Kristin Chenoweth is never without an abundance of faith. So it’s fitting that, on Sunday, she’ll happen to be surrounded by 13 Jesuses.
Such is the madness of American Gods, the epic Starz drama series based on Neil Gaiman’s 2001 bestseller, in which Chenoweth plays the pivotal role of under-appreciated goddess Easter on this Sunday’s season finale.
Chenoweth’s debut in the series is the most divine one yet. When we meet her she is literally glowing, beaming and clutching a champagne glass on a balcony. Her hair is adorned with a tissue-paper flower bonnet, like one you might make with art supplies in elementary school, yet somehow infinitely more fabulous.
The Jesuses mill about her, and she catches the eye of an unwelcome old friend: Ian McShane’s scheming Wednesday. The sweetness gives way to tartness with Chenoweth’s signature comic timing: “For Christ’s sake.”
On American Gods, Chenoweth’s Easter (née Ostara) is the pagan goddess of spring and fertility, one of the old gods who came to America from the Old World and are barely scraping by on what little worship they can muster from a humanity now devout to new gods instead, like media and technology.
Refusing to believe she’s as forgotten and unloved as the rest of the old gods, Easter has capitalized on her namesake, the Christian holiday celebrating Jesus’ resurrection, convinced that Christians are praying and worshipping in her name, even though they aren’t.
Anyone who knows Chenoweth as the good little Christian actress who has carried her faith with her, against all odds, to Broadway and then all the way to Hollywood might be surprised to see her participate in such a provocative take on religion. Just as they might be surprised to see her unleash as much exasperated anger as she does in her big American Gods episode.
But maybe we don’t know Kristin Chenoweth as well as we think we do. Or, at least, as well as Bryan Fuller does.
“On paper. You wouldn’t go, ‘Oh, Bryan Fuller and Kristin Chenoweth are going to be besties,’” Chenoweth tells The Daily Beast. “I have a tendency to do that in my life.”
Fuller is the man behind the ballsy adaptation of American Gods from book to series. He’s most recently best known for one of the scariest, bloodiest series broadcast television has ever seen, NBC’s Hannibal, and before that the whimsical though emotionally brutal Pushing Daisies, for which his first partnership with Chenoweth won the actress an Emmy Award.
“Maybe because there’s a perception of me a little bit that it’s just this all the time,” Chenoweth says, framing her face in her hands with a cheesy, gee-golly smile. “But he knows… me. Yeah, I’m basically a happy person. But he knows there are a lot things about me too that don’t match up with that, and I think that’s why we click.”
If cheery people are seen as rays of sunshine, then Chenoweth, by reputation, is a veritable solar flare. The 4-foot-11 shaken soda can of fizz and energy has made a career out of playing über-luminous, larger-than-life scene-stealers—characters so bright it’s remarkable they radiate out of such a small body.
A Broadway breakout and Tony winner 18 years ago for playing Sally in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, in which she debuted the precocious and sardonic blend—backed by a brassy belt and four-octave range—that’s become her trademark, she reached a rare level of musical theater thanks to her performance as Glinda in Wicked, a character so effervescent she literally comes and goes by bubble.
At the moment, we’re in a Midtown hotel room, and that shot of Red Bull you might come to expect from watching the star on talk shows is more like a soothing cup of chamomile tea.
She’s draped in a fabulous black coat, clutching the fur collar to a just-right level of coziness as she talks. A serene, calming smile never fades, and neither does her earnest eye contact as we speak—well, save for the handful of times her adorable rescue dog Thunder trots over begging for a little attention.
“There was a perception of me, this kind of pristine thing,” she says, explaining Fuller’s role in her career. “I have gotten to do some pretty powerful independent films that I wonder without Pushing Daisies if they’d have happened.”
And then there’s Easter, a character she says Fuller had to coax her into playing. “He said, ‘The way I see her is this…”—Chenoweth mimes that gee-golly smile again—‘…but there’s anger and frustration boiling over underneath, and when it comes out it’s not pretty.’” Her response: ‘Oh, well now you’re talking.’”
Chenoweth laughs at the mention of there being a “Kristin Chenoweth type,” but she doesn’t deny that it’s true. But there’s a frustration that comes along with that type, particularly the assumption that she doesn’t have sad or angry days. Or that her life hasn’t seen its lion’s share of pain.
In 2012, she was injured on the set of The Good Wife when a lighting instrument fell on her, which she says put her in a three-month period of “holding, healing, and enlightenment” during which she contemplated life and its sometimes unforgiving unexpectedness. She’s part of a group of four women who are still best friends from high school. The three other women in the group have all had cancer. Her mother has battled the disease three times.
“You just start to look at life different,” she says. “I’m a little less afraid to show how I feel about something.”
That was certainly the case late last year when she was performing her rapturously reviewed concert My Love Letter to Broadway in New York. She giggles about the “interesting” time in which she was mounting the show: both the week before and the week after the election.
In the past, she’s tried not to be too political, but she spoke out against Trump at each of her concerts, changing the lyrics to the Wicked hit “Popular” to skewer him. “My parents were like, ‘Don’t! Please don’t!’” she says.
Of course, My Love Letter to Broadway also featured Chenoweth singing one of her favorite hymns, right in line with what’s been a fascination throughout her career: that she can be a person of faith and a vocal Christian, but still hold her political beliefs dear—the least of which include a strong, impassioned support for the LGBTQ community.
“So often being a Christian is associated with a certain viewpoint on every single thing,” she says. Well, it’s not fair to do that.”
Besides, life is fuller when you’re not living according to stereotypes. “I’ve had more big truck drivin’ men come up to me and say, ‘I loved Wicked,’” she laughs. “It’s OK. You can come out. You can say it loud and say it proud that you liked Wicked. It doesn’t make you less of a man.”
A few years ago I talked to Chenoweth’s friend, actress Erin Dilly, about the fascination with Chenoweth’s faith, particularly in show business. Dilly and Chenoweth first met almost 20 years ago, when they were co-stars in a Minneapolis regional production of Babes in Arms.
“She’s massively criticized for being a devout Christian, but she’s a Christian whose every single best friend is gay,” Dilly said, then laughing. “If Kristin could be gay, she would be.”
There’s something else that Dilly told me, though, that offers the most intimate glimpse of who Chenoweth is. Roughly five years ago, Dilly called Chenoweth when her father was sick with Alzheimer’s. He couldn’t recognize Dilly, but he did keep calling her a pretty girl with nice kids.
“She was really quiet, and I could hear she was crying,” Dilly remembered. “Then she said, ‘You know, honey, at least he thinks you’re pretty. He could’ve said you were homely and had asshole children.’ It’s a completely unique perspective in the world.”
Chenoweth takes a second to collect herself after I relay to her Dilly’s story. “It was a Steel Magnolias moment,” she says. “We needed to laugh.”
The steel magnolia in Chenoweth presents itself often as we speak.
At one point she’s talking about a scene in American Gods when a character wants another to “fuck off,” and she whispers the curse words. “It’s the Southern part of me,” she says. “If you say it in a whisper, it’s OK. You’re forgiven.”
It comes out most when Chenoweth talks about the things she’s learned as she gets older, which seems to have included extending that compassion she’s always had for others to herself.
“The longer you live, the more you live your truth,” she says. “When I was in my twenties I wanted to make it. When I was in my thirties I wanted to lead with, ‘I’m so happy I’m here!’ And I am still happy I’m here. But I think in your forties you start looking at life a little different.”
Things seem to mean more now. “It’s a little more thoughtful,” she says. “There’s maturity that comes obviously with evolution of life. That shows in your work. It’s happening in my voice. It’s happening in my singing. It’s happening in my acting.”
This past year for Chenoweth has sort of existed at a perfect crossroads for the star.
Her baton-twirling, scene-stealing turn in Hairspray Live! allowed her to do her Kristin Chenoweth thing, but in a show that was exceptionally meaningful and timely. And together, her most recent concert tour and role on American Gods gave her the opportunity to reintroduce herself as a person more shaded than her relentlessly sunny demeanor might suggest.
She shot a drama pilot for CBS that didn’t get picked up. She’s still workshopping a handful of original musicals she hopes to mount. But as she turns 49 this summer and prepares to enter another phase of her life, even she is curious what that might be like.
“I didn’t have children,” she says. “I have lots of children in my life, but I didn’t have them. That’s been a sacrifice. Certain relationships have been a sacrifice. So I’ll continue to look for that balance.”
And in her work?
“People expect ‘Glitter and Be Gay,’ and listen, nobody loves ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ more than me,” she says. “I love the high, fast vocal gymnastics. But the voice is deepening. The material is deepening. What will that next record be? Maybe no soprano notes. Maybe low. I don’t know. So that scares me.”
It’s then she gets a glint in her eye: “But you can bet whatever I do will have an element of scaring me. Everything I do scares me. American Gods scares me. If it didn’t I wouldn’t be doing it.”