Kether Donohue once flicked a cigarette out her window and her life changed forever.
The You’re the Worst actress had been living in Los Angeles on the audition grind for years. At this particular moment, the born-and-raised New Yorker was in a fragile state, reeling from a major breakup, not finding work, and experiencing an existential crisis. She describes it as being in “that Lindsay chaos” mindset, referring to the relentlessly bumbling whack-a-mole of poor life decisions she plays on the FXX comedy series.
Absentmindedly, she tossed a cigarette butt out of her car.
A cop pulled her over for the offense, but started chastising her for a series of other transgressions, including retaining a New York state driver’s license despite being a California resident. The cop looked her in the eye and said with shattering directness, “Ma’am, you need to fix your life.”
Donohue gasped—“Excuse me!!!??”—but the message was clear and she couldn’t argue. She collected herself and nodded. “I know. My life is a bit of a mess.” The officer looked at her quizzically, forced to clarify. “He said, ‘No, you need to fix your lights,’” Donohue remembers. “My headlights were broken.”
She drove away pledging to get those replaced, but also with a broader mission. “I was like, ‘Oh shit. I guess I really do need to fix my life.’”
When Donohue and I meet over coffee at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, she’s encountering another major life transition, though one that carries with it far less risk of Freudian projection onto a police officer.
She finally caved and got that California license. In a soft whisper, she admits something else: She now also has a 310 area code phone number. “It took a lot to just admit that I lived here, and now I’m ready to admit that I like it here, too,” she says, nearly a decade after leaving New York City, where she was born, raised, and went to college.
More, she really did fix her life.
In 2013, she was sitting in the parking lot about to walk into an audition for You’re the Worst and had the feeling that she was about to break.
“Actors are always like, ‘I was going to quit the business…’” she says. “I basically sound like a stereotype. I hate when I read that in interviews. But seriously I had that moment in my car where I was like, I had been auditioning for shit since I was 9 years old, and I was 27. I was just very tired. And I was very broke. I was living out of suitcases like a nomad. I had that feeling of, ‘I need this.’ I was just like, how much longer could this charade go on?”
Donohue booked the role, and for the last five years has been playing Lindsay Jillian, the hard-partying id and best friend to Aya Cash’s Gretchen, one half of the show’s central anti-rom-com lead couple. You’re the Worst’s final season premiered last week on FXX with a bottle episode centering on Gretchen and Chris Geere’s Jimmy, with Wednesday night’s episode heralding the return of Lindsay.
When the show wraps this spring, Donohue will have spent five seasons crafting one of the most transfixing, hilarious, unusual, can’t-look-away, transgressive, profane, outlandish-but-somehow-relatable, and down-and-out entertaining characters on television.
“I think the theme of this interview is breaking away from the fear of judgment,” Donohue says at one point during our conversation, speaking about herself as much as she’s referring to her character.
When Donohue spots us from across the lobby, her face lights up with the pure, unfiltered delight of a young child who sees a golden retriever puppy for the first time. We don’t really know each other. She’s just that nice.
She starts to sort of shuffle-jog towards me, but in the clumsy business of navigating her chic strappy stiletto sandals and trying to keep her bosom from bouncing out of a teal floral print dress that there’s frankly no better descriptor for than “adorable,” she drops her iPhone on the floor. “Fuckity fuck fuck,” she says as she gathers her breath and her wits while we hug. “That’s such a me thing to do.” It’s kind of a Lindsay move, too.
When resting, Donohue’s round face and big, expressive features can have a cherubic, Kewpie doll effect, looking so innocent and vulnerable that you fear that treating this precious creature with anything but the utmost kindness could shatter it irrevocably. But a simple raise of one eyebrow and Donohue is transformed into a saucy sexpot, a mature, calculated femme fatale armed to murder you with her barbs and bon mots. Her eyes widen and suddenly she’s crazed, telegraphing an unsettling mania totally at odds with the prim-and-girly package you first sat down across from.
It’s a blinding kind of radiance, one that beams at you from all these different angles and colors like some sort of acting laser light show. It’s what’s made her perfect to play Lindsay, the human equivalent of Gizmo from Gremlins in a flirty skirt and great cleavage: a woman with a wanton need to pursue every selfish desire and happiness, no matter how crass or deranged her urges might be. That her bold behavior is contrasted with Donohue’s sweet, high-pitched speaking voice and the character’s American Housewife wardrobe and styling makes it all the more shocking—and certainly more fun to watch.
(Just one of Lindsay’s narrative arcs, for example: she forces her devoted, though boring husband Paul, a human dehumidifier with a blander personality, to break up with her; gets jealous once he’s out of her reach and tries to steal him from his new girlfriend; impregnates herself with microwaved semen she stowed away in his used condom in order to trap him; aborts the baby without telling him; realizes she doesn’t want to go back to married life after all; and, um, stabs him. Literally, she shanks him.)
When we meet, Donohue says she’s been handling the impending end of You’re the Worst as healthily as can be expected, which is to say she is crying all the time.
She cried during just the marketing shoot on the first day. The interviewer who’s filmed the show’s EPKs (electronic press kits) over all five seasons asked her what she’d miss most about the show, and she immediately began to weep. The series’ publicist later took a picture of him using his fingernail to pry a piece of food out of her teeth. “Like, the EPK interviewer has been interviewing us for so long that we feel comfortable taking things out of each other’s teeth.”
There’s no accounting for the many ways in which landing You’re the Worst changed Donohue’s life.
She’s now 33 and parlayed the show’s platform into opportunities like playing Jan in Fox’s hit live production of Grease in 2016 and a buzzy pilot for NBC produced by Sean Hayes last fall, though that project ultimately wasn’t picked up. Prior to the show, she was best known for playing a former Bella in Pitch Perfect and a handful of guest starring roles and voice work over the last 20 years. She had been auditioning since she was 9, remembering that at one point she spent three years collecting unemployment because she wasn’t booking work.
But Donohue understood Lindsay: what it felt like to be in a long-term relationship that you felt like you were dying in, to have that streak of grotesque darkness in you, and also to be underestimated.
Donohue had no qualms diving right into the show’s more outlandish scenes. (The original pilot’s director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, would tell her, “Can you just do this take like a normal person?”) Lindsay has arguably gotten her life moderately more together as the show has progressed, but Donohue has always relished the messier sides of her character.
“She may have a job and all that, but at the end of the day she’s still going to do her own Lindsay thing,” she says. “She’s still taking dicks.”
Based on the number of times Donohue says “dicks” this season, she jokes that there should have been a contest so that when she hit the 100 mark, confetti rained on set. “I had to say this one line, ‘My pussy’s tired from taking dick for the both of us,’ on repeat,” she says. At this point, we look around and mouth-whispered apologies to the families enjoying their breakfasts around us.
But that’s the appeal of Lindsay. The character bucks the instinct to dismiss someone because she has a high-pitched voice and wears cute clothes, leaning into a darkness that allows for all the wildness to be grounded in something real.
Being dismissed because of her voice is something that Donohue dealt with her whole life. In school, even teachers assumed she was dumb. “I would write this great essay and they would be like, ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting that coming from you,’” she says. “Or I would participate in an intelligent conversation with a guy on a date and he would be like, ‘Wow, I didn’t think you would be this smart.’ Well, fuck you. People need to broaden their viewpoint.”
“You know those moments that you like never forget and they stick in your brain and you kind of wear them like invisible tattoos on your body that you kind of walk around with, staining your existence?” she asks.
She recounts a time in her high school cafeteria when she put toast in a toaster and pressed the lever down but, to her confusion, nothing happened and she couldn’t figure out why. Her math teacher walked up and said, “Kether, the toaster wasn’t plugged in. These are things you have to look out for so that people won’t think you are dumb.”
Even now, Donohue is still outraged by this.
“She actually said this to me, basically a warning like, ‘You come off dumb to the outside world.’” She certainly understands that the teacher was trying to look out for her. But after being instructed for so much of her life to be more concerned with how she comes off to society than to be who she truly is, she was exasperated.
“Why is someone going to go to a toaster and assume it’s not plugged in?” she says. “It’s ridiculous. I don’t know what you do when you go to a toaster, but I assume it’s plugged in. Because of that I’ve had to work extra hard at kind of tuning out. Like, alright, if someone thinks that of me then that’s their problem. It’s easier said than done.”
Reflecting on how experiences like that have, much like her fateful traffic stop, been formative in her life has been one helpful byproduct of contemplating the end of You’re the Worst. She likens the experience of winding down the show to being in the middle of your senior year of high school, about to graduate. “I have the soundtrack to Breakfast Club in my head everywhere I go.”
She was 27 when she got the show and 33 when she ended it, a period she likens to the “puberty of adulthood.”
“When you’re in your twenties you feel like you can get away with stuff,” she says. “But I feel like early thirties people feel like they’re kind of frauding their way, trying to be an adult, but they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. So it’s like acne, growing pains of adulthood. That’s what I attribute being on this show to.”