Aidy Bryant Is Ready For Her Close-Up
Talking with the 'Shrill' star about her new show, the limits of the body positivity movement, and being number one
Whatever the opposite of resting bitch face is, that's what Aidy Bryant has; even when she's not full-on grinning, the corners of her mouth always verge on curling up into a smile. What kind of a smile that is, though, all depends on Bryant's intention in the moment: It can be generous and generative, including its recipient in real, infectious warmth, and inspiring a similar smile in return. It can be secretive and sly, a clear indicator that something subversive is going on just behind it; there's a private joke itching to break free. It can be weaponized and fierce, its open easiness belying whatever words are soon set to spill forth from Bryant, who, while playing her Cardi B-inspired character Aidy B, on Saturday Night Live, is capable of offering just that kind of smile before spitting out something like, "I give puddy so good that I be screaming my own name during sex," to guest host Chadwick Boseman. (Unlike Cardi B, Aidy B can't say "pussy," because, network television.)
The smile Bryant gave me when we sat down to talk about her new Hulu show, Shrill, was warm and welcoming, if just slightly abashed; in a mutual bout of awkwardness, we'd both just opened cans of seltzer and managed to spray ourselves with fizzy water, making a handshake unseemly because of our soaking wet palms. We skipped that formality, and settled in a sunny room high above Rockefeller Center, just down the hall from Studio 8H, where SNL is performed live, and where Bryant is now in the midst of her seventh season as a cast member. In that time, she's given us characters like Tonker Bell, Tinker Bell's sassy, ass-centric half-sister; Morgan, the nerdier co-host of Girlfriend's Talk Show; Lil' Baby Aidy, her persona for music videos like "(Do It on) My Twin Bed," for which Bryant received an Emmy nomination; and, of course, the raunchy and raucous Aidy B.
If there's one through-line all Bryant's most memorable characters share, it's that they're transgressive twists on the sort of sweet woman that Bryant herself is presumed to be—sunny and accommodating, non-threatening. There are a few reasons why this assumption is made of Bryant: One is that, beyond her ready smile, it only takes a few minutes with Bryant to know that she is just a lovely person to be around—easy to talk to, and also a really active listener, the kind who isn't just waiting for you to finish talking so they can start to speak. And, Bryant embraces this nice girl perception in some ways; her Instagram bio is a long chain of girly emojis, from poodles to rainbows to flowers to the bow-encircled heart. Yes, that chain is interrupted by the word "BAD," but then that in itself is also pretty adorable.
But then, sweetness can be a double-edged sword; sweetness—and smiles—are so frequently demanded of women as a way to neutralize the threat they could pose. A sweet, smiling woman, it is thought, could never be disruptive; a sweet, smiling woman could never be truly BAD; a sweet, smiling woman doesn't take up too much space or make too much noise; a sweet, smiling woman could never be, well, shrill.
Shrill is based on writer Lindy West's book of the same name, but whereas the book is a collection of autobiographical essays, the show is a fictionalized narrative: In it, Bryant plays Annie, not Lindy; it takes place in Portland, Oregon, whereas West lives in Seattle; and the details of many things, like romantic relationships and friendships, have been created just for the show. However, like West, Annie works at a local newspaper, where she has an at-times combative relationship with her boss, Gabe (a pitch-perfect John Cameron Mitchell); in the book, West wrote of her at-times combative relationship with Dan Savage, her boss at Seattle's The Stranger. Also, like West did, Annie gets an abortion, writes about her weight in a viral article, and gets harassed by internet trolls. But no matter how familiar you are with West through her writing, and no matter how tonally faithful the show is to the book (which, very), Hulu's Shrill is very much about Bryant, and it is a true star-making turn.
"It's not my comfort zone to be like, 'Everybody, look at me,'" Bryant told me when I asked her what it was like to take center-stage in a series, rather than be one of many equally billed members of an ensemble. Of course, Bryant doesn't only act in Shrill, she also, along with West and Ali Rushfield, is a head writer for the show, which, she said, made it easier for her to forget that she was also its star. "The part that I found really grounding was that we had a vision we were trying to execute, and I could immerse myself in the writing and the editing and working with our music supervisor, so that I didn't have to get too focused on the fact that it was like, I'm number one."
Even if she doesn't want to focus on that, it's hard for anyone else not to do precisely that, because Bryant so brilliantly embodies Annie, making her one of the most nuanced, fully realized young women on TV today. In part, this is thanks to the rich source material; as Bryant said to me, "When you have a foundation like Lindy's book, which is so strong, it's just a great jumping-off point." But then also, because Annie is not identical to West and is a creation of the writers' room, she is reflective of Bryant herself, who said, "We're all writing these scripts together, and so it pretty quickly becomes nobody's—like, it's everybody's. A part of it, too, is I'm the one playing the character, so I think there's an element to Annie that is probably true about me, which is I tried to make myself really sweet and friendly and nice and palatable, so my size was never an issue."
If there's another thing sweetness and smiles can do, it's smooth out any feelings of inconvenience; sweetness and smiles serve as a de facto apology to the world, a way of saying that you're trying to make everyone else comfortable, even at the expense of your own well-being. It's a kind of emotional labor that all women are familiar with to some degree, but that fat women know with a very specific intimacy, and which Shrill confronts head-on, by, for example, showing Annie's attempt to placate an overzealous personal trainer who wants to help Annie release "the small person" stuck inside her. But there are other ways that the stigmatization of fat people affects Annie, like when she doesn't ask for what she needs from a sexual partner, because she thinks she doesn't deserve his love—or even his thoughtfulness.
These kinds of micro-aggressions are things that Bryant has experienced before, even if they don't inform her entire life, and it was important to her to represent that in the show. She explained:
Something that we talked about when we were pitching the show, is that fat characters are written with the mentality of, I'm a fat lady doing this, I'm a fat lady doing that. In reality, I'm living my day; I work at SNL; I go to a photo shoot, and they have two dresses for me and 50 for my co-stars, because I'm fat? I feel bad, they're embarrassed, and we're all trying to make it okay. These are the kinds of moments that a fat woman experiences that are crushing and totally turn you upside down. They feel like an exterior confirmation of the voice inside of your head saying, You're fat.
It's the kind of experience that leads to things like sweetness and smiles, a desire to make other people feel better about the fact that they don't even consider your feelings at all. They are also the kind of experiences that are often portrayed reductively onscreen, as being learning opportunities that further perpetuate the idea that fat people are asking for special treatment, instead of just asking to be treated like everyone else. "Part of what we're getting at in this show," Bryant told me, "is letting Annie get a full life that isn't reduced to her pants size or standing on a scale. That's just not real life. We're trying to keep it grounded and let it be a full life of someone with integrity and dignity, showing a life that any person deserves."
This stands in contrast to the current body positivity narrative, which has co-opted the language of capitalism, of optimization, of hustling. Shrill serves as a reminder that sometimes the lessons we take from our life experiences aren't about helping ourselves, but are instead about just being ourselves. Does this, in turn, help us? Maybe. Sure! But the transformation isn't some magical thing, it's just an organic way of coming to understand ourselves and our needs, and prioritizing them.
Bryant knows, though, that people love a makeover story, and that this is one way that Shrill is bound to be sold to audiences: as filled with sweetness and smiles and an easy, happily ever after ending. "It's a really tricky line, getting into the marketing of the show," Bryant said. "Their job is to boil down the show to what it's about. Their instincts are: It's a transformation, a butterfly spreads its wings! It does get into a patronizing, condescending, commodification of this feminist idea in a way that I'm not comfortable with."
Beyond that, it also sells the show's nuanced approach short. She explained:
I think something that we made a huge effort to do was to create a fat person's story with integrity. Annie's whole story isn't her eating diet food or trying to lose weight or thinking about how she's fat all day long. The bulk of this series is her at her job, her in relationships, her with her parents, her with her friends. There's this sliver of it that's about her body. My hope is that if we do a second season—or a third or a fourth—is that the further you get into that, the further you get from body stuff, because she starts to be free of it; you get to see a character living their life.
Shrill viewers don't really need to wait for the second (or third or fourth) season to do that, though, because it exists in the first. Annie's life is full and messy and sexy and beautiful and happy and sad: She has a mostly close, sometimes fraught relationship with her weight-conscious mother (Julia Sweeney) and ailing father (Daniel Stern); she has a true friendship with her roommate, Fran (the marvelous Lolly Adefope); an off-and-on partnership with Ryan (Luka Jones), who hosts an Alcatraz-themed podcast called Talking 'Traz; and she has a burgeoning career that she's working to make into something truly fulfilling; and a hateful internet troll whose redemption, she realizes, is not her responsibility. Annie makes mistakes and has triumphs, but she isn't defined by them, she is only defined by being herself—and this is something that it feels like Bryant alone could bring to this role.
As West told me, over the phone, "Aidy was our first choice, and she was really only our only choice. There's just something instantly lovable about her, and really irresistible, that I think this character needs. If we're going to see this character go through all these terrible choices and these mortifying experiences, you need to really have someone making that character lovable. And Aidy's just obviously a really special, sparkly person that is born to be a star."
This is undeniably true, making it all the more notable that Bryant has rejected starring roles before, opting instead for smaller, though memorable parts in projects like The Big Sick and Girls. But, as she told me, most of the lead roles she's been offered were inherently compromised. "When I'm choosing roles, I think about what I represent when I'm onscreen, like if it's written with not a lot of dignity," Bryant said. "I've certainly said no to lots of big parts in movies, because I felt like I didn't want to be a fat person playing that type of role. I hope that doing a show like Shrill, by having this show about a fat woman and her life, that sometimes includes her body journey, by doing that, I can be done with it and move past it and be able to play characters with full lives that aren't totally tortured or driven or ruled by their size."
This is the next stage in achieving truly diverse representation, and Bryant wants to be a part of it. "This is what having diversity in shows and movies is really ultimately about," she said. "The great thing about it is that you create empathy for other people's stories. You hear it from that person, and I think that's why, in a post-Harvey Weinstein world, in a #MeToo world, I hope that more and more voices can get their chance to tell their story so that we can view them with more empathy."
Bryant, who shies away from most of the political material on SNL because "I know that I'm not a policy expert," explained the way that she works to make a difference, "Sometimes I feel like in our world there's pressure to tweet, to be on the right side of history, being woke, all of these things. I feel like I can really make a difference in my writing, in my performing—that's my expertise. That's where I feel like I can help. I'm trying to do that."
And she's trying to help others do that too: "What I can do is write television and make a full, diverse cast of talented people who are going to bring their new voices, and that will bring them new opportunity. Just like people have opened the door for me, I hope I can do the same thing for them."
But for now, Bryant has the rest of the season of Saturday Night Live to complete, and, as I found out when I asked her what she was most looking forward to doing next, she revealed on one other important plan she had in mind: "Maybe taking a nap," she said, gave me a hug, and walked away with a smile.
Hulu's Shrill is available for streaming now.
CreditsStylist: Carrie Weidner Makeup: Cassandra Garcia Hair: Joseph Maine Nails: GlamSquadFashion and Beauty Editor: Jenna IgneriLine Producer: Alexandra HsieProduction Assistant: Gretta Wilson