Many things go into building a hotel, but what happens when yours is in the middle of Hell?
Enter Hazbin Hotel, the namesake property of Prime Video’s latest animated series, featuring Erika Henningsen, Stephanie Beatriz, Christian Borle, Jeremy Jordan, Alex Brightman, and a slew of other Broadway favorites.
The dark musical comedy from A24 follows Charlie Morningstar, the Princess of Hell, as she opens a hotel to peacefully reduce its population and give “demons” a chance at redemption. Created by Vivienne Medrano, the series is based on her animated pilot released on YouTube in 2019, which quickly acquired a worldwide fanbase.
TheaterMania spoke with Henningsen, who plays the sweet and empathetic Charlie, about how she approaches comedic projects, what playing this character has taught her, and more.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Those familiar with Hazbin Hotel come in expecting to laugh. How does that impact your way into the material?
I went in with precisely the same “Let’s play, let’s discover” attitude as I would for any project. The expectation element is that I knew people already loved this project. That can be a relief. It can sometimes be scary because you think, “I just want to do right by them. I want to serve the story. I want to serve the fans.” I tried to take that pressure off and say, “I want to carry on this beautiful world that Viv created and carry on the story of Charlie with respect and curiosity for where she can go.” So that’s where the expectation came in. It was beautiful, the responsibility to carry on the story of Charlie because I know people care about her, and it is a gift as an actor is to know that already going into something.
You’ve worked with comedy greats like Stephanie Beatriz, Tina Fey, Paula Pell, and Busy Philipps, so tell me about the first time you realized you were funny.
I don’t think I am funny. I think I’m kind of wild and unfiltered, but I do feel like sometimes… Steph Beatriz, who plays Vaggie, is a comedic legend. And I’m like, “You’re really funny.” But I will say that I’ve always loved that I always leave with optimism and joy, which is innately bound to comedy. I feel so grateful for the projects I’ve gotten to work on because I’ve worked with some comedic geniuses like Tina Fey. You can learn that from watching, and you can see how people craft jokes and use their impulses. The biggest thing for me was learning that all the best work comes from trusting that your instinct is correct. And as soon as you start second-guessing it, that’s when the joke doesn’t land, or the scene doesn’t work. So, being fearless is really what I think I’ve learned, which took time. I’m still learning. I was like, “Oh, this is funny. I hope people like this.”
Would you credit Tina Fey as a comedic influence?
I grew up watching a ton of ensemble comedies, which Hazbin Hotel is similar to. I love watching comedies like The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation. Those shows continue to be a comedic influence for me because you see that everyone has their own style, and you figure out where you fit in.
What I love about Hazbin Hotel is that every character is so different. There are many characters in season one; you immediately know who they are, and shows like Tina’s and just any of these ensemble sitcoms were all the rage for the early 2000s. Those continue to be my influences because I love working in a cast environment. I love figuring out, like, “How does the musicality of a joke or the rhythm of a scene with another person make the joke land better?” Steph Beatriz has such different vocal qualities sometimes; it’s just in the dissonance of the rise and fall of the two of them going back and forth. You see that in those sitcoms as well, so that’s where this show continues the lineage of the ensemble comedy world.
Is the comedy an important part of how you get to the serious themes like redemption and life after death at the center of the show?
Everything tastes better with a dose of laughter. It’s why we need comedy in the world because it’s how you get people to listen to other things that are just as important as laughing. I think what the show does so beautifully is lure you in with the raunchy jokes and the sort of sexy darkness of Hazbin Hotel.
How has Charlie impacted you, and what have you learned from playing this character?
We have a lot of the same core, but what I admire about her the most is that she will not back down from a conflict when she believes in what she’s fighting for. I am very conflict averse. I’m very nonconfrontational. Charlie has something that I hope to keep embodying as I get older: When you believe in something, speak up and do not back down.