Gabrielle Ruiz welcomes the dislike bestowed by fans onto her Crazy Ex-Girlfriend character Valencia.
Ruiz, who has spent the last year playing the self-interested and often brutally honest Valencia in the mega-hit musical television series, is best known for her stage roles in In The Heights and If/Then but through a chain of serendipitous events the New York actress found herself filming in California for the past year for a role that was supposed to last only a couple of weeks.
The role of Valencia has been a dream come true for Ruiz but the dream is coming to a temporary end tonight when Crazy Ex-Girlfriend airs its season finale tonight, April 18, at 8pm on The CW.
Fresh off the heels from her trip back home, Ruiz spoke with Stage Door Dish about filming the first season with Golden Globe winning actress Rachel Bloom, her connections to the other Broadway vets in the cast, and her whirlwind year working in television.
I love that you’ve only been home a week and you’ve gone to see Hamilton.
It was so good to see Lin [Manuel Miranda]. I saw it off-Broadway and I saw Javier [Muñoz] as Hamilton, so it was a pleasure to see Lin in the role and to see all my people. Next is On Your Feet! because it’s half of the cast of In the Heights.
Yeah, I hear Lin wanders over with coffee to see them.
That’s what we used to do for In the Heights. We would all have cafe in Andrea Burns‘ and Janet Dacal’s dressing room. I guess that’s where it’s being revived from. It makes me happy.
What was it like seeing Hamilton after being in In the Heights?
As a professional, it’s so cool to experience during my career, the killing of a show. That was Wicked ten years ago. Now, I get to watch my friends do it. I love that new experience of witnessing people I’ve worked with do this. It’s changing Broadway. I get to see my colleagues and friends who raised me in Broadway. In the Heights was my debut. I was right out of college in the A Chorus Line tour, which I thought was my big break, and I was able to one-up my own career with In the Heights. Lin-Manuel gave me the chance. Everyone I learned from, like Chris Jackson and Stephanie Klemons, taught me all of the roles that I performed in In the Heights with my ensemble track as Nina, Vanessa, and Carla. It’s even more of an exciting story because Stephanie also taught me all of my tracks in If/Then at the Richard Rodgers theatre. Not only do I really know the ins and outs of that specific theatre, I also can really call it home. Visiting the theater recently, when I saw Hamilton, I was home. I even know the stage door guy and they were just really happy to see me. It’s really a family there. We get to see how everyone’s lives have evolved. Chris Jackson’s babies are not babies anymore. We not only get to be updated on each other’s careers, we get to be updated on each other’s lives. I was able to catch up with Lin.
There’s a friend of mine who said ‘You can’t always have a guarantee to make a living on Broadway, but you are guaranteed to make a killing when it happens.’ That’s what is happening with Hamilton. It’s changing the world and it’s killing what everyone even thinks their career can be for the cast and the creative team. It’s going to be legendary. It already is, but think about it in ten years. People will talk about it the way they talk about Wicked. That just makes our careers worth it. Not everyone can do Hamilton, not everyone can do Wicked, but everyone is meant to do something.
I want to shift the conversation and talk about what you’re doing right now. How did you get involved with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend?
It’s hilarious you ask this because we’re going right back to Hamilton. The Crazy Ex-Girlfriend creative team, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, reached out to their theatre resources for casting support and Lin and Alex Lacamoire recommended me to audition for it. I wasn’t the only person they suggested, but I was on the list. I was able to audition in New York. It was self-taped and those sometimes disappear into the universe if you’re not right for the role but this one was the jackpot. I won the lottery because there are so many people who could play Valencia. It was like it was written for me, if we want to talk about fate, and I had a callback in New York the next week after my first tape. I had a Skype session with Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom. I did my research and thought ‘How amazing that the woman who wrote the screenplay for The Devil Wears Prada likes my work and the woman who’s creating the show is so passionate about connecting with people who are auditioning for it.’ They were taking their time and having ten minute interview sessions on Skype talking about Valencia even when people were there for other roles. I remember asking them ‘Would you like me to sing on tape again?’ And they said ‘Girl, we’ve seen you on YouTube, we got it, you can sing your booty off.’ I did more tape, and then I did it again with Aline, and they took maybe a month off to cast other series regulars. They were trying to lay those roles out. I thought they were just going to drop me and the whole idea because it felt too good to be true. The response was great, I loved talking to them, I loved the character so much. I went on vacation and I told my fiance ‘They’re not going to call, it’s over, let it go.’ Then on a Monday in August, I got a call to audition in Los Angeles on Friday, and I never left. I’ve been there since a week ago. We wrapped March 22nd. Valencia was only supposed to be in two episodes and it became eleven. I like to give credit to the chemistry I have with Rachel off-screen. We got along very well, we understood each other, we improvised well, we had fun on-screen. The characters of Rebecca and Valencia worked so well, and none of us knew that until we were in the roles. I was lucky enough to be able to stick around and keep creating this role with the cast.
Your chemistry is so enjoyable and so relatable. It’s like ‘I like this girl, but I also want to punch her in the face’… It’s a total ‘frenemy’ vibe.
People always ask me ‘Does it hurt your feelings that people don’t like Valencia?’ and I’m like ‘No, it’s flattering! It means I’m doing it right.’ It’s nice to be the villain. I love Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls, she’s so dead-on, but at the same time, the ‘mean girl’ is the honest girl. A lot of people don’t like honesty and are afraid to be too honest. Maybe that’s why Valencia doesn’t have any friends; she’s just way too honest.
Valencia isn’t some evil person, she’s just trying to live her life.
The biggest problem for Valencia is change. She was fine living in the suburbs of Los Angeles. She was fine with teaching yoga at a different studios and didn’t want to buy her own studio. She was fine with dating the guy for 15 years even though they’ve never progressed. Everything was fine until this new person comes in and shakes things up. Not only is she a female, which a lot women can relate to when it comes to females in competition, especially in high school and in their twenties, but she’s also an ex-girlfriend.
I believe that Valencia was only in two episodes at the beginning because they didn’t want it to be a love triangle between two women and a man, which has already been done. They really wanted to make it diverse, especially with Josh and the culture of West Covina, and they wanted it to revolve around two men with Rebecca.
You have to understand Rebecca before you can understand Valencia, otherwise it wouldn’t work. You have to have empathy for that character and why she’s doing it, because it is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Valencia’s not only the problem, but she’s also pragmatic, which Rebecca doesn’t like either. Valencia just wants to solve the problem. I like that in the second half of the season, Valencia is representing that part of Rebecca’s story. Valencia’s not the villain of the story, she’s just trying to live her life.
I look forward in season two to seeing some of the stories intertwining with each other. There was even a moment where Heather and Valencia were on the party bus together, and there were some scenes that were cut that we improvised where Valencia is asking her questions. Can you imagine what would happen if Valencia and Donna Lynne [Champlin] actually spoke? Finally, Greg [Santino Fontana] and my character had a scene together, and it was so fun not just being Josh’s girlfriend. We didn’t know that until we started rolling. I’m excited to see what happens next.
Tell me everything about being a princess for a day while Rachel was dressed as an evil witch.
It was hilarious and unexpected, but also I have been dying to be a Disney princess theatrically since I heard the first princess song. Beauty and the Beast, or maybe even Cinderella – I’m not just talking about the ethnic ones, I wanted to be any Disney princess. When those roles come along in your career, your heart beats a little faster. When Rachel wrote the song [‘I’m the Villain in My Own Story’], I almost cried at the table reading.
I wasn’t just playing a princess; someone created a princess for me and that was huge. It’s such a precious experience for me that, not only am I part of a new creation of a show, but they also threw in the aspect of Valencia playing a Disney princess. It was better than a dream come true. I didn’t think it could be that great.
On set, they gave me this huge quinceañera hair with a tiara, and a Rapunzel-type dress, and Rachel had all these effects on to look like a villain. Those ghastly nails were so hideous. She and I were sharing fries on set and there was a taco truck around. I was able to not be Valencia for a night. I could be sweet and not such a diva. Valencia always carries around that diva quality and her outfits are very modern. I just got to be a princess, and I soaked it up.
How similar are you and Valencia?
What I find very familiar in the writing for Valencia is that she’s honest. She represents the friend who you call when you want the truth and don’t want to beat around the bush. You don’t call to chit-chat, you don’t talk about your nail polish, it’s ‘What do you think I should do.’ I also know that in the development of the character, she was queen bee in high school. The girls were jealous and voted her out of the group. It’s not that I relate to that specific story, but I relate to the drama of high school girl dynamics. I remember those vividly. I was a cheerleader, let’s just say that. Female competition is pretty vicious in high school, and I remember those days, and it really taught me to protect myself with other women – not necessarily be mean, just protective and territorial. That also comes from being hurt. When it comes to that, I understand that about her. I lived with yoga instructors six out of my nine years in New York, so for that part of Valencia, I channel my really great friends and roommates. In the introductory scene she’s talking about how she changed her name from Maria to Valencia, and I have a friend who did that. She treats her body as a temple and all that. I was laughing at how accurate the writers were about that lifestyle of a yogi. That part I can relate to.
What’s been your favorite episode so far?
The party bus episode is my favorite, by far. Not only was Rachel pole dancing, but her body double who did some of the upside-down stuff looks exactly like her, and it was uncanny and hilarious. Erick Lopez, Pete Gardner, and David Hull, all of our characters were stuck in a situation together, so we had a lot of fun together on set experiencing that. And it was with Kenny Ortega. It’s everyone’s dream to work with this man, who is excellent at what he does, genuine, thoughtful, charismatic, caring towards his actors and dancers, careful at what he does, and he gets us. All the other directors who have come on have done that as well, but it’s different with Kenny, because he comes a little bit more from that world. He was teaching us Dirty Dancing choreography between takes, so you have to savor that. He’s a dream to work with, much like the rest of the cast. The party bus was fun, because they would break out the walls to film. It was really cool to watch the crew work in such close quarters. I was the only one who wasn’t sweating, though, since I was in a bathing suit. Everyone else was sweating the whole time.
Which song has been your favorite to perform, and which was your favorite that someone else sang?
I really enjoyed being a princess in a cage and watching Rachel do her work in the scene. I was able to be the victim and play off of what she was already doing with that. However, my debut song, ‘I’m So Good at Yoga’, was my favorite to do. I was able to live out a dream to be part of a song premiere. I’ve done a few Broadway shows but I’ve never been part of a cast recording. This was my first one. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend keeps topping the dreams I came up with myself. That was fun, as well as working with the dancers in Los Angeles. They were so supportive. Kathryn Burns, who’s the choreographer, wasn’t sure yet if I was a dancer because she had never worked with me before. It was really fun to be like ‘I come from a different world, I got this.’ It’s a different scene on the west coast. They were being respectful not to overwhelm me, but once she figured out that I’m a dancer, we had so much fun coming up with the choreography together. The set was beautiful. It was maybe my third day on set filming that song and I got to be a goddess for a day. That outfit, that hair, and everything in the set was for me, and it was so humbling and special. The crew took care of me very well. We shot that one song for about ten hours, and there were so many layers to it. I was happy to show it to my yogi, because it’s a spoof off what they love. I couldn’t wait for it to air. I was so nervous, I was sweating the first time I saw it. It was the first time my name was on iTunes. It was all that kind of stuff where you just kind of squeal to yourself and hope somebody buys it, and it’s a check on your bucket list. I’m so floored and honored that they picked me.
Did you expect this show to become what it is now?
From the beginning, I always knew it would be a hit. I would bet all odds that we would be where we are now. I really don’t look at the ratings, I’m just learning about what they mean. I know Broadway ratings because I’ve been there so much longer. I knew we were making such good television. To be able to be a muse of Rachel Bloom and her writing team- 38 songs in one season- is flexing the muscles of what I love to do. Working hard to create something that someone wrote down is what I love about Broadway and creating an original show. It’s what I love about doing a new off-Broadway show or workshop that never makes it to Broadway or is trying to make it to Broadway. We’re already used to that in New York. You love it no matter what happens to it, no matter what the results are. Just like Diana Morales, it’s what I did for love. Did I believe in it? Absolutely. I’m so delighted to say I knew from the beginning. When Rachel won the Golden Globe, I wasn’t shocked, but it hit me that it’s really happening. We’re hitting the big leagues now.
I think that’s when it actually hit me that I was doing prime time TV and doing something that was changing television. Just like Hamilton is doing, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is turning the rom-com on its head and doing musical numbers that are hilarious and unpredictable. When Rachel won the Golden Globe, I was on the floor in my living room crying and laughing. I was so happy not just for her, but for her show. She’s the genius behind the show and she’s really damn good at it. We get to watch her work as the executive producer, the writer, and the editor, and she’s giving notes about scenes that have been shot, and she’s memorizing her lines as an actor. It really takes a special person to be able to do that. Like Lin, they’re made to do it. We not only get to play with her, but also witness that part of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It’s been very educational as my big debut on television. I’ve done a few things here and there, but this is my debut on prime time, and it’s very special.
What’s your hope for the second season?
My hope for the second season is that it spreads to an even larger audience. I feel as though the age of viewership is wide, but I can’t wait for more people to hear about it. I also hope that Valencia gets to interact with more characters than what you’ve seen so far in season one. I think all of us didn’t know that Valencia could be the character she is until the show was evolving. There are some things in store that have been shared with me privately, and I can’t dig into her history and the reason why she is what she is, more than just being Josh’s girlfriend.
I have to ask the million dollar question: Do you think she and Josh will last?
I think they’ll last forever and ever. They’ve been together for fifteen years. If they’ve been together for that long, they might as well keep fighting. As Gabrielle, with the in-between ‘do we want to stay together’ stuff, I’m a little more black and white. So I look forward to Valencia standing up for herself in that way in season two, whatever the result is. But I think they should stay together, I think they’re great.
There are so many Broadway people in this show. Did you know any of them going into it?
I know David Hull. He’s the only person I knew of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Broadway people. Of course I knew Santino [Fontana]‘s career and I knew Donna Lynne’s career. Vincent and I had a lot of mutual friends, as well as Santino and Donna Lynne, so I think we were all excited to meet each other once we found out we were all doing it. We were representing Broadway together, so we had an instant connection from that community. David Hull and I did summer stock in Wichita while we were in college. We did five musical theatre shows in ten weeks. He went to University of Michigan, I went to Oklahoma City University, and we’ve been friends ever since. We even did the first national tour of A Chorus Line together, so we’ve followed each other from afar, doing shows together and separate. During my first table read for Valencia’s episode ‘Josh’s Girlfriend is Really Cool’, David was there and we just giggled and smiled. I didn’t know he was doing it until he sat across the table from me. It was perfect. It was so meant to be.
We actually had a pact in college that if we weren’t married by 30, we would get married and have kids, because we thought 30 was so old in college. I’m not going to tell you how old I am, but let’s just say it didn’t work out. I’m engaged, but David was like ‘Technically you’re mine.’ We tell people because we think it’s funny, but then people look at us like we’re weird and crazy. We thought it was brilliant.
I want to talk about Vince and Santino. What are they like together off screen, because they’re so contrasted on the show?
I’ve only done a few episodes with Santino, and I’ve done a lot with Vincent. I love Santino’s energy off-screen, because he’s so even keel and collected and then he has this huge, boisterous laugh. He’s so comfortable in himself that you don’t talk shop with him, you talk about life. He just got married, he talks about his wife [Jessica Fontana] a lot, he’s online shopping for things. He is also a pretty private guy, which I love about him and respect. It’s nice to see such a successful actor/dancer/singer love his wife just as much. On his days off he spends time with his wife, and I love that, because I’m a big believer in keeping that balanced.
Vincent, who also just got married as well, is more of the social guy, the ‘selfie guy’. He’s very similar to Josh in that way, but Vincent is a lot more confident than Josh. He’s good at making decisions and very helpful and informative. If you need to know what’s going on, just ask Vincent. The thing that he and Josh have the most in common is the selfies. He is the master of taking selfies. They started just writing it into the script.
You’ve worked with amazing people on this show and on Broadway. If you had to pick one person to work with again, who would it be?
I feel like I didn’t get my fully satisfied experience with Lea Salonga. She’s going to be in our finale episode of season one, and Valencia and her character have maybe about one and a half scenes together. Off-screen we had a really good time talking and laughing and getting to know each other, but it was a little short lived. Not only do I love her as a person, but I also loved our two characters. Who knows if we’re able to collide again on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend but I would love to work with her on any other project. I geek out over who she is, but I was also able to work alongside her and enjoy her company. She is so good. As a professional, she is on it. From our point of view as professional actors, I look up to her immensely for her work ethic. I want to be her when I grow up. You hear the phenomenon of Lea Salonga, and you know the work she’s done, but then you work with her and see that she works her booty off. She is very good at what she does. She is on point, she is precise, she is specific. It’s really a privilege to watch and be a part of it.
If you could go back to Broadway this summer while you’re on hiatus, which role would you like to play?
It’s such a great season, it’s hard to pick. If I could just borrow the role for the summer and then give it back, it would be Eliza in Hamilton. It’s the new ingenue, it’s representing what feminism is today, it’s representing what strength is in a woman. She’s the heart of the show. I love that role. Phillipa Soo does such a divine job with it. If I could do it for a week, and experience the phenomenon of Hamilton, I would happy. And I could see all my friends and hang out. Maybe I could just do all three of the sisters. I did all three of the women in In the Heights. I’ll do anything to be in Hamilton! I would love to work with Alex Lacamoire again, too. He taught me a lot when I did In the Heights. He taught me about my voice. I never knew I could sing like that until he told me I could.