Cecily Strong is starting a new conversation
By Dave Itzkoff
It’s hard to think of Cecily Strong and not be reminded of the effusive television characters she plays. If you’re a “Saturday Night Live” fan, you immediately conjure up her exuberant performance as a soused Jeanine Pirro crooning “My Way” while she dunks herself in a tank of wine. Or if you’ve been watching her on the Apple TV+ musical comedy “Schmigadoon!,” you think of her belting out modern-day show tunes praising the pleasures of corn pudding or smooching with a suitor.
Actors, of course, are not their characters, and Strong has tried to explain that, as much as she is awe-struck by self-confident, can-I-speak-to-the-manager types in real life, she isn’t one of them. As she said a few weeks ago, “Whenever there’s someone making a spectacle in public, it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen. But when I say I’m shy or introverted, people are like, I don’t think so. I’m like, OK — but I am, you know.”
So it is surprising that Strong, who does not consider herself a confessional person, would write a personal memoir, and even more so that her book is not really a recounting of her show biz career but rather a candid unfurling of her life prompted by her reflections on the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The memoir, “This Will All Be Over Soon,” will be published by Simon & Schuster on Aug. 10. It occasionally explores her time at “SNL,” where she has been a cast member since 2012. But it begins with her learning, in January 2020, that her 30-year-old cousin, Owen, has been given hours to live before he dies of glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer.
A few weeks later, Strong discovers that a man she recently started dating has come down with a fever that turns out to be a symptom of the coronavirus. A short time after that, she is grabbing items from her Manhattan apartment — a salad spinner, a garlic press, a yoga mat — as she and two friends prepare to flee to an Airbnb rental in the Hudson Valley for what she wrongly assumes will be just a couple of weeks.
For Strong, 37, the book is an opportunity to take ownership of these episodes and to reveal them to her audience without fear of judgment.
Looking back on the circumstances that gave rise to the book, she said, “It’s like, who has time for shame right now?” She thought for a moment and then added: “I mean, I guess we have all the time in the world, but why waste the time that we’re stuck with?”
Over lunch at a Mexican restaurant here in late June, Strong displayed fingernails decorated with rainbow designs and a wryer sense of humor than she is known for on “SNL.”
As she prepared to discuss some deeply personal experiences, she tucked into an order of chips and salsa and said, “Now I’ll cry and I can blame it on the spice.”
She did not shed tears, but she did share some painful stories. She grew up in prosperous Oak Park, Illinois, where her parents divorced while she was in grade school, her brother dealt with ADHD and spent time in a children’s psychiatric ward, and she was expelled from one high school after pot was found in her backpack. Strong has struggled for much of her life with anxiety and depression, she writes in her book, and spent years in an on-and-off relationship with a physically abusive boyfriend.
Some of Strong’s most affecting anecdotes in “This Will All Be Over Soon” are suffused with the frustration and unfairness of loss. After she plays Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan in an “SNL” sketch, Strong is reminded of a friend from Kalamazoo who died after her car was hit by a train. Or she remembers a time in 2018 when she helped her cousin Owen get VIP tickets to an “SNL” broadcast — one that was hosted by Chadwick Boseman, the “Black Panther” star who died of colon cancer last August.
Strong told me that her intention in writing the book was not to cultivate sympathy but to process events that perhaps she has never fully dealt with, “things that were life-defining that I didn’t realize at the time, or things that maybe I was ashamed of but didn’t want to be,” she said.
Her “SNL” career, full of memorable impressions and brazen “Weekend Update” characters, is thriving, and last month she earned her second Emmy nomination as a supporting actress in a comedy series. Strong said that in recent years she has also wanted to find ways to express herself outside of the show.
Lorne Michaels, creator and longtime executive producer of “SNL,” said that he had always regarded Strong as “a very private person” but one who projected an inner tenacity.
Michaels said Strong embodied the values he has seen in cast members he has recruited from Chicago “because Chicago looks at both coasts and isn’t terribly impressed.” He said she was reliable in her instincts and firm in her choices:
“You can’t really get her to do something she doesn’t want to do,” he said.
Kevin Aeh, a longtime friend who has been living with her during the pandemic, said he did not mind being a character in her memoir.
“This is my time capsule from that year, too,” he said.
Aeh said Strong was already in touch with her own feelings about solitude and bereavement when the pandemic started and that the stories she shares in the book might help her connect with readers who have been through similar experiences.
“So many people lost people last year,” he said. “We all spent time being confused and scared. Even though she was confused and scared like the rest of us, it was a space that she’d been in, which I think made it easier for her to write about it.”
Leda Strong, the author’s cousin and the sister of Owen Strong, said that though she had some initial apprehensions about the memoir, she felt that it served a larger purpose.
“The story of my brother, Owen, gets to be told, and people get to know him as a person,” she said. “At a certain point that overrides any other anxiety. This is really not about me — this is Cecily telling her story, and as part of that, my brother gets to be immortalized.”
She writes in her memoir about struggling with “SNL” this year, splitting her time between Manhattan and upstate New York while bumping up against coronavirus restrictions and her fears of being unfunny. When she needed time off for herself or to spend time with her family to commemorate what would have been Owen’s birthday, Michaels said it was easy to provide her with it.
“She earned it,” Michaels said. “This season was probably the hardest one ever for her.”
Now that Strong has completed her ninth season on the show, some of her collaborators are working from the assumption that she has given her final performance as a cast member.
Bryan Tucker, senior writer at “SNL” who has worked with Strong on her Pirro segments for “Weekend Update,” said the wine-flinging “My Way” sketch was deliberately composed to provide Strong with a victory lap.
“She’s such a special part of the show, and I wanted to write something for her that gave her a big send-off,” Tucker said. “I thought I may never get another chance to do something like that.”
But Strong said her own plans for the coming “SNL” season remained unresolved.
“I’m still thinking,” she said. “Throughout the year there were times where I felt like a fifth-year senior and I’m just hanging around, dead weight. Then there would be moments that felt so good.”
She added, “There’s things I want to do, and I want to be open for these things. If I’m there, great. If I’m not there, great. I just want it to feel like the right thing.”
Michaels said he and Strong “have been talking.”
“My hope is she’ll come back,” he said. “What I said to her, and what I believe, is that I don’t think she’s done yet.”