Kether Donohue on life after You’re the Worst and getting sober: ‘I honestly would have died if I kept doing what I was doing’

The scene-stealing star is back in a new comedy filmed during lockdown. She talks to Rachel Brodsky about making B Positive, her personal struggle with addiction and why suicidal ideation is something that needs to be discussed more openly

Tuesday 29 December 2020 14:36
<p>Kether Donohue: ‘I think as actors we’re trained to be in a state of perpetual acceptance around the random s*** thrown at us’</p>

Kether Donohue: ‘I think as actors we’re trained to be in a state of perpetual acceptance around the random s*** thrown at us’

Anyone who has watched You’re the Worst on FXX in the US or 5Star in the UK will instantly be familiar with the uproarious, scene-stealing work of Kether Donohue.

As Lindsay Jillian, a messy, bubble headed clapback machine with quips like “whatever, history. You happened already. Let it go”, Donohue got to unload vulgarities, wear cleavage-y 1950s housewife dresses, and call sugar “sweet salt” with a straight face (among other bonkers Lindsay-isms).

The 35-year-old, who grew up in Manhattan, had previously appeared in both Pitch Perfect films as the Bellas’ graduating leader Alice ("your breath smells like egg") before starring in You're the Worst, a single-camera comedy shot in Los Angeles, about two self-destructive thirty-somethings who stumble into and attempt to sustain a meaningful relationship.

Kicking off the show as main character Gretchen’s (Aya Cash) daffy best friend, Donohue’s Lindsay is a beautiful mess of delightful contradictions: She is at once a horny sex siren and a wholesome, pearl-wearing homemaker. She feels ambivalent at best about her dweeby cuckold of a husband Paul (Allan McLeod), yet harbours real guilt any time she does anything hurtful toward him (including stabbing him with a small kitchen knife). One part of her wants comfort and domestic bliss, yet she’s dying to still pick up random guys (aka “go day-d***ing”) at bars. In another episode, she manages to impregnate herself with a turkey baster full of Paul’s semen… only to get “an a-bo-bo” (that’s an abortion, by the way) a few episodes later.

Aya Cash as Gretchen and Kether Donohue as Lindsay in season 5 of You’re the Worst (2019)

Running from 2014 to 2019, You're the Worst was essentially about a flailing relationship between chaotic Gretchen Cutler and pompous Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere), but it also did a marvellous job showcasing its supporting cast, namely Lindsay’s outrageous antics (not to mention relatable character dimensions). Now, the show's still-fresh cancellation begs the question: How does an actor follow up a role like Lindsay Jillian?

Well, she almost didn’t. “I was just feeling like maybe I needed a breather and time for myself, figure out what I wanna do,” she says over Zoom from her home in Los Angeles. “I told my agent and I'm like, I'm just gonna move to Big Sur and become a potter, and I wasn't joking.”

“The next day, my agent said, ‘Please don’t move to Big Sur and become a potter. I got an email last night that Chuck Lorre wants to read you for his new pilot. And when you’re an actor and you hear the words ‘Chuck Lorre’, I think I would probably be the stupidest person on the planet. Like, ‘Oh, tell Chuck I gotta do ceramics.’”

Lorre, who has overseen some of the most successful sitcoms of the past decade (The Big Bang Theory, Mom, Young Sheldon), wanted Donohue to read for his new multi-cam, opposites-attract comedy B Positive, about a newly divorced man (Thomas Middleditch) who needs a kidney. Donohue would be auditioning for the rather Lindsay-like role of Gabby, best friend to Annaleigh Ashford’s Gina, a party girl-turned-kidney donor.

“It is another best friend character,” acknowledges Donohue. “But when I read the three pages of sides, I don’t know what the hell it was. It felt like from another world, I just started crying my eyes out. I don’t know why I had such a visceral reaction, but a little voice inside of me said, ‘I get this. This is a story of second chances.’”

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A redemptive arc is something Donohue could personally relate to, having quit drinking within the past year. Plus, she reveals, she’s always felt connected to material that tackles hard-to-talk-about subject matter.

“When I got sober, I got a second chance,” she says. “I honestly would have died if I kept doing what I was doing. [Getting sober was] one of the hardest things to do, but the most rewarding."

From an outside perspective, the average viewer would never have known that Donohue had ever struggled with addiction. Not only is it something she thinks needs to be discussed more openly, but its related issues – depression and suicidal ideation, specifically – deserve to be talked about in public, too.

"That’s what was so wonderful about being on You’re the Worst, like a comedy talking about depression in a raw, real way," she says. "Suicidal ideation is still a very taboo subject. And I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about it. But you know what? In the past, I’ve struggled with that. And it has been proven that the more people you’re able to talk to about it, the more it goes away."

"It's always the people you least suspect," she says, referring to herself, and points to an experience in group therapy with other "peppy, bubbly" girls who had struggled with suicidal thoughts. But it's precisely the fact that you'd never suspect a joyful, outgoing personality like Donohue's to have dealt with alcohol abuse, depression, and suicidal ideation is what makes her so drawn to material that digs beneath the surface and explores less comfortable subject matter.  

“I just felt [B Positive] was a world that I fit in, and that I loved. I could see the vision of where that could go. Maybe Gabby gets a second chance. Maybe her and [Thomas Middleditch’s character] Drew have more in common than they think.”

It also didn’t hurt that Donohue had worked with Middleditch before: Despite being best known for playing hapless tech pioneer Richard on Silicon Valley, the comedian had popped up a couple of times on You’re the Worst, where he played “Hipster Ringleader”, aka a fedora-wearing, East Side LA stereotype who follows the main cast around blatantly copying their “Sunday Funday” activities.

Working with Middleditch again came as a welcome surprise for Donohue, who had been in awe of the comedian's natural improv abilities and physical comedy, even stealing away to watch him do scenes when she would normally be in her dressing room. She even likens his style of comedy to John Ritter as Jack Tripper in the classic American sitcom Three’s Company, which was famously adapted from British 1970s comedy Man About the House. “I just like watching how he works,” she says.

Equally exciting for Donohue was the chance to work with Annaleigh Ashford, who played gutsy mid-century prostitute-turned-receptionist Betty DiMello on Masters of Sex. Turns out, Donohue loosely knew Ashford through You’re the Worst co-star Aya Cash (Ashford and Cash’s husbands are good friends). The positive feelings were mutual, too, with Ashford and Donohue both writing deeply complimentary letters to each other when the pilot wrapped.

Donohyue (left) on B Positive with Annaleigh Ashford

“I saw [Annaleigh] on Masters of Sex, and I just remember being like, ‘Something about her is from another world. Some people’s work feels like it comes from more of a spiritual place, like otherworldly. I felt that with her. I just liked her.”

Perhaps the most jarring aspect of taking this role, however, was committing to making a show during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has upended filming much of anything in Hollywood and beyond. Yet Donohue maintains that filming B Positive has been “very safe”.

“I’ve heard Chuck say a lot: ‘Warner Bros Media has made it safer to be at work than at home.’ Typically, we get tested three times a week. We have very strict rules. Everybody wears medical masks. There’s hand sanitiser by every door. We only take our masks off literally before they hit Record. It doesn’t feel like a burden; it doesn’t feel stressful. I feel like when it’s over, I’m going to feel weird not doing certain things.”

Donohue’s feelings around Covid safety protocols reflect her just-roll-with-it attitude surrounding having a groundbreaking cult hit like You’re the Worst be cancelled. “I think just as actors we’re trained to be in a state of perpetual acceptance around the random s*** thrown at us,” she says. “It’s that mixed feeling of, of course you’re sad… But we were also like, well, we’re lucky. We got five years out of this.”

Moving forward, it doesn’t sound like Donohue has any immediate plans to revisit a ceramicist career in the California mountains. In addition to B Positive, she’s reading movie scripts and looking into book optioning opportunities. Most of all, she's just relaxing into the moment and looking forward to what comes next. “I’m just excited for the possibilities,” she says. “I like the surprises of life. I kind of also like not knowing what's gonna happen.”

B Positive continues on CBS on 7 January 2021

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