Written by Steven Levenson and Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, with original songs by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the Hulu original musical romantic comedy series Up Here follows the love story of Lindsay (Mae Whitman) and Miguel (Carlos Valdes), who must overcome their own insecurities, anxieties and fears, and ignore the voices inside their heads, if they’re going to find happiness with each other. Set in New York City in the last days of 1999, with the dread of Y2K looming, Lindsay and Miguel sing and dance their way through their journeys of self-discovery, as they try to figure things out for themselves and each other.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Whitman talked about what excited her about this project and what terrified her about it, how the series mirrors her own life, how much their rehearsal and prep time helped by the time they started shooting, her love of the wardrobe, the pride she has in being able to burp on cue, and that she’d love to do a second season.
Collider: When this project came your way, with everything that you would have to do, going into this whole production, what were you most excited about and what were you most nervous or just terrified about?
MAE WHITMAN: In the beginning, it was all terror. When I read the script, I felt so much like the character. It was really special. The lineup of people who were working on this are literally at the top of their categories. I was so taken. Not one element of this lags behind. The dialogue is brilliant, the characters are genuine, the moments are connected, and that’s something I’m comfortable with. I was really being excited about a well-written script, especially one that’s funny without being mean. That’s something that I was always really impressed about. Everything else was terrifying. I’m so terrified of singing in public. As comfortable as I am in front of a camera , where I’m like, “Whatever. Take your clothes off. Who cares?,”
I’m terrified of singing in public. It was a whole process. I worked with an incredible vocal coach, Doug Peck, who taught me so much more than just singing. He really taught me how to step into myself in this way and gave me the confidence to do so. It’s funny, you build up this experience in your brain, and you’re panicked and you fly to New York, and you’re standing at the piano and you have the sheet music, and you’re like, “What am I doing? Am I an imposter?” But then, you’re working with these people who are so talented that they make you feel completely at ease and completely safe. For me, what allowed me to do this properly was the safety and the trust that was created, and the sense of respect that everyone had for each other. That really allows you to let go of the voices in your head that tell you that you’re not capable of doing this and just try, you know, and there’s always somebody there to help you, if you’re struggling, which is a really good feeling.
A lot of these songs are about self-doubt and anxiety, which you must have been working through, as you were singing them.
WHITMAN: I’ve been on a lot of projects that have mirrored my life, but it’s weird when a musical from 1999 is also mirroring your life. You’re like, “Jesus, it’s the exact kind of struggles and thought processes that I’ve been dealing with at this age.” It’s about letting go of certain defense mechanisms that don’t serve you anymore and certain reactionary tendencies, and making a little space to actually be yourself and consider what you really want when something triggers you. Even though there’s a lot of fun stuff happening on the surface, there’s a dark, deep water under there, and that’s what makes it special.
Do you feel less terrified about it all now, or are you just better at hiding it?
WHITMAN: I think I’m less terrified, but it’s more the concept of, I know I can because I did. I’m still terrified about singing in public, but I do carry with me the confidence of knowing and being proud of myself for doing something that I was really scared of. The idea that I can fake my way through is empowering and I’m gonna carry it with me for the rest of my life.
With something like this, before you even shoot, you’re rehearsing your recording. Does that help make it easier, going into the shoot, because you’d essentially already had a trial run with it?
WHITMAN: Absolutely. The fact that we had a camp going where every department was setting up at the same time, and you were recording an entire album, and figuring out who the characters are, and hanging out in each other’s dressing rooms, and were dancing, it felt like a bonding experience, through and through. I feel like we really were able to get in place who these people were, especially because some of the most vulnerable expression that they do is through these songs. Going to those places and really having an understanding of that allowed for the filming to be fast. We were trying to cram a lot in, in a very small amount of time, so it was difficult, but having that understanding of the characters made it so easy.
What was it like to adjust to acting and singing while all of these various manifestations are around and sometimes communicating with you directly. What was it like to figure all of that out?
WHITMAN: It was complicated and fun. It was really collaborative, and that is such a good feeling, to be empowered and understood and listened to, and to know that you’re on a set that values that for everyone. That really allowed us to be vulnerable in this space. True vulnerability comes when you can feel safe enough to let your guard down. And then, when the head characters were talking, we had to figure out how to envision time and space. It’s a whole world that you’re building, and we don’t really have a lot of reference for this kind of thing. So, it was fun and exciting. It felt like we were a scrappy little team out there, trying to put something together that made sense, but I think we found our stride with it.
I love how this is set in 1999 because that means you get a fun wardrobe.
WHITMAN: I loved it. I was so excited about that. The fact that we got this wardrobe designer, Nicky Smith, who is so cool and so gets it, it wasn’t fake 1999. I’m so passionate about it. I totally stopped evolving around that time, so for me, I still dress like that. I still listen to that music. I was like, “This better be exactly legitimate, even as ugly as it was sometimes, with the shit that we thought was cool.” I just wanted it to be real, and Nicky was like, “All right, here you go. Here’s some upsetting fabric and some confusing patterns.” It was legit. It was a lot of Coldwater Creek and Delia’s. We really committed to the bit. Part of what is magical about this show is that it’s in that time period where there were no phones, there was no way of texting and no way of being a detective on the internet and knowing everybody’s secrets. You had to actually be present in the moment, and be looking up at the world around you and not looking down. It’s refreshing to see a TV show with no iPhones. No offense to iPhones, but it’s a nice change.
How did the burp during the kiss come about? What was your reaction to that moment?
WHITMAN: Some of those burps are my pride and joy. The burp was a whole thing. Everybody was like, “Oh, my God, we’re gonna have to ADR the burp. How do we make the burp look like a burp?” I was like, “Hey, guys, I can fake burp.” It was this big moment. My most proud moment was like, “You need a burp on cue? No problem. I’ve got it. You want me to burp in the middle of a kiss? Sure, not a problem.” I felt so excited. I was like, “This is really what they hired me for. It’s my ability to burp on cue.” It was so good. Burping is always funny. Let’s be honest, it’s just a classic bit. I think it was really funny. I love the misdirect, where you’re like, “I don’t know why she’s burping. Why is this happening? You don’t think about it, at first. My favorite burp, personally, is the one I get to have with Brian Stokes Mitchell. He reacted with the most terrified, serious stillness, and I was just dying laughing.
It’s always great because nobody knows how to react in those moments.
WHITMAN: Totally. It’s so uncomfortable. It’s so human. You’re like, “Oh, I forgot, we’re all humans.”
We get some resolution to our feelings about these characters, by the end of the season, but there are also things that are clearly left open in their relationship and the possibilities for them. Are you hoping to do a second season?
WHITMAN: Definitely. I love the show. I could do it forever. They could be in their eighties and singing about trying to get down the stairs without falling. That would be great for me. The thing that’s so fascinating about the show and the whole premise is that you can’t ever really know someone, and you can’t even ever really know yourself, but it’s about the trying and the process and developing the tools that help you, little by little, start to chip away at those blocks, and the things that you can learn about yourselves and each other, and the commitment of showing up to try to learn those things, and understanding that nothing is ever perfect and nothing is ever finished. It’s all a revolving process, so trying to get comfortable with that concept is what’s important. That’s something that they understand so well. It’s not, “Okay, here’s a resolution. They did it.” A relationship is constantly evolving, so getting to see what it’s like, as they progress in their lives and the situation that they’re in, and how they work together, is really exciting. So, I really hope we get to do another one.
Up Here is available to stream at Hulu.