Thanks to name-making roles like Glinda in the blockbuster stage show Wicked and her Tony-winning turn as Sally in You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, Kristin Chenoweth is primarily associated with the world of Broadway, though her work in television and film stretches back almost as far as her career on the boards. Starting with a short-lived eponymous sitcom, through a recurring role on the last two seasons of The West Wing and her Emmy-winning portrayal of lovesick singing waitress Olive Snook on Pushing Daisies—not to mention her Emmy-nominated guest spot on Glee, which was all but ordained by the musical-theater gods—Chenoweth has translated her Broadway-honed plucky demeanor and opera-trained singing voice into a distinctive television presence. After taking a short break from regular TV work to appear onstage in 2010’s Promises, Promises, Chenoweth has returned to a regular small-screen gig with her role as grown-up mean girl Carlene on the ABC church-tweaking dramedy GCB, created by Steel Magnolias playwright Robert Harling (and originally titled Good Christian Bitches). Just prior to the show’s première, Chenoweth spoke to The A.V. Club about bringing her own experiences as a Southern-raised Christian to the role, and the show’s future musical prospects.
The A.V. Club: Your character on GCB, Carlene, is the antagonist. You haven’t played many of those. Maybe Olive from Pushing Daisies could’ve been considered an antagonist—
Kristin Chenoweth: You know, I always think about Olive in relationship to Carlene, and I think the one quality they share is insecurity. On stage, in Wicked, I played the antagonist, because Glinda was definitely not the good girl. It was her journey of how she became good that I loved so much. I think that you’ll see a journey, too, with Carlene. I think she gets in her own way, and of course we don’t want her to disappoint us, but she’s going to have some very fun times ahead.
AVC: So will there be similar redemption down the road for her, or will it just be bitchiness wall-to-wall?
KC: I don’t think it’s bitchiness wall-to-wall. I think you’ll see some forgiveness, and maybe true friendship, but not for too long. [Laughs.]
AVC: You mentioned her insecurity. Do you think that’s the root of why she acts the way she acts?
KC: Yeah, she was bullied by Amanda growing up for being the ugly duckling, which is obviously a very big subject in today’s times. We have so much bullying going on. But Carlene has overhauled herself, redone herself, and here comes Amanda back in town all these years later. It probably brings up a lot of insecurity within her; I don’t think she’s going to take it lying down, if you know what I mean.
AVC: How does your own experience as a Christian inform how you play Carlene?
KC: I think she wrestles with doing the right thing or saying what’s really on her mind a lot. I understand that, I’m human. There’s times where I want to say certain things but I stop myself. I don’t know that Carlene stops herself too much, especially where Amanda’s concerned. What I do love about her, though, is that she has a deep faith in God, and she does want to make her husband happy and keep a good home, and all those things. But when it comes to Amanda, she’s derailed.
AVC: Do you see any hypocrisy in her faith vs. how she acts out in the world?
KC: I think what I see is a woman battling good and evil. There’s a misconception—that I think Christians have done to themselves, in a way—that we’re perfect, or we think we’re perfect. And nobody is perfect. No human walking on this planet is perfect. I think what GCB does is shed light on the imperfections of religion. It’s not always about doing or saying the right thing, or what you know you’re going to do and what you hope is the right thing to do. No matter what faith you are, you’re going to make mistakes. And Carlene makes a lot of them.
AVC: What other personal experience did you draw on for this character?
KC: Well, I grew up in Oklahoma, and I grew up in church, so it’s a world I’m very familiar with. And I can tell you that this is a very authentic story that we’re telling. I have six aunts who are very religious, and I’ve learned a lot from how to behave and how to act, and I’m grateful for that upbringing. So yeah, that all comes into play when I’m listening and watching. Bobby Harling, our writer, grew up in the South, and he knows what he’s talking about when he writes women. I think Steel Magnolias is one of the best plays ever written, and I’m so glad we are in his hands, in his company, because he will always do it with a lot of respect and reverence, but with a lot of fun.
AVC: Carlene is a pretty over-the-top character, which is something you have played often. Do you gravitate toward outsized characters?
KC: I think I gravitate toward character. Olive was big and small. She was a lot, but she was suffering inside. I think Carlene is big and small; she’s a lot, but she suffers inside. She just doesn’t have as good of an “edit button” as Olive had. I do gravitate toward interesting, complicated women. I think they’re more fun to play, frankly. It’s also challenging, because you have to walk a very fine line when you’re doing a television show or a movie with a very heightened character. As long as it’s real, people will buy it. As long as it seems plausible or that it could happen, people will buy it. I know many Carlenes in this world, so I’ve been able to call upon my past experience in and out of church with this kind of person.
AVC: Your character sings in the church choir, so obviously you get to sing on the show. Is that going to be a recurring theme in the series?
KC: Probably. I think she probably gives herself the solos. I think church lends itself to a lot of music, and I don’t think Carlene will be the only one that sings. We have a lot of musically gifted or un-gifted people in our cast, and that lends itself to a lot of humor as well. So yeah, you’ll see a lot of music.
AVC: Do you think it will stay limited to singing in church, or would you like to see the break from reality you see in musicals, where they’re singing—
KC: For no reason! [Laughs.] Oh my gosh, we don’t say that! We sing in musicals because we can’t speak it, or we can’t speak it anymore. I would never, ever do a song for no reason, ever. I know that there’s a misconception about musical theater that we just break into song, but it’s because we can’t speak it, so it’s an extension of the moment. I don’t know what Bobby Harling has in mind, but I hope it’s never just out of left field. I don’t see that music would just “happen” like it does on Glee, which is always from a very real place as well. So I don’t know, that’s a very good question.
AVC: Up until a few years ago, there wasn’t a lot of that stage-musical mentality you see now on Glee or now Smash, that “musical” type of song. What do you think of how television’s incorporating musical performance?
KC: Well, actually, it’s been going on a long time. It started with David Kelley in Ally McBeal, so we really should thank him, because he’s the one who started it and made it believable. And then of course it goes to a little bit in West Wing, if you’ve ever watched that. There’s a moment that I did, where I had a very poor voice as my character, and I sang on the show and made it work. And then, of course, Pushing Daisies with Bryan Fuller, then Ryan Murphy with Glee, and now Bobby [Harling]. So it’s been going on a long time, and I’m glad it’s becoming more popular. Because of that, we’re able to have Smash, which I love because it’s about Broadway, and I only want success for Broadway-type shows, so we’ll see.