‘Girls5eva’ Star Paula Pell on the Mystery of Ashley’s Death and Her Love of ‘Joyful Losers’

GIRLS5EVA -- Episode 203 -- Pictured:
Scott Gries/Peacock

Spoiler Alert: Do not read if you haven’t watched Episode 5 of “Girls5Eva” Season 2, now streaming on Peacock.

Although “Girls5Eva” is one of the funniest shows on television, from the beginning there’s been a tragedy underpinning Dawn (Sara Bareilles), Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Summer (Busy Phillips) and Gloria’s (Paula Pell) quest to revive the titular girl group. In flashbacks to the band’s Y2K heyday, the four are lead by Ashley (Ashley Park), a veteran girl group performer with six prior bands to her name. But after they went their separ8 ways, Ashley died from a fatal infinity pool accident. Season 1 of Meredith Scardino’s Peacock sitcom ended with Gloria, played with delightful deadpan by former “Saturday Night Live” writer Pell, revealing to her friends that she thinks Ashley faked her death and is alive in the world somewhere.

After that tease, the show puts the Ashley question on the backburner for the front half of Season 2, before bringing it back for the fifth episode. The girls, now in the studio working on their comeback album, encounter TK, a mysterious A-list pop star who wears bee-keeper outfits to hide her face. Gloria, always a bit of a conspiracy theorist, becomes convinced that TK is Ashley in disguise, and digs for proof begins with the reluctant help of Wickie.

Once unmasked, TK turns out not to be Ashley, but Beth (guest star Amber Ruffin), the daughter of a DJ who “needed a thing” to stand out in the industry. Forced to confront the reality that Ashley is dead, Gloria and Wickie have a heart-to-heart about how much Ashley’s presence is missed, and how much they both looked up to her. The episode ends with the two writing and performing a song with Dawn and Summer commemorating Ashley’s memory, one that incorporates her voicemail message: “Leave a message if you love me.”

“Gloria is very codependent. She’s trying to heal that, just as I am in my real life as a recovering codependent,” Pell says about her character. “Gloria wants to be the hero, she wants to save the day. And her finding Ashley, in her head, everything will be complete and then we can all really fully be our unit again. She probably looked to her for a lot of strength and guidance, because we always allude to the fact that Ashley was the one that always told us to not worry, to be joyful, to go for it. And none of us have the pluck she did, so we’re always hoping that she’s gonna show up and bring it back and lead us. But we have to learn to lead ourselves now.”

Ahead of Episode 5, Variety chatted with Pell about memorializing Ashley, diving into the songs of the show and Gloria’s journey of self-discovery over the course of the season.

Season 1 ended with a little tease that Ashley might be alive. After that, were you excited to dive into the plotline for Season 2?

I love that they’ve written Gloria as someone who’s always got some case she’s on. I love watching procedurals and television dramas with murder mysteries, so to me, it made perfect sense that Gloria is the one that’s like, “I think that she faked her own death and I’m going to investigate this.” And then we had such a satisfying, wonderful episode about it, because it really ends up being more about their friendship. And I think the emotional part of it really landed with us when we were shooting it.

Ashley turns out actually to not be alive in this episode. But do you know if the writers actually considered bringing her back? I feel like anything can happen in the “Girls5Eva” world.

Because I don’t write the show, I never know until we’re having our table reads where things are going to go. But I still believe that no matter what, in the show, you never know. Gloria never thought that when she’s sitting, filling cavities, that the girls would show up and go “Oh my god, a rapper sampled our music.” It’s always been the part of show business that I love, you can say like, “Well, I think I’ve reached the autumn or winter or the grand finale of my career.” And suddenly I’m getting a call from Tina Fey being like, “Do you want to be in a show and play a pop star?” You just never freaking know in this business, what’s going to happen around the corner. And so I think that it’s always open to possibility that Ashley can come around at a different time.

You’re the only of the main four who doesn’t play their younger version from 2000. I’m curious, how often were you on set with Ashley Park?

Never. Because we’ve been shooting this during COVID, so you couldn’t be on the set watching other actors if you’re not in the scene. So we never got to have that joy. I’d see her in the hall on the way to do a funny pre-tape of them back in the day, but I never got to really enjoy those scenes as a person right there on set. I would always be delighted when I watched the episodes later to see those scenes, it was like an extra layer of hilarity when I’d see like Renée in braces or whatever. I told them the other day when we were doing something, all three of them are really good at acting like their younger selves. They do something different with the tone of their voice and their faces, you totally buy it. I mean, they all look like they’re freaking twenty five so they can pull it off. But in terms of their acting, they’re really good at playing their dumber, younger selves.

Did you ever talk to Erika Henningsen, who plays your younger self, about developing her performance?

We weren’t having any kind of ongoing tactic with it. But she would observe things that I was doing and I would observe things she was doing when we see scenes from things and we just kind of subtly absorb each other a little bit in terms of how we act. The other thing, in the fiction of this character, Gloria was always hiding, she was behind a character. She was like “Oh, I’m the perky, sexy pop star,” but that wasn’t her. So it wasn’t in need of like direct mimicry. You just buy the spiritual underpinning there, you go “OK, I can see that that person ends up being this person.

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Ashley Park in ‘Girls5eva’ Heidi Gutman/Peacock

Most episodes of “Girls5Eva” usually focus on two comedic pairs: Dawn and Wickie, and then Summer and Gloria. What was it like shaking that up and working with Goldsberry in this episode?

Let it be known I absolutely love getting paired up with Busy, because we always say we think we’re somehow going to find out we’re related. We have so many things in our past, in our present, our quirks and everything, that are so similar. Except our height and hotness. I’m a lot hotter. But it was so fun, and I think Sara and Busy also had so much fun at being paired up differently. It’s just a different energy. And I delight in Renée, especially that quiet scene at the end. And what was really sweet is when we’re singing that beautiful song at the end which I love. It was just so emotional that we got in there and started singing that live, and we were in tears. And it was kind of a little reunion because we had been shooting so many scenes separately in these little twosomes and now we’re in the studio singing this song. And then I get to break out into “I did a lot of cocaine!” which was fun because you know, you gotta have some zingers in there, we got to keep some hard comedy in there.

You mention the song at the end. That’s one of the more serious songs you’ve done. Did you have a favorite song from Season 2?

We love to harmonize to the silly songs, like the one about Fort Worth, Texas. But I’m such a musical person, I love the ones that made us cry. I love the ones that that really take a moment and don’t have to be just snarky comedy. I don’t think this show is snarky comedy anyway. But I think in comedy, you want to keep the jokes coming. You want to keep the laughing going. You don’t want land too long on something that’s very serious. And I feel like the songs are such good times for us to be in that serious moment for a second and just sound like a great pop ballad that makes you cry with your face down in the pillow after you go on a bad blind date.

“Girls5Eva” is so silly, but it’s very earnest about how these women help each other grow and evolve. How do you think being back in the band has helped Gloria grow?

I feel like she’s grown in hope and courage to speak up because she was so afraid to when they were younger, to be “I’m gay.” She couldn’t tell them that. I was closeted at “SNL” for many years. And when I finally told people they were like, “All right, that’s fine.” You build up so much in your head, and then they’re just happy for you. I think for Gloria, the relief of being able to be yourself with these women instead of always having to bullshit through all her stuff and stay on the surface and be fake, it just feels good for her to get the best out of her friendships with them. And she’s growing in learning what her limits are. Like, “I can do anything. I can fucking do anything.” Like “We’re gonna do an album? Great. We’ll do the best album ever. We’re gonna go perform? Let’s perform the shit out of this.” You can see in her language that she’s starting to bloom, She’s starting to believe that nothing is final. It’s always going to keep unfolding and sometimes you’ll fall and sometimes you’ll get up and get even higher and you’ll fall again. It’s that underdog model that that we all love. I always wrote those kinds of characters on “SNL,” I called them joyful losers, and I loved writing people that are joyfully going into disaster, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not. It’s been my life and it’s been most people’s lives that you have moments of great enthusiasm as you’re running directly at the train. And so I really love that Meredith has beautifully written us all in that model. Because you cheer them on and you relate to them. It’s not just people that are good at something and then they go achieve that thing. That’s boring.

A lot of Gloria’s storyline this season is about her trying to find her footing in her romantic life after her divorce with Caroline, who’s played by your own wife, Janine Brito. What’s it been like playing that storyline for you?

I got divorced in very much my middle age. Getting divorced is very hard and gratefully I remain good friends with my ex. But when you go out you think “Well, I’m gonna get my shit together. I’m gonna get positive and I’m gonna just naturally meet a bunch of wonderful people.” I moved to L.A. by myself and brought all my animals and I had a lot of friends out there, a lot of gay friends. I thought, “Oh, I’m just gonna be so social and I’m going to meet someone.” And it was, like, years before I met Janine. And it was hard years when it comes to romance. So I really relate with anything about the awkwardness of dating. Someone would fix me up on a date, And I’d be sitting there an hour early with my blowdry and my makeup and my little purse and be so nervous and so excited. And it’s almost always a huge disappointment, a weird date, and then you go home and look yourself in the mirror and you drink half a bottle of wine. There’s just so much heartbreak being alone at that age. So the fact that I found Janine, and get to have her be in this story with me, we just delight in each other as humans. It’s really fun to pretend like I’m still pursuing her. Although I have to tell the crew sometimes when we’re in a scene where we’re making out I’m like, “This is my wife guys! Don’t get worried that I’m really hitting it hard with this guest star. I’m not groping a special guest star, we actually are legally bound.”

The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.