Kristin Chenoweth, when you meet her in person, is as friendly and bubbly as you might imagine — in the middle of a busy NBC press day, she required several pauses in our conversation to say hi to familiar faces. Thus, her newest role of accused husband killer Lavinia Peck-Foster might feel like an odd fit, except for this fact: The “Trial and Error” Season 2 star is a true crime junkie, and in fact nearly studied criminal justice instead of pursuing musical theater at one point in her career.
“During ‘Wicked,’ I went to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which is basically across the street from where the theater is,” she said. “I looked up some classes and was going to take a basic criminal justice course and then our day and night off moved from Monday night to Wednesday night, so I got taken out of class.”
While entertainment became her ultimate path, crime documentary series like “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer” are a passion, something she recognizes isn’t universal for everyone. “There’s no gray area,” she said about the polarizing aspect of the genre. “I think people are scared to allow themselves to go there, to quite understand why someone could do something so heinous. If you’re going to get on board with somebody with a true crime story, you’re going to try to understand why someone’s acting that way. With people, I find that my friends that don’t want to usually don’t like scary movies. They usually don’t like true crime stories, because they don’t like to ask those things of themselves. I’m the opposite. I like to know what makes that freak act that way.”
Thus, she hopes “that people watch ‘Trial and Error’ and wonder why Lavinia’s getting batshit crazier as it goes.” The character, the richest woman in the small eccentric town of East Peck, was someone she felt drawn to after the reading the first three scripts of the NBC comedy, which returns Thursday for a second anthology-style season. As Chenoweth said, “I went, ‘I’d be an idiot not to take this part.'”
Added the actress, “As a woman at age 49 with a certain skill set, I don’t always get to utilize all those skill sets. This show, I can honestly tell you I’m utilizing them all, and some I didn’t know I had. It has been the most challenged and most fun I’ve had. I’ve never had a part like it. It’s right up my alley. I love it.”
Creators Jeff Astrof and Matthew Miller even tailored a few elements of Lavinia for Chenoweth’s talents after her casting, including the addition of a few musical performances. While the subject matter of “Trial and Error” might be murder, the tone is very far from the shows it’s emulating. “It’s a gift. I’m really excited for people to see it. It’s very broad. It’s farce. Nothing like it’s on TV. That is another reason that I’m happy I’m on it, because it fits me like a glove,” she said.
That’s really important to her, given her unique range of talents, which have a big impact on the kind of collaborators she chooses to work with. “You can tell by my past choices, I look for somebody who has their unique voice. I’m probably never going to be the actress that fits into a ‘CSI Miami,’ although I love those shows. I’ve got to look at a role and say, ‘There’s only one person, maybe two, that I can see playing that part.'”
Continued Chenoweth, “Then I look at the writer and their music, because music is writing to me. If you look at who I’ve worked with, it makes sense— they’re very specific and unique voices. But so am I.”
Given the way “Trial and Error” is structured, Chenoweth wouldn’t likely star in a third season of the show, but she’s keeping busy. “I have concerts everywhere,” she said. “Some orchestral, some vocal piano. I have a new album coming out [next spring], ‘For the Girls’ — it’s about women who inspired me vocally. It kind of gives a wider range of music, by women, that has inspired me.”
Sergei Bachlakov/Warner Bros/NBC
Plus, there are Broadway projects like “Death Becomes Her” on the horizon, and hopefully more television. “I’ve really enjoyed it,” she said. “I loved the first season [of ‘Trial and Error’]. I knew that that was my world, my planet. I’m happy to get to play on the right planet.”
One role she won’t return to, though, is that of the Goddess Easter, which she originated in the first season of Starz’s “American Gods” after being brought in by original showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. Chenoweth’s relationship with Fuller goes way back to “Pushing Daisies.”
“It sort of went like this,” she said. “I was to come back and then my writer, Bryan Fuller, left. So that’s my person and so I go with him.”
Loyalty, she added, is “my middle name… And I demand it back too. It’s been funny… I could have fun if Neil [Gaiman, who still serves as an executive producer on the show based on the book] wanted me to come back to wrap something up. He had talked to me about that before.”
Meanwhile, she hopes that people tune in for “Trial and Error.” “Oh, please, please watch it. And just laugh. It is silly, silly, silly,” she said.
“Trial & Error: Lady, Killer” premieres Thursday, July 19 at 9 p.m. on NBC.