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From Second City stage actor to Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” anchor in less than two years, Oak Park native Cecily Strong has taken the fast track to TV comedy stardom. In an exclusive interview, the 30-year-old performer connects with SNL alumna and “Debbie Downer” creator Rachel Dratch about her comedy influences, her craving for Old Jerusalem’s Greek salad, and how Chicago’s comedy scene was perfect preparation for the big time.
CECILY STRONG: Hi, Rachel!
RACHEL DRATCH: Hi! Isn’t it weird we’ve never met before?
CS: I think I said hi to you in the hallway once, or wanted to.
RD: Yeah, I think I saw you—it was one of your first shows at the very beginning. I was like, “I think that’s her,” but then I wasn’t sure, and it might have been an awkward interlude with you in the hallway. But not a formal “hey.” So anyway, what town are you from in the Chicago area?
CS: I’m from Oak Park.
RD: Okay. When you were growing up, did you say, “I want to be on SNL, I want to be a comedian”? Were you a drama geek?
CS: I was a real drama geek, but I also was like, “I definitely want to be on SNL.” My friend Susanna and I would copy all of the sketches at this lodge in Michigan we went to every summer, and we were basically, like, the Super Fans.
RD: I think that’s how we all got our start. Were you the class clown type?
CS: I definitely was. There was this great teacher I loved so much, and she really wanted to like me, but I was always in trouble for talking. And then I did a lot of theater; I grew up in Chicago theater, too. When I was in fifth grade, I was cast in Pope Joan at the Bailiwick.
RD: You were a child star. You were a Chicago child star.
CS: I was a Chicago child actress.
RD: And it didn’t ruin you for later. I’m impressed.
CS: I think that’s just a Chicago thing.
RD: Minus the child-star part, it sounds like we had very similar backgrounds. I was always a drama geek talking too much in class. Did you go to college or did you go straight to Chicago and start improv?
CS: I did go to college. My senior year I went to Chicago Academy of the Arts, and I really liked that environment, so I got my BFA in Theater from California Institute of the Arts.
RD: Oh, wow! So you really knew you wanted to be an actor.
CS: Yeah, I took my first drama class when I was 3 or something. I started performing around the house when I was very young.
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RD: Then what brought you to the whole improv thing, if you’re coming from CalArts and you’re doing drama classes?
CS: When I was at CalArts, I remember every freshman would do an Angels in America scene. And I was doing one of those scenes, and people were laughing so much. Then a lot of my teachers told me, “You should go into comedy more; keep doing comedy.” I had one teacher tell me to take a class at the Groundlings. I didn’t listen to him until after I graduated. I was in LA, and I really didn’t feel like I had a place there. I didn’t want to audition to be girlfriends and I didn’t look like a model, so I finally took that Groundlings class and really loved it, so it was sort of like, “Oh, this is what I should be doing.” I moved back to Chicago so I could do comedy at Second City and be closer to family.
RD: So how long were you at iO [Theater] before the SNL audition came up?
CS: I took classes at iO, and I performed there with Virgin Daiquiri and sometimes with The Deltones. And I worked at the box office, which was a big thing. Charna [Halpern] was always very nice to me, and she pushed me to audition. I was a little nervous, thinking you only get one shot, and if I wasn’t truly ready, I didn’t want to blow it.
RD: How did it work when you found out you got the job at SNL? Because everyone has one of those memories.
CS: It was an all-summer thing. The first audition was in the very beginning of July in Chicago, and that was already crazy. Then they asked eight of us to come for drinks at the hotel—it was like speeddating. After every round you were like, “Push it from your brain, push it from your brain, because this isn’t going to happen.” Then a couple of days later I got a call that I was going to be flown out to New York for an all-girls audition. Aidy [Bryant] came, too, so it was nice to have each other there. And then I got flown back to Chicago, and the next day, I got an e-mail that said, “Can you come out in three days for a meeting?” And Aidy and I go out there, just to those meetings. Lorne [Michaels] wasn’t even there, so I said, “Well, I’m not being hired right now.” And then a month went by and I’m thinking again, “I’m not gonna get this.” So I got a job—I worked, like, four jobs—and then I got a call to do a new five minutes, and it would be another screen test—boys and girls. So I went, came back to Chicago, still touring. And then got a call to go back to New York, so on the fourth trip out was when they told me.
RD: So then you got the call. [Dramatically] Tell me about the moment, Cecily, when you got the call.
CS: It was crazy. Well, every call was like, “I passed.” And every taxi ride to the airport I was crying to even be that close. But the day I met with Lorne—and you always leave a little confused—and then [producer] Lindsay [Shookus] called me up and was like, “You’re hired. Get out here Monday.” I left the building and just walked around New York; I mean it was so dramatic in my head: “This is my city!” And you get to work in NYC and enjoy this club that I’ve always wanted to be a part of. I think it was just a lot of crying.
RD: What about the whole "Weekend Update" thing? Has that changed your experience there? I remember [Amy] Poehler would say Lorne said, “Once you do ‘Weekend Update’ you’re going to be super-famous because everyone hears your name every week.”
CS: People know your name. Belushi, Chevy Chase… It was unexpected and I was sort of like, “I’ll wait to see it happen before I believe it’s real.” I think he told me in June that he wanted me to do it, and then when it was in The New York Times in August I was like, “Wow, I guess I’m gonna do it for real.” The first episode I was just holding back sobs. I was so happy. I was like, “What can I do next year now?” Every year has been something amazing.
RD: What do you do on your breaks? Because people don’t know this, but we do get these kind of chunky breaks. Are you a big traveler, or do you go to Chicago a lot?
CS: I’m starting to be a traveler. I’ll go back to Chicago to visit family, always on the holidays, of course. I would have traveled a lot more in my life if I ever had money to do it, so now that I have a little bit…
RD: Now that you’re rich!
CS: Now that I’m super loaded, as you know. I went to Hawaii.
RD: Oh, wow! Nice. I was going to ask you about the whole Chicago thing. What are your favorite Chicago hangs?
CS: I used to go to Gaudi Café a lot for dinner over on Ashland and Erie. My first apartment here after LA was in West Town.
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RD: The cool thing about Chicago was—when I moved there, anyway—you can be 24 years old and have an amazing apartment. You might be sharing with roommates, but the apartments there are so nice. So did you have a great apartment?
CS: It was pretty good. I mean it was huge compared to what I have now, and it was really cheap.
RD: And where else do you hang? When you come back, where’s the place you go?
CS: Well, because I lived in Old Town later on, I still like to go to Old Jerusalem, and Thai Aroma was a big one. [Old Town] Ale House, too.
RD: Oh yeah. My hangout on Monday night while doing The Second City, because that was our one night off, was always Café Iberico, at LaSalle and Chicago. It’s tapas, and I used to go there once a week, and I still go there whenever I come to Chicago. I was going to ask you, if you were a total diva and you could get one food sent to you once a month from Chicago, what would it be?
CS: It would probably be a little Greek salad from Old Jerusalem. They’re my favorite Greek salads; it’s just so simple. I don’t know what they do.
RD: Everyone always says “Chicago pizza,” but that’s kind of a gut bomb.
CS: I love pizza, and I love cheese… but Greek salad.
RD: All right. We’ll get that on dry ice for you. When you were little, though, you watched SNL and everything—who were your influences? It doesn’t have to be SNL and it doesn’t have to be me, but who were your influences?
CS: [Laughs] My family was very into comedies, so when I was little we all watched SNL together, Marx Brothers movies, Monty Python; we loved Tracey Ullman, I Love Lucy. My brother and I always would watch The State, and whatever was on MTV at the time—The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-Head.
RD: That’s a great comedy university that you just listed. Back to Chicago, how do you think being a part of the comedy scene here prepared you for SNL?
CS: Well, it’s really an ensemble environment, and Chicago theater, in general, is that way. That really helps on the show and being able to write with people; I feel like I’m very laid-back about letting go of ideas if they don’t work. I’m okay with stinkers. My friend Abby says, “They can’t all be winners.”
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RD: Are there any causes that you feel passionate about?
CS: I worked at Planned Parenthood in Chicago for a long time in the corporate office, and I’ll be back for an event with them in April. And I really like PAWS. My mom got her dog, “my little brother” Emerson, from PAWS. Those are my big Chicago ones. I donate to Best Friends, another animal one; St. Judes, of course… Anything [having to do with] women’s rights, gay rights, or animal rights I’m a sucker for.
RD: Taking a step back and looking at the past couple of years of your life, did you imagine two years ago that you’d be where you are now?
CS: No, not at all. At that point two years ago, I was like, “You know what? If this is what it is, I’m going to be fine with this, because I’m getting to do what I love—getting to perform at iO and Second City.” I was hardly making any money, but I was surviving. So this is just such a bonus on top of that. And the friends I have in New York and a new relationship and the career, I could cry I’m so happy. It’s such a dream. And getting to meet people who are your heroes—it’s unreal.
RD: Whoa. Top that! Now I feel like I should ask you some weirdo question to finish things off. Do you believe in ghosts?
CS: I do believe in ghosts because my apartment is haunted. I saw a medium, and she told me I can’t have a residual ghost, but I have problems with boundaries, so I’m bringing ghosts home.
RD: [Laughs] I love that I actually got a good answer. Your apartment in New York or Chicago?
CS: In New York.
RD: I love it. Have you seen this ghost?
CS: Well, I kept thinking there was something in my doorway. My best friend from California—she’s a little weird like me and believes in ghosts—she was like, “Oh, that closet door opened in the middle of the night.” Sometimes my printer goes off, and my lights went off, and [my boyfriend] Michael told me, “It’s you; it’s your energy.” It turns out, I’m haunted; it’s not my apartment. But I have to say, “Are you from the white light of God?” The medium told me to ask them. They have to answer honestly. It makes me laugh if I ever get scared.
RD: All right. Well, I’m going to use that if I ever see a ghost.
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February 2, 2016