Cecily Strong On 'SNL,' 'Schmigadoon!' And Coping In The Early Days Of The Pandemic
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Cecily Strong, is nominated for an Emmy for the second year in a row for her work on "Saturday Night Live." She also stars in the new series "Schmigadoon!," which is a very smart, funny and loving satire of musicals from the '40s and '50s. Strong joined "SNL" as a featured player in 2012. In her second season, she co-anchored Weekend Update with Seth Meyers and then Colin Jost. But she left the desk, preferring to do sketch comedy, which she's great at.
Her characters have included Fox News host Judge Jeanine Pirro, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Melania Trump and the girl you wish you hadn't started a conversation with at a party. Strong also has a new book that will be published tomorrow called "This Will All Be Over Soon." It's a journal of her first year of the pandemic, dealing with anxiety and depression.
Let's start with "Schmigadoon!," which is filled with references to classic musicals, like "Oklahoma!," "Carousel," "The Music Man," "The Sound of Music" and, of course, "Brigadoon." It's streaming on Apple TV+. Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key star as a couple of trying to reinvigorate their relationship by going on a hike designed for couples who need to reconnect. They get lost in the woods, cross over a bridge and suddenly find themselves on what looks like a backlot movie set of a small town in the early 20th century - a town called Schmigadoon.
The women are wearing long, colorful prairie dresses with big petticoats. The men are dressed like they're in old-fashioned barbershop quartets. The townspeople are singing and dancing as if they're in an old musical. Cecily Strong's character loves musicals and is initially charmed. Keegan-Michael Key's character hates musicals and is desperate to leave. But they both soon realize they're trapped in Schmigadoon, where life is a musical.
A leprechaun has explained to the couple - in song - that they can't leave Schmigadoon until they find true love, which means the depth of their love is about to be tested. In this scene, the couple keeps trying to cross the bridge and escape Schmigadoon while bickering about their relationship.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHMIGADOON!")
CECILY STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) I don't understand. Why couldn't we cross?
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: (As Josh Skinner) I mean...
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) What?
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Look, this whole thing is insane. I'm still trying to wrap my head around all of it. But apparently, according to the leprechaun, this isn't true love.
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) So you don't really love me?
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) I didn't say that. Of course I love you.
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Then what are you saying?
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) I'm not saying anything. But apparently, some cosmic verdict has been reached. And we failed. That's all.
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) So you're ready to give up on us because of what a leprechaun said?
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) No. Stop. I am just trying to figure out how to get out of here and get back to reality.
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) But not together.
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) We already tried together.
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) So what? You want to try with other people?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Oh, no - no, no, no, no, no, no. Please, no song. I'll do anything.
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Guys, we're actually in the middle of something.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) You can't plow a field without hitting some stone.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Every steak's bound to have some fat.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) You can't eat a fish without getting some bones. And you can't have love without having a lover's spat.
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Would you leave us alone for just a minute?
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Seriously, please?
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) First, she said something bad to get his gander.
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) Then he says something mean to get her back.
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) Then she complains that he don't understand her.
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) And then he gives her a smack.
(SOUNDBITE OF SMACKING)
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Oh, no, that's not OK - unless it's consensual.
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) It's just a lover's spat.
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) Just 'cause you feuded don't mean that you're concluded.
GROSS: Cecily Strong, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love the show so much. It's brought me such pleasure at a time when I think we all need some pleasure. So how much do you love musicals?
STRONG: Well, first of all, just thank you for saying that. I think there's nothing more thrilling than hearing Terry Gross likes (laughter) your show and (laughter) enjoys it and it has joy from it. I'm also - love the show and get a lot of joy from it. I've always loved musicals. I mean, I think it's certainly been a part of my life since I was little. You know, my grandmother would buy me musicals on VHS. And that's what I'd always rent whenever we'd go to the movie store. And then my uncle is also a Broadway producer. So I've gotten to see a lot of his shows in New York.
GROSS: And he's not just a Broadway producer. He's, like, a really big Broadway producer.
STRONG: (Laughter) Yes. Thank you.
GROSS: Like, among the shows he did was terrific revivals of "Music Man," which is, of course, referenced (laughter) in "Schmigadoon!" and also a terrific revival of "How To Succeed In Business," a Sondheim tribute. So you must have had this idea early on that being in shows was something real people did. I mean, when I was growing up in Brooklyn, I thought people in movies and on Broadway were, like, from another planet. Like...
GROSS: ...They didn't connect to the world I lived in. They just performed, you know?
STRONG: Sure. And I think you're probably not wrong. It feels like a little bit of other-planet behavior - all of us. Yeah. I guess I knew it as a job. And I always wanted to be an actor since I was little.
I think I took my first drama class when I was 3. What - my parents put me in one, I should say. It's not like I drove myself. But I was just always performing around the house. And so I think they thought that might be a good outlet for me. And I wound up never stopping. And I think my uncle probably didn't want me to be an actor as much as I did, just knowing that it was a tough life.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. When you were going to see musicals that your uncle produced...
GROSS: ...Did you get to meet the actors? Did you get to go backstage?
STRONG: I did - and I mean, not always. I saw "Guys And Dolls." I saw "Once Upon A Mattress," which I absolutely loved and really wanted to do. But I certainly - I remember getting to go backstage after "Secret Garden." And actually, my dad took a bunch of pictures. I met Daisy Eagen. And my mom made a little poster for me for my room growing up that said Cecily on Broadway. And she used the playbill and a lot of those pictures. And I had that above my bed until we - I moved out - I think, till I went to college.
GROSS: So your character in "Schmigadoon!" is initially really charmed by the idea that they're, like, living in a world of a musical. And the first morning that you're there, you're having breakfast on the porch. And you're being, you know, waited on by a - you know, a very lovely, very young (laughter) waitress. And she recommends the corn puddin'. And you go like, whoa, what's that? And it's like, you don't know what corn puddin' is?
And so I want to play that scene 'cause it'll give a sense of how people just kind of break out into song around you and how you sometimes just chime right in. And so we'll hear Cecily Strong doing a little solo in part of this as Keegan-Michael Key objects...
GROSS: ...To her participation. So here's another scene from "Schmigadoon!"
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SCHMIGADOON!")
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) I got us corn puddin'. I got the recipe. So if he wants my puddin', he'll have to marry me. Oh, he'll have to marry me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) You put the corn in the puddin' and the puddin' in the bowl. You put the bowl in your belly 'cause it's good for the soul. You put the corn in the puddin' and the puddin' in the bowl. You put the bowl in your belly 'cause it's good for the soul.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing) Who wants corn puddin'?
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) We want corn puddin'.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing) Who wants corn puddin'?
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) We want corn puddin'.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) What?
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Oh, I think they want us to take a verse.
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) And you're not sick?
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Come on. Could be fun.
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) No. Do not.
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble, singing) Never had had corn puddin'.
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Why?
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble, singing) And it may be a waste. But if you've got some extry (ph)...
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Extry?
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble, singing) ...I sure would like a taste.
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) Oh, she sure would like a taste. Corn, corn, corn, corn, corn puddin'. Yum.
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) Yum. That was weird. It was like as soon as I started singing, I knew what to say.
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) That's fantastic. Can we please go now?
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) What? Why?
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) Are you serious? The entire town and you just spent the last five minutes singing about corn pudding.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Did somebody say corn puddin'?
UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (As characters, singing) Corn puddin'. Corn puddin'.
KEY: (As Josh Skinner) That's it. We're leaving.
STRONG: (As Melissa Gimble) OK. Well, that one's on you.
GROSS: That was another scene from "Schmigadoon!," which stars my guest, Cecily Strong, and Keegan-Michael Key.
God, this whole musical is so much fun. It's such a contrast for me seeing the joy in "Schmigadoon!" because everyone in it seems to be enjoying being in it so much. And I was enjoying watching it so much. And the contrast between that and the depression and anxiety you describe in your memoir, which - a lot of your memoir is about living through the pandemic, like, the first almost year of the pandemic. And you shot "Schmigadoon!" during the pandemic. What was it like for you to go from this heightened sense of anxiety and depression to flying to - was it Vancouver?
GROSS: ...To shoot and be in these, like, exuberant, like, joyful production scenes?
STRONG: I said no, actually, at first to going to Vancouver and shooting because I was - I really was afraid, you know? And then it took a while to really understand, here's all of the things we're going to put in place, here's all the safety measures, until I finally felt safe. And then it was just such a gift. You know, really, we talk about escapism, and I had real life escapism, where I flew into this beautiful, magical land of Vancouver, where there's, like, water and mountains and big trees - it was gorgeous - and then to be on those sets that were also gorgeous, and then to be with this amazing group of people. And we are able to do musicals in a time when Broadway is shuttered, and that's so depressing to walk next to.
You know, there were a lot of tears on set, happy tears, just so much love and so much joy and such - we were all just so honored to be there, and it felt like we got to share this magical thing. And you know, everybody that was there was supposed to be there. It kind of felt like that a little bit. And I think a lot of that, you can feel it when you watch the show. And I think that's probably why I enjoy rewatching it so much, is just taking myself back there.
GROSS: Had you been vaccinated when you shot the series?
STRONG: No. No. Because, I mean, we shot last fall, so that wasn't even - I didn't even know we'd get to be vaccinated. So we just were relying on testing.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cecily Strong, and she stars in the new series "Schmigadoon!," which is a loving satire of classic musicals from the '40s and '50s. Her new memoir, "This Will All Be Over Soon," will be published tomorrow. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN HAMLISCH'S "MULTI-TASKING")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Cecily Strong. She's nominated for an Emmy for her work on "Saturday Night Live." She has a new memoir called "This Will All Be Over Soon," and she stars in the new series "Schmigadoon!," a satire of classic musicals from the '40s and '50s.
I know from your new memoir that when "Saturday Night Live" did some episodes with everybody at home, that you were - you didn't want to participate at first, and you didn't do one or two of the shows because you just didn't feel ready to perform, I mean, because you really were in a serious state of depression and anxiety. What did it feel like to be honest and say, I'm not ready, I can't do it yet?
STRONG: You know, luckily, I have producers there and and Lorne, too, and I feel very taken care of by the show. It was only really one episode that I missed and I really wanted to be there. And I think they knew that about me. It wasn't like I'm pulling out. I'm not going to do the show. It was like, in order to do the show next week, I just need to step away this week.
You know, the first show we did, we did the table read on Wednesday. And I think Hal Willner, our music producer, had passed away the night before or something. And it was like, now we're seeing all of each other on Zoom at our first Zoom table read, and it was just so overwhelming. And like, hi, I haven't seen you. Hi. How are you doing? Can you believe this, that we lost Hal, you know? And it was like, now let's read our sketches and see - and then, like, have to film them all by Saturday. And so that's partly why I just wasn't even there. And I was like, I'd also kind of had a breakup kind of the night before. It was all just this crazy bad timing. But of course, like, everything's bad timing over the past couple of years or whatever.
But then, I mean, I did go back, and it was important to me, and it felt good to laugh. And it was a lot of work, which is a good distraction and good to, like, have a job again. And my roommates - my COVID roommates, Matt (ph) and Kevin - were helping me shoot everything. And we were making the sets and making our props and hair and makeup, so it was really - we had a fun little make believe studio here.
GROSS: And Hal Willner, who you mentioned - he died of COVID. So that must have really...
GROSS: ...Kind of brought it home. And you had a boyfriend who got a bad case of COVID, but fortunately not bad enough to end up in the hospital, and he recovered. So like, the reality - COVID was real to you. I mean, it's real to most people, but, I mean, you saw the worst that could happen.
STRONG: Right. And it's like, this is still when New York City is really the epicenter, and our show is so about New York City. And...
GROSS: And this was pretty early in the pandemic, right?
STRONG: Right. Yeah. I think, you know, we were told - we went on our hiatus that was supposed to be our three-week or two-week hiatus in March and then just didn't come back until May.
GROSS: You're nominated for an Emmy, second year in a row.
STRONG: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: That's pretty great. So let's talk a little bit about your work on "Saturday Night Live." I think my favorite character that you've been doing lately is Judge Jeanine Pirro, the Fox News host. You've just really got her down (laughter). Was it your idea to do her, or did someone say, oh, you should do her?
STRONG: No, it actually - I think it was probably Bryan Tucker, who I write with, and I wound up writing a lot of my "Update" characters with them, or sort of those - anybody that's a real - you know, I write Marjorie Taylor Greene with him, and we did Sidney Powell together this year, too. We were in his office, and he was like, have you seen this lady? And he was showing me clips of her, like, doing man on the street interviews. But she kept going, what?
STRONG: And it would, like, end in some crazy, like, exclamation. And we just thought it was so funny, and it was a fun way to play her. And we wrote a sketch, actually, that didn't make it onto the show. It went to dress and not to air. And then kind of like, well, I don't know that we'll ever get to do that again. You know, it's hard. You have to do people that everybody knows. Otherwise, it's hard to get an impression on the show. Luckily for us, but maybe - who knows? - for the greater world - someone else can judge - luckily or not, but she became more popular and more of a household name. So we did her on "Update."
And actually, I flew out of the chair the first time because, you know, I hadn't done much physical comedy on the show at all. So I really was like, come on, everybody. I need to get - I have to practice this fall. I was so, like, mad that no one was letting me have my rehearsal. Because at "Update," you only get to rehearse on Saturday, really.
GROSS: So let's hear a clip of you doing Jeanine Pirro. This was performed after Pirro made anti-Muslim remarks about Representative Ilhan Omar. So here you are on "Weekend Update" as Judge Jeanine Pirro.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
COLIN JOST: Fox News personality Judge Jeanine Pirro returned to television tonight after being suspended two weeks for controversial comments about a Muslim congresswoman. Here to explain is Jeanine Pirro.
STRONG: (As Jeanine Pirro) Judge Jeanine Pirro, and it's up to you to decide just what my whole deal is.
JOST: That's great. So you're back on Fox?
STRONG: (As Jeanine Pirro) That's right. This Mueller report completely exonerated the president, and therefore everybody on the Trump train, woo, woo (ph). So somebody at Fox News said my name into a bathroom mirror three times, and here I am.
STRONG: (As Jeanine Pirro) And Colin, I just want to take this opportunity to say hi to my super fans out there. Mean, horny men lying on in-home hospital beds and white prison gangs who control the remote on Saturdays, thank you for watching.
JOST: You don't have to shout, you know. I can hear you.
STRONG: (As Jeanine Pirro) Can't do it, pal. Mama's got one volume, and it's three chardonnays deep at a crowded party.
GROSS: That's Cecily Strong is Judge Jeanine Pirro. That's just so funny. What did you do to try to capture her voice?
STRONG: You know, we definitely loved the exclamations, you know, saving those for the - what. And then just being loud and over annunciating and trying to have a stern look, you know? She's always got a very gravely serious affectation.
GROSS: There's times on "Update" when Colin Jost has been laughing, like, so hard because you're so funny. And is it hard for you to keep a straight face when he's having trouble keeping a straight face?
STRONG: I almost enjoy it more to see when someone's laughing. Then I kind of want to, like, go further. And you know, there is still an element of, like, you're playing with your friends. And it is - it still feels a bit like controlled chaos, on "Update" especially, where it feels kind of fresh, and we're not exactly sure what's going to happen. And so it makes me want to, like, poke harder. If I think that he's laughing at something, I'll want to hit that harder.
GROSS: Well, let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cecily Strong. She's nominated for an Emmy for her work on "Saturday Night Live." She stars in the new series "Schmigadoon!" that's streaming on Apple TV+, and she has a new memoir. We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "LITTLE ROOTIE TOOTIE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Cecily Strong. She's nominated for an Emmy for her work on "Saturday Night Live." She stars with Keegan-Michael Key in the new series "Schmigadoon!" - about a couple who find themselves trapped in a small town from the early 1900s where life is a musical. The series is streaming on Apple TV+. Strong also has a new memoir called "This Will All Be Over Soon." It's about her life during the first year of the pandemic, when she felt overcome by anxiety and depression. When we left off, we were talking about her characters on "SNL."
So I want to ask you about another character that you've done, and that's the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party. Is that an idea that you originated?
STRONG: Yes. It was my first year talking with Colin. You know, we were getting ready for one of those - I think they were two "Update" specials because it was an election year. And he was trying to help me find things. I was a new cast member. And I was talking about something else, and then I sort of made fun of myself, like, yeah, because, you know, that's - well, that's an important thing for society to hear or something. And then in making fun of myself, we sort of just kept playing with that, and that led into the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party.
GROSS: And who did you think of as being the girl?
STRONG: Well, it was sort of a mix of, like, I'm making fun of myself, and then I'm thinking about people I'd seen on Facebook. And then I remembered, like, hearing my straight, male friends talk about interactions that they'd had, like, with some girl that seems normal, and then it's like, oh, she just said something crazy, and how do I get out of this conversation?
GROSS: Let's hear you as the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party. And this is from the February 20, 2017, edition of "Saturday Night Live." We'll first hear the voice of Michael Che on "Weekend Update."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
MICHAEL CHE: (As himself) With the election only two weeks away, both candidates are trying to get a final message out there to their supporters. Here with her final thoughts on this election is the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party.
STRONG: (As The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party) Hello, Michael Che. Thanks for finally letting a woman on late night TV.
CHE: (As himself) So I assume you're not happy with the election.
STRONG: (As The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party) Here's a thought, Michael - maybe try being woke for a change, OK? 'Cause Kevin can wait, but Syrian refugees can't, OK? And new flash, Michael - 40% of children are just their legs. And that's according to doctors, Michael Che.
CHE: (As himself) Yeah. OK, can you just please tell us about the candidates?
STRONG: (As The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation with at a Party) Please do not man-terrupt (ph) me when I'm wo-making (ph) a point, Michael. This election is a mis-grace (ph), OK? This is a colostomy, Michael Che.
STRONG: (As The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation with at a Party) And I'm sorry. If I can play devil's abacus for just a second, I think we all know the real reason Julian Assange is in jail, and that's 'cause she's a woman. Do you even know what women have to do when we go vote, Michael? We have to show our IUD. I'm sorry. That's outrageous. That's called a double standard.
GROSS: That's really funny. Talk about the process of writing that.
STRONG: That's usually just Colin and I. And we both enjoy malapropisms, I think, as much as each other, so it's a lot of that. Like, what word - what is, like, a word that's in the social lexicon of the moment that this girl would hear and say wrong? Just like the idea, you know, that it's like, you can have so much passion and feelings about these things that you don't really understand and haven't given much thought to and using them to sort of put down other people.
GROSS: I love the way mansplaining becomes, like, don't man-terrupt me.
GROSS: That makes no sense at all.
STRONG: No. She's taken all these concepts and just turned them into something confusing and wrong that she's very passionate about.
GROSS: You did you first paid gig when you were 10. It was a McDonald's commercial that never aired. Do you remember it?
STRONG: Yeah, absolutely I do. I was licking a soft-serve ice-cream cone. And there was no lines; it was all facial expressions. I am eating ice cream, and the voiceover says, like, well, McDonald's now has ice - soft-serve for 37 cents or whatever it was. Thirty-seven cents - it must not be very good, something that - and then I made a face like, huh?
GROSS: Were you thrilled to be doing a commercial?
STRONG: Oh, totally. And I think, you know, getting that job is how I got into the union. So that's when I joined SAG.
GROSS: When you were 10?
STRONG: Yeah. I'd feel safer being a child actor in Chicago. You know, I was much more protected. I did a driver's-ed video for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. I did, like, a video for kids - for schools to show about kids with parents with drug and alcohol problems.
GROSS: A turning point in your young life (laughter) was in 1999 when you were a sophomore in high school. You were 15. You bought some weed with a friend, put it in your backpack, then school security discovered the backpack, and you were actually handcuffed and arrested?
GROSS: Would you describe that experience?
STRONG: It was awful. When I went to - they called me down to security to say they'd found my bag. So right away I was like, oh, God. And then they kind of looked - they made, like, a show of it and looked in every pocket but that pocket and then said, OK, you're good to go. And then they went, oh, wait a minute; there's one more pocket. And, like, I'll never understand why they took joy in that because it was such a huge and awful moment in my life. And, like, we're ending someone's, like, educational career right now in this moment, and you're playing a game with it.
Yeah, I got handcuffed and brought to a cop car and taken to the station. And I was really, like, a kid who sort of wanted to stay under the radar, anyway. You know, I wasn't a super popular kid. And I just - I did theater. And I loved school, so it was really tough being expelled. And even on the tape - like, they do your expulsion hearings, and they're taping it. And then he turns off the tape to say, like, oh, and off the record, you're a great student, and we're sorry to lose you.
GROSS: That had to be off the record?
STRONG: Yeah, exactly. That was my parents' question.
GROSS: To make your point about being a good student, you were a National Merit-commended scholar based on your PSATs. You not only - because you were expelled, you not only weren't allowed to attend the ceremony; you weren't allowed within a three-block radius of where the ceremony was, and you were threatened with arrest if you overstepped that boundary. That strikes me as a little bit crazy. What is your critique of how the school and the police handled you?
STRONG: Well, I actually will say the police had a program that I was really lucky to have. I mean, they - I got it expunged from my record by doing a hundred hours of community service, and I wound up really loving the community service I did. I think with the school, this new superintendent came in, and she made it her thing to have zero tolerance. And I was just part of a wave of kids who were expelled. I wound up being lucky and getting to go to the Catholic school I went to. And there's a bunch of kids who weren't as lucky as I was. And I think it's wrong to throw those kids out.
GROSS: Well, in some ways, maybe it was a good thing because you ended up - after going to Catholic school, you ended up in a performing arts high school, which is where you really fit in.
STRONG: Although, I went back to - I actually went back to public school, which was a tough decision - you know, whether to stay at the Catholic school or go back - because the rules of the expulsion or whatever, they let me back my junior year. But at that point, I think I had started getting pretty depressed, and I - because of the time I missed. I don't have enough gym credits to graduate on time. And so it was like, I was going to be a fifth-year senior, which just felt bonkers. You know, I was a straight-A student up until then. It just felt like, I've fallen through the cracks. So I dropped out. And then, then, we found the art school. And I wound up doing correspondence classes and graduating on time.
GROSS: Oh, yeah. Good. How did it affect your sense of self to be arrested and to be expelled and to think, maybe, you wouldn't even graduate high school?
STRONG: I mean, I think I just felt smaller and smaller and smaller. You know, already it's - I didn't feel like I fit in. And it was hard - you know, I had theater, thank God, and really was comfortable in that world. But to then think I'm - not only do I not fit in, I'm not welcome. And they've asked me to leave. And it's - I'm a bad person. My life - you know, to just not really know your place yet and then be told you don't have a place here, it just kind of - I felt like I was - I didn't talk for a year or something.
GROSS: Did you need therapy after that?
STRONG: Oh, definitely. And I started, you know - I would - I had to tell my mom because there was a couple of nights - I shared a car with my brother at this time. And I would be driving home. And I'd go, well, tonight I'm going to either - I'll just keep driving. I'll just keep driving west - right? - because, you know, every kid wants to go to California. That's where everything's OK. It's like, I'll keep driving west. Or I'll go to my garage. And I will put on music I really like and get myself warm and fall asleep and not have to wake up. And it was like, I really was thinking about those two things as nice options and had to tell my mom. And she was like, well, no, this isn't OK. And then I went to see the family psychiatrist, who I loved. And she told me I was looking at the world with S - I can't swear - with crap-colored glasses.
GROSS: Were you surprised that you told your mother about how you were feeling and about having thoughts about suicide?
STRONG: No because it wasn't like they were not emotional thoughts, you know? It was sort of like in that robotic tone that you get kind of when you're depressed, when it's like, this is just the reality of - this is what I want. So I don't know what you do with that. And I think, because my - we'd already gone through things with my brother. So it wasn't, like, a big shock or anything I thought would - you know, that it was something she couldn't deal with.
GROSS: He was dealing with a lot of mental health issues?
STRONG: Right. And he - you know, he had had depression for a long time. My brother actually did try to kill himself in eighth grade. I mean, he did a couple attempts here and there. But in eighth grade, he swallowed his bottle of Ritalin and had to get his stomach pumped and was in the psych ward, the children's psych ward, in Rush Hospital for a week. So it's like something my family had already been dealing with.
GROSS: What was the impact of that on you?
STRONG: It's hard to say, honestly. I mean, it's certainly stuck with me. And it's - more than anything, it's like, watching my brother deal with his own depression, and it's like how I feel about mine. Like, I'm so proud of the work I've done. I'm so proud of the work he's done and who he is and how far he's come - and just a thing that he deals with and why I'm - you know, people have a lot of thoughts and opinions on psych meds and everything. I'm like, well, live with my brother for a week and tell me you don't think psych meds are good. Like, he's just - when he's managing it, he is the most delightful, wonderful - my brother is, like, one of my favorite people in the world. And so I think, more than anything, it made me realize, like, that's what depression does to you. And it almost cost me my brother. And this is how important it is to manage it.
GROSS: All right. Let's take another break here. My guest is Cecily Strong. And she has a new memoir called "This Will All Be Over Soon." She's now starring in the new series "Schmigadoon!", which is a loving satire of classic musicals from the '40s and '50s. And she's nominated for an Emmy for her work on "Saturday Night Live." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE SHEARING'S "THINKING OF YOU")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Cecily Strong. She's nominated for an Emmy for her work on "Saturday Night Live." She has a new memoir called "This Will All Be Over Soon." And she stars in the new series "Schmigadoon!", a satire of classic musicals from the '40s and '50s.
Now that delta is causing this resurgence, what's your level of anxiety now? And I should mention here that you now - you bought a home in the Hudson Valley, which is outside of New York City. It's very beautiful there. It's on or near the Hudson River. I don't know exactly where you live. So you're not in the middle of New York City right now. You're in a safer place, safer in the sense that you can go outside without having to go down an elevator and walk through a lobby and be - you know, be in the middle of Manhattan. Are you reverting to that level of fear again?
STRONG: It's actually - I mean, it's funny timing. I feel like my bubble just burst recently. My mom is in Mexico. And she's vaccinated. And she just told me she's got COVID.
STRONG: And so I've...
STRONG: Yeah. And - yeah. And so it's like, I knew I was kind of - it wouldn't last, this safety that I was feeling by being vaccinated. And then it just - my bubble just burst. And I'm now back to worrying about someone I love with COVID. And I can't - she's so far away. And I think she's doing well. And it seems like - you know, my other thought is, like, COVID is something we have to learn to coexist with. It's not something we're going to eradicate. And so it feels like breakthrough infections are going to be a part of all of our lives soon, too. So - but I definitely feel more anxious again.
GROSS: Well, I hope your mom, like, recovers really soon.
STRONG: Thank you.
GROSS: And I wish her the best. You're nominated for an Emmy for your work on "SNL," and so are some of the other cast members. How does it feel? Do you feel like you're competing with other people who are nominated?
STRONG: No, I would - it feels great because, this past year especially, I'm just - I'm so proud of the show and being a part of the show. And I think, you know, whatever name is next to an Emmy nomination, it still feels like everybody there is a part of that - why there's a nomination. The reason there's a nomination is because it was a really strong year during a really tough time. And it wasn't easy to do this job this year. And I'm really - I'm so proud of everybody.
GROSS: Reports are that you're not sure whether you're going back to "SNL" in the fall.
GROSS: Have you decided?
STRONG: I haven't. It's still - and I think, like, even though that seems crazy to say in the middle of summer, I think it's been a wild couple of years, and so I'm just - I'm OK with not knowing.
GROSS: So when does a decision have to be made? I mean, the season starts - what? - in late September usually.
STRONG: Yes. So, I mean, I assume it'll have to be soon. And I'll meet - you know, I'll probably talk to Lorne more and talk to my agents, and we'll figure it out, figure out where I'll be. So, you know, I'm - I would love to do it. It's - so I just don't know for sure yet.
GROSS: Well, I wish you well. I wish your mother well.
STRONG: Thank you. I think it'll - honestly, I think she'll be so touched to hear that from you, too. Again, my family, everyone I know - huge fans. So they'll be - I think that'll brighten her day.
GROSS: Oh, that's nice of you to say. And anything I can do to help (laughter) would make me feel very good. And whatever you decide to do about "Saturday Night Live," I wish you well.
STRONG: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate it.
GROSS: Cecily Strong stars in the new series "Schmigadoon!" - which is now streaming on Apple TV+. She's nominated for an Emmy for her work on "Saturday Night Live." After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review a new album of songs Prince recorded in 2010. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEITH JARRETT TRIO'S "CONCEPTION")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.