Schmigadoon! stars Aaron Tveit and Dove Cameron on playing in surreality

How do you play a character who exists in an over-the-top reality? That’s one of the questions I posed to Dove Cameron and Tony Award nominee Aaron Tveit, who portray Danny and Betsy in Schmigadoon! Their characters in the Apple TV+ series are part of a 1940’s musical world, but Aaron and Dove spoke to me about keeping them from feeling like caricatures.

Plus, what was it like for Aaron to go from his last TV series regular role in USA’s gritty drama Graceland to this decidedly not dark series? And when your background is in singing and on stage, is it somewhat surreal to play characters for whom that’s just something they do on a Tuesday? Get the inside scoop on Schmigadoon! in this interview.

Brittany Frederick: Tone is crucial with Schmigadoon! You’re playing these larger than life characters in this exaggerated musical, but you don’t want to go so over the top that you take the audience out of the story. So how do you strike the right balance?

Dove Cameron: I think the great thing about Schmigadoon is these are all these characters that are so a part of the cultural zeitgeist that we all have references for them. I think it’s easy to tell in how they’re presented; even visually, we all can recognize them immediately and what they’re parodying and making fun of with love. So much of it is already set up for us.

But it is a fine line to walk between really going full out and driving it home and then also making sure that it reads on camera. There has to be a certain element of subtlety, otherwise you’re really taking everybody out of the world that is so believable in its unbelievability. I actually was very worried about striking that tone in advance and I didn’t really know what was going to happen, and that was kind of a discussion amongst the cast like, how broad are we really going to play this?

But I felt like once we got there on the day, it just made sense to play the scenes as scenes with a certain amount of sincerity, and then really let yourself go in the musical numbers. And I think if you’re bringing joy to it, even with how broad these characters are, they do play.

BF: How far do you lean into those archetypes that are set up for you? Or do you start there and then go off in your own direction, whether it’s something you bring or a specific other musical that you connect the character with?

DC: Each character is such a caricature of a caricature that the joy of it is that these are all characters that we kind of know as an audience member. The show is self-aware and the characters are not. I’m speaking for the collective now, but we really wanted to lean into that sort of surrealism, that these characters are really living this life. It’s like the cast of Friends. The reason that all of these characters are so iconic is because they’re not playing into it. They’re playing as they are while also, we’re living in a world that is so high-key and so high-volume and high-performance. I definitely wanted to lean into it as an actor while also giving a real human element, which is I think something that we all tried to do.

Aaron Tveit: I think we learned the more we leaned in, the more serious we were in our commitment to playing these archetypes as it were, it worked better. I think the fact that we, especially Dove and I, got to bounce off of Cecily [Strong] and Keegan [Michael Key]’s reality, those two things are what really makes it work. If we kind of only went halfway or commented on it, it wouldn’t work. It seems counterintuitive, but the bigger we were, the more we leaned in, oddly, the more honest it was, in a weird way. It was a kind of unique thing.

Dove Cameron (left) and Keegan-Michael Key in Schmigadoon! (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Apple TV.)

BF: Dove, this is a major step beyond the Disney roles that you broke out with and getting to see you in a more adult role that’s still very accessible to audiences of all ages. What did this show mean to you?

DC: I’m safely in the industry enough to say at this point that the real reason I’m here is because I am a fan of performers. I love my job, I love acting, I love singing [but] what I really love is talented freaks. I grew up not just loving music and film and TV as mediums, but looking at these people that to me were these otherworldly aliens of talent and being like, I want to be where you guys are. I want to play with you guys. I always say that I feel like I snuck in. I’m fooling everyone. You think I’m doing this when really, I’m here for these guys.

When I saw the material and how fun it was going to be to play, and the sort of full permission that we were going to be granted as performers, and then when I heard who was doing it and who was cast, I felt like I’d cracked some secret code. I was like, don’t tell anybody about this project before I get in front of these people. I was going to do anything to be a part of it. It’s something that I hoped I was going to be able to do but mostly, I was like, even if I’m not a part of this, I’m going to be watching as a fan. So that’s what made me want to do it.

BF: Aaron, you’ve worked steadily on the stage between TV projects, so how meaningful is it to do a TV project that is also a musical? Is Schmigadoon! something of a crossroads for you?

AT: The opportunities I’ve had to do things like this, it becomes like a perfect storm of all the work that I’ve gotten to do. To be able to work in these different mediums is wonderful, but when they all get to come together this way, it’s really a dream come true because you get to lean on all your different experiences at the same time.

In terms of which I prefer, it’s so fun to do a television show like this, but the missing element is the audience. As hard as being on stage every night is, I always say that’s the best because you get this instant connection and you’re rewarded in the moment for how hard you’re working every night.

BF: TV viewers know you primarily as Mike Warren on Graceland, which couldn’t be any more different from Schmigadoon! Is it neat for you to do this show and expose TV audiences to that other side of your talents?

AT: Graceland is still one of my all-time favorite things I’ve ever gotten to do, but yeah, it’s nice. I consider myself very lucky that I’ve gotten to walk in all these very different worlds, and if somebody was a fan of that show, Schmigadoon! may not be something they generally watch all the time. So if we can bring that audience here and they can go on this ride, how great is that? As artists, we’re trying to expose different people to different things, so the fact that that could happen is wonderful.

And for me, just to get to do the variety of different things is what I’ve always been so happy that I’ve gotten to do, and every day is different. I just feel like, as Dove said, I’ve been tricking everyone and somehow, I have the best job in the world.

Schmigadoon! is now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+.

Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.

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