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Cecily Strong Feels Good Whether or Not She Returns to SNL

Cecily Strong. Photo: Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Cecily Strong’s new book, This Will All Be Over Soon, isn’t what you expect from a Saturday Night Live cast member’s first memoir. It’s a dispatch from the darkest days of 2020 documenting both the shared anxieties of those early pandemic months, including her partner Jack contracting COVID that March, and her own personal mourning after the loss of her cousin to glioblastoma. Strong isn’t afraid of really sitting in that grief and uncertainty, but the book — which began as a personal diary before turning into a larger project — comes off as oddly hopeful. Now, with a second Emmy nomination and a starring role in Apple TV series Schmigadoon, we spoke with Strong about making her diary public, musicals, and whether or not she’s returning to SNL.

Hi! Where are you calling from right now? 
I’m in Hudson Valley.

Are you still gardening? 
Yes! I actually just came from there, and I have green beans! I’m very excited.

Congratulations on your book. How are you feeling at this very moment, days before letting this book out into the world? 
I’m excited, I’m nervous. I’m not even sure, because it’s such a new thing for me. I have my dad coming to town for our one live book event, so that’s on my mind — getting to see him, and sharing this with him, and he’ll meet Jack’s family. It’s in Great Barrington, and Heidi [Gardner] and Bowen [Yang] are helping me out and coming to Massachusetts to moderate this little book event. So there’s enough going on to distract me from any worthless anxiety that won’t even matter in four days.

What’s been Jack’s reaction to the book rolling out? It’s very personal.
I certainly talked to him throughout, and anything he was in, or where I mentioned him, I would send to him, just to make sure he was okay with it. He waited until the end to read it all. For everybody in the book that I could, I talked to about it to make sure that they felt that they weren’t violated. I never wanted to tell someone else’s story, if telling it would be hurtful in any way and not helpful to them.

This book is an intimate, vulnerable memoir. It’s literally diary entries. How does sharing this with the public compare to the feeling of performing and finally releasing something like Schmigadoon?
Obviously 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? Then you don’t like me. And I can’t try to make everybody like me. Hasn’t worked ever.

Walk me through the process of how this went from being a journal you were keeping to a book.
I had written the first essay that became the beginning of the book, and I don’t even know why I wrote that. I think it was from 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’s going on? And then finally being able to sit and write, it felt really good to get things out. Then I shared it with a couple of people and the response was really nice, and I just kind of kept writing. Then I would go, Okay, I think I’m done. And then I was like, But what happens if I keep writing? Then I talked to my agents about it, and we weren’t really sure, but my publisher is amazing and he really shaped the book so much — helping it become what it is today, asking me questions. But I wanted to keep it super-organic and honest and authentic, and not ever feel like it was a chore, or like I was forcing something to be there that wasn’t.

When you say during those early pandemic weeks you weren’t able to write, do you mean keeping a diary, or creative writing projects, or work?
On SNL, our schedule is that we’re used to writing weekly. But I wasn’t able to do anything. I wasn’t able to put thoughts down in any way because my anxiety was so crazy and my depression was so bad. Going between those two took over, and there wasn’t much brain space left.

Because the book is laid out like a diary, there are all of these markers that transport you back to specific memories of the first year of COVID, from that early confusion, to days when the whole country was mourning like when Chadwick Boseman died, intertwined with your own personal moments. It’s effective at transporting a reader to where you were and how you felt at all of these points. Do you see this as a snapshot of a historical moment? Or are we past that point?
No, I think we are certainly still in it. I’m still like, I could write more today. Here’s another coda, or something that ties back to what I was saying. I definitely wanted to come from a place of, I am one person among billions, and this is my experience. And I think a lot of other people are going through similar experiences in some ways. At the same time, personally, it was great therapy for me and put me in a much better headspace. To feel like you’re talking to somebody, even if it’s your cousin somewhere in time and space, or an audience, or friends that you’ve lost, it’s a way to communicate in a time of isolation.

In the book, you write about how you went to Vancouver to film Schmigadoon in September of last year. But was preproduction in the months leading up to it? We didn’t have a model for creating a show in a pandemic a year ago. 
It was chaotic and sort of in and out. Initially, I was like, There’s 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 really were good about outlining, “This is how every hour of your day will be spent,” until I felt very comfortable and safe. It still was a bit of a leap of faith, but definitely was always my dream job. I’m so, so happy we got to do it. Similar to the book, I also think Schmigadoon did a miraculous job on my heart and my head, healing me again from my own trauma from this past year.

You’re beloved for your character work on SNL, but Schmigadoon is such a treat, to get to watch you spend so much more time with a character, and get to play subtler and fuller. 
Thank you for saying that, I really appreciate it.

Oh yeah, every Saturday night we just become a Cecily and Bowen fan club over here.
Add me to the Bowen fan club. I just adore him. And yeah, it was a different experience, obviously. I always wanted to be a character actor. I came up in theater. SNL is a good marriage of the two, but it certainly was a different experience for me, even being number one on a call sheet, or going, Wait, you want me to look attractive every time I’m on camera? I’m supposed to look pretty today, how bizarre.

You are so extremely good at playing extremely dumb and ill-informed characters, and it’s fun to see you play this normal-ish person.
I know how to play a doctor!

How has the past year made you rethink, if at all, your professional and creative ambitions? 
I am over the moon. I couldn’t be happier about Schmigadoon and this book. And it’s certainly reinforced how I’ve gone about my career, and it’s made me excited about being open to something that seems different or not what I expected to be doing this time last year. It’s definitely got me more open and less afraid of going off the beaten path, career wise.

This is all my way of leading up to, and I know you may not have an answer yet, but I have to ask—
It’s totally fine, and I’m never bothered by it. You’re asking about SNL, right?

We need to know! It’s August; we’re approaching a new season. Have you decided if you’re returning?
It’s very insane, and it’s not even like I’m hiding anything when I say I fully have not figured it out yet. So again, I would love to go back; I would also love to have that be my end. I don’t have an answer yet. But I’m feeling good either way, which is, you know, celebrate that when you can.

In the book, you have a story about going to an Airbnb in Florida with all of those corny wooden signs on the walls, and this season there was a sketch riffing on those. Did that come from you talking about that story with friends at the show? 
No, I wish. I just lucked into getting to do that one. Kent Sublette wrote that. And I just thought it was so funny — just a simple, really funny idea. I was like, “Kent, this has to go into the show, because we all need those signs.”

If the NBC gift shop started selling them for individual cast members, what would the Cecily sign be? 
The one I kept was “Hey barkeep, I wanna die tonight.”

I didn’t realize until reading your book that you’re such a women’s sports fan. One of your SNL audition impressions was a WNBA player. Have you been watching the Olympics? 
I’ve been so bad. Because of what I’m doing, I’ve only gotten to see highlights, but of course I’m trying to keep up with my favorite team in the world [the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team] and cheering for them. Also, I’m nervous for the athletes, so that is making it hard to watch wholeheartedly, just because of the COVID of it all and where the world is. It’s making it a little harder to watch. I can’t add on the anxiety of not knowing if they’ll win. So I have to know the results, and then I can go back and watch 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 definitely want to see Moulin Rouge because of Aaron [Tveit].

He’s so great in Schmigadoon
So great. I’m so delighted. It was fun being there and watching that cast, and it’s exciting to know that everybody shines so much. It’s exciting to see everybody get their moment. Because we asked people to cross a closed border and to quarantine for two weeks, and Aaron, I think, was there the longest. His days were spread apart.

Last question: Are you still keeping a diary? 
I’m not in the same way, but I’m still writing off and on in the way that I was for my whole life. Last summer was more of an exercise. It was different. Sitting down to write, it got me to make connections. I would discover things and they felt like little gifts. I haven’t been doing the exercise of doing it that often, but if I need to write someday, I’ll sit and write.

Thanks for chatting. I’m watching week-to-week, so looking forward to the finale of Schmigadoon
It’s so weird to me that people are watching it that way. I think I’ve watched it 800 times!

Sending good vibes to you and your garden. 
Keep that cucumber growing!

Cecily Strong Feels Good Whether or Not She Returns to SNL