SXSW Preview: 'Trainwreck's' Amy Schumer on Her Raunchy Film, Judd Apatow and Hate Tweets
With her uniquely smutty, pro-woman brand of humor — and the guidance of comedic patron saint Apatow, who directed her new movie — the Comedy Central breakout makes a high-stakes film debut at the Austin festival.
This story first appeared in the March 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The biggest day of Amy Schumer's life is rapidly approaching. It's not her stint hosting the MTV Movie Awards on April 15, a coveted gig previously filled by the likes of Andy Samberg and Sarah Silverman. Nor is it the third-season debut of her Emmy-nominated Comedy Central series, Inside Amy Schumer, airing one week later. Both are big, but it's the March 15 premiere at South by Southwest of a work-in-progress cut of Trainwreck — Schumer's first film and the hottest ticket at the Austin festival — that could mark a turning point in her career.
And not just hers. The raunchy feature, written by and starring Schumer, 33, also is a pivotal one for its director (and producer), revered comedy creator Judd Apatow: It's his first time working with a screenplay by someone other than himself. If it's a hit, the film (which opens July 17) could nudge comedy's apple-cheeked "It" girl into the same movie-star ranks as Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. "People always ask me, 'Are you nervous?' " says Schumer, speaking to THR from a Yonkers, N.Y., courthouse on a break from shooting her TV show. "And I say, 'No. I have no time.' "
Schumer's partnership with Apatow started several years ago, when he invited her to his offices for a meeting. "On the way out, he said, 'If you have any ideas for a script, let me know,' " Schumer recalls. After she toiled on a high-concept script that wasn't jelling (a project she plans to pick up again), Apatow urged her to focus on something more personal, and she pounded out multiple drafts of a character-driven comedy. He was struck by her work ethic: "Some people you give notes on a script and they come back six months later. Amy comes back in eight days with a new draft."
The final draft is Trainwreck, a loosely autobiographical story of a men's magazine writer, also named Amy, with a voracious sexual appetite and an allergy to intimacy — until she meets a charming sports doctor (Bill Hader) whose best friend happens to be LeBron James. ("I wrote LeBron in the script as a hypothetical," Schumer says of the NBA star's movie debut. "And Judd was like, 'Let's just get him!' ")
Once Universal greenlighted the project in fall 2013, Schumer noticed her mentor wasn't exactly making himself scarce. During auditions, she says, "It felt like Judd was directing. And I was like, 'Oh my God — what if he directs this?' " After a few months, Apatow called Schumer to say, "I want to throw my hat in the ring," recalls Schumer, giggling at the memory. "I was like, 'Oh, OK, we'll consider it!' "
Some might view Apatow's decision to direct Trainwreck — coming on the heels of HBO's Girls (he serves as executive producer and has written multiple episodes) and 2011's Bridesmaids (he produced), which were preceded by a string of dude-bonding comedies including The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up — as a play toward female audiences. Apatow rejects that notion.
"People think I've only been working with female writers and comedians recently, but the first job I ever had was writing jokes for Roseanne Barr. And I always saw Freaks and Geeks as a story about Lindsay Weir and her adventures in high school," he explains, referencing the character played by Linda Cardellini on his NBC dramedy. "I just try to work with talented people who have interesting stories to tell."
Schumer would qualify. Hers is an unlikely rise to the showbiz majors for a nice Jewish girl born on New York's Upper East Side with zero connections to the industry. The middle of three children (her younger sister, Kim, is a Trainwreck producer), Schumer and her family relocated to Long Island after her father found some success importing Italian baby furniture. When Schumer was 9, her father learned he had multiple sclerosis; three years later, her parents filed for divorce. (Schumer visits her father regularly at an assisted-living facility and posts photos of their get-togethers on Instagram.)
Apatow and Schumer on the set of 'Trainwreck' in Central Park in June 2014.
To get through those dark years, Schumer relied on her natural gift for making people laugh. In 2004, she entered New York's competitive stand-up scene, where she honed her persona: the girl-next-door with her mind in the gutter — though Schumer is careful to position her brand of shock comedy in such a way as to encourage, not demean, women. It's a tightrope act. "The role of Amy in this movie is such a sensitive subject," she says of her film alter ego. "There's a low threshold for people to not just label that girl as, 'Oh, OK, so she's a slut.' I've been toeing that line for so long."
Having found fame in the Internet era, Schumer is no stranger to online backlash and social-media vitriol. She admits it can get to her, particularly when criticism comes from a supposed ally — such as the women's site that accused her of "undermining" feminism. Schumer's offense? Tweeting "#askhimless" during the Oscars, a play on the #AskHerMore campaign, which urges reporters to question female stars about nonsartorial topics. "I do a lot for our cause," Schumer hit back on Twitter. "Don't get weird on me girl." Two weeks later, she is still unnerved by the exchange. "I just thought the wording was funny, you know?" she says of her hashtag. "Of course I want women to be asked more than what dress they're wearing — that's my whole thing! So yeah, it did annoy me. I've devoted my life to being a feminist and showing women as more than just vapid, materialistic sex-monsters."
By contrast, Schumer was "genuinely psyched" by one scathing jab from a film blogger who, after seeing the Trainwreck trailer, wrote there was "no way" she would "be an object of heated romantic interest. … [She looks like] a blond Lou Costello." For Schumer, the widely condemned post serves as a sign her comedy is hitting all the right marks. "From the bottom of my heart, I don't care," she says. "I didn't star in this movie because I'm the prettiest girl. You're not going to catch me developing an eating disorder and getting a bunch of work done. I'm trying to say something and make people think."