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Aidy Bryant On 'Shrill,' 'SNL' Thrills, And Not Feeling Bad About Her Body

Feb 28, 2020
Originally published on March 3, 2020 9:35 am

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's first guest is Aidy Bryant, who's been an increasingly prominent cast member of "Saturday Night Live" since 2012. She also stars in the Hulu series "Shrill," which recently unveiled its second season. "Shrill" is adapted from a book of personal essays by Lindy West, who identifies as fat and feminist. West and Bryant are co-writers of the series. Bryant plays Annie, a young woman who is self-conscious about her size and annoyed at how comfortable people are in commenting about it and offering advice on how to lose weight. These are people like her mother, her editor at the alternative weekly paper and complete strangers. But as the series has progressed, Annie has become more comfortable in her body, more confident in herself and more outspoken.

Terry Gross spoke with Aidy Bryant last year, and they began with a scene from the premiere episode of "Shrill." Annie has walked into a cafe and notices on the community bulletin board that one of the flyers with tear-off phone number tabs has an amusing illustration, so she takes a picture of it. The flyer is promoting a personal trainer who calls her service Get Toned with Tanya. Annie doesn't realize Tanya happens to be in the cafe. As Tanya approaches Annie, two people nearby listen in on the conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHRILL")

KATIE WEE: (As Tanya) You can just take my number.

AIDY BRYANT: (As Annie) Oh. Oh, my God. You're toned Tanya.

(LAUGHTER)

BRYANT: (As Annie) I was just taking a photo so the tabs were available for other people. So...

WEE: (As Tanya) Here. Take it down.

BRYANT: (As Annie) Thank you (laughter).

WEE: (As Tanya) Oh, wow. Your wrists are tiny.

BRYANT: (As Annie) Oh.

WEE: (As Tanya) You actually have a really small frame. There is a small person inside of you dying to get out.

BRYANT: (As Annie) Oh. Well, I hope that small person's OK in there.

WEE: (As Tanya) I know. It can seem impossible, but you can do this. You weren't meant to carry around all this extra weight.

BRYANT: (As Annie) Oh. Wow. Very cool (laughter).

WEE: (As Tanya) I know I can help you.

BRYANT: (As Annie) Well, that's very nice. Thank you.

WEE: (As Tanya) No, thank yourself for the amazing way you're going to feel after you give yourself permission to be well.

BRYANT: (As Annie) Thank you, me.

WEE: (As Tanya) You could be so pretty.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) That was crazy.

BRYANT: (As Annie) Oh, no. No, no. That was cool. She wants me to transform like a Transformer.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, laughter) You're funny. You're like Rosie O'Donnell.

BRYANT: (As Annie) Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I think that every time you come in here. I think, who does she remind me of? Rosie O'Donnell.

BRYANT: (As Annie, laughter) Oh, wow. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah.

BRYANT: (As Annie) OK. Well, have a good one, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You, too.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Aidy Bryant, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on "Shrill." So let me start with a question related to the clip that we just heard. Have you gotten a lot of unsolicited, unwanted advice over the years from strangers or people who barely knew you?

BRYANT: Yeah, I have (laughter). I mean, even that clip you just played is something that was said to me. And someone did grab my wrist and say, you know, you're actually very small under - you're petite, you know? And I think for myself, I always felt like people were asserting things about my body or what I should want. And I always kind of smiled and said, OK, thank you, and tried to kind of just get through it with a smile, you know?

GROSS: What would it feel like to try to smile and say, OK, thank you, when you were actually pretty offended by what people were saying to you?

BRYANT: You know, it's weird because I think instinctually, even though sometimes people have said things that are hurtful to me, I immediately am like, oh, that's OK. That's OK, you know? And I think one of the things that the show is about and that I've discovered even more recently - I now feel more comfortable sort of pushing back and stopping and saying, like, what do you mean by that?

GROSS: So the series is based on Lindy West's essays, her autobiographical essays. But you're a big part of the writing team, and you're the star. So is the character that you're playing, Annie, a kind of combination of, like, your personality and your life and Lindy West's personality and her life?

BRYANT: Yeah, I think that's true. I think - you know, naturally, because the words are coming out of my mouth, there is a little bit of my filter there. But I also think one of the things that we were doing in the writers room was talking about, you know, these specific experiences that were in Lindy's book. And so many of them are so universal, even though the specifics might be different.

You know, I had had feelings of feeling embarrassed or shamed, or I had ordered something different because I didn't want to be seen as a fat woman eating pizza. Or, you know, things that Lindy specified, I was like, I have an experience just like that. And so quickly, you know, with our writers' room, I think those universal experiences became more specific through, you know, me and Lindy and all the other writers in the room.

GROSS: I want to play one more scene from "Shrill." And this is a scene - again, your character is a writer at a weekly magazine who's not being taken seriously by her editor. And you decide you want to write about a pool party exclusively for fat women, and so you're going to go there in your capacity as a journalist. Your roommate is going there just to participate in the pool party. Your character is very self-conscious about being seen in a bathing suit, so she puts on, like, jeans and a loose-fitting shirt to go to the pool party. And people are saying, like, why are you all dressed? It's a pool party. You're going, well, I'm here as a journalist, you know?

BRYANT: (Laughter).

GROSS: So, like, you're sitting in your clothes, dipping your feet in the water. But, you know, eventually, you decide - you're seeing everybody being so comfortable in their bodies and dancing and swimming. You take off your jeans and shirt. You dance with everybody. You swim. You have a great time. But your editor's really mad at you because you haven't shown up for this kind of fitness bicycle event for...

BRYANT: Yeah. It's, like, a work health event.

GROSS: Yeah. So anyways, he's angry at you. You're angry at him. You go home and talk to your roommate and her new girlfriend, who your roommate met at this pool party. You're telling your roommate and her girlfriend here about how much you enjoyed the pool party and how angry you are with how your editor reacts to you as a fat woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHRILL")

BRYANT: (As Annie) You know, I was, like, at that event today, and there were so many people just, like, living in their bodies and enjoying their life. And that was unbelievable to me. And also, it's like, OK. Cool, man - very original point. You don't think the whole world isn't constantly telling me that I'm a fat piece of [expletive] who doesn't try hard - every magazine and commercial and weird, targeted ads telling me to freeze my fat off? And at this point, I could be a licensed nutritionist because I've literally been training for it since the fourth grade, which is the first time that my mom said that I should just eat a bowl of Special K and not the dinner that she made for everyone else so that I might be a little bit smaller and so that I could have boys like me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) My mom said that to me, too.

BRYANT: (As Annie) I honestly - I don't even blame her because it's a [expletive] mind prison, you know, that every woman everywhere has been programmed to believe, you know? And I've wasted so much time and energy and money for what, you know? I'm fat. I'm [expletive] fat. Hello? I'm fat, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Yeah. I wish someone would've said this to me when I was younger.

BRYANT: (As Annie) Me too because it would have saved me so much time and pain.

GROSS: That's Aidy Bryant in her new Hulu series, "Shrill." Tell us about writing that scene.

BRYANT: It's still hard for me to listen to, and it was certainly, to me, like, the hardest day of shooting and the hardest thing to write because I think, at least for me and I know for Lindy and for, you know, the other fat women on our staff, it really was something that many of us felt. And I really mourned for the time that I lost, you know, especially in my teens and early 20s, where I just hated my own guts. And I hated my thighs and my arms and everything about my body. And I felt like the worst possible thing that anyone could ever do would be to think that I was fat, to call me fat.

And I think that's part of what Annie going to this, you know, fat babe pool party helps show - is that she's not willing to participate. She's wearing jeans. She's there as a journalist. She's not there to attend. She doesn't want to be aligned with that. And that's such a sad place to live because it's what you are - you know, and to hate yourself that much. And I think the nice thing about that episode is that it kind of shows her starting to understand that it doesn't matter. To take on a label like that can actually free you from it.

And that's how it was for me for sure - that, you know, the second I stopped being afraid of someone calling me fat, I was able to start to focus on my goals and my dreams and to actually put that kind of energy rather than to constantly be thinking about counting calories or starving myself or just hating the way I looked in jeans - to instead think about, OK, how do I get to "Saturday Night Live," and how do I develop myself as a writer, and how can I be a better friend or a better daughter? - and, you know, to make my life better by doing the practical things rather than just sitting around and hating myself.

GROSS: The cereal story in there, where your character says that when she was young, there were times at dinner that her mother would make her eat a bowl of cereal instead of the food she'd prepared for the rest of the family in the hopes that, you know, your character would shrink a little bit, just get a little bit smaller - so did that story come from your life or Lindy West's life?

BRYANT: Yeah. It's not from either of our lives, but it's, you know, from one of our writers. And I think - you know, certainly, that never happened to me. But I always was conscious of not just my mother, but all my friends, my grandmother, every woman in my life that I knew. And I think part of this is particularly when I was growing up. It was the '90s. It was, you know, the thinnest possible - low-rise jeans kind of was popular. Paris Hilton sort of in the early 2000s - it was, like, an aesthetic of thin, thin, thin, thin, thin. And I think for a lot of us, it felt like that was the only way to have any kind of successful life.

And this is certainly - I think part of what compelled me to want to make this show was I got to "Saturday Night Live," and I thought, I made it. You know, I made it. I got the dream. And then I got there, and I would do photo shoots with my castmates, who are smaller women, and they would have, you know, 50 dress options. And I would arrive, and I would have two, and they both looked like something that the mother of the bride would wear. And I was 25 years old, and I just felt like, this isn't fair, you know? And it's not my fault (laughter), you know? I came here. I did my job. I'm funny. I wrote my way to this position. And now a stylist or a magazine or whoever is responsible - like, it's their job to dress me and dress me appropriately for my age. And, you know, to me, those were the kind of moments where I was like, I want to talk about this.

GROSS: You know, just one more thing about your character is that she seems very comfortable in her body when she's not around people who are judging her.

BRYANT: Yeah. I think for myself, so often growing up, I didn't want to hate myself. I kind of liked myself (laughter). And I thought I had something special. And I thought I was smart, and I thought I was funny, and I couldn't understand why that wasn't enough. And something Lindy and I talked about a lot was, like, we didn't experience or participate in, like, bulimia or anorexia or these, you know, painful eating disorders. And so many people, as we were pitching the show or whatever, were like, that's part of the story, isn't it? Because it's about food, and it's - whatever. And to me, I'm like, actually, no. I think it's about feeling like you're OK, but the whole world - magazines and your peers and even people that you want to date or whatever - telling you that you're not OK and feeling like, I think I am, but you're telling me I'm not, so I guess I have to go with that, and finally getting to a point of being like, I think I'm not going to participate in this system anymore.

BIANCULLI: Aidy Bryant, star of Hulu's "Shrill" and a veteran cast member of the current company of "Saturday Night Live," speaking to Terry Gross in 2019. Season 2 of "Shrill" premiered in January on Hulu. We'll continue their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDENBOY SONG, "KITTENS OF LUST")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last year with "Saturday Night Live" cast member Aidy Bryant, who stars in the Hulu series "Shrill," now in its second season.

GROSS: So you did improv in Chicago. You finally got into Second City. What are some of the characters that you did that you developed in Second City?

BRYANT: Yeah. I mean, I mostly was writing original characters. I'm sure to paraphrase them now will make them sound not funny at all. But I remember one of the ones that I wrote was a woman who was sort of so lonely, she captured a bird and brought him into her house and made him her boyfriend. Another one I did that I did in my audition for "SNL" was I wrote sort of a - almost like a Dolly Parton-style sketch, but it was Dolly Mae Daniels and Her All Ex-Husband Band.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BRYANT: And as you could imagine, that wasn't (laughter) - didn't go so well for her. But she tried to keep it moving and singing happily and then occasionally berating her ex-husbands.

GROSS: That's funny.

BRYANT: (Laughter) Thanks.

GROSS: So were you nervous for your "Saturday Night Live" audition? And just describe what the scene was like, what it looked like from your point of view as you were doing your audition.

BRYANT: Yeah. I mean, it's incredibly nerve-wracking. And I honestly - I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I was so, so nervous. So, you know, it is really intimidating. You stand in the spot where the host does the monologue in kind of center stage. We call it home base. And you just do your five minutes. And I had really been warned, like, they're not going to laugh. Just expect no laughs. Just sort of plow through it. And, you know, I got some laughs. And so I was like, OK, I can make it through this. And it's just over in a blink of an eye. And then you walk off, and you're kind of, like, I guess I did it. It's over. And I really thought, OK, I auditioned for "SNL," and then I'll go home, and what a cool experience. That's it. It's over now. And then it wasn't, honestly (laughter).

GROSS: How did you find out that you'd gotten cast?

BRYANT: Sort of a weird way. I had been flown back out to New York for a meeting with Lorne Michaels. And I met with Lorne, and he was sort of saying, like, you know, you're very young, and you have a lot to learn. And so I was sort of, like, oh, they're kind of letting me down gently here, you know? And I thought maybe he was sort of saying, like, in a couple years, we'll check back in with you. And then he was like, but I think you'll do very well here. And I was like, OK. And then I left. And I - it wasn't clear to me if I had been hired. I thought maybe he meant, like, you'll do well here someday maybe, you know? So I kind of left just like, am I hired, or am I not hired? And then I got a phone call from one of the producers, who was like, did you know you just got hired to "SNL"? And I was like, oh, I did not know that. Thank you. And she was, like, we could tell you didn't know (laughter) when you left.

GROSS: So did you feel like you couldn't just come out and say, does that mean I'm hired?

BRYANT: Oh, totally. I was like, I'll just sit here quietly and smile forever.

GROSS: "Saturday Night Live" has gotten much more political in the Trump era, and you've played Sarah Huckabee Sanders. And so I want to play a clip of one of those sketches. This is a fake commercial on "Saturday Night Live" for a sleeping pill called HuckaPM. And the hook is, like, how do you sleep at night? And it has a kind of double meaning (laughter) because it's a sleeping pill, and it's about, like, Sarah Huckabee Sanders' conscience. And every time in this clip when you hear, like, a bang or a crashing sound, it's because Sarah Huckabee Sanders has taken one of these sleeping pills, and it just, in a split second, knocks her out cold. And she's, like, falling and crashing into things because it immediately puts her to sleep.

So here is Aidy Bryant as Sarah Huckabee Sanders on "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

CECILY STRONG: (As narrator) Sometimes, getting a good night's rest isn't as easy as shutting your eyes. When the workday you've had threatens to ruin the night's sleep you want, you need something that works. There's only one over-the-counter sleep aid that answers the question, how do you sleep at night? It's HuckaPM, the only sleep medication strong enough for Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

(LAUGHTER)

BRYANT: (As Sarah Huckabee Sanders) People are always asking me, how do you sleep at night? In fact, they scream it at me all day long.

(LAUGHTER)

BRYANT: (As Sarah Huckabee Sanders) Look. The caravan is heading straight for us, and it is filled with MS-13s and also chupacabras.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Come on, Sarah.

BRYANT: (As Sarah Huckabee Sanders) That's why when I'm ready for bed, I always reach for my secret weapon. Just one little pill is enough to ease me into the gentlest of...

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)

STRONG: (As narrator) HuckaPM contains melatonin, extra-strength Quaaludes and what Michael Jackson's doctor called one-and-dones.

(LAUGHTER)

BRYANT: (As Sarah Huckabee Sanders) And no matter what tomorrow's workload brings, I know it won't keep me up at night. CNN is just ISIS spelled backwards. That sounds good to me, sir.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUD)

BRYANT: (As Sarah Huckabee Sanders) It's the only sleep aid I reach for. All right, guys, listen up. Birthright citizenship is over, and it's the Democrats' fault, so we want you remember that. So let's pack up those babies and get them out of here. Thank you so much.

(LAUGHTER)

BRYANT: (As Sarah Huckabee Sanders) Wow, that was exhausting. Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUD)

STRONG: (As narrator) HuckaPM - how do you sleep at night?

GROSS: (Laughter) So that was my guest Aidy Bryant as Sarah Huckabee Sanders. So who was the voice of the announcer?

BRYANT: Cecily Strong.

GROSS: OK. So who wrote the sketch?

BRYANT: So I wrote that with Kent Sublette, who is one of the head writers at "SNL."

GROSS: So how did you prepare to do the character of Sarah Huckabee Sanders?

BRYANT: I mean, this is probably oversimplifying, but a lot of times, when I have to look at an impression, I try to sort of, like, put them into a box that I can get my head around. So one of the things that I always felt in watching her in press conferences was that she sort of talked like a Southern, like - almost like a football coach or something. And she often starts her, you know, press conferences being like, hey, guys. And I always thought that was sort of a funny little detail that just felt very un-press-secretaryish (ph) or something. And I was, like, OK, that's kind of how I'm going to approach this - a sort of no-nonsense, all-nonsense sort of attitude.

GROSS: Well, Aidy Bryant, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

BRYANT: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

BIANCULLI: Aidy Bryant speaking to Terry Gross last year. Season 2 of her Hulu series "Shrill" is now streaming, and NBC's "Saturday Night Live" presents its next new episode tomorrow night.

After a break, we'll celebrate the long career of acoustic jazz guitarist Marty Grosz, who turns 90 today, and book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews the new Gish Jen novel, "The Resisters." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN PATERSON'S "LUCKY SOUTHERN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.