
I did a trip to IKEA and I didn’t like anything! I’d rather just have a mattress in my apartment than have furniture I don’t like.

You’re the Worst also lets Lindsay resist the pressure to pair her character off with Edgar. She still decides what she wants and has her own adventures.
What I love about the female characters in general, and I know Aya has talked a lot about this in interviews — how Gretchen is a mess, but she’s still really great at her job. The writers do a great a job showing the paradoxes that are true to complex human beings. Just because you’re a disaster or mess in some areas of your life doesn’t meant that other areas of your life aren’t great. You’re right in saying that Lindsay, she is this mess. But she also has some awareness that she does get her way a lot.

Well, she is naturally funny. I love the episode, “There Is Not Currently a Problem,” where Lindsay comes into the room and just starts dancing with Gretchen, and then later, Edgar’s girlfriend starts taking notes on everything Lindsay says.
Yes, that episode was so fun to shoot, and I love dancing. After that season, I was like, “I want to dance more!” and then I booked Grease.

You can put those skills to use.
I show up and I was like, “I learned a thing or two from that bottle episode.” [Laughs.] Let me show you how to have an uncoordinated dance.

In that episode, there’s also this moment between Gretchen and Lindsay where you see a lot of their personal history, going back to time in college. Did you talk with Aya and Stephen about how long they’ve known each other and what that dynamic would be like?
Now that I think about it, before that episode even happened, even back in season one — and I think this is what makes the writing so good — we were able to have those talks so early on about how long they’ve known each other and what they’ve been through together, so by the time we got to the episode, it was like, oh, this makes sense. It explains, a.) why Gretchen acts the way she does, b.) why Gretchen and Lindsay can get into these disaster fights. They’ve been into huge blowout fights, these two, but they always come back together. When the clinical depression episode came out, it actually informed so much of what we previously had talked about. It was a nice deepening of the layers of what we already knew.

It was interesting to watch this season, because it got so much more serious.
It was shocking to everyone when we read the script, and it was shocking to viewers when they see it. But then, in some surreal way it makes so much sense. It’s kind of like watching a really good movie a few times, and then you go back and it’s like, Oh my god. In the first the first minutes, that totally informed what happened later.

For Grease: Live!, you all spent months in rehearsal, and then it rains on the day of the show. What was it like to mix things up on the fly?
What was so great was Marc Platt [the executive producer] gave us a speech. Well, first of all [director] Tommy Kail is a fucking genius. He would give a speech before, mostly, every rehearsal. Really great speeches rallying the troops together. Vanessa Hudgens’s father dies, so we’re all together in that and with her. Then Marc Platt makes a speech and he goes, “It might rain tonight. But you know what? I hope it rains, because we’re going to show everyone in the world a curveball isn’t going to throw us off and we’re able to roll with the punches and we’re so prepared in the heart and soul. The spirit of this show we’ve created together is what matters.” Basically, the whole message throughout rehearsal is if someone falls — you know, we’re live — if anything happens just embrace it and go with it.

And you have the rehearsal time together, so you know the group well.
It was such a well-oiled machine. There were so many people involved in the production. It was such a happy set. Nobody had any egos, everyone got along. It was just a wonderful experience.

Did you do musicals growing up?
Only in school productions. I’d never done a professional musical outside of middle school. I did play Frenchie in my eighth-grade production. That’s the thing, honestly I didn’t have singing experience either. It came when I did Pitch Perfect in 2012. I didn’t know that I could sing, and I honestly feel like I frauded my way through the audition, pretending I could sing.

How do you pretend that you can sing?
My manager called and said, “Hey, you have this audition for a movie called Pitch Perfect. You have to sing 16 bars of a pop song and prepare the sides for the audition. And it’s for the director Jason Moore.” I immediately got scared, I was like, I can’t sing. I don’t want to go in there. I went to a performing arts high school in New York with a lot really trained, talented singers, and seeing how hard they worked, I just didn’t feel like I had a right to call myself a singer, you know what I mean? And he was just like, “Just act like you can sing. Come on.”

So my strategy in the audition was to sing what I sing at karaoke, which is “Natural Woman.” If I go in and I just pretend that I’m at karaoke with all my friends drunk, I’ll feel at ease. So I sing “Natural Woman” and all my singer friends are like, “Kether, why would you sing an Aretha Franklin song? If you’re not confident in singing, why the fuck would you do that?” I was like, “I don’t know, ignorance is bliss.” So I sang the song and then Jason was like, “That was good, but this time I want you to really belt it out for me.” And I didn’t even know what belting was — that’s how much of a non-singer I was — so I just played along: “Oh yeah, I love belting. I can do a belting version, of course.”

Then, I guess I belted, because then I got the part. It was the same throughout the whole production. When I sang my solo in the studio, the engineer was like, “okay, give us a high C note” and I was like, “I love high C notes.”

The key is just to say you love whatever anyone tells you to do.
Exactly. Then, after Pitch Perfect came out, for my boyfriend at the time, I wrote him a song for his birthday, because he liked when I sang in the movie. The song actually turned out pretty good, so I sent that song that song to Stephen. Just for fun, honestly, Stephen and the cast, we email each other shit all the time. I was like, “Look, guys, I wrote a song.” That’s why Stephen put Lindsay singing in the show.

So it was completely fake it ’til you make it.
I never had any intentions of pursuing singing, so that’s what’s nice about it, too. Lindsay doesn’t have to be a great singer. If I fuck up here and there it doesn’t matter. But if I happen to be good, that’s cool. Same with Jan, which is why Jan was the perfect character to play, because Jan is not very coordinated in general. So whenever I didn’t know the dance numbers in rehearsal, I would just be like, “Well, Tommy, Jan doesn’t know what she’s doing!”

It’s all for the character.
Because these dancers are professional, they’re not fucking around. They’re dancing machines. I couldn’t really keep up in rehearsal. I would just go out and, like, smoke cigarettes and eat donuts. It just became a thing that every time I didn’t know what I was doing, I’d just blame it on Jan.

Well, Lindsay has more of a singing career now with the whole “New Phone Who Dis” song.
Oh my god. I just love the show. And “New Phone Who Dis” has become very popular. I saw on Instagram that people had made hats.

I know that you’ve done a lot of voice acting work. Do you still do voice work?
Oh yeah, I love voice-over. I was doing Japanese animation voice-over dubbing all through college to make money.

How did you get into that?
My first job, because I went to a Catholic school, I worked at a rectory answering phones for the priest. But no one really calls the rectory, so I would answer the phone in different voices to occupy myself. I’d be like, [low, gravelly voice] “Hello, you’ve reached the rectory.” So that’s when I discovered that I could do different things with my voice. And then, again, like the singing, it happened in an unplanned way. I was in an acting class when I was 17 in New York, and my scene partner said, “I like your voice, Kether, you should come on this cartoon audition with me tomorrow. I think you’d be good at doing this.” I was like, what actress invites you to an audition with her? What a nice person. She has really good karma. I went on the audition, and it was for a Fox animation called Mew Mew Power.

That sounds like a Pokémon or something.
It’s in that world. So I booked that, and then because it’s such a small world in New York, the anime world, I did Pokémon, I did Yu-Gi-Oh, I did straight-to-DVD Japanese animation. That was my life all through college. And now, I’m very excited, I just booked a role on a Comedy Central animation called Rudy that Ed Helms’s company is doing. I’ve had a nice year with voice-over. I’ve done some stuff for Nickelodeon and there’s a Netflix animation coming out that I did.

It sounds like a cool way to have fun with a character.
Yeah, I think it’s a good way to really just not be ashamed of doing something outrageous, because these cartoon characters, you’re playing broad outrageous characters, but you find the truth in it. I think that informs live-action work. It just oils that muscle inside of you that’s like, Hey, let’s just try this out.

It’s interesting that you say “ashamed,” because on something like You’re the Worst or a live musical, you get to throw it all out there in a way that a lot of roles would limit you.
Yeah, I think it’s like freedom — the freedom to try out a lot of stuff. This might not work, and this might be weird and crazy, but let’s just try it out.

You talked about your close relationships on the You’re the Worst cast. Do you find yourself pitching ideas for the characters?
It’s a running joke on set. Me and Aya are always trying to pitch stuff to Stephen, but it’s a joke. We come up with ideas that probably aren’t even good. At this point, we leave the writing to them. They know what they’re doing.

What has been the most ridiculous pitch?
I’ve been trying to have Lindsay have a lesbian excursion for years. Because I broke up with my ex-boyfriend, I’m like, “I want to make out with girls! Have Lindsay make out with a bunch of girls on the show!” What else have we pitched? I forget. Also, we try to pitch stuff to get our other actor friends work. My friend can play my sister, or my brother, or maybe I have a long-lost aunt that my other friend can play.

Did you move to L.A. after starting You’re the Worst?
It’s funny, I am a born and raised New Yorker, and New Yorkers love to hate L.A. The first season of shooting, I did not move. I wasn’t going to give up my place in Brooklyn, I was all stubborn about it, and I rented an Airbnb for season one. Then, when we got picked up for season two, I was like, “You know what? Stop being in denial. You live in L.A.” Now I live in L.A. I actually really like it. I love driving. All my friends are here. I have the most amazing job in the world. I held onto my 917 area code, and that’s something I can’t give up.

Everyone moves to L.A., it seems like.
Sooner or later, we all come over here. When I was in New York, all my friends would trickle away. It was like that Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None.

Have you finally gotten furniture for your apartment?
I did. I’m actually sitting in a chair right now. Honestly, it sounds like a joke, but it’s true. I didn’t have furniture for eight months. I’m like, Yay, I’m actually sitting in a chair! And my elbows are on a table. I have furniture.

Kether Donohue on You’re the Worst and Grease