Aidy Bryant is branching out. The actress just earned her first Emmy nomination as a performer last year for her work on “Saturday Night Live” and now she’s the star and executive producer of the new Hulu comedy “Shrill,” based on the popular book by Lindy West.
Bryant recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Zach Laws about how she got involved with “Shrill,” how “Saturday Night Live” has trained her to take on a bigger role in the industry and her reaction to getting an Emmy nomination for acting. Watch the full video interview above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Aidy, just start off and tell us why it was important for you to tell this story?
Aidy Bryant: I first heard about Lindy’s book through “This American Life” and I heard this really compelling story about her meeting her actual troll who did this really targeted harassment towards her and that they found some common ground and some empathy and then I read the book and I even more-so connected with so much of the material because it is about letting go of a lot of the shame we have about our bodies and fear of being labeled fat or shrill or any of these things, particularly the really female labels that I definitely feared. We wanted to have a fat woman at the center of the story who’s the hero and has a complicated life and a full life that isn’t just sex is a punchline or her body is a punchline but really get into it more deeply.
GD: So often characters like this are on the sideline, the funny best friend as opposed to being the romantic lead or anything like that. Can you talk about shifting that dynamic a little bit?
AB: In a lot of ways, our show is really traditional. It’s the same template as “Mary Tyler Moore” in a lot of ways. She works, she has her friends, she has her family but we wanted to put someone who typically would never be the center of the story at the center of this show, getting to see a more nuanced take on her experiences.
GD: You don’t shy away from the issues that she has with herself. Right from the very first episode, you see her dieting and you see her dealing with people who are commenting on her weight. You see her dealing with men she’s dating who are embarrassed by her. Can you talk a bit about portraying some of that in the show?
AB: I think one of the things we really discovered in our writers’ room was that a lot of women of all different sizes have had these experiences. We really tried to find the universal and go for the specific. I think because of that, a lot of ladies could identify with this kind of stuff. It’s certainly tonally different than what people maybe have seen me do before on “SNL” but this is a different vibe.
GD: Going off of that, what’s also interesting is that it’s not always mean-spirited. In other words, the intention is not always like the troll who calls you fat. His intention is to hurt you but you see people like her interaction with the yoga instructor or Julia Sweeney’s character who think that they are doing something that will help you. Can you talk a bit about that?
AB: I think for anyone to assert anything about anyone else’s body is an intrusion but I think oftentimes people feel like it’s their right and they have a moral high ground to help this person. I think the problem is it makes a lot of assumptions about what that person wants. So it assumes that this person desperately wants to change their body or that they’ve given up on something. I think for a lot of people that isn’t the truth. Even in my experience and even this character, she’s tried it all. She’s tried the dieting. She’s tried the working out. She’s tried every fad and weird tea or diet pill or whatever and it didn’t work. So now what? How do you live your life with those kinds of pressures? You’re getting messages constantly that being fat is not okay so how do you live?
GD: So then how does she start to change her life without changing her body? In the pilot it’s all about, “If I can just change this physical aspect of myself, I’ll be happy” but then throughout the show you see she’s trying to change her life in other ways. Can you talk about that?
AB: I think part of what we’re showing in this show is that especially for women, they try to make themselves smaller, both physically by dieting and getting their waist as tiny as possible but also in a more mental way to make yourself quieter or more palatable, sweeter, nicer, all these things, in fear of being called a bitch or being called shrill or being called fat or any of those things. I think part of what Annie is trying to learn how to do is to still be herself or to go after her dreams or go after things in her career or relationships without making herself small in those ways, too.
GD: I wanted to talk about some of those relationships. First of all, the relationships that she has with men. Can you talk a bit about that?
AB: I think we really wanted to show what the experience is for a lot of fat women which is it’s really complicated. It’s really messy. Part of being intimate with someone is showing them your body and how that feels but also people’s perception of your body. What we were trying to show, at least the arc of the first season, is if you find someone that you’re comfortable with, it can be very hard to let them go, even if they’re not good for you in other ways. It’s a lot to open yourself and be intimate with someone, especially if you think that you deserve a certain kind of thing or that you have to take what you can get. That’s a hard way to date from.
GD: Certainly the way that we portray romance in our media and in other things perpetuates that image in people’s minds. It’s like, “I have to be a certain way in order to win the heart of somebody else.”
AB: Absolutely. What a bleak place to find love from.
GD: Yeah. I also wanted to ask about the friendships that she forms, especially with other women. There’s your roommate, obviously. Can you talk a bit about the female camaraderie that this show portrays?
AB: I think that was something that was really important to me and Lindy and Ali Rushfield, our showrunner. For all three of us, such a backbone of our lives has been our female friendships and that’s been such a steady, unwavering part of our lives. Even when our weight may have fluctuated or guys have come and gone or there’s been tension with our parents, there’s solace in your female friendships. That’s part of what we trying to show is that it’s not always perfect and sometimes they have to call each other out and challenge each other but that there’s a real foundation of love and understanding and loyalty that’s there. You get a sense that this relationship with her and Fran will grow just in the way that any relationship with a man might grow. It’s complicated and nuanced.
GD: One of the things I really appreciated as a writer myself was seeing her development as a writer. Can you talk a bit about that and I also wanted to ask for your own self, can you talk about your own development as a writer and how you developed as one as you were doing this?
AB: That was something that we wanted to show and we didn’t wanna have voiceover where she was reading her pieces or those kinds of things. We did have to find tricky ways to show that she was evolving as a writer. At least for myself, I definitely started in sketch comedy and improv but I think the thing that I really learned is a lot of improvising is writing. It’s doing it on the spot. A lot of the times when I’m writing scenes for this show I think of myself like I’m just improvising a scene but it’s alone and at a computer. I try to think about how a person would naturally respond and those kinds of things. We worked really carefully on the tone of the show because we wanted to keep it grounded but we also wanted to have it be funny and emotional and complicated. A lot of it is just taking scenes that might feel wacky or melodramatic and putting it through a naturalizer, trying to make it a little more human and normal and grounded.
GD: You’ve got the second season that’s just been announced. I’m sure you don’t wanna spoil anything but can you tell us anything about how you’re gonna be exploring her character next year in terms of body positivity, her journey as a woman, her relationships?
AB: With the first season we only had six episodes so that’s not a lot of real estate to go really deep and it went by really quickly. It really became a character study and I think what we’d like to do now having those in our back pocket is expand her world a little bit and get more into some of the other characters in her life and also to show that confidence isn’t just a switch that you can flip and it’s easy. It’s an everyday push-pull that every person is dealing with. If you’re someone who’s had not a lot of boundaries for most of your life, how do you suddenly enact boundaries and have hard lines about how you will and won’t be treated if you’ve never done that before?
GD: I wanted to ask you about “Saturday Night Live,” since I have you. You got your first Emmy nomination last year for acting. You previously competed for Music and Lyrics. First of all, what did you think when you saw that you’d been nominated for performing for the first time?
AB: I was truly shocked. I didn’t even know that Emmys were being announced so I woke up and was like, “Whoa, my phone’s going crazy.” It was a total surprise and a total honor. It was such a fun night. That night, “SNL” won an Emmy, which was really special. It was incredibly cool and really, really fun.
GD: What have been some highlights for you in terms of characters you’ve played? We’ve seen you do Meghan McCain recently to great acclaim. I don’t know if you’re still doing Sarah Huckabee Sanders ‘cause she hasn’t been doing press briefings lately. What have been some highlights for you?
AB: Gosh, tough to choose. I’ve done a lot of sketches with Kate [McKinnon] this year that were really fun. We’ve done a couple Updates together and a couple other sketches. I can never choose and also it’s such a blur. I can’t even remember it at this point. I’ve lost it all. I did “Sarah HuckaPM.” It was like a commercial parody that was really fun where I got to do a lot of stunts. That was a fave of mine.
GD: Maybe it might be easier to ask in terms of the guest hosts who have come on. Do those help jog some of your memories of favorite sketches or favorite performances?
AB: Yeah, but I can’t remember! You’ve truly revealed me as a dog’s brain (laughs).
GD: Let me ask you this. So much of your material comes from current events, Huckabee Sanders, for instance. Do you ever look at the week as it’s unfolding and think, “That’s what I’m gonna do. I know exactly what sketch I’m gonna be doing this week,” or is still a surprise for you?
AB: It depends because still at “SNL,” so much of it ends up happening on Friday or the news story of the week happens later in the week. I usually just take it as it comes. “SNL” has made me really good at not planning. I can just ride with it now. Definitely there are times where things come up where I’m like, “Oh, I think I could do this lady.”
GD: How have your years on “Saturday Night Live” prepared you to do this show, “Shrill”?
AB: Tonally, there’s not a lot that’s similar but really what you’re doing when you have a sketch at “SNL” is you pitch it on Monday, you write it on Tuesday, you read it on Wednesday, you rewrite it on Thursday, you rehearse it on Friday and you do it on Saturday. In a lot of ways, that’s like a mini-model for making a television show. We have to pitch the television show, then someone bought it, then we had to write it, then you rewrite it and you shoot it. It’s the same concept in a lot of ways so having done that for seven years, I’ve gotten better at communicating what I want and what I don’t want and what I expect from costume designers or set designers and all the things that you had to do to make a show, the nitty-gritty of actually making TV. Beyond the writing, it takes a ton of experts at these different departments to make it all come together. I think being at “SNL” has truly made me a producer and then being at “Shrill” has made me a real deal producer.
GD: Let me wrap up with one more “Shrill” question. I’ve heard from a lot of women who have seen this show say that they feel as though their story is being told finally and that they’re being seen for the first time. What does it mean to you to hear something like that about this show?
AB: Oh my gosh, it’s the most overwhelming, magical thing in the world. It’s honestly more than I could’ve ever hoped. The messages I get about the show are so overwhelming and incredibly touching to me. It really is the fuel in my gas tank as far as moments where I felt scared to do a sex scene or moments where I felt scared to say some of the things that we do on camera. These ladies are really my guiding light in the darkness. It means so much.
GD: Aidy, it was such a pleasure talking with you. It’s a wonderful show. I look forward to Season 2. Thank you for your time.
AB: Thank you.