As the critically acclaimed, award-winning Crazy Ex-Girlfriend comes to the end of its run, cast member Vella Lovell ("Heather Davis"), reflects on the journey.
From her New Mexico childhood, to Juilliard and NYU, then the show itself, through it all, it's been a lesson in community.
Q: What was your childhood like?
A: My mom was a public school teacher so we moved around. I was born in Riverside, California, then lived in Oakland for two years. We went back down to southern California and moved to southern New Mexico when I was five. Landed in Santa Fe when I was around 11.
My mom and stepdad are still in Santa Fe so I kind of consider that's where I'm from just because it was the biggest chunk of time.
New Mexico is a weird place. Not a lot of people know people from New Mexico. I think it's because they don't leave. I know they're born there and they just kind of gravitate back there. It's a fascinating place. People call it "The Land of Enchantment." Then also, "The Land of Entrapment." There's just a high rate of people that will not leave. It's because it's beautiful and there's kind of a spiritual aspect to it.
Q: Do you think New Mexico had any influence on your artistic bent?
A: That's a very good question. I think it made me very aware that the reason I want to be an artist is community-based. Most of my growing up was in Santa Fe and even though it's a city, it has small town feel. I think it instilled in me just the concept of community, that you should be giving back to the community that you live in, in some way. There's an inner-connectedness.
Actually, I was going to be a classical piano player. I went to boarding school, Interlochen Academy. I've been practicing piano since I was four and then got a scholarship to Interlochen and was going to pursue that. Then I kind of realized that my heart wasn't in it.
It's that interesting thing we were talking about, kind of like New Mexico informing you. When you study classical music, there's a certain intensity about it. I think that very much informs how I do things as an actress.
Q: Did acting affect your sense of community?
A: Yeah, completely, and with the audience. It's a great question. I remember my high school performed at some community day event, honoring the theater that was being built in town. They asked all the high schools to do a little something.
It was free for the community and I just remember being on stage and seeing this one old woman in the audience. She was having just the best time. I remember that for some reason. If one person is having a great time at whatever performance you're doing, you make this one person's day, even in a small way, then it's worth it. I remember learning that lesson when I was just 15.
Q: Was that the moment that the acting bug bit you?
A: You know, I think I always had the bug. I'm an only child, so I played pretend a lot. I was often left to my own devices. I definitely remember that moment as, "Oh, this can be a way that you can contribute to your community. You can contribute to the world in some small way."
I think, years later, being in the business, it's very easy to lose sight of that. I could be wrong but I think in some small way, all of us are audiences too, just for that reason. It's about that moment of authenticity or communication that you can feel in any artistic endeavor, really.
Q: Was a resume of Juilliard, NYU, Shakespeare in the Park and more hard to pull off?
A: I think it's just that I always thought that if you're going to do something, you should really wear it into the ground and be the best at it you can possibly be. So I think I have an overactive sense of over-education in that arena. [laughs].
Q: Very different from the character you play on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, isn't it?
A: Definitely. It's kind of ironic that I ended up playing a stoner underachiever. But I do think that Heather on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is like my spirit animal. That's who I would've been if I didn't have a people-pleasing, perfectionist way.
I think I have a Heather inside of me. We probably all do. It's been a really fun character to play. We're in our last week of filming and it's genuinely sad. I've gotten to live with this person for four years and now she's going away.
Q: Was that rather bittersweet?
A: It is, yeah. It's one of those things as an actor you want to switch it up and you want to do different things. It's part of the appeal of being a freelance artist but at the same time it's like, "Oh, I got to come back to this person every week." Luckily, she'll be on Netflix. I'll watch it whenever I get lonely.
Q: How did you get cast in the role?
A: I got the audition probably a month after I graduated Juilliard. When you first start working, your agent just throws a lot of things at you. They're kind of like, "Let's see what happens." I was going out on all these auditions but I was like, "I'm not going to get any of these things." I remember having that reality: "There's no way I'm getting this CBS sitcom," or whatever.
I remember thinking of it as going back to theater school: "Let's just have fun with this audition. Get to play this character for a day and get to make a weird choice." I just remember having a lot of fun with the audition. Then I got a call back, which was a Skype session with Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna.
Rachel and I found out that we were at NYU, literally on the same schedule. We had done all the same programs but we just missed each other by a couple of years. NYU is so big! The undergrad program is huge. Happens all the time that you go, "Oh, we were there at the exact same time…." No idea who you are. [laughs].
It was this crazy thing that Rachel and I went on Facebook and we had like 100 mutual friends, or something like that. We were in the same world and just didn't know each other.
Q: That must have helped nailing the part because isn't she involved behind the camera?
A: Oh my, yes. I don't know how she does it. She is the creator, executive producer, writer, writes the songs. She's the star. It's actually kind of impossible, what she's done. She's truly a freak of nature that she's survived for all of the years.
So yeah, it was really this cool connection that we made in the Skype session. Then again, it goes right back to community. It's this comforting thing when you realize, "Okay, so we started from the same place." We had some of the same vocabulary.
Q: Did you bond with her off-camera, as well?
A: The whole cast has sort of become this very weird family. I don't know how we all ended up together, but we did. We just filmed our last group musical number last night. I'm just going to miss everyone so much because you spend so much time with everyone. You become this weird amoeba that works together really well. [laughs]. Then we're all going to go our separate ways.
Seriously, it's sad and it's great. I can't think of a better ending. We knew it was the last season going into this. We were able to end it on her terms. Aline and Rachel, they planned the ending and they were able to give everyone arcs, and scenes and such.
Q: You wouldn't give away any spoilers for the last season, would you?
A: I don't think I can just because the 10 people that watch the show would be really disappointed [laughs]. I don't want to rob them of that. I will say that if you're someone who's watched the show, the last few episodes especially are just a love letter to those people.
There are so many callbacks and jokes that had been planted for all four years and references that you only get if you've seen every episode. I think it's not going to disappoint anybody wanting that satisfying ending.
Q: Now that the show is ending, what's lined up for the future?
A: You know what? In a very exciting and terrifying way, nothing. I don't have anything on the horizon. I did this animated voice in the reboot of She-Ra, which is amazing. So that will be happening which is exciting.
It's kind of a lucky thing for us that it's ending when pilot season starts. We're all starting to go on auditions and stuff. It's bizarre that really for the last eight years I went to Juilliard and then started the show. It's been this weird thing of having a road map of where I was going. This is really the first time that there's no map.
Q: Isn't it highly unusual to get a professional acting gig right out of college?
A: For me, Juilliard was grad school. I kind of felt like I got that hustling time in between college and grad school. I was working like 17 jobs and had no money [laughs]. You know, like tap dancing under bridge for free. Doing it for the love of it. I did get that little taste of it.
It was crazy though to just go into a job right after Juilliard. I feel very grateful for that. I did get my hustling time in which is good because I have the perspective that it's not always like that. I think for some people who do high school, college, and then get a job right away, it can be very disorientating.
I do think that every person, as painful as this sounds, at some point in their life, have that struggle time. It really puts everything in perspective. When you're like, "Why am I doing this and do I want to do this?"
Q: Did that hustling time answer that question for you?
A: Yes, 100 per cent. Especially in this business. If you don't love it, then you just shouldn't do it. That's the energy, that's the motor that's going to keep you going. It's very much like, "Yes, I actually would do this for free. I will have a restaurant job or a baby-sitting job and I will do this for free."
Once that question was answered then it was a matter of "Oh, I will be an actress." See, I actually don't need anyone to pay me to do this. I think once that question was answered, it doesn't make it easier but it does make it clearer.
Q: There's been a lot of talk about your ethnicity, whether or not you're Asian, or black or what have you. What is that all about?
A: It's fascinating that you bring it up. See, I'm mixed. I'm black, I'm Jewish, I'm European. I'm a million things. I just got my 23 and Me back about a year ago and I'm just like the world. I think what happens is that if people don't know what ethnicity you are, they're very confused. So, it's been this fascinating thing to navigate this business because people just don't know what story my face is telling.
I honestly approach every audition with the same integrity and respect. It's kind of what people are putting on to me that changes from situation to situation. I just don't say anything. I just go in and do the work. So for me, I truly think in 20 years everyone is going to be mixed and everyone's going to have brown skin [laughs].
But for now, I'm happy to get the conversation started. Any part I play is going to be a woman of color and it's going to have my voice.