From “Sara Lee” to “Schmigadoon!,” Cecily Strong Has the Range

"That's one of those sketches that plays quieter in some rooms and then very, very loudly in other rooms."

Cecily Strong has the range, and the Emmy nominations to prove it.

A mainstay on NBC’s Saturday Night Live since 2012, the veteran comedian and actress is expanding her portfolio this year with some exciting new projects, including her memoir This Will All Be Over Soon, due out in August, and Apple TV+’s musical comedy Schmigadoon!, out now. Also: The 2019 SNL sketch “Sara Lee,” which stars Strong alongside Bowen Yang, Julio Torres, and “Watermelon Sugar” rocker Harry Styles, still lives rent-free in my head.

NewNowNext caught up with Strong to chat about making Sara Lee the bread for gays, appearing as a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 4, and keeping the laughs coming during a pandemic.
 

Hey Cecily! Congrats on your most recent Emmy nomination for SNL!

Thanks so much. I’m in great company. So happy for the show.

Absolutely. Right off the bat, I need you to know I’m a huge fan of the “Sara Lee” sketch with Harry Styles from 2019. I quote it, like, once a week.

That’s all Julio [Torres] and Bowen [Yang], I have to say. They’re geniuses. I jump at any chance to work with Julio, especially with him not really being a writer on the show anymore, so whenever he’s a part of a sketch, it’s like, “Oh, please let me do the Julio sketch.” And obviously, Bowen is just absolutely brilliant and delightful. And Harry Styles — what a great show he had. He was so good at it. That’s one of those sketches that plays quieter in some rooms and then very, very loudly in other rooms. So I’m glad Harry went all in on that one. I think that’s where I give the host credit too, for knowing like, “This is a great sketch. We’ve got to do this one.”

My girlfriend reminded me this morning that you were a guest judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars in 2019, too. What was that like?

I can’t believe you can pull up memories from 2019. I’m impressed. [Laughs] That was one of the greatest moments of my life. It was so much fun. And I didn’t know I was doing All Stars because they’re very secretive. We went on set, and my friend Joel was with me and he was like, “Okay, here’s the people that haven’t posted because I think you’re doing an All Stars. I think that’s what they’re filming now.” I had all these social media detectives. But it was so exciting to see. Queens I loved, and then talking to Ru. I have a wig drawer in my house in L.A., and now I also have a bunch of heels in different sizes, which was Ru’s suggestion.

Oh, that’s brilliant. I’m so glad you had a blast.

It was like what church feels like to a lot of people, I imagine.
 

Let’s talk about Schmigadoon!. The show is so fun! What made you say yes to the project?

I think I got officially attached in 2018. But it sounded interesting. Although, when someone explains the concept of the show, you just kind of go, “Okay,” and you don’t really get it until you see it. So I didn’t really get it until I had been sent the first script. And I was like, “Oh my God, okay. I love this.” It’s super funny, but it’s also really sincere and sweet and lovely. I’ve always loved comedy with a heart more than anything that’s kind of mean, so it is everything I like, all in one place.

And the cast is absolutely stacked, too. Was there anyone you were super excited to work with?

Truly, all of them. And Peppermint makes a special guest appearance, which was a huge deal for me. While we’re honoring Broadway in this time, I thought it was really important. Peppermint made history on Broadway, so I wanted that to be represented too. I think that’s my favorite Easter egg. It’s not a musical thing, but that’s okay.

What’s your favorite musical of all time? It could be classic, contemporary…

I love so many, so it’s hard to say. I say Into the Woods a lot because I love a lot of the songs. I love Bernadette Peters singing live in concert, “No One Is Alone.” But also I think I really love Gypsy. I think Gypsy is so ridiculous and campy, and I love making people watch it with me.

I also wanted to talk about making comedy during the pandemic. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Schmigadoon! was filmed during the pandemic, right? What was that like?

Well, it was at first very scary. I said no twice. I said no to my dream job, to something I really wanted to do and loved so much, because I was really scared. It was scary to cross a closed border [to Vancouver, Canada], and it’s scary to work when we’re trusting these safety measures. But by the end of it, I just felt so lucky that I’d done it, and I got to go be in this magical place and sharing our love for musical theater and performing, and just our love for humanity and getting to say things to each other that we don’t normally get to say. It really did a lot of good things for me, and I felt very kind of healed a little bit. And it helped me to go then do SNL, which some weeks were scary going to work.

As an actress and comedian, how have you personally navigated crafting jokes and keeping people laughing during such perilous and unprecedented times?

I did a lot of writing last year, which helped, and I think just kind of being gentle with myself and being honest. I wasn’t ready to go back to SNL at home for that first episode last year. I talked to my friend, Erin, who is a producer, and she was very nice. I was like, “Look, I want to be ready and I want to do this. I’m just not there this week, but I promise I’ll get there.” She was very sweet about that, and the show has been very… they’ve been good with us, and I felt very taken care of. And I think that’s the key, is just not forcing anything and trying to listen to myself and asking, “What do I need this day?” Just trying to listen to myself and being honest when I’m not okay and when I am okay.

Simon & Schuster

That’s so real. You wrote your forthcoming memoir, This Will All Be Over Soon, during 2020, right? Can you tell me more about that?

I lost my little cousin, Owen, to glioblastoma in January 2020, and I hadn’t really been able to process that loss. And then all of a sudden, the world shut down. There was COVID-19, so I just was writing every day and processing that, and kind of in trying to understand my cousin and how he kept his outlook. He was so positive and so strong and courageous and funny. He had this year and a half where he had brain cancer, and he managed to have the greatest year of his life, he said. He fell in love; he danced on every dance floor, and he had a band and he would do karaoke. He lived a great life even with this looming over him. And trying to understand how he did that was really good as I was sort of going through something unpredictable and unexpected and unknown and scary.

I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m glad you were able to find healing through the writing process.

Thank you. Yeah, it was really good. He’s been a good navigator for me.

What do you hope people take away from the memoir?

That’s the thing with this book — when people say, “I really related,” I’m always like, “Oh, does that mean…” But I hope that it makes people able to share or even think about their own experiences. It made me feel like that’s a really good, actively positive way to share Owen and that loss. That’s the other thing: There’s so much that happens throughout life that we don’t necessarily process at the time, but there was just so much in the last year alone. I think there’s still a lot of trauma around, and I don’t think people are really even aware of what’s going on inside them and what happened to them. So maybe, if anything, even if people take a second to be like, huh, I wonder I’m feeling that way.

Schmigadoon! is streaming now on AppleTV+; This Will All Be Over Soon hits shelves on August 10.

Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Probably drinking iced coffee or getting tattooed.
@_sammanzella