When it comes to launching the new series “GCB” on a high note, Kristin Chenoweth is TCB.
Chenoweth, the tiny chanteuse with the giant voice, returns to TV after her Emmy-nominated guests stints on “Glee” as one of the stars of ABC’s “GCB,” the TV-friendlier title for the show adapted novelist Kim Gatlin’s bestseller Good Christian Bitches. As seemingly pious Carlene Cockburn, Chenoweth plays the ringleader of a circle of grown-up mean girls in Dallas who are determined to dish out payback when Amanda (Leslie Bibb), the girl who made their lives hellish in high school, returns home after a long absence and a karmic comeuppance.
The actress tells PopcornBiz that with a role tailored for her by writer-creator Robert Harling (“Steel Magnolias”) and producer Darren Starr (“Melrose Place,” “Sex and the City”), she’s ready to be unabreviatedly bitchy – on screen only, of course.
Carlene is certainly as juicy a character as an actress can be given to dive into. Can you talk about your first impressions of her, and then how you feel now that you've actually jumped into it and gotten to play some of her nuances?
First of all, when I read the script how I always know that a part is mine is if I don't want to see anyone else play her. I knew that this was a juicy role and I'd be an idiot not to take it. Also, I did think of her as a little bit naughty, as a little bit of a villain, but over the next ten episodes people will find out why. And I want people to, when they watch Carlene, not condone some of the behaviors but understand it. So I'm walking a fine line of shoving it in someone's face and also having it have a heart. Obviously I love her. I love that she is very believing in her faith and that she really does enjoy being the leader. Obviously, when Amanda comes back to town it derails her, and I think she gets in her own way, and I think a lot of people understand that: that they can get in their own way. I think that Carlene gets in her own way, bless her heart.
Can you talk about taking her really far heights of near-campiness, but also keeping Carlene real and staying true to her faith element and yet not turn that into an insulting thing? How did you achieve that?
Well, first of all I was raised in the church and in the Bible Belt, so I know these women, and that we're so ridiculously authentic in these roles. It always makes me giggle when someone says 'Someone would actually say that or do that in the South?' Everything is kind of bigger there, but you'll never find a group of women at the end of the day who don't have each others back - I'm talking about in the South, in my church. My mom has six sisters, and so Carlene is sort of an amalgam of all them. I think that whenever you are truly playing the moment, whatever that moment is, and stay real with it you can get people to buy anything. Do you know what I mean? As long as I and the other ladies keep it real but heightened, because these characters are heightened, then we will be fine and we will only win because as long as people buy that then we're good.
This is the first ensemble cast that you've been a part of on television that's predominantly women. People have their preconceptions about how Hollywood actresses are behind the scenes – maybe even cattier than the ‘GCB’ characters. Can you talk about becoming a team with these ladies that are your costars?
I like it because all of these girls are girls’ girls. Sometimes you can get a mean girl in there, but we don't have one, or at least I haven't seen it. I have to tell you what a relief that is because I have to gone work before with different women before that have been mean, just to be frank, and this isn't it. I think it's because we all want the best show possible and we're all so in love with our parts. So, when you get that combination it's very telling of how people are going to behave. I'm sure that people will want their to be disruption and discord among us, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find that kind of behavior going on.
What's your big-picture hope for the show and what it's going to deliver to the audience? How do you envision its place on television?
I want people who are not Christians to look at this world and realize that we know we're not perfect. We show that in this show. I don't think that Christians have done themselves a favor, me being one of them. I very proudly am one and say that I am, but I want that word to not revolt people, and I want us to be able to laugh at ourselves. So, I'm hoping that's what Christians, non-Christians, people of any faith, that people can look at this world. This could take place in a temple, by the way. This could take place in any other community. It's about relationships, how we treat each other. That's what I want people to see, that it's about love and forgiveness and torment and sin and friendship. That's what I hope and I see in the bigger picture of our show.
Any real-life experiences with mean girls from your past?
There was a daily horror of a person who said she just wanted to beat me up because I was so happy, and I just kept telling her, 'I'm not worth the punch.' But she was probably my worst nightmare. She was a bully. It's funny: I just had a concert where one of the mean girls from my hometown in Oklahoma showed up at the stage door and they said, 'So-and-so is here.' My assistant had heard me tell stories about her and I said, 'I think not.' It felt so good. I mean, I've moved on, but maybe a little bit felt good. Yeah, I've had a lot of people come back to me. They want help, [often] to help their kid. Usually when it involves their child I will suck it up because a kid had nothing to do with it. I can be a good example. But it did feel good to not let so-and-so backstage.
Let’s talk about your chemistry with your TV husband, David James Elliott.
So hot. He's just so hot. I mean, it doesn't suck playing opposite him. He's gorgeous and what I love is that he's a good family man and that's he's respectful and that the world is going to get to see him be funny. I love that Carlene and Ripp, they're happy together. They're a happily married couple. They have sex. How often do you see that on TV with a happily married couple. So, I love them. Obviously they're my favorite couple because I'm in love with both of these parts. So, I'm really honored to be working with him and I've been a fan of his for a long time and here we are together.
Does the radical height difference give you some opportunity for comedy?
Yeah, of course! What do you think?! I mean, what I love though is the way that David and I are doing it. We're not commenting at all on it. We're just incorporating it in the mannerisms and also in the script, or the way that we choreograph a scene. We do always think about that because it happens to us in life. 'We can't be seen in the same frame? Okay. I'm going to stand on the table and tell him off.' So, that's fun and we use it. We absolutely use it.
Any chance you’ll have time to return soon to guest-star on “Glee?”
This show is my main priority, and April Rhodes has been a blast to play. She is a has-been drunk and so that's fun, but Carlene has her own problems.
Do you have a preference between singing and acting?
To me it's one in the same. I love translating song. There's nothing better than to do it in front of a live audience, but I also love translating this character this big in front of a camera and hopefully making people laugh. What we've discovered about this show is that it's an all out comedy. Yeah, that word dramedy is there, but it's a comedy – Madeleine Kahn and Sally Field, those are the women that inspired me and hopefully that's what we're keeping going.
"GCB" premieres Sunday night at 10 PM ET on ABC