Cecily Strong Is Starting a New Conversation

on Aug5
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RHINEBECK, N.Y. — 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 showbiz 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 “S.N.L.,” 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 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 the 37-year-old Strong, 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 “S.N.L.”

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, Ill., where her parents divorced while she was in grade school, her brother dealt with A.D.H.D. 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 Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan in an “S.N.L.” 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 V.I.P. tickets to an “S.N.L.” 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 “S.N.L.” 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.

Without singling out any particular role or performance, she said, “I wanted to do different things than just that sketch, that one that someone else wrote, and people maybe think is my voice but is not my voice.”

Even some of the praise she has received for “Schmigadoon!” has prompted feelings of ambivalence. “People were like, nobody knows you can do this, they’ve never seen this side of you,” she said. “And I was like, wait a minute — what do you guys really think of me?”

Lorne Michaels, the creator and longtime executive producer of “S.N.L.,” 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.”

Strong said she had been hesitant to write a book but felt compelled to keep a record of her experiences when she began quarantining in March 2020. Logistical challenges and bouts of panic got in the way, and on a day when she finally carved out a few hours to begin, she spilled a bag of clamshells and shredded lettuce on the floor of her apartment. “So I got to hold off on my writing a bit more,” she said with some relief.

Once Strong got outside of Manhattan, she was able to work more productively, often writing during the day, then listening to a housemate read the passages aloud at dinnertime.

Kevin Aeh, a longtime friend who has been living with her during the pandemic, said that he did not mind being a character in her memoir. “This is my time capsule from that year, too,” he said.

Aeh said that 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.”

Eventually, Cecily Strong’s TV career began to intrude on her pastoral literary retreat. She agonized over her commitment to “Schmigadoon!,” which was filmed in Vancouver last fall amid severe pandemic protocols.

“It was my dream job, and I said no a couple of times, because I was so afraid,” she said. “I was afraid of quarantining again, afraid of that isolation. What if something happens to my family, and I’m behind a closed border?”

When she returned to “S.N.L.” with its season already underway, Strong was disoriented. “I felt like I messed up every social interaction I had,” she said.

She recalled a moment from the closing-credits farewell of one broadcast when she pointed out to Lauren Holt, a cast member who just finished her first season, that they were similarly dressed.

Strong’s voice flooded with chagrin as she continued. “She was like, I can change, and I was like, oh my God, what did I do to you?” Strong said. “What did you think I meant? Please, no.”

She writes in her memoir about struggling with “S.N.L.” 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, the senior writer at “S.N.L.” who has worked with Strong on her Jeanine Pirro segments for “Weekend Update,” said that 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 that her own plans for the coming “S.N.L.” 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 that 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.”

Whether or not the “My Way” number proves to be her swan song, Strong said the sketch was an unforgettable one for her. She also pointed out that the tank she immersed herself in at its conclusion was actually filled with “watered-down grape juice, but it was very warm — I appreciated it.”

“The safety guy was like, don’t open your eyes under there because the juice will burn, and I was like, OK, thank you, I wasn’t planning on it,” she recalled. “And then he said, I splashed it in my eyes to test it out, and I was like, you didn’t have to do that.”

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