Cecily Strong on SNL, Schmigadoon and her new book
Photo: Charles Sykes / Bravo / NBCU Photo Bank / NBCUniversal via Getty Images
Cecily Strong’s new book, It will all be over soon, is not what you would expect from a Saturday Night Live the early memoirs of the actor. This is a dispatch from the darkest days of 2020 documenting both the shared anxieties of these first months of the pandemic, including his partner Jack contracting COVID in March, and his own personal mourning following the loss of his cousin glioblastoma. Strong isn’t afraid to really sit back in this grief and uncertainty, but the book – which started out as a diary before morphing into a larger project – turns out to be oddly hopeful. Now with a second Emmy nomination and a starring role in the Apple TV series Schmigadoon, we spoke with Strong about publishing his diary, his musicals, and whether or not he returned to SNL.
Salvation! Where are you calling from right now?
I am in the Hudson Valley.
Do you still garden?
Yes! Actually, I just came from there, and I have green beans! I’m very excited.
Congratulations on your book. How are you feeling right now, days before you let this book out into the world?
I’m excited, I’m nervous. I’m not even sure, because it’s such a new thing to me. I have my dad coming to town for our only live book event, so it’s on my mind – to see him and share that with him, and he’ll meet Jack’s family. It’s in Great Barrington, and Heidi [Gardner] and Bowen [Yang] help me and come to Massachusetts to moderate this little book event. So there is enough to do to distract me from any unnecessary anxiety that won’t even matter in four days.
What was Jack’s reaction to the book’s release? It’s very personal.
I certainly talked to him all along, and whatever he did, or where I mentioned it, I would email him, just to make sure he was okay with it. He waited until the end to read it all. For everyone in the book that I could, I spoke about it to make sure they felt they weren’t raped. I never wanted to tell someone else’s story, if telling it was hurtful in any way and wouldn’t be of any use to them.
This book is an intimate and vulnerable memory. They are literally journal entries. How does sharing with the audience compare to feeling like playing and finally releasing something like Schmigadoon?
It’s clear that it’s super different. I feel more vulnerable and less vulnerable in a way, because if someone doesn’t like the book it’s like, Well what can I do? So you don’t love me. And I can’t try to make everyone like me. Never worked.
Explain to me how it went from a journal you kept to a book.
I had written the first essay which became the beginning of the book, and I don’t even know why I wrote that. I think it was not being able to write for those two weeks in my apartment where it was like, Do I have COVID? Is Jack going to die? What is going on? And then finally being able to sit down and write, it was really good to get things out. Then I shared it with a few people and the response was very pleasant, and I kind of kept writing. So I would go Okay, I think I’m done. And then I was like, But what if I keep writing? Then I told my agents about it, and we weren’t really sure, but my editor is amazing and he shaped the book so much – helping it become what it is today, asking me questions. Questions. But I wanted to keep it super organic, honest, and genuine, and never feel like it was a chore, or like I was forcing something to be there that wasn’t.
When you say that during those first weeks of the pandemic you weren’t able to write, do you mean keep a journal, or creative writing projects, or work?
On SNL, our schedule is that we are used to writing every week. But I couldn’t do anything. I wasn’t able to put my thoughts in any way because my anxiety was so crazy and my depression was so severe. Going between those two took over, and there wasn’t much room left for the brain.
Because the book is presented as a diary, there are all these markers that take you back to specific memories of the first year of COVID, from that early confusion, to the days when the whole country was in mourning like when. Chadwick boseman dead, intertwined with your own personal moments. It’s effective in transporting a reader to where you were and how you felt at all these points. Do you see it as a snapshot of a historical moment? Or are we past this stage?
No, I think we’re definitely still in it. I’m still like, I could write more today. Here is another coda, or something that ties in with what I was saying. I really wanted to come from a place of, I am one of billions, and this is my experience. And I think a lot of other people have similar experiences in some ways. At the same time, personally, it was great therapy for me and put me in a much better headspace. Feeling like you’re talking to someone, even if it’s your cousin somewhere in time and space, or an audience, or friends you’ve lost, is a way to communicate in times of isolation.
In the book you tell how you went to Vancouver to film Schmigadoon in September of last year. But was it preproduction in the months leading up to it? We didn’t have a model to create a pandemic show a year ago.
It was chaotic and kind of back and forth. At first I was like, There is no way. I was terrified. I think I said no, which, imagine saying no to your dream job. That’s how scared I was. They were really good at describing: “This is how every hour of your day will be spent” until I felt very comfortable and safe. It was always a leap of faith, but it was definitely my dream job. I am so, so happy that we were able to do this. Similar to the book, I also think Schmigadoon did a miraculous work on my heart and my head, healing me again from my own trauma from last year.
You are loved for your character work on SNL, corn Schmigadoon is a real treat, to see you spend a lot more time with a character and play in a more subtle and complete way.
Thanks for saying that, I really appreciate it.
Oh yeah, every Saturday night we become a Cecily and Bowen fan club here.
Add me to the Bowen Fan Club. I just love it. And yes, it was a different experience, obviously. I’ve always wanted to be a character actor. I came to the theater. SNL is a good marriage of the two, but it was definitely a different experience for me, even being number one on a call sheet, or go, Wait, do you want me to look attractive every time I’m on camera? I’m supposed to be pretty today, it’s weird.
You’re extremely good at playing extremely stupid and uninformed characters, and it’s fun to see yourself playing this normal person.
I can play doctor!
How has the past year made you rethink, if at all, your professional and creative ambitions?
I am on the moon. I couldn’t be happier Schmigadoon and this book. And it certainly strengthened the way I have conducted my career, and it made me excited to be open to something that feels different or that isn’t what I expected to do. at this time last year. It definitely made me more open and less afraid to think outside the box, from a career perspective.
It’s my whole way of doing things, and I know you might not have an answer yet, but I have to ask—
It’s very good and it never bothers me. You ask about SNL, right?
We need to know! It’s August; we are approaching a new season. Have you decided if you are coming back?
It’s very crazy, and it’s not even like I’m hiding anything when I say I haven’t figured it out yet. So again, I would love to go back; I would also like this to be my end. I don’t have an answer yet. But I feel good anyway, which is, you know, celebrate when you can.
In the book, you have a story about going to an Airbnb in Florida with all those tacky wooden signs on the walls, and this season there was a sketch riffing on those. Is it because you were talking about this story with friends on the show?
No, I wish. I just got lucky to be able to do this one. Kent Sublette wrote this. And I just thought it was so funny – just a simple idea, really funny. I was like, “Kent, this has to get into the show, because we all need these signs.”
If the NBC gift shop started selling them for individual actors, what would the Cecily sign be?
The one I kept was “Hey barkeep, I want to die tonight.”
I didn’t realize until reading your book that you were a fan of female sports. One of your SNL Hearing impressions was a WNBA player. Have you watched the Olympics?
I was so bad. Because of what I’m doing I’ve only been able to see highlights but of course I try to follow my favorite team in the world. [the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team] and applaud them. Plus I’m nervous for the athletes which makes it hard to wholeheartedly watch just because of COVID and where the world is. It’s a little harder to watch. I can’t add on the anxiety of not knowing if they are going to win. So I have to know the results and then I can go back and look at everything.
What was the last Broadway show you saw before the pandemic?
I saw the closing of Lobby hero, with Chris Evans, Brian Tyree Henry and Michael Cera.
And what will be the first thing you see when Broadway reopens?
i absolutely want to see red Mill because of Aaron [Tveit].
He’s so good at Schmigadoon.
So good. I am so delighted. It was fun to be there and watch this cast, and it’s exciting to know that everyone is shining so bright. It’s exciting to see everyone enjoying their moment. Because we asked people to cross a closed border and quarantine themselves for two weeks, and Aaron, I think, has been there the longest. His days were scattered.
Last question: Do you still keep a journal?
I’m not the same way, but I still write as I have been all my life. Last summer was more of an exercise. It was different. Sitting down to write allowed me to bond. I was discovering things and it was like little gifts. I haven’t done the exercise of doing it that often, but if I ever need to write, I’ll sit down and write.
Thank you for this chatter. I watch from week to week, so I look forward to the final of Schmigadoon.
It’s so weird to me that people look at him that way. I think I watched it 800 times!
Sending good vibes to you and your garden.
Keep growing that cucumber!