Cecily Strong talks to her former babysitter about her ‘SNL’ success, making her way into the movie biz & staying true to her Oak Park roots.
The last time I spoke to Cecily Strong was in the ’90s, when we lived across the alley from one another in Oak Park. Never mind that we were just four years apart in age; I was her occasional babysitter, and have hazy memories of the two of us sporting friendship bracelets, scrunchies and mom jeans without a hint of irony, watching comedies on VHS and “Saturday Night Live” reruns.
Now when I turn on the TV, Strong is the one making me laugh. It’s 2 ½ years after her “SNL” debut and she’s a veteran cast member who can carry a sketch entirely on her own. She’s a natural on live TV, thanks to the silliness and sense of humor with which she was born and developed on the Chicago improv scene. But Strong, 30, isn’t content limiting herself to the small screen: In April 2015, she’ll headline the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner (“Her political humor is sly and edgy, and it comes with a Chicago accent,” said WHCA President Christi Parsons in a press release) and in late 2015, she’ll leap into the film industry with starring roles in both “Staten Island Summer” and “The Bronze.”
I reconnect with Strong while she’s getting ready to walk her dog Lucy around her New York City neighborhood before heading to 30 Rockefeller Plaza for work that evening. She’s reminiscing as she strolls: “[My passion for acting] started really young. In my preschool, for some reason, there was a drama class and three of us were in it. The name was very Oak Park — it was the Suburban Child Development Center. We had ballet, French and drama — for 3-year-olds. From then on it was just kind of like, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”
It didn’t take long for her parents to get on board. “I was always performing around the house,” says Strong. “So my parents were like, ‘Let’s get you somewhere else, where you can annoy some other people.’” “Somewhere else” turned out to be the renowned Goodman and Bailiwick theaters — at age 10, she auditioned for and landed a part in a Bailiwick production that covered the rather sophisticated legend of the first female Pope. “It was the first, and not the last, time I’ve been involved with something that pissed off the more extreme side of the Catholic Church in Chicago,” she jokes.
In those early years, she religiously studied her comedy idols. “Obviously, I watched SNL,” she says. “I also watched MadTV, ‘The Upright Citizens Brigade Show,’ ‘Kids In the Hall,’ ‘The State’ and ‘Tracy Ullman.’ We watched pretty much everything. My dad would rent Marx Brothers and ‘Monty Python,’ and my mom and I watched the Gilda [Radner] specials together.”
Strong went on to earn a BFA in theater from the California Institute of the Arts, then did the exact opposite of what most aspiring actors do — she left Hollywood and returned to the Midwest. But she had a plan: Much like many of her heroes had done, Strong was determined to kick-start her career on the Chicago comedy scene. For two years, she worked the Second City box office while performing in the touring company, and later, performed at iO. “You always have an audience, you always have a place to do it. You can do [comedy] every night,” she says. “It’s such a big part of culture in Chicago. When I was there it was every day of my life. Doing a show, seeing a show, working at a theater. It’s all you do.”
Despite the years spent honing her skills, Strong nearly skipped the “SNL” auditions at iO in 2012 because she didn’t feel ready. However, iO co-founder Charna Halpern convinced Strong that she was. Halpern was right: After multiple rounds of auditions both in Chicago and New York, Strong was hired. “[When I heard,] I walked the streets of New York and sobbed because somehow my dream had come true. … And because I’m a big-time crybaby,” Strong says.
Since her “SNL” debut, Strong has developed several original characters — Rolling Stone magazine called her Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party an “instant classic” — and even briefly anchored the legendary “Weekend Update” news desk. Like all of the show’s cast members, she’s working behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera, writing scenes for each week’s show. “I always write with James Anderson and Kent Sublette. We usually write [improvisationally], where we just throw ideas around until we all like one and it makes us laugh,” she says. “Sometimes our favorite jokes can come out of a mistake — there was one early version of a scene we do where Kate [McKinnon] and I are ’90s self-help women. We were thinking of a ’90s place the women and their boyfriends would go. Kent, who can speak quietly, said ‘Kurt Cobain,’ and James laughed and screamed ‘Cocoa Bay! I love it!’ So it became a vacation to the concrete beaches of Cocoa Bay.”
For Strong, meeting and working with her comedy heroes has been invaluable — but she’s also not above getting a little star-struck by some of the hosts and celebs that stop by the set. One of the most memorable was Strong’s one-time teenage crush, Leonardo DiCaprio. “We were rehearsing [when he stopped by] and all of a sudden I remembered being 13 and being so in love with this person. There was this 13-year-old girl in my chest who was like, ‘Ahhhhhh!’ ” she laughs. “It was so weird. … I thought, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that little gal still existed.’ You forget sometimes with this job — working and thinking so much about what you’re going to write and how tired you are — but then you step back and realize, ‘Wow, I just worked with a genius,’ ” says Strong.
Her upcoming jump to film isn’t a total departure from the sketch comedy show or her improv roots. “SNL” cast mate Bobby Moynihan and alum Fred Armisen (now of “Portlandia”) co-star with Strong in the coming-of-age comedy “Staten Island Summer,” written by “SNL” head writer Colin Jost and co-produced by “SNL” creator and producer Lorne Michaels. Likewise, in “The Bronze,” Strong acts alongside Second City alumni (and star of HBO’s “Silicon Valley”) Thomas Middleditch and prolific character actor and fellow Illinoisan Gary Cole. “[The directors] let us improvise a lot — that’s what’s fun about working on comedy with comedians,” says Strong.
Between working six days (and nights) a week and making movies whenever she can, Strong doesn’t have time for much else right now, but has plenty of ambitions for her future. “I have these ideas floating around — it’s a major goal of mine, that I could write a couple [movies] for myself,” she says, joking that she’ll probably stick to comedy when she does give it a go. “I don’t know that I’d be great at writing drama. I think it would be like a 12-year-old’s diary.”
Even as a kid, I remember knowing that Strong was destined for greatness on stage and screen — she had an unabashed enthusiasm for the spotlight when so many of us were terrified of standing out. So it’s wonderful to watch the rest of the world take notice of her innate talent. But what I admire most about her is that as her star continues to rise, she’s very conscious to not let it get to her head — she’s still the same down-to-earth Oak Park girl I grew up with. Inspired by the words of Emerson, she regularly reminds herself to “be silly, be honest, be kind,” and, when asked what advice she’d give to aspiring actors, she says, “Stay a nice person.” After this conversation, I can honestly — and proudly — report she’s done just that.
Topper photo by Robert Trachtenberg for Trunk Archive