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Shrill is Aidy Bryant’s star moment

The SNL favorite talks about her groundbreaking new Hulu series—"I hope this show can create empathy"

Written by
David Goldberg

No matter when
you started watching SNL, you will feel humbled the first time you enter the show’s offices at 30 Rockefeller Center. The hallway is lined with photographs of seemingly every cast member since the dawn of time, with the likes of Jane Curtin, Bill Murray and Molly Shannon eyeing your walk to the conference room. So, it’s a relief when Aidy Bryant enters that room for your interview, because you immediately feel like your friend has arrived. Though she’s in the midst of scrambling for this weekend’s episode of SNL—she’s been a part of the cast for seven years—Bryant couldn’t exude more of a down-home Taurus vibe. Beyond SNL, Bryant is doing press for her leading role in Hulu’s Shrill, which she cowrote and executive-produced, alongside Elizabeth Banks and Lorne Michaels. Based on Lindy West’s memoir of the same name, Shrill tells the story of Annie, a Portland, Oregon–based writer taking command of her body, her relationships and her career. Ahead of the series premiere on March 15, we spoke with Bryant about the new series, dealing with trolls and her post-SNL recovery routine.  

Shrill reminded me of Please Like Me (also on Hulu), which is pretty scaled-back and just focuses on the characters. 
The second we got picked up, we were looking at the schedule and it was like, Okay, we only have time to make six episodes before I come back to SNL. So we really settled into: We’re just going to follow Annie. We’re not going to try to weave a million plotlines into this. It becomes a character study. Especially coming from [SNL], where there’s a new character every five minutes. It was nice to be like, Let’s just tell this one person’s story and I hope that if we get more seasons—please—that we can do a little more widening.

Aidy Bryant

Photograph: Dale May

What was it like coming back to SNL after making the show? 
I had a bit of whiplash from being the full boss [laughs]. Then I came back, and it’s like, I’m part of a 17-person ensemble with huge personalities and each of us does their own thing. Which is the cool thing about being here. At Shrill, everyone is working towards one common goal. Here, you’re sort of scattered. There’s a little bit of schizophrenia to it, which I love—the adrenaline that’s addictive here. But I’m probably more suited to something like Shrill, where I can focus on day-to-day normalcy. But there’s also a little bit of comfort in that the show is not all my responsibility. I can chill [at SNL] now, which is insane. 

Doing a show about weight is going to be a whole different beast than telling a story about race or orientation. Everyone feels differently about their weight.
And there’s so much shame caught up in it—people have true, personal traumas. I felt that, certainly, and we had tons of conversations in our writers room to be like, Are we saying this the right way? Is this what we’re trying to say? It’s something I’m aware of. It’s representation, and whether I like it or not, anything I do onscreen represents a fat person. So what am I saying? When I first started [at SNL], I’d get offered little parts in movies and sometimes I would look at them and be like, Well, I think this would be a fine thing for a straight-sized normie to do. But with me, it takes a different kind of connotation beyond: This girl can’t find a boyfriend to this fat girl can’t find a boyfriend. We wanted to represent this honestly and with dignity, and that sort of took the pressure off in some weird way. But certainly this was a show I’ve dreamed of making;  I would have loved to have seen this show when I was in my teens or early 20s.

Aidy Bryant

Photograph: Dale May

With this material, how to you keep it from becoming an after-school special? 
Something that was a guiding principle for me was: I don’t see this as a show about body empowerment or about size. I feel like that’s one facet of who this person is. What’s at the heart of it is that she’s trying to make her career happen, she’s got bad boyfriends and good friends and a family, so if you boil it down, it’s a pretty traditional television show in that way. And I feel like the more seasons or episodes that you see, you almost get further away from that body stuff. You have to acknowledge it before you can move past it.

In your Weekend Update appearance, the Cardi B sketch and with Shrill, there’s a through-line of you as a lovely, but shy, person who is trying to break out. Have there been moments in your career when you’ve challenged yourself to speak up, or moments when you hadn’t and regretted it?
I think that’s true. I wouldn’t always say it was connected to weight as much as: For a lot of my life, I was trying to be very nice, and very sweet, and the friendliest one and liked by everyone, to the point that I didn’t even know who I was. I knew how to make myself be well-liked, but I don’t know if I always knew what I wanted. SNL shook up my entire life in a way that made me go: Bitch, what do you want to do? And even having to advocate for myself here, writing my own pieces and getting my stuff on, you have to find that inner ambition of what you’re trying to achieve. Who are you? I realized ultimately that I received a lot of socialization as a girl that made me want to be sweet and unnoticed. But ultimately it led me to the realization of: Oh, I’m a powerful person. I have a lot to offer, and I have opinions and I have taste and I can write for myself, and I don’t think it hurts anyone’s feelings if I ask for what I want. And if anything, it’s more honest. And it lets me have more of a real connection with people, rather than trying to camouflage it as America’s Valentine.

At SNL or on Shrill, has there been a choice you’ve made or a sketch you’ve done that you’re really proud of?
I feel like the first thing where I felt like: That’s my shit, I love this—it’s both charming and a punch to the face—was Dyke and Fats. I thought: No way they’ll ever let us do this. That would be insane! And they let us do it. Fuck yes! I was so proud of myself. I had lots of moments on Shrill that were like that for. In no world did I ever humanly think I would be doing a sex scene. And those were moments where I was like: I gotta do this. I’m ready, I can handle it.

I really liked that the show built up to the sex scene. It would have worked in any episode, but by the time it comes, you’re settled into the show. It felt part of the natural progression.
To tell someone’s story about their relationship to their body and themselves, sex is a huge part of that. It can be very freeing—and humiliating. I think for women with curves or any kind of lumps or bumps, it takes a lot to open yourself up to someone and be naked. It’s hard! I pitched the room: Should we not have sex scenes? But the story we’re telling is of someone finding their power in all aspects, and that’s part of that. I rarely encountered anyone who wasn’t a tiny blonde white woman having any sort of normal sexual value onscreen.

Aidy Bryant

Photograph: Dale May

Annie’s troll is a big part of the first season. Have you had similar experiences?
I don’t think I’ve had any kind of experience that is comparable to what Lindy has experienced, which is targeted harassment. It’s so horrifying and depressing. When I played Sarah Huckabee Sanders, I would be pummeled with tweets—literally, 50 percent conservative, being like, You’re a fat pig who shouldn’t play this dignified woman, and 50 percent liberal, being like, You’re too beautiful to play this fat-pig liar. Both bummed me out equally because they were all about her appearance and nothing about what she says. I’ve really made an effort not to make jokes about [Sanders’s] appearance and to focus only on what she says. A lot of it wasn’t about me. But it still hurt, and it still made me extremely sad, and it wasn’t something I wanted in my life. And I thought: I guess I don’t want to have Twitter? So, I got off. 

A lot of people on Twitter identify as liberal but tend to get offended very easily. How do you naviage those reactions? 
I could see a world where this show doesn’t go far enough for people, or even that I’m not fat enough to represent a fat woman. But we were as mindful as we could be. And 100 years of media that is one type of person, it can’t change overnight; we have to take baby steps. And this show is a huge step in the right direction. It may not go far enough for the most liberal person, but I hope this show can create empathy for people who maybe didn’t have it for fat people. If it does that for even ten people, then it has succeeded. That’s part of putting yourself out there and being an artist at all: You want your work to be received, whether it’s going to be critiqued or beloved. I’m open to all of it. I’m proud of what we made.

How would you say your vision departs from Lindy’s?
In some ways, our tactics differ. She is the kind of person who can write a very bold, incredible, fiery New York Times opinion piece, and I don’t know that I know how to do that. I wish I had more of that in me, but I feel like maybe I know how to kill ‘em with kindness more. It’s almost like if you keep ‘em laughing, or keep ‘em positive, you can get them underneath. They’re almost after the same thing but in different ways.

When I watched the first episode, I caught myself judging it for not going far enough. Then I had to stop and realize that I needed to watch the whole season before judging whether it “does” enough. You can’t put this much pressure on 22 minutes.
That’s the thing. It’s two different mediums. With television, I think what you’re aiming for is seasons, and that’s a lot of time. That’s the dream. In the first episode, I was really torn about showing her eating diet food, because I know when I see those things on TV, it bums me out so hard. But that was certainly my reality at some point, and in order to see the character grow, you have to see where they were in the beginning, and let it be a slow burn. It’s not like you flip a switch and you have confidence. It is an everyday back-and-forth journey.

Aidy Bryant

Photograph: Dale May

Living in NYC, what is your routine like? Where do you like to shut down?
I love living in New York. At first I felt too overwhelmed, like a country bumpkin [she was raised in Phoenix], just being like, Hee-haw! I can’t handle this! But I’ve really grown to love it so much. I live in Chelsea, in an area that’s not cool, which I love, ’cause it’s just, like, old ladies who have lived there for 50 years. Recently, I did an interview, and the lady interviewing me was like, ‘Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods?’ And I was like, ‘Gristedes, bitch! I’m down here! In da dirt! We see rats in our produce! I love my work, and I still feel excited to go there, but if I’m not working, I’m just walking my dog, sleeping and listening to NPR in my house while watering my plants. But I’m rarely kicking it to party. 

Do you have any indulgences?
My husband [Conner O'Malley] and I are die-hard pasta people. We’re always trying a new hot pasta spot, but our main one right now is this place called Cafe Altro Paradiso, which is in Soho. Whew! Oh my god! We truly go and fuck it up. We order three pastas and just have a little bit of everything. That to me is the ultimate fantasy. Today is Valentine’s Day and I was like: I feel like we should have pasta for dinner. And he was like: 100 percent.

Do you still have moments of being starstruck with certain guests?
This makes me sound very jaded, but I rarely get starstruck here. And it’s because, especially since I started around the 40th [season], it was like every week I was being pummelled with the most famous people in the world. So by the time I was done with my first couple of seasons, I was like: Everybody’s just a person! I can’t be bothered! Every now and then it’s someone really random. I was really starstruck by Charles Barkley, because I watched him as a child. But SNL is an equalizer because they’re coming into this thing they’ve never done before, asking how to do the cue cards, and it levels the playing field.

Comedy is an equalizer. You always have to humiliate yourself, no matter how big you are.
A thousand percent. And I’m fully aware that if I go to the Emmys, I may be a fancy lady in a dress, but it’s fully because I put on a bald cap and was like: “BWAP BWAP BWAP.” It’s good to keep it real.

All episodes of Shrill are available on Hulu on March 15. 

Stylist: Tom Broecker; Hair: Anthony Campbell; Makeup: Cassandra Garcia; Props: Liz Peters; Location: Tribeca Journal Studio
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