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It’s Paula Pell’s Time

girls5eva paula pell as gloria in episode 301 of girls5eva cr emily v aragonesnetflix
It’s Paula Pell’s TimeEmily V. Aragones/Netflix

For years and years, Paula Pell was a comedy writer. She was on the writing staff of Saturday Night Live for 18 years, where she created characters like Debbie Downer and the Spartan cheerleaders. Then she began popping up as a scene stealer in guest arcs on 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, bringing her closer to her childhood goal of being a star. Then she became a series regular in the second season of NBC’s A.P. Bio, playing a school secretary with a big personality.

All of that brought her to Girls5eva, which returned for a third season this month. Pell carries the cast alongside her co-stars, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Busy Philipps, and Sara Bareilles. At 60, she’s not only a leading lady but also part of a tight knit cast with three women that she adores. The show’s concept, that a ’90s girl group reunites twenty years later, leads to evisceration of the misogynistic norms of that era, earnest harmonizing, and brilliantly funny song titles. Pell loves it all.

The night before a conversation with ELLE.com, Pell celebrated the season premiere (and the show’s move to Netflix) with a live performance and a bit too much tequila alongside her wife Janine Brito, a Girls5eva writer and cast member. The next morning, she discussed returning to SNL, working with Broadway superstars, and the many types of women her character hopes to spend time with.

new york city march 7 l r sara bareilles, renee elise goldsberry, busy philipps, and paula pell attend netflix's girls5eva season 3 premiere at paris theater on march 7 2024 in new york city photo by alyssa greenberg for netflix
The Girls5eva cast performing at the show’s premiere party.Alyssa Greenberg for Netflix

Were you worried about how things were going to play out when Girls5Eva transitioned from Peacock to Netflix?

It was a real tricky one, because we got such critical [praise] so we were in that thought process of, “Well, here we go. We’re going to do another season.” I literally put my head down on the table when I saw the reviews come out the second season, I remember my wife and I were eating breakfast and I just put my hat on the table and started crying.

I was just so excited that it didn’t have that second season big drop-off you can experience so often in this business. They were just like, “Oh, my God. The second season’s so good.” I think we all just had a lot of expectations and it really wasn’t like a formal cancellation like it is where you get the call and everyone cries. It was more like, “It’s probably not going to return to Peacock. Universal Television is really excited about the prospect of Netflix. They’re talking to Netflix.”

So it was just a happy ending on all counts, and we were really truly so excited and grateful that we could do it again. We were in full pandemic in the first season. Second season was the Omicron return. Then the third season, we didn’t have to do any kind of protocol. Something I realized is how we all bonded because we had to take our masks off when we were in the scenes and backstage and getting makeup. We’re so close, the four of us, it’s nauseating. We felt close to the crew, but I really underestimated how much when you can actually sit and just shoot the shit with somebody and be this close to a cameraman or anyone in the crew.

girls5eva paula pell as gloria in episode 302 of girls5eva cr courtesy of netflix 2023
Pell’s character confronts the alternate meaning of her nickname.Courtesy of Netflix

Do you find that the relationships you made at NBC on Saturday Night Live are continuing to map out your life?

Oh, my God, continuously. I remember the 20th anniversary show and we worked on that. I had been there for maybe two years. There were hundreds of people in the room that were from the cast, from the crew, from directors, from hosts back in the day. They all came for this, it was just like a church in there at studio 8H.

Now it’s approaching 50 years. I went to SNL for the Kate McKinnon-hosted show to do a little bit of writing. I ended up just being in [the sketch] Tampon Farm, which was enough for me. I just had so much fun just seeing all these new fresh faces. It’s really touching to me to see the continued generations of these people just bond with the older people. Up until not so long ago, our lighting designer was in his 90s.

I stayed for almost 20 years, so as I watched all my actor friends that I used to collaborate with become more and more popular, then they became super famous, then they sold shows, and then they would occasionally call me and say, “You want to come and do a weird character that has sex with Pop-Tarts in the bed?” Just like funny, funny 30 Rock things, funny Parks and Rec things. All these people that were my heart are reaching out and saying, “You want to come along with us and do this?”

girls5eva paula pell as gloria in episode 301 of girls5eva cr emily v aragonesnetflix copy 2023
Emily V. Aragones/Netflix

Having been a writer for so long at Saturday Night Live, do you ever feel like you have the itch and want to give input on Girls5eva?

The pedigree of the writing is so outstanding, and Robert Carlock’s there, Meredith Scardino, Tina Fey is behind it, and Jeff Richmond. They’re all so of a level of excellence that you can just breathe. You can just relax. I loved that Janine was in there this year, because she’s an incredible writer and joke writer and just so funny. So I just don’t worry. In this job, I actually celebrate not being the writer, but I love throwing something in. Occasionally as Gloria on a take, I’ll throw some other words in when I’m leaving the room or I’ll showing my boobs, which I do in almost everything I do. It’s fun to know that I have the choice. But sometimes if something is just so fucking funny, I’m like, “I don’t have to do anything with this except be in my skin, be this character, learn my lines and do it and have fun and act.”

The season is incredible and Gloria has such a great arc. I really loved it.

We’ve talked a lot about how our characters this season pushed the little box of who they are, and it picked a hole in it even more. My character is always worried about everyone else and caretaking, and this is very similar to my own life. Now she’s finally breaking out of that and going, “You know what? Nobody’s keeping track. I don’t have to.” I always used to say, “No one’s having a meeting with your head shot up on the board, pointing at it with a stick and going, ‘So this is what Paula did or didn’t do today for us.’” You’re free to live your dreams, your life, what you want to do.

I loved the list of different types of women you want to date.

Janine wrote a lot of those. They would not show them to me until I was in that scene. So I got a freaking clipboard with Cigar Mommy and Peg Bundy. Just looking at that stuff right when you sit down to do the scene and you’re having to check off these people, it’s a gift that is so up my alley. So up my theater nerd alley, so up my female friendship alley, it’s all these things so that it is a challenge for me to be in it and actually absorb it. That’s a beautiful gift in my life to have something so good that I can’t believe it’s happening.

girls5eva paula pell as gloria in episode 304 of girls5eva cr alyssa longchampnetflix copy 2023
Alyssa Longchamp/Netflix

What was it like to be cast as a lead?

A.P. Bio was my first time I had a regular part on a series and wasn’t just a guest star. My character was very much the comic relief in some things and the crazy relief in some things. It was the first time I ever really significantly felt like a working actor, that I could pay my bills with what I’m doing and I didn’t have to just do it as the side thing and then be hustling, always writing, and pitching. So that was really, really fun. But this one—I think because it is these four women and it’s musical—is so in my pleasure zone of everything I’ve always wanted to do. I came out of the womb harmonizing, doing my alto line. It’s my favorite thing on earth to do.

It’s interesting that you’ve gone from such a comedy background to be on stage with Broadway stars. It’s four women who all come from very different paths.

I sang with Renée on “Co-Op” [an episode of the IFC series Documentary Now! that spoofed the D.A. Pennebaker documentary about the making of the Company cast album], and that was my first musical. It was incredibly fun and it went too fast. It was like we got to the end and we were such theater nerds, all of us, and some of us were Broadway stars like her, and it was like, “Wait, this is over.” And Richard Kind was like, “Wait, we’re done already? We’re not going on a tour with ‘Co-Op?’” It gave me that little taste of harmonizing and singing with people and learning parts. I’m just a musical theater person through and through.

I’ve learned a lot from Sara [Bareilles] too. She’s just a legit singer-songwriter star. Her songs are just iconic. You’ll just be walking in a place and just hearing her big hits, and the songs she writes for our show are so heart-feeling. That’s what I love about Meredith [Scardino], to create a show that we can have the most ridiculous song. Like last night we sang one of our songs “Dream Girlfriends” and the lyrics are “dream girlfriends, because our dads are dead.”

girls5eva l to r paula pell as gloria and thomas doherty as gray holland in episode 305 of girls5eva cr emily v aragonesnetflix
Pell with guest star Thomas Doherty.Emily V. Aragones/Netflix

It’s the darkest, hilarious, hard-comedy, funny lyrics. Then Sara will write things where we gel together in this emotion. We look at each other with tears in our eyes, and it’s real, but also our characters are looking at each other, like “I love you and we’re going to do this.” It’s what the world needs. I love sarcasm in comedy. I love parody. I love all the snarky parts of comedy. I really do. I’ve certainly written plenty of that too. But I always said that at SNL, my favorite characters to write were joyful losers. Bobbi and Marty Culp were always like, “Please put that middle finger down.” Picture this audience at every event they’re doing that’s like, “Fuck you. Go away.” But they love what they’re doing so much, they’re going to just do it with joy, and eventually they’re going to win you over. That’s what I love, because that how I am myself.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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