Donna Lynne Champlin discusses her breakout year on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, stepping into Shakespeare in the Park’s Taming of the Shrew all-female production

_DSC9931 copy

While the Emmy buzz surrounding the surprise mega-hit Crazy Ex-Girlfriend circulates the Internet, star Donna Lynne Champlin is busy readying for her next role starring as Hortensio in the all-female Shakespeare in the Park production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Delacourte Theatre which start performances on tonight, May 24.

While most television stars use their hiatus as an opportunity to kick back and enjoy some quiet time, Champlin admits that she was sold on the concept of re-inventing the famous comedy with an all-female team the moment she heard about it. As a Shakesperean scholar, Champlin said working on the play under the helm of director Phyllida Lloyd has caused her to discover the story in a new way.

Champlin became a familiar face this past year for playing Paula Proctor in The CW hit comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which focuses on the life of Rebecca Bunch (played by Golden Globe winner Rachel Bloom) as she moves across the country in hopes of winning over her childhood sweetheart Josh Chan (played by Vincent Rodriguez III). Paula is Rebecca’s right-hand woman in all matters of the heart, and the driving force behind the ultimate mission of helping Rebecca win Josh’s affections.

While Paula is Champlin’s most widely-recognized role, theatre fans might recognize Champlin as Kim Gifford in the Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kate Wetherhead-created web series Submissions Only.

After a very strong season one conclusion, which included Champlin singing her own 11 o’clock Mama Rose solo about all the ways she helped Rebecca, Champlin and the cast of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are only weeks away from filming the series’ next chapter. While walking through the park and looking back on a busy year, Champlin spoke with Stage Door Dish about her breakout year and feminist roles.

I want to start with The Taming of the Shrew. Tell me about the show and its interpretation. It’s an all female cast telling such traditional story, but it’s such an inventive take on it.

Just by the sheer fact that we’re all women already slants it. Even if it was an all-male company, if it’s a unified gender, it adds a level to it that isn’t normally there. The audience will read into that what they read into that individually. It’s hard to tell you without giving too much away. Phyllida Lloyd, our director, has done a lot of editing of the book- not of any plot points, but there is a lot of repetitiveness that she feels strongly that modern audiences are going to get it after you say for the fifth time ‘We have to marry the older sister before the younger.’ We’ve got women playing men and women playing women, and at one point, we’re all playing women in the concept that we’ve got going. I can say that at the top of the show, you see us all as women. As the play progresses, the women who are playing men have the opportunity to change into men, and the play takes off. 

You’re playing Hortensio, who is a goofy, misunderstood kind of guy.

You said misunderstood, that’s what I think! We actually have a joke that it’s always like, ‘Poor Hortensio.’ Hortensio, to me, is that guy who thinks he looks like Tom Cruise but actually looks like the ‘leave the gun, take the cannoli’ guy. They always shoot for out of their league, and they’re always surprised when the young, hot girl doesn’t go for them. In their mind, they’re still 25, but in reality, they’re 50 and fat. The thing about Hortensio is that he’s not underwritten, but there is an academic subject called the ‘Hortensio problem’. He seems to be the victim of many rewrites that Shakespeare had to do. In one way, it’s difficult, because about two thirds of the way through the play, all of a sudden, my through-line drops. Everything I do contradicts the thing I did before. In a way that also frees you as an actor because there isn’t such a clear through-line. After a certain point, you can stitch it together the way you want. The trickiest thing for us, as women doing what some people consider to be a misogynistic play, we have to be very careful because for comedy, there are stereotypes in the show.

As suitors go, there’s Gremio, who’s the dirty old man, there’s Hortensio, who’s the doofus guy who aims too high. It’s written for the suitors, especially, to be stereotypical, but because we’re women, we have to be very careful to make all these guys three-dimensional characters. We don’t want to look like we’re a bunch of women making fun of men all night. That’s not our job. Our job is to create three-dimensional characters who happen to be men, who have not only their faults, but also their strengths. For me, working on Hortensio, the easy digs at this guy are in the text, so it’s been my challenge to find the stuff that isn’t in the text but allows Hortensio to show more of a third dimension. Maybe for a lot of the play he acts like a jerk, but there are moments where he is actually a nice guy, he’s just a little delusional. That’s the challenge of a woman playing a man in a comedy about the taming of women. I always want to make sure that I’m not coming across as somebody who’s taking the piss out of men because I’m a woman. I’m taking the piss out of men because that’s what the play does, and it’s also my job, especially because I’m a woman, to find those parts of the character that are more humane. 

How is the thought process different approaching Hortensio as a woman?

It’s tricky. For the first couple weeks of rehearsal, we focused on physicality. We did a lot of exercises where we would walk around the room, and Ann Yee, who’s our choreographer/movement expert, would say, ‘Walk around the room and feel like you’re two feet taller, 50 pounds heavier, and two feet wider. Now walk around the room as yourselves. Sit in this chair how you think men sit.’ And of course sit in the chair and we all manspread. We had to go to that extreme, and then come back and realize that not all men are manspreaders. My husband is a big guy with very long legs, but he’s very conscious of that. As women, we can’t all make the stereotypical choice. It is an additional task, particularly in this play, to not always make the obvious choice. Make a three-dimensional choice.

What’s it like as a scholar of Shakespeare to look at this work in a new way?

I have to say, the minute I heard that this production was happening and it was all-female, my brain exploded. I called my agent and said, ‘I don’t care what I have to do, I want to be a part of this.’ Taming of the Shrew isn’t really done that often because it’s tricky. How do you do it? If you do it straight, it can come off misogynistic, if you do it with a twist, you better make sure that concept is air tight. It’s a tricky play to do. I don’t think they’ve done it in the park since Meryl Streep and Raul Julia did it in the 70s. They haven’t even done this play here in decades. As a woman, I would never really be in Taming of the Shrew.

I’m not a Kate, I’m not a Bianca. There was a way for me to not only be in Taming of the Shrew ever in my life, but all of the parts were opened up. I read the play with completely fresh eyes. I read the play as a whole when I got an appointment to audition. Of course I read plays, as a woman with woman eyes, thinking, ‘What part do I identify with?’ Just even from re-reading the play and looking at every character equally, male and female, I learned something about myself. I requested to come in for Grumio, who is the clown, Petruchio’s servant, because I thought that even when the parts are men and women, I’m still going to be the clown. I auditioned, and I knew they were also asking for actresses to play instruments, so I brought my instruments. It was clear to me that I was not giving Phyllida the Grumio that she wanted, which really bummed me out. I just didn’t know what other part I could play. She asked, ‘Do you mind coming back for tomorrow, looking over these sides and reading for Hortensio?’ I went home and re-read the entire play with Hortensio eyeballs, and I thought, ‘Of course, the guy who pretends to be a music teacher, that makes total sense.’

I do play instruments, and he is sort of a clown. Most of the parts are sort of clownish, which, again, is tricky. If you were doing this with men and women, the men could afford to do a cheap stereotype of a man, because it’s not insulting to men. Because we’re women, we have to be very aware. On the one hand, there’s a lot of benefits afforded to this productions because we’re all women and we’re using it to our advantage to say the things we want to say, but the thing we’re all very conscious of and Phyllida is very conscious of is that we send up these stereotypes as the play demands, but in a way that doesn’t purely mock men in general. The respect for men in our rehearsal room as been immense. Of course I look at my husband because he’s the man I know the best, and I think, ‘What would my husband do here? How have I seen him react? He’s a good guy, but he’s a man. Where’s the line?’

It’s been a fascinating process and we joke that we, as women, have started to take on masculine characteristics in our own lives. Even just in dealing with stuff on the street or on the subway, we’re all starting to speak up for ourselves more, we apologize less. At one point, we’ve all had serious discussions with out significant others because we’re seeing things through men’s eyes and we see the patterns that we, as women, have created or accepted in our lives, whether that’s in our relationships or how we deal with the world or how we deal with the subway or how we deal with some guy who talks to us on the street. Every single one of us has come to rehearsal and been like, ‘I just did the craziest thing. I’ve never done it in my life but I feel so good. I was in the subway and this guy was bothering me and I told him to back off, and I never would have done that and I think it’s this play.’ It’s been really cool for us as women to take on those masculine characteristics all day long at rehearsal, and it bleeds into our lives, and we come in every day and share stories of how liberating it is. 

I want to talk about Submissions Only for a second. 

I had done a day player thing on a couple of Law and Orders. The problem with that, I felt, is that it’s like an express train going at full throttle, and you jump on that train for a day and jump off, and the train never stops. There’s no time for anybody to explain to you what the roles are or where you’re supposed to sit or how it works. I think I did two days playing a random cop on Law and Order,  but I glided through them with everything crossed because I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing, even after I left. I had to cross my fingers and hope I didn’t suck.

Submissions Only was the first opportunity I had to be a recurring character and get to know people. Obviously, it was much less stressful on the Submissions Only set than Law and Order. Everyone is friends and everyone knows each other and everyone is helping each other out and the pace is slower and there’s less going on. There’s less people and less money and less stress. For me, Submissions Only was a great way for me to have a boot camp. We shot every Thursday, for those of us recurring in the Jeremy’s Fort stuff. It was a really amazing thing. We had these guest starts come in and you’d watch them tape these scenes and go, ‘Oh, I see. They do this. They do it different every take, so when Andrew edits it, he has a bunch of options.’ There’s stuff about hitting your mark and why you can’t move this wildly because you’re blocking the person behind you and stuff about not covering someone else’s line- all that logistical stuff that I don’t think is even taught in on-camera classes. I’ve taken a couple on-camera classes, which have been helpful for the acting part of it, but as far as what it’s like to be on an actual set, I don’t think there’s a class. You’d have to recreate a literal studio for that with a crew, and I’m sure that’s cost prohibitive.

It was just a blast. It was all friends, and everyone was laughing at each other’s stuff and was very supportive. I will always be extremely grateful for them asking me to be a part of that. I think I had an audition for something while we were filming Submissions Only, and I didn’t book it, but I remember walking into the room feeling different. I remember walking into the audition room, where normally I would have tried to fake it the best I could. I walked in feeling like, ‘I know what this is now.’ Even thought I didn’t book it, I feel very strongly that I did a lot better with the attitude of walking in like, ‘If you hire me, I’m not going to be a lost little lamb on set. I’m going to know, to some extent, what I’m doing, certainly more than I did before I did Submissions Only.’ 

Kate Wetherhead and Rachel Bloom are both strong, smart, funny women. 

Yes, and very prolific. They both create their own material, they both see things through to the end, they both have an idea, they write the idea, and they get the job done. They have incredible follow through, both Kate and Rachel. I’m comparing Rachel when she was doing YouTube videos on her own. She would use her own money, get a crew together, get her own people together, and follow through, which can be one of the most difficult things to do when you’re trying to do your own stuff. They are very similar. 

It’s really funny that I feel like I’m in a super feminist loop of my career, with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and then I’m spending my hiatus doing and all female version of Taming of the Shrew. On the TV show, I’m surrounded by Rachel and Aline Brosh McKenna, and the whole writing team is feminists, male or female. I don’t think anyone is going to be shocked that this is a feminist production of Taming of the Shrew, just by the fact that we’re all women, it had to be feminist on some level. I don’t think feminist as in women over men, I think of equalizing. 

I want to talk about Paula. I started watching because Santino Fontana told me about the show, and now I’ve fallen in love with it. 

It is kind of fun to see a bunch of theatre people on television. Isn’t it weird?

It’s so fantastic. And you’re singing real, original music that fits with the topics.

I’ll tell you what, I really don’t know how they’re pulling that off. All of the music is original, and then it’s like a real musical where the songs forward the plot. It’s one of the things I love most about the show, that none of the songs are written with the idea of, ‘This will go to number one on iTunes.’ They’re written for the show and for the character and for the moment. If the YouTube video of that number ends up being popular, great, if it doesn’t, great. I just love where everybody’s priorities are on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It reminds me very much of John Doyle when we did Sweeney Todd. His priority was always to tell the story that we wanted to tell. He was constantly reminding us in rehearsal to take the stress off ourselves. He was always saying, ‘Does it feel less like Sweeney Todd yet?’ I just remember thinking that it was amazing to me that this guy cares about telling the story we all want to tell. He’s not creating the show for any angle other than the story. I feel that’s very much what happens at Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It’s about telling a certain story, and if something comes along that might be a little more popular than something else, great. Darryl [Pete Gardner] wasn’t made bisexual because they thought, ‘That’s an untapped market.’ It never occurred to them. No one was more surprised at the huge reaction at the bisexual story line than all of us on the show. None of us saw that coming. That’s why I love it, because they follow their heart and it turns out being a huge cultural revolution, and everyone is going, ‘Oh, really? Okay!’

DLCCEGPic

I love Paula. She’s crazy, she’s super invested in Rebecca, and I love her finale number. As Donna, who do you think is best for Rebecca or what do you hope happens for her romantically?

If I was just watching the show as a viewer, I would not want her to be with anyone. I would want her to get some intensive therapy and some alone time. As an actress, the golden rule of writing is that you create a character who everyone loves and you consistently put them in peril. That’s sort of what we do at Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. What I want as a viewer, which is for her to be happy, is not what I want as someone who works on the show. As someone who works on the show, I want the character of Rebecca to be consistently put in peril, because that makes for a more interesting story, regardless of how Paula is involved in all of that. If I was watching as an audience member, I would think, ‘Where’s Dr. Akopian?’

Tell me about that final number. You totally killed it. In every verse, I thought, ‘Is Paula the crazy one?’

Thank you. There was an entire verse that was cut that was just more examples of, ‘I broke into Josh’s high school.’ I don’t remember them now, but there was a whole additional verse that they had to cut for time. They said, ‘It’s hilarious, but it’s repetitive, we have to get it out of there.’ I totally get it. It was a tricky thing to play for those last few episodes, because Paula got a little depressed and sad and super obsessive. It was hard for me as an actor not to judge what she was doing. There were some times where she wasn’t being a good friend, and I was so glad when they have Darryl that line in my kitchen where he says that’s not what a good friend does. I was so happy when I read that line because that’s what I had been thinking for the last four episodes.

Every character always thinks that whatever they’re doing is for the good. Very rarely does a character do anything specifically to hurt someone else. It’s always for the benefit of somebody. It got difficult at the end there to keep Paula as clean in her heart as much as possible so she didn’t look psychotic. She just looked like someone who was misguided. Based on discussions with the writers, regardless of whether any of it would come to fruition on screen, we’ve made decisions collectively about why Paula is the way she is. Did she have a man that got away? Did she give up going to law school? What happened and did she end up getting pregnant and getting married to Scott? We figured out these things, but we have to remember that, if we don’t put them in an episode, viewers don’t see it. Trying to bring all of that subtext to the lines without it being lines. There’s no lines of about the man that got away or ‘I wish I had gone to law school.’ It’s part of my job to fill all of these choices, that I, as Donna Lynne, can judge as not a good friend move, I have to go back to who Paula is and figure out how, in her mind, what she’s doing is the best, most loving, most selfless choice coming from her, no matter what it looks like from the outside.

Paula is not a selfish person. I think she’s selfless to a fault. I think that’s one of the reasons why she’s so codependent. She’s empty. She gives to her kids, she gives to her job, she gives to her husband. It’s why she’s looking for other people to fill her up. You can’t blame a dehydrated person for wanting some Gatorade. 

What would you like to see for Paula in season two?

In a weird way, I try not to think about it. I trust our writers’ room so much that they always come up with something better than I would have imagined. That happened to me a lot during season one. I would think they would go in a certain direction or I would have an idea for a musical number I would like to do, I would pitch it, and it wouldn’t happen. I would think, ‘Oh, that’s too bad.’ They would come back with something so far superior than anything I would have ever imagined. I try to stay out of it, honestly.

I think it would be fun for Paula to go to law school, but the show isn’t about Paula. The show is about Rebecca, so I don’t know how that would intertwine with whatever is going on with Rebecca, because that’s our main story. Anything to do with Paula is going to be a tributary. That would be fun for Paula to explore. I think there’s a lot of comic potential in a 45 year old woman like Paula trying to go back to college with a bunch of 18 to 21 year olds. I think that would be hilarious. I really do have 100% faith in the writers room that whatever they’re going to come up with is going to be much better than I can come up with. I don’t know how they do it. 

When I spoke with Rachel, she said a lot of people wanted to be on the show but she had to say no because the plot comes first. That’s so different than most TV shows.

Isn’t that amazing? It’s respectful to the show, but it’s also respectful to whoever it was that she’s talking about. If you have someone of a certain stature, you want to be able to say, ‘If you’re going to come and do this show, we want to offer you something that will make you artistically satisfied.’ They might not be able to bend the story enough. It would be a compromise on both sides and neither the story nor the guest star would win. 

You have another project going on with Kristen Wiig. Tell me about the film Downsizing.

We’re from the same home town. Up until a week before we had to shoot, it was supposed to be Reese Witherspoon. I’m a huge fan of both. I found out because of conflicts, Reese Witherspoon had to drop out, and when they said Kristen Wiig was replacing her, I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I called my mom and told her, and she pointed out she’s from Rochester. She’s from like 15 minutes away from us. I thought, ‘Holy shit! That’s great, because we’ll have something to talk about on set.’

That’s always dicey, especially if you’re dealing with big stars like Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig. They couldn’t have been nicer to me. They were so kind to me, it was unbelievable. It’s a different feeling from when you’re showing up to the set every day and you have someone different like me coming in for a day. They’re just not going to invest. It’s going to be a lot of small talk. I actually did research to make sure I had small talk topics that had nothing to do with the business. With Kristen, we’re both from Rochester, that’s plenty to talk about. With Matt Damon, his mom is a teacher and my mom is a teacher and we both have kids. It wasn’t like I was setting up fake conversations. I was trying to set up conversations that I genuinely was interested in having with these people outside of the fact that they were huge superstars. I was hoping that they would genuinely want to have these conversations because they’re conversations they don’t usually have on set. We just had a ball. Alexander Payne was amazing, incredibly awesome and supportive and funny. We all had a great time. My experience was so thrilling.

Again, I was so grateful that I had a whole season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend behind me so I could walk onto that set and know what a turnaround means. I know where I need to be, I know what my job is. That was great. If I had that job before I had done Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, I might have been more stressed out. It was nice to walk on that set and know I would be okay.

What would you say to people who think it’s too late to accomplish their dreams?

I call bullshit on that. Rachel has this quote, ‘Laziness is a form of fear.’ It’s never too late. I’m the perfect example. I can’t tell you how many people told me that, as a woman, if I hadn’t broken into TV by the age or 29, I was dead in the water. People still say that, quite honestly, not to me, but in general. Luckily for me, I never bought into it, because I never considered television to be part of my career. I do theatre, I wasn’t worried about television. I think part of that attitude freed me up to do television because I never bought into any of the stigmas about being a woman in television or being too old. It just wasn’t in my radar. My radar was just on theatre, period. I’m also not a size two. I’m a size 14. By all logical TV rules, I should not be a series regular. But also Vincent Rodriguez shouldn’t be a leading man because he’s Filipino.

It’s never too late to pursue anything you want to purse. Just be open to anything. I’m a big believer in going after what you want, no matter how old you are. I was just reading an article that said Morgan Freeman didn’t even get his first film role until he was 46 or something. I’m a firm believer that we all have something to contribute. I think it’s Einstein who said, ‘Don’t think about how you can succeed at something, think about how you can contribute’- I’m paraphrasing horribly. I like that. It takes the pressure off because success to you is totally different to somebody else. You can never measure success like it’s a mathematical equation. It’s a subjective subject. To be able to measure your amount of contribution to society, to your family, to however big you want to make that circle, that’s definitely something you can keep track of in a positive way.

If what you want is to contribute and enrich other people’s lives, then I don’t see any reason to not pursue it.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

Comments are closed.