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
It’s spooky season for Donna Lynne Champlin.
The Broadway and television actress says she’ll be eating light at our lunch interview in Los Angeles because tonight she’s going to Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights. It’s an evening of haunted houses and other scary attractions, and Donna Lynne, 47, can’t wait. “My husband Andy and I are hardcore Halloween-ers, and this is our big splurge. We save up all year and do the RIP, it’s like their VIP, and it includes dinner,” she says, at we sit down at Messhall Kitchen.
We’re here to chat about Donna Lynne’s storied film, stage and television career. An accomplished singer with a lauded self-produced album, actress, dancer (including tap), and musician (skilled at piano and flute), she has a multitude of talents that secured her an Obie Award in 2007 for The Dark At The Top of the Stairs on Broadway. She performed as Pirelli in the popular 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd on the Great White Way. And in addition to her current role as Paula on the CW’s TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, she’s also Hortense Bellacourt in Comedy Central’s TV sitcom Another Period.
Donna Lynne — who’s been to Messhall Kitchen before — gives the menu a glance and says “everything’s good here,” then tells me she’ll pick something simple like seasonal fruit. “But you knock yourself out, I’ll be super boring because I’m going to eat like a madwoman tonight.”
It’s not just at theme parks that the New York native keeps this time of year alive. “For my mental and molecular health I need four seasons, this time of year is really difficult for me” living in the always sunny City of Angels in the fall. It’s the time of year when back East she’d see leaves turn to reds and browns and tumble from trees, and dipping temperatures start to chap lips and require more layers of clothing. “In my apartment I literally have scene setters of fall foliage, and I plaster it all over my apartment so that I feel like I’m in the fall,” she says.
Then she glances down at the years-old tape recorder I’ve set down on the table. I tell her it’s not the most sophisticated piece of equipment, but still fairly sensitive so there’s no need to talk directly into it. Donna Lynne leans down toward it, gesturing as if cradling it seductively and lowers her voice to a velvety, seductive tone. “I’m just gonna talk to you like this,” she purrs.
Then she sits back upright and points to the recorder. “These are great, I used to take them on ghost hunts. I picked up like two quality EVPs [electronic voice phenomena],” she declares.
I had a hint that the netherworld would come up at lunch, because of a story I heard a few weeks earlier when I interviewed actor Erick Lopez, who co-stars with Donna Lynne on the musical comedy drama Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. One anecdote that didn’t make the article was about how Erick once thought he had a ghost in his apartment and had turned to Donna Lynne for advice on how to get rid of it, knowing her interest in spirituality. She offered some tips and, as Erick tells it, the ghost went away.
Recalling Erick’s story for Donna Lynne, she nods quickly. “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” she says eagerly. “I sort of have this whole other life” beyond performing. And so to begin, we talk about her love of metaphysics and how that reconfigured her path to her acting career — a journey that now includes several Broadway productions, films, television shows, and even a self-produced album. She’s got a powerful voice and friendly, charismatic presence that routinely wins over critics and audiences. And to hear her tell the story, a lot of it stems from her discovery of metaphysics.
It’s a story I’m eager to hear, won over immediately by her upbeat personality and hilarious asides — she’s the friend you always want at the table. But we pause our talk as our friendly waitress delivers some water and, for me, an Amanda. It’s a cocktail of cilantro and serrano infused vodka, pineapple, and lime. While I sip the delicious concoction, I ask Donna Lynne where her interest in spirituality came from.
“Ever since I was extremely young,” says the red-head, dressed in a black tee with blue denim overalls and a gray cardigan. “I was raised Irish Catholic but I always loved Halloween and Celtic tradition, I was fascinated it, anything to do with ghosts is like an Irish Catholic’s porn.”
When Donna Lynne was around eight years old her mother was working on a masters degree and would take her to the library and let her explore. That’s how Donna Lynne found the occult section, and discovered a book on white magic, used only for good. “This spell work was all based on the saints and that had always been an interest of mine and something I believed in then,” she says — though later ran the “whole spiritual gamut” on religion, including a fling with atheism in college. These days she considers herself a “universalist” while her husband is Jewish.
The couple and their seven-year-old son are temporarily living in Los Angeles while Donna Lynne films the remaining episodes on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s final season. But they are tentatively planning a move back to their home base of New York next June once the show wraps up. And it’s in the Big Apple, several decades ago, where Donna Lynne’s acting life took a detour to the metaphysical.
After graduating Carnegie Mellon University’s theater program, she was struggling to find work in Manhattan. “I was in New York hustling — I don’t mean sexually,” she says with a wry laugh then a pause. “There’s your headline, ‘Donna Lynne: History of Hustling.’”
She continues in earnest, “I was in distress for many reasons. I was not booking, I was trying to find a survival job, I was down to like my last $26 and I was in crisis. And a friend of mine — mind you I’m still an atheist then — said you’ve gotta go see my psychic friend. And I was like, are you are nuts? I have $26, I am not spending money on a psychic, I don’t believe in that stuff.”
Donna Lynne changed her mind when the friend offered to pay, and so she accepted the gratis psychic session and headed to the Village to the psychic woman’s house. “I was expecting all this woo-woo nonsense,” she says, waving her hands around as if over an imaginary crystal ball. “But there was this very no-nonsense lady from Long Island, she was very normal — and the minute I walked into her apartment, I felt calmer. And I hadn’t felt calm in months, so it was noticeable to me.”
The psychic and the struggling actress didn’t talk about the beyond, and instead talked about financial planning. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, I thought this was a psychic thing,’ and she said, ‘No, you came to me for help, and this is the help you need today.’ And it was solid advice.”
At the end of the appointment, the psychic offered her a reflexology treatment — a simple manipulation of her hands and feet to calm her down. Donna Lynne gladly took the psychic up on the offer, and then moments into the treatment Donna Lynne burst into tears. “I was humiliated, it came out of nowhere, I didn’t know what was happening,” she says. “But it was cathartic weeping.”
After the treatment, Donna Lynne said she needed to learn how to do what had just been done to her. The psychic nodded. “She said, ‘Of course, that’s why you’re here.’”
The psychic was struggling with diabetes and needed help with basic chores, and made Donna Lynne a deal: if she would assist with those errands several days a week then she would teach Donna Lynne the basics of metaphysics. “I need help, you need some spiritual healing” was her pitch.
Donna Lynne agreed, and her reflexology teaching eventually developed into her and others opening the reflexology shop Angel Feet in New York. She was still auditioning and gigging from time to time, but her acting focus naturally pared back as she threw herself into this new life. And it helped her to develop her core values that would eventually turn her back on the route to acting.
“I look back on it now and I think what a fantastic opportunity, because up until then I had no core, I had no personal beliefs, I had no solid personality,” she confides. “It always depended on what show I was in, what part I was playing and who I was surrounded by, and so i just didn’t have any core beliefs to tether me. Because of this experience I learned about spirituality and metaphysics and I met a whole group of people that I would never have met on a show.”
The reflexology focus continued for about three years, and Donna Lynne was making decent money with a lot of celebrity clientele. “And then,” she says with a click of her fingers, “The theater jobs started rolling in. And my teacher said this is the moment, you have to choose — you can either be an actress who understands metaphysics, or you can be a metaphysician who used to act once.”
Donna Lynne pondered the decision for a long time before opting for acting. “When I weighed the option of my entire life’s work, I realized that acting did not fold into metaphysics but metaphysics folded into acting,” she explains. “I came to realize that one of the reasons I wasn’t booking is because I wasn’t a fully formed person. I would walk into [audition] rooms and I wouldn’t be me, because there was no me. I would only be what I thought they wanted me to be.”
Three years of being a metaphysician and learning about spirituality taught her to establish her own opinions on things like politics, to try being less of a people-pleaser concerned about what her teacher or family member or someone else might think. Not having that central internal base had left her as an “unfocused picture,” she says, something that her reflexology career changed.
“It’s still an ongoing journey, I grow, my opinions change, I’m a fluid, critically thinking person,” she says. “But once I started to walk into rooms having gone through that process of who I am, regardless of who’s going to see me or what show I’m in, I was clearer, I came into focus. It’s not like I walked in and booked everything, but the people across the table could look at me and see me and know instantly whether they needed me or not for that project.”
To the present day, Donna Lynne still uses her metaphysics “constantly,” including to navigate personalities in the entertainment business. “It can be a great effort to not be judgmental, or to jump to the conclusion that someone’s doing something from a fear base. And I try to always return to my metaphysics, which is what you put out you get back tenfold,” she says. And she offers the example of stressing out about no-one replying to her emails, only to check her own inbox and to see she has 50 other messages that she hasn’t responded to. Attacking her own mountain of email puts good out into the world and could make it more likely she’ll get the replies she’s waiting on.
“I look at what’s bothering me and then I look and take responsibility for how I may be doing that to someone else,” she tells me. “It’s the golden rule, you find it in absolutely every religion and it’s really served me in my work.”
Treating others as you’d like to be treated is a belief that also appears to inform Donna Lynne’s online presence, with an active Twitter feed that doesn’t shy away from progressive opinions.
— 🎃Donna Lynne Champlin🎃 (@DLChamplin) February 8, 2017
After we’re done browsing the menus (she settles on ordering a trail mix parfait instead of seasonal fruit) I ask Donna Lynne whether her strident opinions online have generated any backlash in Hollywood or Broadway.
“Not yet,” she says with a shrug. “It might, and I might not be aware of it, but I will say if there’s anyone who wouldn’t hire me based on my sharing my opinions as an American taxpaying citizen. I’m not mourning the opportunity to work with them.”
She leans forward smiling. “And again, back to metaphysics, like attracts like. I look at it this way: It’s easier for me to look at jobs I don’t get and say that wasn’t my tribe. It’s not ‘I wasn’t good enough.’ It’s ‘Those aren’t my people, they’re somebody else’s people’ and they’re going to have a blast and then I get another job and I find my people and it all works out. “
One tweet that Donna Lynne posted earlier this year shared her story about how she used to fight to lose weight to fit what she believed was the ideal image created by casting directors. And then eventually she said “fuck this shit” and decided to embrace her weight, and started getting more gigs.
1st Bway audition was told to lose 11 lbs. Yes…”eleven”. Lost 20 lbs & they told me to “lose 5 more”. Had that convo off and on for 20+ yrs until I finally went “fuck this shit”, gained 40 lbs & now I’m a series regular on TV. 🤷♀️ #shareyourejections
— 🎃Donna Lynne Champlin🎃 (@DLChamplin) August 18, 2018
I query whether metaphysics played a part in that life change.
“What happened is I had a baby,” she replies. “I gained almost 90 pounds, a lot of weight,” and this in an industry where anything over a size two is considered heavy. “Look at me, I’m a size 12/14, I am an average American woman. A size two is like this,” she says, holding up a butter knife and turning it to show off the minuscule width. “So my business has always been skewed as to what normal is. I’ve always been an average person, but a big or heavy girl in the business.”
When she had a baby, she says she realized what her body was for, and had a choice at that time to take her energy and love herself and her child or try to get down to the lower single digit sizes. “I kind of had a shift, to just live in this moment with my body the way it is now and trust it’s okay. Ultimately what forced me to accept my body and love my body was having a kid.”
It worked. “I swear to god, he was four weeks old and I booked a guest star [role] on television. You know, it’s a fallacy when women say your career’s going to end if you have a kid. All the mothers who are actresses, they all told me babies bring abundance. “I think part of it was that yes, I had accepted myself, but also I was finally as fat as everyone thought I was,” recalling a prior time that even when she was at her self-described thinnest of a size four a reviewer still called her fat.
She’s a strong advocate for portraying normal shapes and sizes on television. “When I’m normal I’m in-between types; I’m not fat enough to be fat and I’m not thin enough to be thin. And heaven help us we have a normal healthy American woman in front of us,” Donna Lynne says. “And being bigger, now people said, ‘Oh, she’s talented, but we can also put her in the heavy box, the fat box,’ and honestly there was more work there than for the normal looking person.”
Her work box these days is packed tighter than something on moving day, with many months left of shooting on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, tentative plans for a second album, throwing around ideas for a one-person show to follow up on her acclaimed solo piece Finishing The Hat, and appearances in a host of other film, television and stage productions. It’s a busy time for the girl from Rochester in upstate New York, who sings, acts, tap-dances and plays piano and flute.
I ask when her love of performing began, and as I’m learning happens whenever you ask Donna Lynne a question, there’s a long and wonderfully told story behind the answer.
Click here for part two of my two-part lunch interview with Donna Lynne, where she shares the story of her career from picking up tap dancing at the age of three through to her current film, stage and television work including filming the final season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.