From ‘SNL’ to ‘Shrill,’ Aidy Bryant is fighting back against trolls
Few Instagram bios can spark the Lisa Frank level of psychedelic joy that Aidy Bryant’s does. A string of emojis, a sort of Morse code of pink bows, rainbows, watermelon slices, poodles and candy, surrounds three words: “Shrill on Hulu.”
“I wish that it was a thoughtful, curated experience,” Bryant says. “But it was just that I went to my ‘frequently used’ tab on my keyboard. And then it was willy nilly, baby.”
For the record:
10:59 AM, Jan. 26, 2020An earlier version of this article said the alternative newspaper the Stranger was based in Portland. It is based in Seattle.
Here’s another bio. After being part of ensembles for most of her career, as an alumna of the Second City in Chicago and a veteran of “Saturday Night Live,” Aidy Bryant broke out on her own last year as the lead character in “Shrill.” And like her character Annie Easton, a writer at a Portland alt-weekly who begins to find her unapologetic voice, Bryant had to overcome her initial self-doubt.
“There’s a lot of safety in numbers. There’s this kind of protection from scrutiny,” Bryant says. “‘Shrill’ has an incredible ensemble. But the idea of being the lead, and the face of it — here was a part of me, it was like, ‘Can I do this? Will I be able to?’ But now, heading into Season 2, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I can do this. I got this.’”
That mentality went beyond her performance. Bryant is also a cowriter and co-executive producer on the series.
“The day-to-day work of all that, having that kind of responsibility, was life-changing in terms of what it showed me I was capable of,” she says.
The series, based on “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman,” the bestselling memoir by Lindy West, who gained fame as a writer for the Stranger in Seattle, returns Friday.
During a recent conversation in Pasadena, where she was promoting the series at the Television Critics Assn. press tour, the 32-year-old actress and comedian talked about her childhood, what “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels is like as a boss and the cathartic thrill of confronting an Internet troll in “Shrill.”
I don’t want to start with a tough question, but there’s a moment early in the Season 2 premiere where your character is belting out Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me” in a car. It felt like you lifted that straight from my life. Tell me why that song — and is it less nerve-racking to sing in front of people when you’re playing a character? Or just as terrifying?
Of course we have to start there, are you kidding? I was at times more nervous for that than like any sex scene I’ve ever done. Because there’s all these hard notes I have to hit. But I love that song. I truly have since the day it came out. I feel like every year I go through a three-week period where I just listen to it on repeat. So I was ready. I’ve been training my whole life for that moment.
More seriously, it comes soon after a big moment for Annie. She’s just confronted the Internet troll that’s been leaving heinous comments on her stories. It’s something you’re familiar with — you even left Twitter because of it. How was it to play this character fighting back in a bold way?
It’s funny, because my experience with Twitter was essentially: I had Twitter for a while. I had been on “SNL,” was kind of fine, didn’t experience that much abuse or anything like that. And then I started playing Sarah Huckabee Sanders and it was almost like somebody turned on the faucet or something. I had 50% of people being like, “You’re a disgusting fat pig who isn’t fit to play this dignified powerful woman in our government.” And then 50% of people being like, “How can sweet, funny Aidy be playing this disgusting monster?” For me, that was the darkest part of it. It reduced both of us to our looks and it was so dark from both sides. It was calling us both fat and both ugly and at the very least, if you don’t like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, it’s because of what she says. It’s because of what she does. And I just was like, “This isn’t a space I need to be in.” It really made me sick and I would say I wasn’t even getting the kind of targeted specific harassment that Lindy has experienced.
I feel like I’ve narrowly escaped having to really deal with it in a major way. But it is very cathartic to get to do that on the show. And I also understand that [the] people who are writing this, it’s almost not about me — it’s about releasing some rage they have within themselves. And sometimes the phrase that sort of runs though my mind is like, “Would you ... say this to my face?” I don’t think you would. And the idea of just not looking at your mentions is impossible. The negativity reaches in and finds you. I still get the random comment on my Instagram being like, “Have another cheeseburger, you dumb bitch.” There’s the initial sort of thunderbolts of pain but pretty quickly, now, I recognize this isn’t my real life. I put my phone down and look at my dog, look at a tree, go for a walk, get back to talking with someone who’s real.
Do you find that it felt more natural playing self-confidence versus insecurity?
I do. Basically, playing this season felt more real to me in a lot of ways because I think it’s quite closer to kind of where I am in my own life. Nine out 10 days I feel good about myself. ... The image that comes to mind is basically a trip wire. Where it’s like you’re going through your days, you’re feeling good and then something or someone happens to you. It’s similar to the thunderbolt of pain with Twitter. There’s a zing in your life and you kind of have to reach inside yourself and work through it and keep going. I think that’s more comparable to what life feels like for me at this point. But certainly, first-season Annie was me in my early 20s. She’s a lot of us.
What’s a moment in your life where you felt the most joy performing?
I’ve definitely had lots of those moments in my life, but I do feel like a lot of them were in Chicago. Mostly because I was still discovering who I was as a performer, and there was nothing better than getting onstage, being like, “This room has no ... clue who I am, they don’t give a ... about me.” And then, over the course of 20 minutes or an hour, getting them on my side and feeling like I won them over, and now they’re just riding with me. That is the best. And in a lot of ways, I can’t quite do that anymore because there’s a perception of who I am.
I thought it might be the moment last fall when you broke during the “SNL” sketch. It was so good.
It really was an intersection of all the things that I love. My dresser, Audrey, I love her, she’s one of my favorite people at “SNL.” We’re like the same age. We get each other. I just adore her. I have heart eyes for Audrey. And then Cecily [Strong] and Keenan [Thompson] were laughing so hard. The sketch was one where I have to be the straight person, which I also love to do. There were just so many things about it where I was like, “This is a train wreck and I love it.” It’s the thrill of “SNL.” It’s amazing that it doesn’t happen every single week.
How is Lorne Michaels as a boss? Is he someone you can text or call to ask for career advice?
It’s funny, because I almost feel like there’s different tiers of him as a boss. My early years on “SNL,” I barely knew him, barely spoke to him, maybe a few times a year he would say, “Good show,” and I would be carrying that with me for weeks, putting it in my pocket to hold me over. And then, the longer I was there, the more time I spent with him, and the more I got to know him, and the more I saw him less as this man on top of a mountain and more as a person. I got to know his kids, and the things that make him really normal. And that was when I started to feel like I could really talk to him and ask for guidance.
He’s been at this a really long time, and he’s worked with some of the best people ever. He has a lot of insight. And truthfully, I went to him when “Shrill” came my way, and I was like, “I want to do this. I am scared to do this. I don’t want to do this without you.” And he got it. He’s helped me every step of the way. He is someone who I email and ask for help, especially because I’m at “SNL” all the time. I get 20 minutes with him in his office and I’m just like, “This is going wrong, that’s going wrong.” And he’s like, “Do this, do that.” And he’s almost always right. But it takes time. I’ve been on “SNL” for eight years and I feel deep love for him now. In my early years, I was like, “How do I love a cloud?” He wasn’t tangible then.
You grew up in Phoenix. How do you look back on it? Is there a memory that stands out from that time in your life? Or were you so glad when you left?
I loved growing up in Phoenix. I miss it, in a lot of ways. I miss the mountains and the sky. There’s something about the Phoenix sky. I do not miss the heat. It was the worst part of my life and that’s why I can never live there again. But when I was in high school, my two best friends and I would basically sneak into hotel pools. There’s fancy hotels there. And like full dirtbag kids, we would go and drive my friend’s 1980s Bronco and drive up to hotels and hop fences and dive into pools until we were told to leave. I absolutely was like James Dean, thinking I was a rebel. 100%.
I’ve had to cover Hollywood’s diversity problem, Hollywood’s gender problem. And often, those on the receiving end are sort of tired of having to speak on their so-called “otherness” over and over. How do you navigate the push and pull of wanting to dismantle stereotypes or reframe the conversation about fatness by speaking on it while also not wanting to always have to speak on it?
I really appreciate you even asking this question because I think a lot of times, especially in doing press for this show, that is completely what dominates the conversation. To the point where you almost end up not even talking about the show that I wrote, produced, starred in and all those things. There is a part of it that almost sometimes can negate all the work that I’ve done. ... I feel really of two minds about it. Half of me is like, “This is not what I came here to do.” I did seven years of shows in Chicago to try and become a comedian and a performer, and I didn’t know that I was also going to have to carry a flag. But also, it’s maybe the greatest honor of my life to try and move the needle, or to have the ability to. Like, what a thrill to be the star of a multimillion-dollar show that’s trying to kick that stuff in the teeth. That is the dream.
It also depends who I’m dealing with. We’re talking about it in a really thoughtful way. That’s not always the case. That is when I’m sometimes like, “Is this helping or hurting?” I don’t really know. It’s like, “Are you just getting a quote from me?” I look forward to the day when we can truly have a diverse lot of performers.
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