Mae Whitman on How ‘Parenthood’ Prepared Her to Embrace Her Fear of Singing in Hulu’s Up Here

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers for the first season of “Up Here,” now streaming on Hulu.

The first time Mae Whitman sang in front of an audience on camera, it was just her, a guitar and her “Parenthood” family cheering her on from the front row. On the NBC drama, Whitman’s reckless young character Amber finally grew up by channeling her angst through music. For character and performer alike, it required overcoming the terror of standing in front of people and bearing a piece of her soul as she sang.

Back then, it helped having her costars staring back at her.

“It really felt like I was doing a performance in front of my family,” Whitman tells Variety. “I remember getting up on stage for the scene and seeing the whole cast sitting right up front taking pictures and crying. It was a really special way to have my first foray into being musical on camera. I felt safe and supported and held, and it allowed me to be vulnerable enough to explore what that really feels like for me.”

Fast forward almost a decade and Whitman, now the star of Hulu’s new musical comedy “Up Here,” is no longer the novice performer behind the guitar. But she is still terrified of singing, which is why she wanted the role.

“What translates into fun for me now, strangely, are the things that make me uncomfortable,” she says. “I’ve never done anything like this in my life, so I couldn’t fake my way through it. Every single day demanded the utmost presence and vulnerability.”

“Parenthood” required her to carry a tune for a scene only now and then. “Up Here” is a completely different, Broadway-backed beast.

The series boasts 21 songs written by Oscar-winning lyricists Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who recently snagged Marvel its first Emmy for “Agatha All Along” from “Wandavision”). It’s directed and executive produced by Thomas Kail, who won the Tony for directing “Hamilton,” and co-written by Steven Levenson, who won a Tony for “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Whitman stars as Lindsay, an aspiring writer who moves to New York City in 1999, hungry for the kind of lived experience that great writers turn into Great American Novels. As she struggles to find her voice on the page (a journey she takes through song), she meets Miguel (Carlos Valdes), an equally wayward New Yorker who hasn’t quite found his place in the banking world.

Like the emotive stage musicals from which the series descends, there’s a hook that distinguishes it. The title is, in part, a reference to the conversations we have in our heads with our worst impulses and deepest insecurities. But in this case, Lindsay and Miguel walk around with literal embodiments of those voices in their heads.

For Lindsay, that includes a version of her overly critical mother (Katie Finneran) and overly cautious father (John Hodgman) from her childhood. For Miguel, it’s his overly protective late mother (Andréa Burns) and the livewire anonymous hunk he caught in his fiancé’s bed (Scott Porter).

Think of it as a live-action “Inside Out,” with ‘90s haircuts and baggier clothes.

“We aren’t doing ‘42nd Street’ here,” Whitman says. “It has to be vulnerable. It has to feel like their innermost thoughts are right there.”

The season bookends itself by musically pondering “Can I Ever Know You?” –– a question Lindsay and Miguel ask of each other, and themselves.

Having found some solid ground on that front by the finale, it seems destined the voices that have (mis?)guided them might finally leave them in peace. But in the season-ending number, played out as the clock strikes midnight on Y2K, the couple defiantly sing against the deafening chorus of their pushy cognitive passengers. It’s Whitman’s favorite number of the season.

“The finale was so emotional and important in a way that is indescribable,” she says. “It shows everyone together, but it is kind of the first time Miguel and Lindsay are singing to each other. There is this connection there they haven’t really gotten to experience yet.”

But it also means the head characters, as Whitman calls them, likely won’t go quietly.

“It is like a graduation,” she says. “These voices might not ever go away, but they will change and grow. It is like throwing a pebble in a pond. The effects will ripple out and become much bigger for these two.”

By the end, Lindsay has at least answered the question of who she is, having turned her great novel into an introspective children’s book about the identity crisis of Squid the Squirrel, with whom she finds more than a few similarities.

It’s not the literary path Lindsay set out for herself, but Whitman thinks it suits her character.

“In a way, she feels like if she had been given the tools to be brave and accept herself as a kid –– to know the things she has been ashamed of her whole life are what make her special –– her life may have turned out differently,” Whitman says. “Communicating that to kids and giving them tools is the most important thing she can do, because children’s literature can be the most intense and vulnerable. I love that for her.”

The mind of a child is something Lindsay will also have to get acquainted with quickly, considering the final surprise that she is pregnant with Miguel’s baby. Whitman says the couple spent the last gasp of the millennium getting to know each other, but a baby will mean going even deeper. Hulu has not yet ordered a second season, but she says she is committed to playing Lindsay for as long as there’s a song to sing.

“What could be more terrifying than having your vocal defense mechanisms being opinionated about raising a child?” she asks rhetorically. “I can see her mother being all over this. I think the idea of everybody trying to tell Lindsay and Miguel how to raise a child could offer a deep wealth of comedy.”

While they await the green light on a second act for Lindsay and Miguel’s story, Whitman is grateful she once again got to stare down her fear of singing, and come out the other side more aware of how to use it.

During production on “Up Here,” she even started campaigning for her next role — in Kail’s new Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

“Katie Finneran, who plays my mom, and I would constantly make audition tapes for all the different characters and literally beg him to put me in it,” Whitman says. “We would stage entire scenes of me singing and it was driving him completely insane, which was the goal.”

While it might have been more about playfully torturing Kail than breaking onto the Great White Way, Whitman can’t deny how far she has come from Amber’s open-mic nights on “Parenthood.”

“That was one of the most rewarding things about this job,” she says. “When I’m singing, I’m bearing my soul — and I came to understand it was a tool.”

And she’s ready to use that tool again, as soon as Kail answers one of those audition tapes.

“I’ll take any role!” she says, laughing.

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