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encounter

85 Minutes With Cecily Strong

Cecily Strong swings open the door to the Nolita nail salon, pants hello, and reluctantly begins peeling off layers of dark outerwear, revealing a hoodie and a glossy knot of chestnut hair. It’s a sunny afternoon but face-achingly cold out, and she needs a few minutes to thaw, or maybe to catch her breath. The 29-year-old is nearing the end of a breakout debut season on Saturday Night Live, where she has portrayed a teenage queen bee who can’t stop saying awesome; a probably-on-Quaaludes porn star turned Swarovski-crystal endorser; and, most memorably, the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party. (“Open your eyes, people. War, hunger, diseases. It’s like, pick one. Like, if I eat French fries at dinner, then I do the rest of the day good.”) She plays ditzes, basically. She is very good at this.

Strong herself is not particularly ditzy; she comes across as self-aware, maybe a bit cautious. After being instructed to pick out her polish color, Strong examines each tiny bottle on the rainbow-spangled wall while a manicurist waits tentatively behind her. Finally she selects a glittery crimson and then, in a frantic, mitigating move, grabs a more neutral Champagne.

Before she made the cast, Strong worked the Chicago improv circuit, performing with iO and Second City, even doing a four-month stint aboard a Norwegian Cruise Line ship with the Second City cast. “It’s sort of like a cross between vacation and prison,” she says. She was in rehearsal when she got the call saying she was being flown out to New York to meet with Lorne Michaels. “I did a lot of crying,” she remembers. “Happy crying.” The week after her offer, she moved to New York, and two weeks after that, she made her first appearance on the show, at which point she cried again: “The first time Aidy [Bryant, another new cast member] and I saw our names onscreen, we just started bawling,” she says. “You know, Live from New York? It really made us tear up.”

Strong colonizes a seat near the window and offers a hand to the manicurist, who goes at it with a nail file while Strong talks about her first SNL season, which she makes sound like a more fun version of freshman year: She bonded with her new castmates over late-night pizza and the tight quarters of their shared dressing room; slipped inside jokes with her friends back home into her sketches (“I keep it a secret,” she says. “Sometimes it’s only a word”); and spent a good amount of mental energy trying to avoid doing anything foolish. She still winces when she thinks of the time she accidentally stepped in front of the camera during a dress rehearsal. “The audience was laughing; it was like a punch in the gut. I was so mortified, so humiliated,” she says. “I may have shed some tears.”

Her hypersensitivity might help explain why she’s so believable playing the socially oblivious. “I love people who aren’t embarrassed. I’m always embarrassed, so it’s always astonishing to me when people aren’t like that,” she says. “Like, where’s the shame that never left me after junior high?” She turns toward me, torquing her wrists—and risking a major smudge—to tell me that she’s “really into overreactive middle-aged women,” the kind who seem outraged when a stranger bumps into them. “Uh, ow?! That was my foot?!” she yowls, face contorted with mock outrage.

The manicurist waits patiently for Strong to return her fingers to the toweled station while she keeps talking, plotting out the premise of a sketch she’s always wanted to do involving Nancy Reagan hosting a talk show. “She’s just lying on a couch and she doesn’t know who any of the guests are,” Strong explains. “I told this to Seth [Meyers, SNL’s head writer], and he was like, ‘Why would we do that now?’ And I was like, ‘That’s a great question.’ ” Of more immediate concern is whether to add an extra flourish to her freshly painted nails, each of which is now shining like a tiny ruby slipper. (She was brave in the end and stuck to red.) She considers adding some sort of design on top of the lacquer.

Strong wavers, then shrugs theatrically. “Treat yo-self!” she bellows, with perfect Aziz Ansari bravado. She settles on plain pinkies, daisies on her middle fingers, and polka dots on her ring and index fingers. When it comes to her thumbs, the manicurist suggests initials. Strong asks for a C, which is then meticulously painted on in Old English lettering. “Should I do an S on the other?” Strong cocks her head. “Yeah, do an S,” she resolves, then changes her mind and asks for another C instead. “Keep it cool,” she says, as the nail dryers whir.            

*This article originally appeared in the April 15, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.                    

Photo: Ellen Matthews/Courtesy of NBC