On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Vella Lovell plays Heather Davis, a sardonic, lovable, often directionless community college student who serves as the foil and next-door neighbor to lead Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), a high-strung East Coast lawyer who gives up her career in search of happiness. On a show full of oddball characters known to break out into misandrist song (did I mention it’s a musical?), one that tackles everyday humanity with the grace of a prestige drama, Lovell’s character endears without falling into the cheap-comedy trappings of millennial condescension.
Lovell began her career with small appearances on Girls and Younger, and last year she scored a role in The Big Sick. Before acting, the NYU and Juilliard grad was on the way to becoming a classical pianist. When that didn’t pan out (it got too boring, she says), she dove into theater. We spoke over the phone recently to discuss her projects and mourn the fourth and final season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: You’ve been involved with projects that happen to be conversation-driving work: Girls, Younger, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Big Sick. How do you know when a project’s right?
VELLA LOVELL: Girl, I don’t even know. [Laughs] I was thinking about that today. When you’re an actor, you don’t get to choose—unless you’re Tilda Swinton—what you want to do. I feel really lucky that the things that I’ve been chosen for, earlier in my career, have been very strong, female-led. [They have] really intelligent women at the helm. When you’re starting out and auditioning, you don’t know where you’re going to go or end up. As an actor, the most powerful thing you have is the ability to say “no,” but it’s also “yes.” The projects that you sign at the beginning end up defining you. And it informs me of the kind of projects I want to continue working on.
It doesn’t seem like you’ve had many misfires.
One of my first jobs out of college was a YouTube video called “How To Become an Egg Donor.” That might’ve been it.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend certainly isn’t, and you’re in the last season now.
It’s bittersweet. We’re calling it our senior year because it’s the fourth year. At this point, it’s weird to say we’re more than halfway through [the season]. The sadness of saying goodbye is coming in waves. It’s helpful that we have a few more episodes to do, so you can’t feel nostalgic for too long. We’ve created this weird little family. When you audition for something in Season 1, I don’t expect it to go on very long. “This is the last time I’ll act or see these people.” The fact that it will have been four years at the end is so special. Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom [the creators of the show] had this plan in mind in the beginning. When they pitched the pilot, they were pitching four seasons. It’s a huge gift to them that they’ve had this idea as an arc for Rachel’s character, and they actually get to see it through. It’s kind of perfect. I couldn’t imagine a better ending.
How has Heather Davis, or your portrayal of Heather, evolved over the four seasons?
In the beginning, she was more of a commentator on Rebecca, the world of the show [West Covina, California] and, subsequently, a commentator on her own life. I think that is the case for a lot of young people, growing up inundated with all this technology. It’s very easy to have a judgment or an opinion on everything and much harder to actually participate in your own life, which is risky. In the first season and a little bit of the second, Heather was the truth-teller but was participating in her own life on the sideline. Slowly, through all of the challenges and obstacles the writers have given her, she’s been forced to participate in her own life.
It’s been a challenge as an actor to go on this journey with her. In a play or a movie, you can see the arc and plan for it. A TV show is a living thing. You don’t know where the character is going; you find out episode by episode. At the end, you’re seeing her participating in her own life, which means risking things and caring about things. She’s always going to be the sarcastic person that she is, but she’s willing to show her cards a little bit more. It’s beautiful—I think all the characters on the show are changing in that way. They’re mirroring Rebecca’s growth. I think you can track it. Everyone is pursuing their own happiness, in whatever form that is.
She’s got this great monotone and “I’m over it” attitude. In the beginning, I don’t want to say it comes across as apathetic—because she does care deeply about her friendships, especially with the other women on the show and her relationship with Hector in the latter seasons—but there’s a very clear consideration shift, a sort of vulnerability expressed now that hadn’t happened before.
If you’re commenting on something and you’re sarcastic about it, you’re cutting off your ability to have a connection with it. I think that’s what’s been so great about having her fall in love with Hector and commit to him and develop these female friendships. You can’t not participate in that. You can’t not care. It’s not about her coming out of her shell, it’s about her peeling back the layers. She does want to show up for people.
Do you share any qualities with Heather?
Not really. I care deeply about what people think about me. I like to people please. I think what was really freeing about playing Heather is that she doesn’t. The heart is still the same, but she doesn’t care about what other people think. She’ll think a thing and say a thing. She lives in me now. I’m definitely going to miss her, but at least I can watch her on Netflix.
One thing Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has always done really well is depict very human moments other shows could not or have not. Paula’s extremely undramatic abortion in Season 3 is burned into my memory and is really illustrative of that—a woman making a choice about her body and moving on. Are there specific moments on the show that strike you as particularly radical or subtly important?
You mean, without making a big deal about it?
There are so many examples. The one that’s coming to mind: In Season 3, after Rebecca attempted suicide—all of her friends had a different experience dealing with it. That was profound. Whether it’s Gabrielle’s character [Valencia] trying to make it into a positive experience and my character starting a new relationship. All of these different paths opened up because they didn’t know what to do. Having Rebecca’s character say “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I don’t want to feel that way again. The fact that you guys are here for me again is great.” There’s no right way to handle that, and the way that they did one episode with her friends not knowing what to do and not hitting anyone over the head with it, but showing that her friends were there for her, was powerful.
It’s honest as opposed to over-dramatization, which is a bit ironic, considering this is a musical.
It is. I think it’s because Aline and Rachel are so intelligent and witty and sensitive. Every subject is approached with so much care and tenderness. There’s no flippancy.
You’ve discussed in previous interviews how you present as ethnically or racially ambiguous in Hollywood. As a biracial person myself, there’s an evolving relationship of what you are and what you appear to be to others. I imagine that has to be exacerbated tenfold as an actor because appearance is obviously so much of the gig.
If I was a lawyer, I would never talk about this as much as I do. I’m not. I want to be a storyteller and I am a storyteller, so it has to be part of the conversation. When you grow up as someone who is biracial or mixed in any way, it can very much feel confusing or isolating. I try to turn it into something that’s a positive and can be of value to me as a storyteller, to bring empathy to all of my characters and to understand what it’s like to walk in someone’s shoes that are not my own. It’s fascinating. As much as I am mistaken for other people, it’s interesting because I think I’ve seen myself through other people’s eyes and that’s not something I ever have to experience, just walking through life as a woman of color and this is the perception people are putting on me.
People like to put you in boxes or categories. I think as the world becomes more multiracial and more mixed, it’s going to become harder and harder to reduce people to stereotypes.
I’m curious about your role as Khadija in the Big Sick. This is a character who is not your exact ethnic makeup and she speaks with an accent. How do you approach a role like that?
As with any role: You empathize with the person. You empathize with their situation. For that, I thought it was such a beautifully written script and such a beautiful story. The thing I related to so much in her scene is that it was a rejection scene. She thinks that things were one way with Kumail Nanjiani’s character and he completely lets her down. I think that’s the most human emotion you can approach. It was connecting with that very deeply and going from there, in terms of dialect work and getting the voice as much as I could. But it’s like with anything else—I’m just trying to bring humanity and a voice to a woman that didn’t have one before. They were just words on a page.
And how does that affect your animation work? You’re Mermista in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power reboot—does the format allow for certain freedoms traditional acting does not?
It’s definitely a different thing because you’re only relying on your voice to convey every single emotion, anything that the character experiences at all. I’m not used to it at all. I’m very much a physical actor.
You can’t roll your eyes like you would as Heather!
I know! How I get into character with Heather is certainly physical—I lower my voice, I put myself in a certain posture and then I feel it. To do that with animation is a totally different beast. Because this was my first voiceover work, the first five minutes of every session was very hard for me to get into it. By the middle and end of it I’m having so much fun. I lost track of time. At first, you’re recording alone in a booth and you don’t know what the character looks like, which is crazy. Then the second I saw her I was like, “Oh my gosh, I love her so much, she’s so cute,” and everything started to make sense to me. Here she is, here’s the world, here’s where she’s at.
It sounds like you have to be imaginative in a non-traditional way.
Totally. And you have to be trusting of the creators’ vision. You can’t possibly see it the way they can.
Scouring your Twitter, I was excited to see almost as many posts about voting and various sort of social issues as there were tweets about your career endeavors. How important is it, to you, to use your platform to express political ideas? Or is it an organic extension of your personal feminism?
Above all, we’re human beings. That’s the whole point of wanting to tell stories—it’s wanting to connect with people. It’s that thing of “political is personal.” I had to discover that for myself as well, but when people think they’re not political, it’s just not true. It completely informs your life’s experience and where you come from and the advantages and disadvantages that exist simply because of where and how you came into this world. It’s completely political. Bodies are political. Me being on a show, me being in space, that says something. To ignore that, I think, has always felt wrong to me. I also feel like I don’t do enough, and wonder if [posting on social media] is actually doing anything, enough. I don’t think it substitutes for being active and participating in the world. But it’s something.
I wish so badly, but I haven’t. I feel comfort in knowing she’s seen my face. That’s all I could ever hope for as a person. I can die satisfied now.