Kether Donohue is a laid back, easy-breezy chick. She's lying on the couch in her “high-tech” dressing room, as she describes the small piece of fingerprint-secured real estate she's occupying on the Warner Bros. lot, taking a break from rehearsals to speak with me about playing the part of Jan in Sunday's one-night production of “Grease: Live!”
“I'm kind of living the life right now,” she says.
Kether radiates positive energy while gushing about the project, a three-month endeavor soon to come to fruition. She says,
It's just so fun… Honestly, it feels like I'm in summer camp. It has a really nostalgic feel to it 'cause I went to a performing arts-type school, and as a kid I was used to being around performers -- singers, dancers and actors -- and the feeling on set is like that. There's this incredible camaraderie between all the Pink Ladies and the T Birds. Everyone's happy to be here, and everyone loves what they do. We work really hard, but we're having a great time, and so there's a very positive energy on set that's just infectious.
Although the 30-year-old describes having a visceral reaction to the theater experience, Kether's oeuvre is rooted in television and film.
She got her footing doing voiceovers for Japanese animation series throughout her college years at Fordham University on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not a far shot from where she grew up on the Lower East Side with her mother, father and younger brother John.
Just after graduating, Kether landed an off-, off-Broadway gig that paid a cringe-worthy $300 for the entire run, a rude awakening that ushered her into a waitressing gig at New York City's oldest standing watering hole, Landmark Tavern.
She's honest about how that fared, admitting,
I was actually really excited to be a waitress. I kind of glamorized the idea of being a starving, struggling actor doing theater -- there was something about it that felt really cool to me. And then I got fired for trying to unionize the waitresses so that didn't work out.
She's inherently engaging, the quintessence of The Girl Next Door, and I find myself picturing her in a waitress' apron, Rosie The Riveter-esque ensemble, fist in the air, red lipstick strewn, leading a gaggle of women through the rickety doors.
A little bit of patience would bring roles in Michael Morrissey's “Boy Wonder” (2010) and Barry Levinson's “The Bay” (2012), which received critical acclaim and led to cameos in TV series like “The Carrie Diaries” and “Royal Pains.”
It was her small but mighty role as Alice in “Pitch Perfect” and then a cameo “Pitch Perfect 2,” however, that came at a pivotal moment in Kether's career, shooing her into the regular role of Lindsay Jillian in FX's “You're The Worst,” a dark romantic comedy in which the reality of living with clinical depression comes to life.
And now, Sunday brings another opportunity for Kether to immerse herself in reimagined television, in the aged-but-timeless tale of Rydell High told through a new lens.
She stands among a diverse cast of singers, dancers and actors in the one-night national telecast, including Julianne Hough, Carly Rae Jepsen, Vanessa Hudgens and Keke Palmer as the OG squad, the Pink Ladies.
The production has been a palpable learning experience for Kether; she's first to address that she's not a professionally trained dancer, which posed the biggest challenge for her coming into the project.
Sometimes I feel like Lucille Ball in 'I Love Lucy' when she's trying to dance. … I'm not the most coordinated of the bunch; however, I like to use everything as a gift. I've actually found that that kind of works for the character of Jan and that actually was part of the way I found Jan in my body. Jan is clumsy. Jan is not very put-together.
There's an iconic scene in Randal Kleiser's 1987 film adaption of "Grease," during which the Pink Ladies are gathered around during a sleepover and Jan steals the spotlight with her imitation of the toothpaste commercial on television: "Brush-a, brush-a, brush-a / it's the new Ipana / with a brand new flavor / it's healthy for your teeth."
Jan is the epitome of awkward; she's gangly and quirky, not yet as sexualized as her Pink Lady counterparts Rizzo and Marty, nor as sensationalized as an air-headed Frenchy.
Jan fits in; she's comfortable being as she is, and the strong personalities she's bound to thrive in the absence of another.
When Sunday's big event arrives, however, Kether surely will not melt into the social identity of Jan. There's a new Pink Lady to be expected with Kether embodying the character, one that effects a cultural change in the name of the infallible every woman.
Kether consciously emulates the flawed, imperfect, human, every woman in the role of Lindsay in "You're The Worst," capitalizing on the creative freedom it allows to stake her claim as an actress in Hollywood.
She astutely says,
No matter what shape or size, or what you look like, I think all women can relate to feeling a complex mixture of qualities. Some days you wake up and you feel great, and you look in the mirror and you're like, 'Oh my god, I look great today.' And other days you wake up and you're like, 'Oh no, I gained five pounds, and I have pimples, and I feel disgusting.' Some days you feel sexy and other days you don't. Women are complicated -- thank god, for complicated, complex creatures -- and it's nice to have a platform to portray that. And I think it's comforting to women … I think it's critical for there to be a diverse portrayal of different body types of women on TV, shown in a positive light. And I'm really happy to be a part of that.
It's her personification of Lindsay (aka, Linzer) that landed her a nomination at this year's Critics' Choice Awards for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, sidekick to Best Actress in a Comedy Series nominee Aya Cash as Gretchen Cutler.
I wonder what makes Kether so seemingly level-headed, a surprising deviation from Lindsay, a 20-something so drastically fazed by superficial appeal, she marries a man for nothing but that.
“Eww,” Lindsay responds in the season two premiere, after learning the definition of love is to put someone else's needs before your own, rather than her assumption of “Hey, I love you, smooch smooch, now go make me some Bagel Bites.”
Where Kether's authentic self aligns with her fictional character, however, is in her spontaneous and innately free-spirited nature. She credits the show's creator, Stephen Falk, for giving her the opportunity to play Lindsay and push the boundaries.
Kether tells me,
I think so often in comedy, women are put in a box. Oftentimes, you are either categorized as the larger, funny girl, who is not portrayed as attractive, or more the thinner, leading, pretty lady who doesn't get to be funny. The great thing about Lindsay is that she's a delicious mix of both.
The delicious mix she's referring to is the captivating personality with which viewers so deeply empathize. Lindsay challenges the norm set forth by the media's predetermined, picturesque, perfect woman.
She's funny, in both an oblivious and conscious way. Her curvy sex appeal is juxtaposed by a woman who's acutely unaware of when she's actually being somewhat gross.
Lindsay is fundamentally flighty, but she has gravitas. The complexity of the character is tangible, and her conviction, despite being repressed by her ex-husband, makes me want to give her a standing O -- if not for Paul's inability to give her one on his own.
Despite the progressive role she plays on television, Kether is overwhelmingly modest. There's something to be said about a New York City native transplanted in Los Angeles, quietly making waves for women in new age media.
We can impatiently anticipate seeing Kether again in season three of “You're The Worst,” but when I ask her whether the "Grease" experience has altered her opinion in considering opportunities she may have been uninterested in before, Kether's optimism shines again,
I'm excited to see what's to come. You know, the exciting thing about being an artist is that you have no way of predicting when your next job is going to be, where it's going to come from, or where it's going to be. … I just kind of trust that the next job I do will be what's meant to be and that's exciting.
In the meantime, though, it's her passion for her craft that keeps her motivated to work hard for her next big gig. I'm actually left feeling somewhat enlightened by her refreshing perspective on what so many refer to as the dreaded, monotonous, everyday grind.
She tells me,
I think that for me, as an artist, [being continually, authentically inspired is] critical. Whether you're in an audition, whether you're in a call back, whether you're on set, whether you're in rehearsal, keeping things fresh and spontaneous and new and feeling that inspiration is also what keeps me going. I think that the minute you feel like you're on auto-pilot or doing something mechanical just for the sake of doing it, is death for an actor. That pours over to anything.
Television star, theater actress, voiceover artist… guru?
There's one last bit of information I must squeeze out of the bubbly voice on the other end of the phone, and that's if her love life is as nonexistent as my own. She reveals to me candidly, "I'm enjoying a single phase in my life because I was in long-term relationships since I was 17 years old.”
After two lengthy, serious relationships and another short-term, involved romance, Kether is just like every other single female, weaving through the slim pickings: She's ready to indulge in alone time and selfishly embrace being her.
She says, “I think [alone time is] important. When I do meet the man of my dreams, I'll know more of what to look for and more of what I need.” She knows it sounds cliché, but such is life. Woman to woman, I can agree.
Come what may for Kether Donohue, her ingenuity will continue to captivate.
Don't miss the one-night production of “Grease: Live!” this Sunday, January 31 at 7 pm ET only on FOX.