October 7, 2018
STRANGER: Donna Lynne Champlin
LOCATION: Messhall Kitchen, 4500 Los Feliz Boulevard, Los Angeles
THEME: Lunch with a leading Broadway and television actress
Click here for part one of my two-part lunch interview with Donna Lynne, in which she talks about how developing a love of metaphysics helped to firm up her passion for acting.
Donna Lynne Champlin is venturing into the unknown.
The actress is currently filming the final season of the CW’s comedy musical drama Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in which she plays aspiring lawyer Paula Proctor, best friend of the lead character Rebecca Bunch. In the show’s first three seasons Donna Lynne would get a briefing from the writers about Paula’s plotline, but for the fourth season she opted against getting a heads-up. So when she gets the episode scripts, she’s finding out about her character’s fate for the first time.
“I passed on the meeting because A, I trust our writers relentlessly and B, things change, you get attached to something but then for whatever reason they can’t do it,” she tells me of the character briefing. “I just thought, I can find out like I do in life” what happens to Paula, who’s studying to be a lawyer. “So I can’t tell you what’s going to happen to her, I don’t know.”
She’s grateful to the CW for sticking with the four season vision from co-creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, and says an already enjoyable set is elevated further without the worry of being renewed. “Our set has always been fun and light and drama free but there is something even more freeing about this year” given it’s the last season, Donna Lynne says.
“It’ll be the people I miss the most,” she says, praising actor Steve Monroe who plays her on-screen husband Scott and the two younger actors who play her sons. “You’ll get to see more of the Proctor family, and I’m thrilled because they’re such a fan favorite. The guys who play my kids and Steve who plays my husband are all so talented and such a joy and we have so much fun.”
But it’s not just her fellow actors she’ll miss, and she echos a comment co-star Erick Lopez told me in a recent breakfast interview that the show feels like a big family. “I’ll miss the crew, the writers, the PR, all the departments,” she says. “But our paths will cross again. That’s one thing about being older, you kind of know ‘I’ll see you again.’ I don’t say goodbye because it never really is.”
She’s also in the dark on her plans for what happens when the show stops filming in March, taking a wait and see approach to whether more work crops up in Los Angeles, or if it’s time to return to her home of New York, where she routinely garners rave reviews on stage.
Her plan is to stay out West until June, when her son finishes school (Donna Lynne, her husband and son all moved out to California during the show’s production). “I’ve never been out here and available for work. I’ve been in this business a long time so I’m expecting tumbleweeds, but if there’s interest I’ll be pleasantly surprised,” she says. “The plan is to go home unless something comes up.”
Describing herself as “an East coast gal,” she says there’s a familiarity about New York that appeals to her. “There’s always something to do in-between gigs; there’s a benefit, there’s a workshop, there’s a reading, there’s a concert and so I like that. New York to me is like a pinball machine, everything pings off something else. Whereas LA just feels like one big lob of a tennis ball that just never comes back – but that’s my limited experience out here,” she adds. “I’m not judging Los Angeles or the industry, I just don’t know it, I don’t understand it.”
Despite the uncertainty about Paula, and what’s next after Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, spend time with Donna Lynne and you sense she’s perfectly content. Throughout our lunch interview she’s hilarious, engaging, thoughtful, and utterly charming as she regales me with her life story — from starting tap-dancing at the age of three through to producing her own album (she also sings and plays piano and flute), all while enjoying a happy home life with her family.
We’re eating at Messhall Kitchen in Los Angeles, a large and popular joint. Exposed brick walls cover part of the expansive main dining room, with a mix of regular tables and high tops. There’s a welcoming patio, but the noise level keeps us inside so I can hear Donna Lynne talk.
In part one of this interview, she revealed how her discovery of metaphysics helped to guide her not only into recommitting to acting but also to help define her own core beliefs. We’ve placed our orders for lunch, and while we wait I’m eager to learn how she first got into performing.
Born in January 1971 in Rochester, New York, Donna Lynne started tap dancing at the age of three-and-a-half. I tell her that seems an awfully young age. She smiles. “Most kids upstate did, it’s a big hoofer country. According to my mother, I was over at a neighbor’s house, I was dancing around, and she casually said to my mom, ‘You should put her in a dance class because she likes to dance around.’ And that was it,” she says. Throughout her youth she attended tap dancing class and entered competitions, winning several awards in her teenage years.
Her first on-stage acting performance was at age four-and-a-half in a community theater production to celebrate the 1776 bicentennial for Kodak, where her dad worked. “I had no concept of what it was, but I remember even at a very, very young age thinking this what I’m gonna do.”
Diversifying her artistic portfolio further, she took up piano and flute. “So by the time I was 16 I just had too much on my plate and too many masters to please,” giving a sigh. So when she applied to colleges she got pressure from all sides, with competing advice about whether to pursue a musical, acting or dancing degree. “I was a big people pleaser and couldn’t bear the responsibility of choosing something and disappointing all of these teachers that I absolutely loved.” So she sent off a host of applications and decided whichever college offered her the most money would be her choice.
Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, offered her a free academic ride for their theater program. She took it. “It ended up being the best thing, it meant I could keep up singing, dancing, and acting, boom, boom, boom,” she says, tapping three of her fingers in quick succession. “That’s three people not disappointed. And then I used my work study as a pianist and I played for ballet classes and vocal studies, and I played flute in the pits for the musicals” the college put on. “I really didn’t have to give up anything, and I got a great education.”
Donna Lynne spent her college summers at the Pittsburgh Festival Opera, except for one summer spent in Oxford, England. By the time she graduated and moved to New York she had a much-desired Equity card, had an agent, and a number of contacts in the industry. “It really looked like it was going to be smooth sailing and then it just…” she pauses, her eyes bulging in shock. “…no. I had six months of work through my connections, and then it just stopped.”
That’s the period of her life when she felt adrift. “I thought, oh my god, who am I? Who am I without a show and without a character and people telling me who I am for them?”
A casting call for Grease was a particular low point, where she was typed out — stage talk for casting directors dismissing actors after just looking at them, without even hearing them perform. “I got my ass handed to me,” Donna Lynne says. “And it was difficult, because I was the ‘big deal, big shot’ in Rochester and at Carnegie Mellon, and then you come to New York and you’re in an ocean of big shots, and it’s extremely humbling.”
As she explained in the first part of the interview, she then met the psychic who would introduce her to the world of metaphysics that gave her a center, a core self of beliefs that reinforced her love for acting and desire to make a career of it.
Meeting with the psychic, as Donna Lynne described in part one of the interview, helped turn her life around. After working in metaphysics for several years after she rededicated herself to acting, and she had learned that being typed out and rejected for roles was nothing personal.
As a young actor, she was hired for a day to be the person reading lines with actors coming in to audition for a role. “It was eye-opening,” she says. “Back then I took everything personally, I thought they hated me” whenever she didn’t get a role. Being a reader helped her realize that choosing an actor can simply come down to who is the right height for the character, even if the two leading candidates have the same skills. “I realized it’s rarely negative, they don’t sit there thinking you’re terrible, most of the time they think you’re fantastic but just not what they need.”
And Donna Lynne has experience of being the one making those calls, directing a theater piece a few years ago that she says was “traumatic” because of having to reject people. “One of the pivotal roles of the show was between a guy I knew that I had worked with and trusted, and a guy I’d never met before who was equally as phenomenal,” she says. “And I went with the guy that I knew. But I made damn sure that I got that other guy’s email, and I emailed him and I said, ‘Listen, you need to know that you killed that audition, and if you walked out of there thinking there’s no way I didn’t book it and you’re shocked that you didn’t book it — which has happened to me a million times — let me tell you: I went with my friend. And I’m so sorry and I know that seems unfair but I don’t want you to walk away from this thinking you’re insane.”
Her anguish is earnest, she frowns telling the story. Sitting across from the spirited Donna Lynne, you’re in awe as she tells every tale with vigor and full emotion, using her hands to make gestures to emphasize certain words, and making you feel like you’re a bosom buddy.
Her stellar storytelling helps explain why her own-woman show was a sell-out hit. In 2005, Donna Lynne was performing as Pirelli in the acclaimed Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (which involved her playing her own instruments). At the same time, the off-Broadway Ars Nova theater asked if she was interested in performing a show one night. She demurred at first, exhausted by the hard work of Sweeney Todd. “That production was all-encompassing, the characters were also the orchestra and crew. My brain was 80 percent full at the time, Ars Nova kept asking me to do a show, but I was at 20 percent capacity of brain space.”
In conversation with her friend and actress Emily Skinner, Donna Lynne shared how tired she was and how reluctant she was to learn any more lines. Emily suggested that Donna Lynne instead host a one-woman show telling personal anecdotes. “I had this collection of humiliating but hilarious self-deprecating stories, but I thought, oh my god, that’s so lazy, what am I going to do — just take stories and songs, write them on postcards, throw them in a hat and pick them? And Emily was like, ‘Actually that’s not a bad idea.’ And I realized it was a great way to tie all these unrelatable things together, just literally throw them in a hat,” and that spurred her show Finishing The Hat.
The title is taken from the name of a song in the Steven Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George, and Donna Lynne called Sondheim to ask permission to crib the name. He happily granted it, telling her that he picks questions out of a bowl whenever he does question and answer shows.
The first night she put 10 stories and songs in the hat, thinking it would cover 90 minutes if she got through them all. She managed to get through six when she hit the two hour mark. Donna Lynne frantically waves her arms in a stop motion, saying, “They had to shut it down!”
She’s since performed the show a few more times, and even had talks with Comedy Central about potentially turning it into a television show. “It was a huge hit, and I had meetings with them about how to turn it into something. Ironically, looking back I think they wanted something like Crazy Ex, but I didn’t have the vision that Rachel and Aline had. But yeah, looking back on those meetings they were like, ‘A musical television show but not a variety show, not like The Carol Burnett Show, something like the The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd but with music. And I was just sitting there thinking that’s impossible — and here I am on Crazy Ex, the show I didn’t think was possible.”
Since her son was born seven years ago, she hasn’t performed Finishing The Hat again because preparing for it is such a gargantuan effort. I query whether another show is on the horizon. She ponders. “Maybe, I would like to be smarter and think of another show I can license and shop out to my friends, so if they just need to make rent I can say, ‘Here, take my show, go do it at a small theater and pay me like 2 percent.’ I would fucking love that.”
Our waitress arrives and delivers our orders — trail mix parfait with market fresh fruit, honey, and yogurt. Donna previously told me she’s eating light because of a big meal later tonight.
For me, short rib Eggs Benedict with the tender and flavorful meat sitting atop perfectly cooked poached eggs and a fresh English muffin, drizzled with hollandaise sauce and served with chives and a side of fruit. It’s a hearty dish and keeps me silent while I eat, letting Donna Lynne talk.
Conversation shifts from acting to singing, another one of her major talents that’s frequently on display in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as she performs a wide variety of music types. Some of the numbers, including the hilarious Face Yours Fears with its terrible advice about confronting one’s terrors, show her belting out lyrics with a voice that could turn heads in the best possible way.
“When did you know you could belt out a tune?” I ask.
“Do you mean technically belt, or like sing?” she replies, then continues, “I could always sing, I never really thought about it. My brother actually just found a tape of when I was two, singing, and I listened to it and holy shit, it was perfect pitch. That was weird, but I think I was always a singer. But I never studied singing until high school, and I never belted.”
When she was a sophomore in college, Donna Lynne was on the crew for A Chorus Line and also performed briefly as one of the dancers that gets cut at the beginning of the show. She had to do the brief song Who Am I? “And that’s typically belted, and they did it on purpose because they knew I would have to learn how to belt. And I had never wanted to because I was afraid.”
Then her friend and actor Billy Porter, attending the same college, pulled her to one side. “He tells me, ‘Listen girl, you need to learn how to belt. I’m sorry, you cannot look like that and not know how to belt. You do not look like a soprano, you need to get versatility or you will not work.”
He took Donna Lynne into a practice room and tried to teach her how to belt safely, but she still didn’t feel comfortable and gave the solo part away. “I said, ‘I will learn how to belt but I don’t want to rush into it, and I don’t want to hurt myself’”
While she doesn’t remember the exact day it happened, she does recall precisely when she found her own sound. She’d been hired for a show by Hal Prince, and auditioned “completely high on codeine” which she was taking to cope after a back surgery. “I have no recollection of the audition, only what people told me who were in the room. And so I booked this show and I was living in daily fear of being fired because I didn’t know how I booked it.”
One day it was her turn to sing her song. “And I don’t know what happened, I just kind of opened my mouth and this enormous sounds came out, and I remember the music director was playing and he went –” and then Donna Lynne makes a theatrical gasping face, “– and I looked at him like –” and she pulls the face again. “I did an inventory check, no damage, slight fatigue. He asked could I do it again, and I said I don’t know, but I did, and it just kind of came out. I don’t know if it was the song or the experience or my body matured that morning, but I remember this sound coming out of me that bounced off the room, and that kind of became my signature sound.”
But it wasn’t the sound she wanted to be known as only performing, fearing people might see it more as a party trick than the work of a multi-talented singer. That’s one of the reasons why her self-produced album Old Friends has only one tune that really requires her to belt. “I wanted that album to be reflective of the me that nobody sees or hears cause I kind of got put in the belter box.”
The idea for Old Friends came about when she was at home recuperating from a broken ankle she suffered during her run in Billy Elliot on Broadway. It was on a dare from her brother, who knew Donna Lynne was eager to do an album and told her that the six weeks of convalescence was the perfect time to record it at home. She already had a computer, a microphone and instruments. He offered her a $500 match if she’d put in $500 of her own money, and the project began.
Donna Lynne expertly chronicles the adventures in putting together the album on her blog, but she gives me a CliffsNotes version toward the end of our lunch. She says it was an eye-opening experience to not even have to spend the full $1,000 (costs included royalties for songs she covered, making the CDs, and marketing, as well as having a cellist and violinist play on some tracks), particularly when it’s commonly accepted in the music industry that albums cost tens of thousands of dollars. And even after all that cash, labels get to wield their influence. “That’s unappealing to me because the whole point of doing this CD is to not answer to other people.”
She’d like to make another album, and is toying with several different ideas. “I don’t want to say which, because every time I have a really good idea, I find somebody has it right after.”
We’ve been talking for an hour and a quarter and it’s time to part ways; my plate is clean and I’ve checked off every question in my notepad. I tell Donna Lynne that I’m trying to get the strangers to take selfies of them and me at the dinner table, and she takes my iPhone. “Vinnie taught me how to do this,” she says, referring to her Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-star Vincent Rodriguez III. He must be a good teacher, because after a few seconds, Donna Lynne has snapped a cute picture.
As we get ready to leave, one last question pops into my mind. It’s not original, but I’m still curious to know whether she has an ideal role, the dream character to play.
“It’s something that has not been created yet,” she says. “What I really enjoy is creating characters” instead of repeating roles others have done before. “Not that I wouldn’t be up to the challenge, not that I haven’t done it, but I find the pressure of revivals daunting — only because I am such a huge superfan at my core. So when people say I should play Mama Rose, my first thought is fuck that, did you not see Bette Middler? Did you not see Patti LuPone? Did you not Bernadette Peters or Imelda Staunton? Why would anyone ever do it again after that brilliant parade of women?”
Donna Lynne also believes that if she’s taking part in a revival there has to be a unique hook to it, for example the twist of the actors in Sweeney Todd also being the crew and orchestra.
Instead, she wants to focus on promoting composers, creators and lyricists that she feels don’t get enough support for new works. “I love being a part of history,” she says, excited by the group effort involved in making a new play or musical. “I’m not a huge fan of repeating it.”
And so she’ll look to the future and new experiences once she wraps Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, even if there’s uncertainty about what comes next. Although she doesn’t have anything lined up, she tells me, “I’m not surprised by that. I don’t know if it’s metaphysics or just getting older, but I know that worrying about it does not make anything happen. I continue to hustle.”