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Two months to write and two months to shoot an entire season of television is a daunting task. But for Saturday Night Live veteran Aidy Bryant, a couple of months to work on Hulu’s Shrill was a luxury.
Shrill, which centers on a Portland woman learning how to feel more confident in both her personal and professional lives, allowed Bryant to not only play a new type of character — and not just a movie sidekick or one-off TV guest spot — but to have a hand in shaping that character as well.
“I think what this allowed me to do was just go a lot more subtle and take a little more time. I feel like at SNL it’s always, ‘Get it shorter, get it tighter, lose more time out of this so we have more time for other things.’ And this, you just had a little air to breathe and time to go over your script,” the actress told The Hollywood Reporter. “That to me just felt so luxurious. Like, crazy to me. I think a lot of people were worried about the turnaround of trying to write this in two months, then immediately shoot it in two months, and all these different things. And I was like, ‘This sounds like a piece of cake, let’s do it.'”
Bryant always wanted to act, but never felt fully at ease with the rest of the kids at theater camp or in drama club. But when she discovered improv and sketch comedy, she realized that was where she belonged. Bryant became a standout SNL castmember after joining the series in 2012, specializing in characters who are sweet but dumb, and helping launch a recurring series of music videos with the show’s female castmembers. And while she is one of the show’s star performers, earning an Emmy nomination in 2018, Bryant excels most in the roles she’s able to write for herself. That’s in part due to simple logistics, she told THR.
“You look at impressions: There’s not that many fat women in media, so there’s not that many fat women in the public eye, so of course there are less impressions for me to even take a stab at,” Bryant explained. “Or sometimes they’ll be like, ‘We’re going to do a 1970s piece that’s a bunch of impressions. Do you have any?’ And I’m like, ‘Mama Cass?’ That’s the one. We’ve only seen a certain type of woman be famous, basically, and I think that’s obviously starting to change. But that does sort of pigeonhole me at SNL when it’s about popular culture. These women aren’t being put in the public eye. But as far as original characters, I always feel like you can do whatever you want. I’ve never felt too pigeonholed, but certainly I play a lot of teachers, I play a lot of moms, and I think probably more so than my other same-age female castmates. You could say that’s because of my warmth or because I’m whatever, but I think its also partially because of my body.”
It’s fine by her if playing more ingenue-type roles is not in the cards, just as long as when she does play a sexier character she’s not the punchline.
“I’m not going to maybe play a vixen as often as some of my castmates, and I think that is an interesting thing to look at. I make a real effort to not make that be the joke of it. I’ve done a lot of music videos where I am, like, shaking my thang with all my friends, and it’s not comic,” Bryant said. “That’s not the joke of it. That I’m there is not the joke of it.”
The content of Shrill — of showing the realities of navigating the world in a fat body — was deeply personal to Bryant, particularly in the way her character, Annie, has a normal and passionate sex life.
“I’ve felt this even in movies and shows that I’ve done, where there’s a real effort to cute-ify a fat woman,” she said. “And I think it’s partially because that’s how you’re comfortable looking at a fat woman: sweet and cute and like a little cherub. And as I have dated, or with my husband, I’ve always had sexual, passionate relationships as an adult would. That happens. But that’s not something that I ever really saw. If you did see a fat woman having sex, it was the joke. Or that she was jumping on a man and would knock him over and rip off his clothes. I really wanted to have a character who has a rounded, full life. And that includes being a sexual being, and having men be attracted to you, which also happens.”
Continued Bryant, “I mean, I was offered so many different movie roles and things where the whole crux of it is that I would have to trick a man to ever being attracted to me or that he would have to be hit on the head with a magic mallet. And that’s just not reality. And I think that is important to the story, because she’s not like, ‘Oh, I can’t get a boyfriend.’ Even though it’s not perfect, people are attracted to her; she’s having sex; she’s not a baby. And I think that’s key in seeing a fat woman onscreen. And some of it is just, like, getting used to it. People just have to get used to seeing a different kind of body.”
When Lindy West, whose memoir the series is based on, executive producer Elizabeth Banks and showrunner Ali Rushfield were developing their pitch for the series, they knew Bryant was the person they wanted to sign on — not only as an actor, but as a writer and producer as well.
“Aidy was our first choice from the beginning. She’s so lovable and so funny and so great on SNL. So many people launch from SNL and go on to have film careers and other TV shows. It just felt like, at least as a bystander, that it was Aidy’s time. What is Aidy’s thing gonna be? And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, what if we could be Aidy’s thing? What a coup for us.’ And then she picked us,” West told THR. “It was just an obvious, natural fit for her to be in the writer’s room and to be a producer and to help us develop the show because we have similar experiences, and different experiences, and the more breadth of experience we could bring to this character the better. And she’s a great writer and she’s funny and she’s really insightful, and it was perfect.”
The natural warmth and sweetness and likability Bryant exudes is integral to the Annie character, particularly in being able to, as the actress said, get audiences used to seeing a different kind of body onscreen.
“Aidy has an innate optimism that I think makes you root for her no matter what. And we knew that we were going to have controversial subject matter in the show, and we just wanted a lovable heroine,” Banks told THR. “We are not concerned with her likability — I don’t want to present it like that. That wasn’t what it was about. But there was something about, frankly, knowing that there was a lot of depth inside of her, that there was a sort of treasure trove that was not being explored that we could tap into, that also made her perfect.”
While Bryant has confirmed she has no immediate plans to leave SNL — she told THR in February she will stick around for an eighth season — it is something she’s actively thinking about. But, with Shrill under her belt, it’s more in the sense of plotting the next move in her career.
“It’s hard, because it’s like, ‘How long do you see yourself as this thing that is who you are?’ I don’t know,” Bryant said. “Fred [Armisen] and my other friends who have left have always said, ‘You’ll just know.’ I know I’m not ready to go this season, so I’m definitely coming back. But I think I’m just going to take it as it comes. I feel like if I get too strict about, like, ‘Here’s when I’ll leave,’ there’s a tightness to that.”
But she is thinking beyond SNL as an actor, a writer, and a producer. West, Banks and Rushfield were particularly impressed with Bryant’s skill in executing what she envisioned.
“She’s a businesswoman. She’s got serious ideas,” Rushfield told THR. “And I think it’s rare that people are creative and good business people. She definitely is that.” Plus, Rushfield added, “she’s a really good dramatic actor. She can really do anything. People watching her on Saturday Night Live are seeing like a tiny piece of what she’s able to do.”
Said Banks, “She was invaluable. I’m most proud of Aidy and how quickly she got up to speed on being a producer on the show. She’s been incredible. I’m just blown away by her.”
With producing in particular, Bryant felt like she learned a lot about herself and what she’s capable of — and that she was able to achieve something so massive, in such a short period of time, without compromising her signature warmth and sweetness.
“I loved producing. I’ve produced on smaller scales at SNL, because you produce your own pieces that you write, but certainly in this, I was just like, ‘Oh, this is a fit for me,’ and I know what I want and I’m pretty good at communicating it and getting it executed. And I feel like the show is physical proof of that. This is exactly what I wanted, and I’m incredibly proud of it. So I would love to produce more, and I would love to write some more stuff for myself,” Bryant said.
“This sounds very hokey, but I would say the experience wholly changed me as a person, in that to write something and then fully see it executed is an incredibly empowering experience,” she said. “And I think for a lot of my life, I’ve been worried about how I was perceived, if I was nice enough. I didn’t want people to think I was a bitch or something like that. I got over that really quickly, because I saw how important the task was to me, that I felt so responsible for telling this story. There was a relief in being, like, ‘I know what I want to say and I know how to get it done, and let’s do it,’ and how much less fraught that was than hemming and hawing and being, like, ‘I hope all the crew thinks I’m nice and I hope every producer thinks I’m nice.’ I can be nice and still get what I want.”
Shrill is available to stream now on Hulu.
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