Crazy Like an Ex
Rachel Bloom turned her struggles with depression, anxiety, and romantic obsession—not to mention her love of musical theater—into one of the most unlikely television successes of recent years.
By September 5, 2016 - last reviewed on October 20, 2016published
Rachel Bloom, the Golden Globe–winning star and cocreator of the CW musical sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is open about her own lifelong struggles with depression and anxiety—burdens she shares with Rebecca Bunch, her TV alter ego. Rebecca abandons her high-powered job as a Manhattan attorney to chase her ex-boyfriend, Josh, to a bland California suburb. The premise seems like any woman’s nightmare, but the result is a funny, unflinchingly honest look at mental illness, romantic obsession, and, as Bloom puts it, “the truth behind stereotypes.” The show, recently nominated for four Emmys, returns for its second season on October 21, 2016.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tackles one of the biggest taboos of single female behavior: going nuts over an unavailable man. Why did you take that on?
When Aline Brosh McKenna, the series’ cocreator, made the original pitch, her idea was that everyone has either been a crazy ex or had one. That really resonated with me because for a lot of my life I was very boy crazy—“boy crazy” being a lighter term for being heavily obsessed, with really intense mood swings and my self-worth wrapped up in my crushes.
And Rebecca has the same issues?
It never occurred to us to make Rebecca a laughed-at character, someone looked at with a male gaze from the outside in. We wanted to look at her from the inside out—from her perspective. And we wanted to tell her story from our perspective as otherwise smart, capable people who have also let ourselves be humiliated by falling victim to obsession.
Did you ever have a crush like Josh, someone you really did something outrageous over?
Unlike Rebecca, I have a fear of what other people think and of being labeled as crazy. There’s a lot of stuff I prevented myself from doing. I lived a lot in fantasy. I’d dream of getting revenge—telling a guy off and throwing coffee in his face. But I never actually did it because I was more reasonable than my character is.
So how did you deal with your crushes?
My obsessions with men were like emotional cutting. I was constantly going in and out of depression. I would let people take advantage of me. The craziest thing was how I debased myself and lied to myself. That’s what still sticks with me and humiliates me. Rebecca is an exaggeration of things that I’ve wanted to do or felt.
Do you see a connection between dark feelings and obsessive love?
Obsessive love is always an escape. It is euphoria, it’s a drug, it’s something you can really sink your whole being and identity into. It gives the world a color. My obsessions had a lot to do with the way I’d think about the person when he wasn’t even around. I’m an only child, and a lot of my childhood was imaginary friends and living with my imagination. Much of the time the ideals I would form about someone had nothing to do with my actual interactions with that person.
How does someone live with that kind of obsession?
Obsession is also a roller coaster. If your mood is not regulated already, you’re setting yourself up for the mood swings of love even more. I think that being in love affects you, positively and negatively, way more if you have problems with anxiety and depression and obsession, like I did. Obsessive love, for me, has always felt like an exaggeration of my natural state.
Do you think having an outlet for your imagination was what your obsessions were about all along?
Yes, 100 percent. When I think of the guys I was the most violently obsessed with—and when I say “violent,” I mean emotionally violent—they were all people I aspired to be. The guy I was in love with in high school was this musical prodigy. That’s something I wanted to be. The guy I had a crush on in elementary school was funny and a rule breaker, and I was so afraid of breaking the rules. He was also what I wanted to be. Anyone I’ve ever been obsessed with has been in the arts. Being in love and creativity have always been synonymous for me.
You started dating your husband when you were in your early twenties. So while your show has a lot to say about the dating game, you got out of it pretty quickly.
I have a show about a single person, when for the majority of my adult life I haven’t been single! But I still remember so well that feeling of being in agony over my obsessions and losing myself. It doesn’t seem emotionally distant. The years with my husband have flown by, which is a testament to being in a wonderful relationship. He really does balance me out. I don’t think a relationship can solve everything, though. If you don’t love yourself, you can’t be in a healthy relationship. It took those unhealthy relationships for me to realize the kind I wanted and to be attracted to the right kind of person. Now that I’m in a healthy relationship, I can write about the disasters with more perspective.
How did you transition from unhealthy relationships to a healthy one?
I had been friends with my husband [Dan Gregor, a writer and actor] for many years, and he really supported me through a particular breakup. That brought us closer. As I started to step away from the men who had been damaging to me, so I could explore what I really wanted, I realized that, romance-wise, the right person had been there all along. It almost felt as if I was finally mature enough to date him.
The show is unique on tv because it has original songs in each episode. They can be hilarious but also cut the characters pretty deeply.
That’s what I used musicals for when I was growing up. I was depressed, I thought about death, but then I loved going to musical theater! My state of mind was either supersad or superhappy, with no connection between the two. But then I found Sondheim, who wrote Sweeney Todd, and I found Kander and Ebb, who wrote Chicago and Cabaret. They took these happy tropes and explored real issues with them. I realized that musical theater is not just about happiness, it’s also about insight into the soul and emotions. That’s our guide now when we’re writing the show. We ask, what are the emotional highs and lows of the episode? And that’s where the songs go. Nine times out of 10, the plot comes before any song, because we want it to feel like this character just has to sing.
At the end of the first season, Rebecca and Josh actually hook up, threatening the ex in your title.
When we pitched the show, we pitched the entire series. From the beginning we have known the arc of the series and how it ends. The title is your guide: Crazy Ex Girlfriend. It’s always one step forward, two steps back. Rebecca is going to be making somewhat of a descent now.
Rebecca wasn’t happy with her all-consuming legal career, and we can guess that Josh isn’t going to make her happy, either. What do you think makes women happy?
You have to be true to what you actually want. It can be the job if it’s a job you truly want. Rebecca’s problem was that she became a lawyer because someone else told her to and it was expected of her. Had she become a lawyer under her own control, she would have had a completely different relationship with it. So it’s a matter of pursuing what makes you truly happy.