On Friday night’s episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rebecca Bunch’s wisecracking roommate Heather is dragged into the spotlight: After spending eight years in community college, she finally has to graduate. Crazy-Ex being the oddball musical series that it is, this means that Heather has to participate in an inspirational musical number, which she performs with trademark boredom, and dance moves that somehow seem sarcastic.
According to Vella Lovell, the Juilliard-trained actress who plays Heather, it was very hard to keep a straight face. Lovell has an upbeat personality, much unlike Heather, and she’s relishing the chance to push the character forward this season, promising that Heather will face even scarier challenges down the line — though she won’t spoil what they’ll be. Speaking over the phone with Vulture, Lovell talked about learning from the Broadway vets in the Crazy Ex cast, her scene-stealing role in Kumail Nanjiani’s rom-com The Big Sick, and being cast to play characters of different ethnicities.
Heather gets a big, inspirational solo in this week’s episode. I have to know: How did you manage to make her look so bored?
Honestly, it’s becoming more of a challenge because everything they throw her way this season gets more and more ridiculous. They chose the most upbeat genre of song, which I think is so funny. They were like, “So, she’s going to sing the most genuine musical-theater songs that ever existed, but in her way.” [Choreographer] Kathryn Burns has super-enthusiastic dancers behind me. I was dying the whole time because they’re so into it and passionate.
You get to play the old version of Heather in the song, who is especially not into it.
Old Heather is just young Heather, but with a deeper voice. She’s still over it and jaded. That was cool because I had to get my face cast to do the prosthetic, which was a whole adventure I wasn’t prepared for. They cover your mouth and put two little holes where your nose is for, like, an hour. Then the actual applying of the prosthetic was, like, three hours. I think I was only in the makeup for an hour-and-a-half. Two of my classmates from grad school are in the new Star Trek right now and one of them is playing a Klingon, so I think she does that every day. It gave me such a respect for people who have to do that every single day.
The show is giving Heather more musical numbers as she gets drawn into Rebecca’s world. What has that been like?
There’s Broadway singers and dancers and actors in our cast, so it was at first kind of intimidating. I danced and sang in the past, but not in that way. Now it’s so much fun. It gives you this day of fantasy where you don’t have to play by the rules, especially for someone as dry as Heather and sarcastic and over it. She can be playful or she can be silly or smile.
What have you learned from the cast members with Broadway backgrounds?
I really have an admiration for everyone’s work ethic, because doing eight shows a week, you develop this endurance that’s insane. Someone like Donna Lynne Champlin [who plays Paula], who is a pro, you learn from watching them both on the talent level and the endurance and professionalism. Vincent Rodriguez III [who plays Josh], he was a dance captain in a lot of shows. He will come to dance rehearsal voluntarily sometimes. That’s something that the theater community has in such abundance — support and community. Because there’s so many theater vets on our cast, I think we subconsciously have that vibe.
Now that Heather is graduating, where does she go nest?
[Crazy-Ex Girlfriend co-creator] Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel and the whole writers’ room are essentially asking her to transition. She’s been the sarcastic commentator on the sidelines. She’s been, like, “Oh, I’m safe in community college.” She doesn’t actively participate in her own life and that’s why she’s able to comment on everything.
I’ve always thought that Heather and Rebecca are opposites, because Heather is surprisingly emotionally healthy and mature. Even when she was dating Greg, the second that she knew he wasn’t 100 percent into her, she was like, “Ee can’t do this.” But on the flip side, Rebecca is ambitious and smart. She never thought she shouldn’t be a lawyer. Heather professionally is fine being an elf and then quitting every class. She’s very evolved emotionally, but not with her own ambition or direction in life.
When we met her parents in season two, we learned they never really pushed her. I thought that was key.
It’s an interesting look at millennial parenting. It’s half-amazing that all these parents are like, “You are so special just for existing,” you know? Because it’s true. But on the other hand, you also need that push and you have to leave the nest at some point. Heather had this smothering cocoon and she doesn’t want to do anything. It’s been a cool challenge as an actor and as a character to get out of that comfortable bubble she’s created for herself. They’re really throwing some fun curveballs at her this season.
Anything that was terrifying when you first read it on the page?
I don’t think I can say because they’re huge spoilers, but there are some things coming up that I was like, “Oh, she’s going to do that?” I’m still not sure how it’s going to go, but I’m excited.
You were in The Big Sick this summer with Kumail Nanjiani. What was that experience like?
I feel really lucky to have been a part of a movie that’s so personal to Kumail and Emily [V. Gordon], who wrote it. It’s their actual love story and they’ve been married for ten years, so it was a very special, personal movie. I’m a huge fan of Michael Showalter and he was the director. It was like, “Oh my god I’m the luckiest person to be there a couple days.”
You played Khadija, who speaks with a Pakistani accent. How did you make sure it was authentic?
I really wanted to get it right. I went to Juilliard for grad school, so I worked with one of my voice teachers to get all the sounds completely right. The script ended up going through a lot of different iterations. In an earlier version, she was born in America, and then in a later version, she was from Pakistan. I think it’s a testament to Kumail and Emily that they even created that character because I think romantic comedies can be like, “This is the right girl, obviously.” I thought it was intelligent to be like, “There are other people that it could have worked out with.” [Khadija] is a cool person and Kumail’s a cool person and they could have really hit it off, but he loves this other girl so it’s never going to work.
You also get to tell him you don’t like the The X-Files.
That was added on set, actually. They were like, “Can you add this line?” and I was like, “Definitely.”
In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Heather has a black father and a white mother. In The Big Sick, you played a Pakistani woman. Are you often asked to play characters of various ethnicities?
I mean, I guess I’m ethnically ambiguous, which adds to being able to ask to audition for or ask to play a lot of different ethnicities, which I don’t take lightly. I think it’s a huge responsibility and honor. I definitely like to do my research and play every character authentically, with heart and respect and bringing a voice to a woman of color, that’s all I can do. It’s an interesting challenge just based on how I look, because so much of film and TV is about how you look. People are looking at you through a lens. If they’re casting a certain thing, they can be like, “Sure, I can see you as this.” As an actor, you’re kind of like clay. You’re like, “I’m going to help build this character and give a voice to this character.” It’s true of not just me and different ethnicities, but every actor stepping into a role. Hopefully you’re coming at different characters completely differently. You’re not the same person in each role.
You were also in Mary Jane in New Haven this summer, which is such a great play that’s now Off Broadway with Carrie Coon. Do you expect to keep going between theater and TV projects?
I am drawn to great writing and storytelling and humor and heart. I think that’s why I’ve always loved theater, new plays, new work, and new voices. I think that’s why I’m also drawn to television, because a lot of playwrights now are working in television. A lot of New York playwrights I know I are now working in TV in L.A., which is really cool. I have actually known Amy [Herzog, who wrote Mary Jane] since we both did Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. I’ve been a huge fan of hers since then. When I read Mary Jane, it was one of the most beautiful plays I’ve ever read. I felt really lucky that I got to do the first attempt at sharing it with the world, even though it wasn’t in New York. It was a great experience, and I wish I could have seen [the New York version]. I think it’s closing next week. I’m sure it was amazing.