“Hey, We’re Dirtbags, Too”: Amy Schumer, Selena Gomez, Tracee Ellis Ross and THR’s Comedy Actress Roundtable
Molly Shannon, Quinta Brunson and Bridget Everett also drive a conversation that explores the joy and power of complex female characters, notes the people who encouraged them (thank you, Paul Rudd!) and careens between raunch and responsibility.
“There’s this myth in Hollywood that women aren’t supportive of each other,” says Tracee Ellis Ross, and frankly, its perpetuation ticks her off. “Because we have each other’s backs, and today has been an example of that.” The Black-ish star is referencing her early May conversation with some of TV’s funniest women: Abbott Elementary’s Quinta Brunson, Only Murders in the Building’s Selena Gomez, Life & Beth’s Amy Schumer, Somebody Somewhere’s Bridget Everett, and The Other Two and I Love That for You’s Molly Shannon. Over the course of an hour, the sextet gathered for THR’s Comedy Actress Emmy Roundtable and lifted one another up while doling out laughs, kudos and, with Gomez off to host Saturday Night Live the following week, a whole lot of advice.
This is the comedy table. Is there something that you’d never do for a laugh?
AMY SCHUMER Anal. Honestly, it’s taking it too far. Not for a laugh.
QUINTA BRUNSON Really?
SCHUMER Yeah, I’m going to say no to that.
SELENA GOMEZ I feel like I’d be down.
BRUNSON If it’s presented in a good manner.
Molly, you’ve said that you’re no longer willing to do the physical comedy you were known for at SNL. When did that change?
MOLLY SHANNON Before I had children, I did that crazy physical comedy where I would throw myself into chairs and do more dangerous stuff, and now that I’m a mother, I just don’t want to do that. I feel differently in my life and I don’t want to hurt my body like that anymore. I’m much more cautious.
TRACEE ELLIS ROSS Did it hurt?
SHANNON I would never feel the pain when I was performing it at all. But when I woke up the next morning, I would be bruised and bleeding and cut — but I kind of liked the way it felt because I felt like I worked really hard and really threw myself into the performance.
SCHUMER When was the last time you did a big physical thing?
SHANNON For years after SNL, I would be asked to do these big stunts on shows, and I really didn’t want to do it. It made me nervous.
Could you say no?
SHANNON Well, sometimes I was in the situation where I felt scared, like, “I don’t want to do this,” but I’d feel like I had to. But to answer your question, Amy, I had to do it on an independent movie, I don’t want to say what it was …
SCHUMER (Fake coughs.) Year of the Dog.
SHANNON The stuntman forgot to bring me pads, and he’d brought the other person pads, and I did get hurt. And then I felt like I was holding them up, but I was also like, “Nope, you’re going to have to wait.” Because as a woman, you [have a tendency] to want to fix it and apologize for taking too much time, but I did not fall for it.
SCHUMER Yasss queen.
ROSS I don’t think my body can handle some of that physical stuff. I wish I could. I’m about to turn 50 this year, and in my head all I hear is, [as Shannon’s former SNL character Sally O’Malley] “Fittttty years old. Get that leg up and do it.” Sorry. What? (Laughs.)
Bridget, when Somebody Somewhere came out, a lot was made of this being a different side of you than people were used to. The New York Times wrote, “She sings in only some of the episodes. Her wardrobe leans toward flannel. She sits on no one’s face.”
BRIDGET EVERETT Check, check, check.
Were there conversations or reservations about showing a different side of you, and was it freeing?
EVERETT I thought it was pretty freeing because my stage stuff can be wild and full contact and physical, and it’s tiring. Like, full-body stretches, a lot of drinking, and I didn’t want to have to do any of that for this. I wanted to do something closer to the real me: no bra, a little more mellow. Amy knows me, I’m a shut-in.
SCHUMER I know you don’t wear a bra. (Laughter.)
EVERETT It was the first time I really felt fully like me. On set, I usually get really nervous, and here I just felt super grateful.
How much do the rest of you consciously navigate between an onscreen or onstage persona versus the person you actually are? Amy, for instance, you’re a happily married …
SCHUMER Well, I’m married. (Laughter.)
OK, fine, but you’re about to go out on a stand-up tour titled The Whore Tour …
SCHUMER Yes. (Laughs.) It definitely used to be fully a persona, and it feels really good to get closer to me. I love playing a monster, just like the worst white woman, but I’m getting further and further away from that [in my act].
When do you think that happened?
SCHUMER It’s happened gradually, just educating myself and seeing the harm in joking around about things that are harmful and taking more responsibility and having it not just be about trying to sneak into this boys’ club.
Selena, you’ve been in the public eye for so much of your life. How does your old Disney persona factor into the decisions you make at this point in your career?
GOMEZ I think I’ve done a pretty good job of removing myself from that because I’m pretty honest about my imperfections. But I took control of the narrative of my life once I started becoming older because, growing up, I didn’t really have a choice. Now I understand that there are certain boundaries that I need to set for myself, and I respect and adore so many people, but I’ve got to do what’s best for me.
I assume Only Murders in the Building was an easy yes, if somewhat intimidating? And as a producer, what do you bring to it?
GOMEZ Yeah. One of my friends, who didn’t watch my show, and I don’t care if they do, was like, “So, do you have any hot co-stars?” and I’m like, “In a way …” (Laughter.)
BRUNSON Steve Martin? Yeah!
EVERETT I think Marty [Short]’s pretty hot.
GOMEZ But it’s really fun collaborating with Steve and Marty. They both have such specific takes on their characters, and when we’re offscreen, they’re constantly doing bits and running them by me, not like I have a say, but just for fun, and I’ve learned so much.
Tracee, you’ve said that you didn’t want your character on Black-ish to be “wife wallpaper.” What did that mean to you?
ROSS Well, yeah, particularly on Black-ish because the story is told through [her husband] Dre’s eyes. And I’m not really interested in playing somebody who is only a person in relationship to somebody else. And it was written in there, but then, as the show progressed, it was always important to me that there’s a sense of who I am offscreen, and, somehow — often — I’d be doing lady chores. Inadvertently, I’d be there cooking when he came home from work. I’d be chopping or I’d have laundry, and I’d always say, “Can I just have a computer? Can we flip it? Can I be coming home from work and Dre be chopping?”
ROSS And it became annoying, but I don’t care because I think we all know the [impact of these] images and how we see ourselves and how others see us, and there are so many unconscious messages about who we are as women, particularly Black women.
Have the rest of you found yourselves pushing to make your character or other characters more fully realized in that way?
BRUNSON In my position — where I’m a writer on my show and the creator of it — it’s easier to go in having my female characters completely fleshed out. If anything, we had to go in and work on our male characters.
SCHUMER Oh, that’s something I struggle with as well.
SCHUMER I write them as just like, “Duhhhh.” So, the women are fully thought-out human beings and the guys I have to …
BRUNSON You have to go in [and flesh them out] a little more. I had the archetypes laid out, but in my room, I said, “OK, I want to make sure I have a few male writers who will understand things.” It’s weird, I’m working in the complete opposite [way] of how Hollywood has worked for most of time.
ROSS (Bangs table.) It’s great.
BRUNSON Like, my room is predominantly women, and Black women. We have three male writers, and everybody else is a woman, and that helps us make very fleshed-out leads. And particularly with the three Black female leads, the fact that they all get to be different is something that I hear a lot about. People haven’t seen it in that way before, but that’s the power in writing your own content.
SCHUMER I love what you do with Janelle James’ character because it’s just how you’d think a male character would be written, but it’s like, “Hey, we’re dirtbags, too.”
BRUNSON To me that is equality.
SCHUMER Yeah, being a piece of shit. (Laughter.)
Quinta, you tell this amazing story about meeting Paul Rudd at a movie theater …
SCHUMER Oh, I hope this gets him canceled. (Laughter.)
BRUNSON This will not be the thing that gets him canceled.
ROSS Do tell.
BRUNSON I was at a movie theater in Philly, and I was young with aspirations of doing comedy, but I was keeping them to myself because it just seemed so far-fetched. So, I was on a date with the guy that, according to religion [Brunson was raised a Jehovah’s Witness], because we were on a date and we were thinking about kissing, I was supposed to marry.
ROSS Well, that’s beautiful. (Laughter.)
BRUNSON So, Paul Rudd was in front of me at the theater, and I lost my mind. I thought I was hallucinating, but I tapped him and was like, “Are you Paul Rudd? You are Paul Rudd. I’m seeing this, right?” And the guy I was on a date with didn’t know who Paul Rudd was, and I was like, “I can’t …”
ROSS We’re not getting married!
BRUNSON Yeah, I can’t marry someone who doesn’t know who Paul Rudd is; it meant he didn’t see so much of what was formative to me comedically. So, I was talking to Paul and it was before I was here [in Hollywood], so I didn’t know it was annoying to talk to people. I said, “I’m actually interested in doing comedy. I went to Second City to take classes.” He was like, “That’s great!” Then he was like, “If you want to do comedy and you love it and you can do it, then you should do it. There’s nothing that should stop you or get in your way. You should absolutely pursue it.” And it changed my life. I stopped talking to that guy, and I made a plan to move to L.A.
ROSS That’s incredible.
SCHUMER Er, Rudd! (Laughter.)
BRUNSON Then I told [the story] to Seth Rogen, and Seth told Paul, and Paul was like, “I have no recollection of that.”
Which makes it even better …
BRUNSON Yeah, because he wouldn’t have any recollection of it at all. For me, it was the biggest thing in the world; to him, he was just being nice.
For the rest of you, was there a passing comment that somebody made along the way or an opportunity that they may not even remember giving you that changed your trajectory?
SCHUMER Mine is Steve Carell. I was cast in this movie called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. I had, like, two lines, and I improvised some of them and they definitely didn’t make it into the film, for good reason. But walking back to my car at, like, 6 in the morning, after shooting all night, Steve goes, “Amy. Right?”
BRUNSON And that was it.
SCHUMER Yeah. (Laughs.) No, he said, “What you did was really funny and I really want to encourage you, and I want you to hear that, that I’m encouraging you.”
GOMEZ (Looks to Schumer.) I guess you’ve been that way for me. I was so young when you met me and gave me an opportunity to be on your show [Inside Amy Schumer].
SHANNON How did you guys meet?
GOMEZ On her show. I was obsessed with her and made it very clear to the world …
SCHUMER Why the past tense?
GOMEZ Well, I got older …
SCHUMER And your eyes were opened. (Laughter.) She was so funny on it, I was thrilled. You know when you actually meet someone and they’re really funny and get the joke and you don’t have to, like, explain anything?
EVERETT Amy’s also given me quite a few opportunities …
EVERETT It’s true. I had a confluence of things. I don’t know if that’s the right use of the word. I try to throw big words in and then I regret it immediately. Anyway, I had a band — well, I still have a band — but one of the guys in my band was Ad-Rock from Beastie Boys, and we used to play catch in the park in Brooklyn. And so we were catching fly balls, and I started singing this song about different kinds of tits.
ROSS Well, there are so many kinds.
EVERETT So many. And I sang it for him, and he’s like, “That sounds like a hit.” And I was like, “Really?” He’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, and I needed somebody in that moment to tell me that it wasn’t just a silly, stupid idea. I said that to him, and he said, “Well, silly worked for us, and it’ll work for you too.” And then right around that time, Amy was like, “Do you want to come on the road with me?” And I was like, “I don’t know, I don’t think I’ll really work in comedy clubs.” And she was like, “Just trust me, you’re going to work.” And then …
SCHUMER It worked too well! Nobody could follow Bridget.
EVERETT Because it’s wet on the stage. It gets really moist up there.
SCHUMER She would [have to] close for me. She basically headlined my shows on the road for years. I’d go, “OK, and now here’s a surprise guest.” [I loved] getting to see the audience see her.
SHANNON I had a friend when I was growing up, and we loved this Robert Altman movie with Karen Black and we were maybe 10, and my friend was like, “I could picture you doing that. Like, being in the movies.” And I said, “You could?” She was like, “Yeah.” And then she really wanted to be a country singer, so she asked me, “Can I practice my country singing for you?” And I was like, “Sure.” So she’d sing for me in my living room. I had to turn my back to her because she was too shy but she’d sing, and I was like, “That sounds good.”
EVERETT And that woman is now Shania Twain. (Laughter.)
SHANNON Hysterical. No, but it only takes one. It was just one little person whom you feel comfortable with.
How about you, Tracee?
ROSS I can’t think of a story, I just think of some of the negative things that I heard that knocked me into making a choice that I wanted to do this. Like, the agent who let me go — and this is major because I held it for so long …
SCHUMER Full names please.
ROSS I will not. But she said, “You come with all this stuff. Your mom’s somebody, you dress great and you’re so fun — and you go in a room and you just don’t pop. So, we’re going to let you go.”
So, what do you do with that? How do you decide to keep going?
ROSS Well, I couldn’t get into the elevator fast enough. I remember my thought was, “I can’t do this.” Then I made a decision after two days of crying, like, “You know what? I will do this as long as I’m doing it to have fun.” And my career took off from there.
There is a lot of harsh feedback in this business. When has it propelled any of you?
SCHUMER As somebody who’s gotten so much hate on the internet, with that comes a lot of love and people who maybe wouldn’t have even heard about you if there wasn’t so much noise being made about how awful you are.
SHANNON I had a situation when I was still a struggling actress. My friend had gotten these colored headshots, so I hired the same photographer, used all of my waitressing money and got all done up. The photographer got behind that lens and there was a fan on me and I felt like, “Hollywood, look out!” And then he was like, “Why are you so ugly?”
SHANNON Yeah! And his girlfriend was next to him, she was a model, and she was like, “Shut up, that’s so mean,” and was giggling. Then we started the photo shoot.
EVERETT My God, Molly.
ROSS I’m really sorry that happened.
BRUNSON At least he was right there, so if you wanted to punch him in the face, you could.
SHANNON I don’t know about [the rest of] you, but I don’t look at myself when I’m filming now. I want to be natural. I want to age. I don’t want it to affect my performance, and even to this day, actually just now, we did a photo shoot, and I caught a little glance and I had a quick thought of, “Wow, I’m looking older.” And that’s hard, but I was like, “It’s OK, honey.” And I have to work at that, I’m not going to kid you. I think somebody once said that people want you to freeze at the age when you first became famous.
ROSS Oh, well, sorry.
SHANNON Aging is an interesting thing as a woman, but I try to be gentle on myself.
ROSS I think you get hotter with time. You know more. And this (motions to her face) is evidence of your life. Laugh lines? Yeah, because you laugh. You trying to be a person who never laughed?
SCHUMER But also (to Shannon) I love how it always felt like you were in control of your sexuality. I felt like you were taking care of yourself and nobody was sexualizing you in a way that you weren’t comfortable with.
SHANNON That’s a huge compliment, Amy, thank you.
SCHUMER And then how someone like Selena, who was sexualized at such a young age, but you’ve just rejected that and have really found your own style and your own presence. Because I know they put you through a system and make you feel like this is how you have to do it. And especially when you’re getting that positive feedback and people are attracted to you, it takes a lot to go, “I’m going to go in this direction.”
GOMEZ It’s really unfair. I actually did an album cover and I was really ashamed after I did it. I had to work through those feelings because I realized it was attached to something deeper that was going on. And it was a choice that I wasn’t necessarily happy that I made, but I think that I’ve done my best, at least I try to be myself. And I’m not an overly sexual person. Sometimes I like to feel sexy, but that doesn’t mean it’s for somebody else. It can be for me.
But how much of that is the infrastructure around you saying that is what you’re “supposed to be”?
GOMEZ Well, I have to be honest, I don’t go on [social media] anymore. I’ve said it in a million interviews, and I’m sure people are annoyed with me, Instagram’s emailed me because all I do is say, “I don’t do it.” But you’re seeing all of these other people [post these images] and I can’t look that way. It’s impossible. I don’t find it attainable and the moment I’m not on it, everything else becomes real.
GOMEZ And then I’m like, “No, I didn’t see that. You can show me, I guess.”
SCHUMER It’s always my friends, “I cannot believe they said that about you.” Like, “I’m not reading it. Thank you, though.” (Laughter.)
A lot of you are very outspoken, whether it’s socially or politically, and there’s a degree of bravery that comes with that. Do you feel like it has ever come at a cost?
SCHUMER It comes at an actual financial cost. But the thing that scares me is the idea of not doing it. Even right now, with what’s going on with the Supreme Court [and the leaked draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade], I know I did everything I could possibly think of to try and help. I didn’t really think about it before you just asked that question, but these women here are some of the bravest people I know. I don’t think people realize how much Selena has done [to fight] disinformation, which is the biggest problem no one wants to talk about.
GOMEZ Having this platform, it was ingrained in me to understand that I had a responsibility. Why else be here? I want to be remembered for the things that I’m doing. What Amy just said? That made my whole day — just hearing that is way cooler than me hosting SNL.
SCHUMER Well, wait until you do it because it’s pretty cool. (Laughter.)
BRUNSON I’m going through an interesting phase where I used to be really vocal online and I’ve stopped because I just don’t want to be right now. I want to take care of my show and my show is not just me, it’s like 300 people under me, and I want to protect them. I don’t want to put anybody in a position that they don’t want to be in. And also, Abbott is a show about underfunded schools, and we didn’t set it up to be a political act, but that’s what got attached to it once it was out into the world, which is what happens with art a lot — you don’t get to control how people perceive or attach to it. So, it’s out and everyone’s having political discussion around it, which is really cool, and I feel like the best thing I can do right now is preserve that and listen. But then, as a Black woman, people are like, “Come on, give me your activist opinion.” And I don’t really have one right now. Honestly. I’m not well-versed or well-read enough currently on some of the things that are going on to speak about them. But there’s an expectation, especially for Black women, to have an opinion, and that’s not my job. I’m not a politician.
SHANNON Or maybe you don’t want to be deposed at, like, an airport, when you’re getting your bag.
BRUNSON Or I’m at a producer’s party, and I don’t need to be asked about every single political issue.
ROSS Well, I think as a Black woman, societally, we know that we are often utilized and not centered. So, the act of being, and being safe, and being free, makes people think that you’re going to have a point of view. Like your being-ness in and of itself is an act of revolution. Personally, I’ve never had a team that has had issue with how I use my voice and I’ve never lost jobs because of how I speak up, but I do know that exists. I try my best to be the most effective with what I say, and I don’t know everything. I’m not an academic or a politician, I’m a person.
ROSS But I think all of us use our platforms and position in ways big and small — where it’s not about publicly sharing my point of view but advocating for those you’re working with. Like, “Hey, I know you guys haven’t noticed because it seems like everything’s working fine, but there are no Black people here. So, we’re going to do something about that, right? Because I’m not going to be able to stay here if we don’t.”
SHANNON Can I share a story about Selena because (to Gomez) I really admire you. We were doing press for Hotel Transylvania in Toronto, and Selena and I landed at LAX, and I’ve never seen a swarm of photographers like that. It was insane. And I studied you, like anyone would study a superstar, and you were so calm. And I tell this story to a lot of people, how, it was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen at an airport, and I admired how much you just stayed in your body. I was like, “My God, she has to be in therapy. She must have really worked hard.”
GOMEZ Ohhh yes! (Laughs.)
SCHUMER I think so many people get held back being afraid of saying the wrong thing. I know I have. But you’re going to fuck up. Even if your heart is in the right place, and you just to have people around you who can tell you when you fuck up.
ROSS Speaking up isn’t always the hard part, it’s the aftermath.
BRUNSON That’s why I keep quiet. I’ll repost something, someone else saying it, but I’m like, “You don’t want to hear me say it, I won’t work here anymore.”
SHANNON It’s scary. One misstep and you’re pounced on.
SCHUMER I literally asked an audience in Tampa, it was the 2016 election, and I said, “I just want to understand why someone would vote for Trump? Can someone just explain it to me?” And 200 people walked out. [The media stories] didn’t mention that, like, 10,000 people stayed or whatever. But that’s how it affected my money. It directly affected ticket sales. But how nice to not have those people in the audience. Not that they’re bad, I just don’t think that they’re going to appreciate what I have to say because, you know, I think people should all be treated equally.
Let’s end on a lighter note. For all of you, what’s still high on your professional bucket list?
ROSS Hosting SNL.
EVERETT Yeah, SNL.
SCHUMER Anal. (Laughter.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.