Originally published on Vanity Fair Hollywood
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Star Donna Lynne Champlin talks Paula’s groundbreaking past—especially that abortion arc—and what’s coming next in Season 3.
When Donna Lynne Champlin sat down for lunch with the writers of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend prior to filming the CW musical’s third season, she braced herself. “I remember walking in going, ‘I just don’t know what else you can do to her,’” Champlin recalls of the lunch, where each series regular learns what’s in store for their character. And as it turned out, Paula Proctor, the devoted best friend of titular crazy ex Rebecca Bunch, was in for a rough year.
An unfulfilled paralegal, wife, and mother, Paula quickly and intensely befriends Rachel Bloom’s Rebecca—who impulsively moves across the country in pursuit of her old summer camp boyfriend—at the beginning of the series. The subversive musical dramedy introduced Champlin to viewers nationwide, but the Drama Desk and Obie Award winner is no stranger to the stage or screen. A tap-dancing champion, she began performing at age four and has been seen on Broadway in James Joyce’s The Dead, By Jeeves, Hollywood Arms, Sweeney Todd, and Billy Elliot, and on screen in The Good Wife, Younger, and Birdman.
Season 2 saw Paula step back from Rebecca in order to focus on her own goals. She applied to law school and was accepted—before an unexpected pregnancy almost thwarted her plans. After she decided to get an abortion, her friendship with Rebecca was thrown into turmoil, and the two stopped speaking. And her husband cheated on her. And that was only about two-thirds of the way through the season.
At least Paula also got moments of levity, as when her office was transformed into a fairy-tale forest as she sang, Disney princess-style, about her dearest dream: having a fulfilling career. It was a joyous moment for Champlin, a powerful belter who’d long been hoping to sing soprano on the show—maybe as a Wagnerian heroine, “with a breast plate and a horn helmet. Maybe she’d get really mad at someone and just Wagner the shit out of them.”
Vocal placement aside, such a scene would be reminiscent of Champlin’s fiery first-season finale performance, “After Everything I’ve Done for You”—sung to Rebecca in a full-throated fury after learning her friend had been lying to her. Performed with verve and rage, the number was a pivotal scene for Champlin—as well as women her age on TV more generally.
Crazy Ex show-runner Aline Brosh McKenna “felt very strongly that women in their mid-40s are not allowed to express anger on TV unless their job location allows them to yell—if they’re a police captain or a lawyer. You rarely see a housewife or a regular woman lose her shit,” she says. So McKenna, who directed the episode, encouraged Champlin to dig deeper with her anger—and to tap into the “mom voice” that lives inside every middle-aged woman.
Seeing a woman in her mid-40s explode on TV is so rare, says Champlin, that she was criticized more for her character’s temper than for Paula’s decision to get an abortion.
Controversial as that story line could have been, “I never had a moment’s thought about it,” says Champlin, who has been an advocate for reproductive rights since she was a teenager visiting high schools to talk about sex education and birth control with her theater group. She requested only that the show make it clear that Paula and her husband practiced safe sex and used protection.
The show ended up approaching the plot in a similarly clear-headed manner: rather than Paula’s abortion being the tearful plot of a Very Special Episode, it was one thread in a series of ongoing story lines, and rather than showing a distraught Paula in a doctor’s office, she confirmed her pregnancy sitting at her kitchen table.
“Usually on TV, it’s a teen so it’s angsty and terrified. Or it’s a single woman who’s approaching menopause and this is her last chance! The reality is, shit happens,” Champlin says, pointing out that most women who have abortions in the United States are already parents. In fact, Paula’s children, constantly the butt of jokes on the show, were featured in the episode, which concluded with Paula resting in bed while her son shouted, “Mom! I’ll get [the door] since you just had an abortion,” and her dryly replying, “You’re a good son.”
That scene was shot six or seven times, depicting Paula in various states—sad, teary, drugged, monotone, happy—all within a span of a half hour.
“I would honestly say the riskiest part of that whole scene was that line,” Champlin says. “Because it was a joke. I really feel that the biggest leap into the danger zone was that line. You don’t want them to think they’re making fun of the issue, because we certainly weren’t. But also, we’re a comedy. That’s the part I was the most nervous about.”
The show’s unapologetic approach was typical of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, though often its story lines draw even less attention to their own progressiveness. “Someone comes out as bisexual, [everyone else] go[es], ‘Yeah, all right.’ Paula is a size 14. They go, ‘O.K.’ Josh is Filipino and our lead is in love with him and everyone goes, ‘Yeah, he’s really attractive,’” says Champlin. “We actively don’t make a Very Special Episode about all of these things. Instead of trying to shine a light on the issue, which a lot of shows do, we sort of, kind of create the world in which we all want to live in already. Instead of using the show as a platform—which gets more attention, both good and bad—the show is just what we wish reality was.”
That reality, in Season 3, will include a Josh Groban guest spot as well as a look into Paula’s personal history as Rebecca’s tumultuous life continues. Last seen literally standing at the edge of a cliff after being abandoned by Josh on their wedding day, Paula’s unstable but optimistic best friend has declared that her former fiancé must be destroyed.
The darker turn in store for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend won’t mean neglecting the intense bond between Paula and Rebecca. Their devotion was never clearer than in the final scene of Season 2, which mirrored the pilot episode’s final shot: Rebecca and Paula standing together, hands clasped as if exchanging vows. Still, according to Champlin, some changes are in store: after seeing their friend left at the altar, Rebecca’s girl squad will shift into a gang of feminist avengers.
“Everyone’s pretty pissed off at Josh,” Champlin says, giving Paula a new mission—and a few new partners in crime. “What’s really fun this year for me is I’m getting thrown in with other characters I don’t usually get to play with. It’s a mixing-and-matching kind of game that’s happening.”
Rebecca’s obsession with vengeance may seem “crazy” in a way the show hasn’t been before, but Champlin remains confident in the writers’ ability to continue eclipsing social norms while telling the stories of deeply flawed female characters—a skill that has earned Crazy Ex-Girlfriend its passionately devoted fanbase.
“We’re used to seeing [tremendous flaws] in men, but we’re not quite used to seeing them in women protagonists. I think, finally, two seasons in, we’re overcoming what I think our show assumed wrongly would be an obviously ironic title. I think it’s finally gone through the trial of fire, and our feminist tribe is finding us.”