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“To me, it’s the appropriate word,” Aidy Bryant says of “fat,” which she uses to describe both herself and the character she plays on Hulu’s series Shrill, which she co-created, co-wrote, co-produced and stars on, as we sit down at the NoMad Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast. “And this is something that Lindy [West, the journalist and author of the 2016 memoir that inspired the show, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman] has talked about, too. It’s a descriptive word, just in the same way as ‘tall’ or ‘short’ or any of those things. Yeah, I’m fat. It would be a lie to say that I’m not fat. I think part of it is I lived so much of my life in fear of being called ‘fat,’ and there is a real relief in being like, ‘No, I am fat.'”
Bryant, 32, is best known for her seven (and counting) seasons of sketch comedy work on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, during which she has played everyone from Adele to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and for which she has received two Emmy nominations, one in 2014 for best original music and lyrics and one in 2018 for best supporting actress in a comedy series. But with Shrill, on which SNL chief Lorne Michaels serves as an executive producer, the line between the character Bryant is playing and Bryant herself has never been thinner. The show draws upon her own thoughts and experiences, with a rawness and frankness that is often stunning, and promoting it in conversations like this one requires her to be just as vulnerable. “I would call it ‘taxing,'” she says, “just in that it is hard in every interview to open up your psyche and self-worth to a stranger. But I do feel like it’s worth it. I feel like it’s working towards a bigger goal.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
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Bryant, the daughter of a real estate agent and a homemaker, was born and raised in Phoenix. “I wanted a lot of attention from a very young age,” she says with a chuckle, and she got it as a performer — in drama classes at her all-girls Catholic school, as well as at theater summer camps. “That’s where I found improv,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, I like this better than I like doing, I don’t know, Shakespeare!'” Bryant joined a teen improv group, where she learned about Chicago’s improv comedy scene, which is part of what ultimately lured her to Columbia College Chicago. While there, she started taking classes at iO Theater, and eventually performing for pay around the city. She graduated in 2009 and, in 2010, landed a job at Chicago’s fabled improv hub The Second City, on the resident stages of which she spent the next two years working every night of the week. “You do kind of just get that 10,000 hours of experience,” she reflects. Early in her time at Second City, her friend and colleague Vanessa Bayer was hired by Saturday Night Live, which made her realize such a thing was possible. And, sure enough, she says, “That’s where Lorne and the producers found me.”
Bryant began at SNL in 2012 alongside Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong, and, despite having had no prior experience with screen acting or interacting with stars, quickly proved her chops, graduating after only one year from featured player to full castmember. She was willing to make fun of just about anything for a laugh, including her own weight in a recurring buddy-cop sketch with the openly gay McKinnon that was titled “Dyke & Fats.” But when, in early 2017, she started playing Huckabee Sanders, body-shaming and negativity from strangers got to be too much for even her. “I definitely got off of Twitter partially because of the way people were tweeting at me about Sarah Huckabee Sanders,” she says. “It made me so sad. Fifty percent were conservative people who were like, ‘You’re a fat ugly pig who shouldn’t play this strong woman.’ And then it was 50 percent liberal people being like, ‘You’re too gorgeous and sweet to play that disgusting liar!’ And I was just like, ‘This is only dark.'”
Bryant’s career reached new heights last year. She was nominated for her first acting Emmy alongside co-stars McKinnon and Leslie Jones. “I didn’t see that coming at all,” she insists. “I didn’t even know they were announcing.” And she found, in Shrill, a project outside of SNL that was unlike any other she had found before. Bryant realized early in her SNL tenure that she would need to start venturing into non-sketch acting during hiatuses if she wanted to have a career after her time in Studio 8H came to an end, and over the ensuing years, she landed small parts on TV shows such as Girls and Broad City and in movies like The Big Sick and I Feel Pretty, “kind of dipping my toe out there,” as she puts it. However, Bryant found that the only substantial parts she was offered “had a similar theme,” calling for a fat character to mock. Understandably, the actress found these “demeaning” and, as she recalls, “I was like, ‘I want for more and I’m not gonna take these just because they would be a starring situation.'”
One day, while listening to This American Life on the radio, Bryant heard West talking about Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman. “Then I read her book, which, for me, was the first time I saw verbalized so many things that I had felt,” she explains, “about being a fat woman and how you’re living in a world that is constantly telling you you’re wrong for even existing and that you don’t have any worth or value and you don’t deserve to have a life until you can become thin.” A year and a half later, actress/producer Elizabeth Banks optioned the book. Bryant asked her representatives to reach out to see if she might have a shot at the role; as it turns out, Banks’ production company had just reached out to them to say that Bryant was their first choice. “It was sort of like a match made in heaven,” says Bryant, who, given the nature of the project, also asked to be a writer and producer on the project, and was welcomed aboard as both.
Bryant, “using the Fred Armisen model” — the comedian had simultaneously worked on SNL and the comedy series Portlandia — spent last summer making Shrill‘s six-episode first season, writing for two months and then shooting for another two. She then went directly to the Emmys in Los Angeles and then right back to SNL in New York, finishing postproduction on Shrill while at SNL. “Part of the goal of our show is to create empathy,” she says of the newer project. “We’ve had people say it to us about watching the show: It creates a lot of empathy for a fat person, so instead of looking at them and feeling like, ‘Ew, they’re a slob who gave up,’ ‘They’re gross,’ ‘They’re’ whatever, you see that there’s a person under there who has thoughts, feelings, desires, all those things. I think that’s part of what our show does.” Adds Bryant, “And part of my hope in doing this show is that I can almost leave this topic behind and get on to the good stuff.”
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