Talent Scout: From OP to SNL

Strong (right) with SNL castmates Vanessa Bayer, Elizabeth Banks (host), Kate McKinnon, and Aidy Bryant.

By Julie Chyna, executive editor, The Oak Parker

Comedy fans were already familiar with Cecily Strong from her work on Saturday Night Live: Her characters, such as “The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party,” as well as her impressions of Rachel Maddow, Sofia Vergara, Melania Trump, and others have been a mainstay of the show since she joined the cast in 2012.

But it was her appearance at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner that made this former Oak Parker a household name. Her jabs at the media’s attention to Hillary Clinton’s wardrobe, politicians’ involvement in women’s health, and President Obama himself went viral in the days following the event, in the form of video clips and memes on social media.

Now, with a role in the upcoming new Ghostbusters movie and a number of other releases in 2016, Strong is poised to break it big on the big screen too. In this interview with The Oak Parker, she talks about her childhood in Oak Park and her path to the SNL stage.

The Oak Parker: What was it like to grow up in Oak Park?

Cecily Strong: I’m still friends with a lot of people that I grew up with. My little sister is getting married and one of my best friends from growing up is coming with me to the wedding. I keep in touch with a lot of people. I’ve got a lot of close bonds with people I grew up with.

TOP: Were you always interested in theater and comedy when you were growing up?

CS: Yeah, definitely—I took my first drama class at… it was called Suburban Childhood Development Center. That’s where I went to preschool. I’m not sure what it’s called now—it was Alcuin Montessori for a while—is that still it?

TOP: Yes.

CS: So I went to preschool there and I took a drama class, which is ridiculous for a three-year-old, but my parents knew I was weird enough. And then I think I did my first real play when I was 8. I was Ruthie Joad in The Grapes of Wrath with Village Players. I did a bunch with Village Players for a while. I still have—my grandma made me a scrapbook, she used to keep all my programs and things—so I have a lot of old Village Players programs and pictures.

TOP: Did you do a lot of theater in school?

CS: Yeah, I did it in school, some of the school plays. I started doing theater in Chicago, in the city, when I was about 11. I did a lot of theater at the Bailiwick, I did one show at the Goodman, but mainly non-Equity stuff.

With Adele and Matthew McConaughey

With Adele and Matthew McConaughey

TOP: How did you end up at Saturday Night Live?

CS: Who knows? It’s crazy. I always loved it and I watched it growing up. I watched a lot of different comedy things with my family growing up. Like I said, I was doing theater forever and then I went to school for acting at California Institute for the Arts and I had a teacher there suggest that I take a class with the Groundlings and for a second, I was like, “But I’m a serious actress—I don’t know if I’m going to do that.” And then after I graduated, I did wind up going to the Groundlings and I instantly fell in love with sketch comedy and improv.

So I was like, “Well, I’m going to go back to Chicago where there’s Second City and IO [ImprovOlympic] and Annoyance [Theatre]. I can be close to my parents.” I knew I was going to be poor and they could buy me groceries every now and then.

I took classes at Second City and IO, and worked my way through the systems and became part of the community and loved it. Saturday Night Live comes through every year—I wasn’t even going to audition when I did, but Charna [Halpern, co-founder of ImprovOlympic] convinced me to. Somehow, I ended up here. It’s always a lot of luck, and timing helps, so all of that was there.

As Sofia Vergara, with Daisy Ridley

As Sofia Vergara, with Daisy Ridley

TOP: You performed at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last spring—what’s it like to get that call?

CS: Well, that was awful! I mean, it was a huge honor and really great, but I got the phone call around the end of August. So I had so many months to doubt myself and dread it and be worried about it and hear about all the people who have said “no” in the past because it’s such a terrible room and you can’t win. I was hoping initially that we would have a show that conflicted with it so I would have a great excuse not to do it. But since we didn’t have a show, I was like, “I guess I have to do it.” I’d probably kick myself if I didn’t.

In the end, I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad it was Obama when I did it. And I’m glad I don’t ever have to do it again, because I already did it—so I have a great excuse to never do it again.

TOP: I have to ask you about Ghostbusters. They’ve been really keeping your role under wraps., but is there anything you can tell us now?

CS: No, I’m afraid to say anything! I’ve signed my life away in NDAs [non-disclosure agreements] for that movie. Even after the movie comes out, I’m not going to be able to talk about it. I always joke that I’ve got a little red laser dot on my forehead—they’re following me around, listening on my phone.

TOP: What about The Boss with Melissa McCarthy [to be released in spring 2016]?

CS: That was really cool. I shot that right around the time of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. It was the most whirlwind couple of weeks. I shot that, and I shot another movie, The Meddler with Susan Sarandon. Getting to work with Melissa and Ben [Falcone, the director] and Kristen Bell, that was a real dream already. And then Susan Sarandon, and then the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, so I was kind of floating for two weeks.

TOP: And probably not sleeping much.

CS: Not sleeping at all! Flying around a lot—Atlanta, LA, and DC, and then going right back into the middle of a show week. I was thinking, “I may drop dead, but it’s worth it.”

As Melania Trump, with castmate Taran Killam

As Melania Trump, with castmate Taran Killam

TOP: For being such a small town, Oak Park seems to have turned out a lot of successful artists and performers. Based on your experience, do you have a theory on why that is?

CS: It always felt like a community that did support the arts. Growing up, it was a community that really supported diversity and I think that helped us all. There was economic diversity too. I think it made us a little more open-minded. Maybe it felt safer to go into creative careers. Our parents were more OK with that.

There’s a lot of wealth in Oak Park too, which makes it safer to go into a creative career, when your parents are there to support you! But I knew a lot of very talented artists from Oak Park—and I still do. I think there’s a good, supportive artists’ community here. I mean “there.” I’m not “here” anymore, I’m in New York!

I graduated from Chicago Academy for the Arts, but there were so many Oak Parkers there. It felt like we were a real anchor at that school. Kids would drive up from downstate [to go to that school], but there was such a strong Oak Park group there.

TOP: Do you have any favorite places in Oak Park—places you hung out when you lived here or places you always try to get to when you come to visit your family?

CS: I feel like everything’s gone that was there when I was a kid, except for my friends’ houses. We even sold my childhood home! All my old haunts [have changed]—we used to go to Maple Tree Restaurant all the time in high school, and George’s, although that’s still there. A lot of my old places are gone, but it’s good—it’s not like some big corporation came in and took over, there’s just a new little restaurant that opened up. So it’s not a bad thing.

TOP: Do you have anything else coming up that we should know about, other than your weekly appearances on SNL?

CS: Hopefully, some in the future but everything’s always up in the air in this world. Who knows?

Photos by Dana Edelson/NBC