Interview: Donna Lynne Champlin Previews Paula's Turn in Season 2 of CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND

By: Oct. 21, 2016

A year and a half ago, it was in no way certain that the quirky musical comedy CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND was going to make it to television. After hitting a developmental snag as a 30-minute pilot for Showtime, creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna repackaged the series as a 44-minute show for Showtime's sister network, The CW.

Starring theatre regulars Tony-nominee Santino Fontana, Donna Lynne Champlin, Vincent Rodriguez III, Gabrielle Ruiz, and more, the show was an instant hit amongst the theatre crowd. But, after online debates over the series' title and think-pieces about the opening credits, the little show that could began to find a wider audience. The hilarious original songs brought audiences in, the mix of high and low-brow humor kept them comingback, and the bonkers but relatable characters turned them into devoted fans.

A season later, the show has won a Golden Globe, a Critics' Choice Award, a Television Critics' Association Award, and two Emmys while proving to be one of the smartest and most inventive shows on television. So, as CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND prepares for the premiere of its second season tonight on The CW at 9/8c, it's no surprise that there are legions of fans anxiously waiting to dive back into the crazy world of West Covina, California.

"It's really exciting just to get a Season 2 at all," said Champlin, "and then to have people actually know that we're premiering (laughs). Very different than last year. God bless Netflix."

Donna Lynne Champlin and Rachel Bloom
Photo Credit: Scott Everett White | The CW

When asked if she knew that CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND would be as well received as it has been, Champlin immediately said no and laughed. "You know how it is, especially coming from the theatre, just because something's good, doesn't mean that people will respond. Just because I love something, doesn't mean that... I always say I usually do the shows that change 10 people's lives, and the rest of the people are like, 'Can I get tickets to WICKED?' So, I sort of don't have expectations, and I certainly didn't have expectations about this world of television, because I don't know it very well."

Champlin has been a standout theatre performer for nearly two decades in New York and around the country. After making her Broadway debut understudying both Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley in the original Broadway production of JAMES JOYCE'S THE DEAD in 2000, she appeared in the original Broadway production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's BY JEEVES, and in 2005 she played Pirelli in John Doyle's Tony-winning revival of SWEENEY TODD.

Having won an Obie and a Drama Desk Award and having built a reputation and a career on the stage, specifically in New York, the opportunity to shoot a television show in California brought on a whole host of emotions for Champlin.

"I was excited and scared," she sang. "It was very exciting, because being in my mid-40s now, and having an entire career in the theatre, I could walk into it with a certain confidence, because I could say, 'I'll go do this thing, if I'm horrible at it, I'll just come back, and keep doing what I'm doing."

Needless to say, Champlin was not horrible at it, well, at least not all of it.

"Logistically, working on a television show and hitting your mark, and leaning to your right, and knowing where the camera is, I literally felt like I was on another planet," she admitted. "I was very very very lucky, because everyone involved, from the top down, they were so generous, with me especially (laughs). For the first three or four episodes, I ruined a bunch of shots, because I literally didn't know what I was doing, purely technically. Acting I never worried about, but it's so strange that on-camera work is so much more technical than theatre work, which I would have never thought in a million years."

Donna Lynne Champlin and Vincent Rodriguez III
Photo Credit: Scott Everett White | The CW

Though she concedes that she still has a lot to learn about the art of camera acting, Champlin's incredible work during the first season has earned her praise from fans and critics alike. She plays Paula, the co-worker and best friend to Bloom's protagonist Rebecca Bunch. In the series, Rebecca moves across the country, leaving behind a thriving law career, to chase her ex-boyfriend, Josh (played by Rodriguez III), after they randomly meet on a New York street a decade after breaking up. Seeing a chance to vicariously escape her pedestrian life as a working wife and mother, Paula latches onto Rebecca and pushes her to do whatever it takes to win Josh's love.

As the first season progressed, even though Rebecca was still at the center of the complicated and kooky love story, Paula became so integral to the fabric of what was happening on CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND that the season finale was titled "Paula Needs to Get Over Josh!"

In that episode, Rebecca finally tells Josh the truth about why she moved to California moments after finally getting everything that she wanted. Champlin said that Rebecca's bout with honesty sets up a very different feel when the show returns.

"It's really a fascinating season," she said. "Last season was all about lying to yourself and lying to other people. Now that (Rebecca's) told the truth, the mission statement for this season is, 'Who are you? And if you don't like who you are, can you change who you are?' So, it's been a really fascinating season, and it's been a lot of fun."

When we spoke, Champlin said that the show's team had shot eight of the season's 13 episodes, so she didn't know what would happen in the season's final third, but so far, she's been grateful that the new theme for Season 2 has given her a chance to work with some more of the cast than she did in Season 1.

"There's been a lot of mixing and matching of characters," she hinted. "In Season 1, I didn't really hang out with any woman other than Rachel, so this season, I cross paths with Gabrielle (Ruiz) and Vella (Lovell). I had some lady time, which was incredibly exciting for me. It's been a really fun shakeup."

After her summer hiatus, Champlin should feel right at home with all of her newly found "girl time." For a month beginning in May, she played Bianca's suitor Hortensio in an all-female production of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW for The Public Theatre's Shakespeare in Park.

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, this was Champlin's first time at the Delacorte since playing Audrey to Oliver Platt's Touchstone in 2012's AS YOU LIKE IT, just eight months after her son was born.

"It was really nice to come back to the Delacorte having had a decent night's sleep on a regular basis," she said laughing. "It really was a fantastic production, and such a great group of ladies. Phyllida Lloyd is probably the sweetest person on the planet. It was such a fantastic experience."

Donna Lynne Champlin, LaTanya Richardson Jackson,
and Cush Jumbo.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

The cast of 17 women was led by Tony-winner Janet McTeer as Petruchio, Cush Jumbo as Katherina, and featured the likes of LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Judy Gold, Anne L. Nathan, Gayle Rankin, and more. Lloyd has directed a number of Shakespeare's plays on both sides of the Atlantic with all female casts, and as soon as Champlin heard about this one, she knew that she wanted to be a part of it, even if she didn't know how.

"I was in California wrapping up Season 1, and I saw the announcement on... I think it was BroadwayWorld," she said, "and I immediately emailed my agent and was like, 'I don't care, I will fly back, I will do whatever, but I need to audition for this.' So, I put myself on tape, and they said, 'Well, what part do you want to play?' and I said, 'Grumio, the servant? I think that's probably my jam.'

"I'm familiar with the play, but obviously I'm not familiar enough, because there's only like two women in it, neither of which I would ever play. I would never play Kate, I would never play Bianca, so I'm not really familiar with all of the roles."

After being cast as Hortensio, Champlin said that Lloyd put the cast through its paces during rehearsals, forcing them to explore the physicality of being a man, and what that means to a cast of women.

"You are making a statement just by casting all women," Champlin said. "I think for us in the rehearsal room, especially because SHREW can be such a misogynistic play, we were constantly discussing what it means for us to be women, and how can we use this to our advantage, and how can we not abuse this? The last thing that we wanted to do was to go up there and be like, 'Men suck. Look at all the horrible men.'"

Champlin said that once they were able to settle into the idea of approaching these male roles from a female perspective, it opened up options in the play that might not otherwise be available to a traditional cast.

"We were constantly aware, taking the temperature of, as women, (that) we can actually get away with more brutality, because at the end of the day, everyone knows we're women," she said. "It's so much more scary to see a man playing Petruchio throw around a women playing Kate. But, if you've got a Petruchio that you know is a woman, as much as we try to make you forget, we can go further. You can really lean into it, because then it can be funny. So, that was the fascinating thing, constantly testing our limits and our freedoms."

While in New York for a week off from shooting, Champlin let slip a few details about what to expect from CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND when it returns tonight. She said that, while there are still five episodes left to shoot in the season, for the most part, Paula has stuck to her pledge to stop telling Rebecca what to do in her life. And, she is especially excited about a song that she has in the season's second episode that came about because of a request she made to Bloom and the rest of the show's writers.

Donna Lynne Champlin
Photo Credit: Scott Everett White | The CW

"I am actually a soprano, no one knows this," she said. "I'm actually a soprano who belts her face off, because I've gotta pay my rent. So, I told them, 'I would really love to sing something soprano. It doesn't have to be beautiful, you can put horns on me and I can get mad at somebody and Wagner the shit out of someone. I don't care. I would just love to sing, in a legit placement, above a C.'"

Since Paula is a loud, outspoken character, Champlin expected them to play the song for laughs, but when she got the music, she was pleasantly surprised.

"They gave me this princess number, which was what I always wanted, but didn't even dare to ask for," she said.

While her princess song lets her check one item off of her wish list, another items looks like it is going to have to go unrealized, at least for now. A four-time consecutive National Tap Dance Champion, when Champlin found out that the writers had given a tap number to Rebecca and some of the show's men, she called Rachel to give her a hard time, but when she heard the number's concept, had to change her tune.

"I mean, I was upset," she said, "but when it was explained to me, I was like, 'Oh yea. It's a no-brainer.'"

While we might have to wait to finally get the Paula tap routine that we all desperately deserve, Champlin promises that there is plenty of surprises on tap for her character in the upcoming season.

"(The writers) take you down a garden path, and then they throw a grenade at you," she said. "And they do plenty more of that in Season 2, especially because Paula's got a lot going on in the home life in combination with trying to follow her own path career-wise. I don't know what I can say, but Paula's got a lot going on."

Are you excited for Season 2 of CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND? Let me know on Twitter @BWWMatt. You can listen to me on BroadwayRadio or on BroadwayWorld's pop culture podcast Some Like it Pop.

Banner Credit: Donna Lynne Champlin. Photo Credit: Scott Everett White | The CW