“What a queen!” exclaimed Aline Brosh McKenna, the co-creator of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and director of the show’s season-three finale, as she gazed at Donna Lynne Champlin, dressed in silk chiffon and sitting atop a throne. Each time the choreographer Kathryn Burns yelled out, “Kid!” a child dancer emerged from the base of the throne and Champlin made a face. The crew members tried very hard not to burst out in laughter. It was, as the song goes, the “Miracle of Birth.”
After performing the number, Champlin got the extensions taken out of her hair and changed into some more comfortable clothes to talk about her character Paula’s general arc this season. But we wound up discussing a lot more, including the stultifying, often offensive language of casting calls, her personal difficulty with Rebecca’s suicide attempt and mental illness, and how she learned to lip sync by watching drag queens online.
How was it shooting “Miracle of Birth?”
Normally, one of the most stressful parts about doing a number here is getting the choreography right. Sometimes time is really tight, so I’ll have anxiety about making sure I have the right steps. The great thing about [“Miracle of Birth”] is, I just sat in a chair! Normally on a musical number day, I won’t have slept the night before. I slept like a baby last night. This morning, I was like, “Ah! I’m just going to sit in a chair and sing for some people!” [Laughs.]
I will say though, lip-syncing for me has been one of the greatest challenges. It’s literally a muscle that I don’t even have. So that in itself, I did have a little anxiety about being so exposed. Each song has its own challenges, but that song is by far the easiest number I’ve ever had. Sit on a throne! What more could I ask for?
Are you lip-syncing or singing?
I sing. Rachel is obviously a master at it, so in season one I pulled her aside and said, “Please help me, what are the most important things?” She said, “First thing is, you have to sing every take.” You don’t have to sing out, especially not if it’s like a Mama Rose number, but you have to phonate, breathe, and sing it. The camera really can tell the difference. And then she was like, “Breath is the next most important thing.” Even if you hear the breath on the recording, you have to remember to do it [on set]. And cut-offs, obviously. A cut-off is the end of a note, so if I’m singing — [sings a few notes] — the end of that is a cut-off. I feel like I’ve gotten much more comfortable with it as we’ve gone. It takes me a lot less time to prepare now, but I still agonize over it.
Do you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race? You can watch the lip syncs for that!
Not necessarily Drag Race, but I have Googled drag performers because they are consummate lip syncers. I mean, it’s an art form for them. I actually Googled drag lip syncing specifically for season one to help me learn how to do it, because they’re the best by far.
How did you react when you saw yourself in full costume for this number?
I cried. That happened to me when I did the princess song too. Most of Paula’s numbers, if you notice, are either just what she’s wearing or what she’s wearing but just a little heightened. I rarely get a full costume change. It’s always really exciting for me when I get the princess number, where it’s a complete departure.
Every department here is just incredible. To be at the epicenter of everyone’s work from sound to lighting to construction to art design, I just feel so special. I know that happens in musicals, but for some reason, it just feels so much more pronounced here because it’s just like the eye of a tornado. Aline Brosh McKenna — Paula is very much based on her — she came over to me and said as an aside, “Did you ever think we’d get a woman in her mid-40s dressed as a goddess, sitting on a throne and being worshiped? I feel like everything I’ve done in my career has led to this moment!” I was like, “Girl, it just can’t feel as good as being the mid-40s woman dressed as a goddess being worshiped on a throne!” It just doesn’t get any better than that!
You know, in the musical theater, that would probably never happen to me. That’s just not my type. What I really love about it here too is they bend the type. They give me a princess song, a goddess song — I’m not always the wise-cracking, “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” kind of gal. it’s just incredibly satisfying as an artist to be able to be asked to do things that are out of your wheelhouse.
Or as what casting directors don’t conventionally see.
True. Even just our guest stars and co-stars are always so fantastic and so right and so … normal-looking! They’re real people! It’s one of the most amazing things that makes this world so special to play in. If you have a plus-sized, middle-aged woman, usually there’s an arc that revolves around her age, her size. Or with a Filipino leading man, they’d feel the need to “talk about it,” or a bisexual character, having it be “a very special episode.” Here, I feel like we create the world that we see in the real world, but that we don’t necessarily see reflected back to us. I love it. I’m just ruined for every other show I should ever do, should I ever be so lucky.
I hope that this show and others like it are changing things.
I think it’s already happening. When Melissa McCarthy came out with Bridesmaids, all of a sudden you saw a plus-sized woman who had three dimensions, was not an appendage, was pivotal to the plot. It took about a year-and-a-half for the wheels to turn. But a year-and-a-half after that movie, parts for me began appearing that I had never seen before. I’m normally like, “Mr. Johnson’s here to see you, you want some coffee?” As far as TV goes, that was it. All of a sudden, there’s roles. You know that role on that amazing episode of Louie he did with Sarah Baker? It was such a good episode. I auditioned for that too, and I was so bummed that I didn’t get it. When I saw it, I was like, “Of course you didn’t get it, because she’s amazing!” Wasn’t she spectacular in that? There are actors out there of different sizes and different races that have the talent. I would like to hope the “best person” gets the job, regardless of type.
That’s interesting that you are starting to see different roles pop up.
This was the first pilot I ever auditioned for.
No way! What was the original description of what they wanted?
I’m not 100 percent sure. I do know there was a version where it said, “Trying to lose the extra baby weight.” I think that’s how it was first approached. And then I think that description changed a little bit, but that was actually a great description. A lot of times, for parts I’d usually go in for, the descriptions were rather crass.
What do they say?
“Unattractive.” “Unappealing.” “Fat.” I’m a size 14. I’m a pretty average American size, but in the business, I’m fat. It’s a nice thing to say — “starting to lose the extra baby weight” — because that says a lot more about who that person is. There have been breakdowns where it’ll say, just in ensembles for musical, “Men of all types and minorities, all male types apply,” and then for the women, “No heavy women, only very very thin women.” This happened recently. I was just like, “What?!” There’s an ensemble of character parts, traditionally character women, but the men get a free pass to be whatever size and color. The ladies don’t still. I got loud about that. I literally was like, “I’m too old for this shit.” If I burn a bridge with this, so be it. This makes me so angry.
What did you do?
I did a lot of social media about it and I stirred up some shit. I wasn’t alone. Normally, I’m a little more Switzerland about things, but in this case, I was just like, “I’m 43 years old. What am I afraid of? This guy’s not gonna hire me anyway, clearly!” When you hit 40, you do start thinking less about yourself and more about the next generation, and you just think, “Fuck it. I’ve had to deal with this shit, but you know what? I can get loud so maybe you don’t have to.”
Don’t you feel like that’s happening more now?
Yes, I do. I do. I still can’t put my finger on as to why and how it is now, but it’s fascinating. I’m very, very glad it is, but just as a woman, you feel like we’ve been banging on that door forever, and all of a sudden it just opened! You just kind of sit there like, “Oh? You’re taking his job? He got fired? There was a consequence? People know about it? There’s more people backing me up?” So it is a very exciting time. It’s a very, very messy and scary time. I had a great friend who used to say to me, “You can’t just put a Band-Aid on a cut. You’ve got to clean it out, look at how it’s infected.” So I think we’re just treating the wound now. I think we just had the Band-Aid over it forever.
I don’t think we ever acknowledged that it was a wound.
I read a funny tweet, I can’t remember who did it, but it was like, “2016 was the year white people realized racism was rampant, and 2017 was the year white men realized that sexual abuse was rampant.” I was like, “Yeah, pretty much.”
Do you feel like it is rampant in the industry?
Yeah, but it’s rampant everywhere. My perspective obviously is “the business” because that’s my job, but it’s a delicate balance, especially for women because it’s still a business where you can get hired or not based on how you look. You gain too much weight and don’t fit your costume or you’re not pretty enough, you’re out. In any other job, that’s against the law, but in our job, it is actually an applicable part of the selection of the employment process. That’s difficult, because if I’m auditioning for somebody to play a model, I’m not gonna get that job! But if you’re casting a chorus of character people, I got the job.
We need to have a more expansive idea of what a person is and can be.
I think with Hamilton, Lin-Manuel has really blown up the whole casting idea. It’s miraculous. You look at 1776, it’s a bunch of old white guys and old white chicks. You look at Hamilton, and it’s just the faces of America. I really think that Lin has done such an amazing job just by how he chose to originally cast that. It freed up casting directors, and I know casting directors who are constantly saying, “Why don’t you see this person of color? Why don’t you see this plus-sized person!” It’s rarely the artistic people. It’s more the corporate idea. They look at their spreadsheets and they go, “People like thin blonde women, so get that.” We have to answer to the money.
I’m just not convinced that’s where the money is.
[Laughs.] True! True!
How do you feel about Paula’s arc this season?
At the end of season two she’s found a little more autonomy. She’s paid more attention to her family. This year, because of Rebecca’s suicide attempt, Paula has pretty much abandoned all of the hard work she did and that co-dependent relationship just snapped back together even more strongly. Any boundaries that Paula set just completely disappeared.
What I love about this season, especially the episode that aired last night [“Josh Is Irrelevant”], is that in my own personal life, I have experienced someone choosing to end their own life. Not a lot is said about the ripple effect of who’s left or the person who tries to kill themselves. What I really loved about [“Josh Is Irrelevant”] was that it showed all these different ways — healthy or unhealthy — of how people try to cope when someone you love does that. Everybody had their own not-so-great way of trying to make sense of it and move on and help her. It’s one of my favorite episodes.If we have an overall theme, it’s how the character of Rebecca is on her journey of self-discovery, but every time she changes, everyone else changes. This year is obviously about her finally being diagnosed correctly and what that means for her and, as an effect, what that means for the rest of us.
Paula tries to remove herself from the relationship, but then Rebecca pulls her back with that monologue.
I’ve talked to the writers about this. I said, “What would you say specifically brings her back?” They said, “She could go to jail. At the end of the day, Paula is still her best friend, and she could literally go to prison for years.” Paula knows the smart choice is to get off. She’s no dummy. As an actor, it’s a fine line to play some of the dumb shit that she does. I’m always checking in with Aline to be like, “Is this delusional? Is this crazy? Or is this just plain stupid?” I’m a smart person, I do dumb shit all the time, but usually it’s because I’m not looking in the right place. I always want to be very careful with Paula that her intelligence is never forsaken for some batshit caper she’s decided to do. It’s tricky.
Do you feel like Paula and Rebecca are the central relationship of the show?
I do. I do feel like she and I together are the heart, but it’s also really, really great to see how generous they are. But yeah, the writers have said as much, that Rebecca and Paula are their through line.
That’s what I mean — the central love story is not Josh and Rebecca, it’s Paula and Rebecca.
Yes, and ultimately one would hope it’s Rebecca and Rebecca. Not that I want to write myself out of the fourth season! [Laughs.] But as someone who has struggled a lot with emotional issues, intensive therapy, and been very grateful for it, I think you have to be in a great relationship with yourself before you can go out in the world and share yourself with someone, whether it’s a best friend or a man or a woman or a child. Any sort of primal relationship, you’ve got to be okay with yourself. No one ever is, but ideally you should get as close as you can.
If you don’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?
You know how on airplanes they say that if the oxygen mask drops and you have a kid, you have to put it on yourself first? Any parent would think, “That’s fucking bonkers! I have to save my child first!” but it’s that very applicable rationale of, “You can’t help that child if you’re unconscious.” That’s what I always think about when I talk about therapy. Women are raised to think of others first, and that it’s selfish to take care of yourself first. I have a little boy who I love so much, but if I’m having a day where I’m sick or tired, I have to be like, “Hey, give Mommy 20 minutes. I’ll set an alarm and when it goes off, we can play, but Mommy needs a nap.”
The mental health stuff this season really hit hard.
Not a lot of people know it, but I don’t have any qualms about saying it — there’s a lot of mental illness that runs in my family. My father was a paranoid schizophrenic, and I have other relatives who have mental illnesses, so as someone who grew up in a house with someone who not only had that severe of a mental illness, but to a debilitating degree, this season has been difficult for me. The difficult thing with mental illness is that there’s no one to blame. You can’t blame a person who’s mentally ill because they didn’t ask for it! There’s no choice to it. It’s very difficult sometimes, for me with these scenes, to see her in distress or to be the recipient of some horrible thing, because it is that difficult. You have these feelings and you want to blame somebody, but it’s really hard to blame the person who’s mentally ill because they didn’t choose it.
This season has been very, very difficult for me. I’ve made some emergency calls to my therapist, like, “I had a hard day today, and I just need to talk to you about it.” I have absolutely no shame about that at all. You need to take care of yourself. It’s been hard because of how I grew up, and the dynamics that I set up for myself are very similar to the ones I play in this show. Sometimes it gets a little too close, so you shake it off, call your therapist, and it’s back to work!