For close to a decade, Cecily Strong has illuminated the set of “Saturday Night Live” with her spot-on impersonations, so it seems very fitting that she’s now taking that unbridled talent to the stage. In her New York theater debut, she plays a staggering 12 characters in the one-woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe,” which opens on January 11 at The Shed off Broadway.
The multifaceted role, which was originated by Lily Tomlin back in 1985, is keeping Strong very busy — “I had an idea of how much work it was gonna be and then it’s been five times that in real life, or maybe 50 times” — but as we already know from her iconic performances on “SNL,” which have earned her two Emmy nods, she is up for the challenge. The Illinois native, who earned her BFA in theater, explained that the revival play wrestles with the reality that “maybe we don’t get to figure out the meaning of life,” and celebrates “the joy and love that you can find in the mystery and the in-between moments.”
And one thing’s for certain: Strong is definitely making the most of all of those moments. During the pandemic, which she said may have caused her to open herself up to different opportunities, she took on multiple new projects. Besides working on “SNL,” she had a starring role in the musical comedy series “Schmigadoon!,” which premiered on AppleTV in July, and the following month, released her memoir, “This Will All Be Over Soon.”
When asked about her plans for the future, Strong said she will embrace the exciting uncertainty. “I would hope to get to be so lucky as to keep being surprised by opportunities that come to me, work and love and life, all of it.”
What has surprised you about this theater experience?
So much. And I’m surprised each day. I never saw it live, because growing up, I wasn’t in New York. I’d seen the book in my library with this funny cover and this funny name. And then I’d seen the movie, but I’d never seen it live, but I find it very humbling to hear stories about the live performance and I’ve gotten to read and watch some interviews with Jane [Wagner, the show’s playwright and Tomlin’s wife] and Lily and then have gotten to talk to them myself and hear them talk about writing it and performing it ...
I read that you met Jane and Lily on Zoom. What was that like?
The first time we met them it was sort of rushed and I think I was so nervous and like weirdly shy. And then we did this interview with David Itzkoff for the New York Times piece and spent an hour [together] and I was just so blown away and could have watched them forever; they are so funny and so compelling. And then after that call was over, Leigh [Silverman, the play’s director] and I turn to each other, and we’re joking, “Oh my God, am I about to cry?” And then we cried and hugged for 10 minutes, just like, “That was the most amazing thing. I can’t believe we’re getting to do this. I feel so lucky they’re trusting us. To hear them say that. Has anything ever felt that good? I don’t know.” We still quote Jane and Lily’s lines, from even that Zoom, just so many good ones.
When did you find out you were cast in “SNL?” Where were you?
Oh my goodness, a million years ago. Well, when I found out I was cast, I was there; I was in New York in Lorne’s [Michaels] office in the summer of 2012. But I’d gone back and forth ... that was my fourth time, that summer. I never let myself think I was gonna get it because it was like, “You know what, this is so exciting, and even being this close is so exciting, that I don’t want to beat myself up if I don’t get it.” It wasn’t until you go talk to Lorne and he has a way of talking that can sometimes be confusing too, so you leave and then it’s like, “Wait a minute, did I get hired? I’m supposed to move here in four days?”
How tight is the “SNL” cast? Do you hang out with them when you’re not at work?
I mean, before the world changed, certainly. And even while we’re there, I really, really love a lot of those people and enjoy being around them. And it feels very much like family, but also like a family where everybody’s very funny.
What’s a typical week like for you when you’re filming and now with the play? I’m sure there’s no typical week, but ...
No, exactly, that’s what I was gonna say. There’s nothing typical. This fall has been sort of exceptional and I know it’s sort of cliché to say you live moment to moment, but I really have been ...
So going to “Schmigadoon!,” my cousins and I have a group chat and we’ve talked about the show in it. So I texted them and asked if they have any questions about it, and my cousin asked if there will be a season two.
You know what, I wish I had an answer, but I honestly don’t. My answer though, from me, is, “I hope.” I had such a great experience on season one and I’d love to get to see the cast again and work with them again.
What a cast that is, unbelievable!
Unbelievable. And you know, Kristin Chenoweth has sort of become a bit of a mentor to me and we call her my big sis and she invited me to do a song with her at the Met. It just keeps bringing new, wonderful blessings into my life and so I would love to do any more anything “Schmigadoon!” related ever.
You wrote a memoir and I have to tell you, it’s my sorority alumnae chapter’s book club’s January selection. What messages have you gotten from readers?
Please say thank you to your sorority ... Certainly, especially when it first came out, I got some really, really special messages that I’ve held with me, some I’ve shared with my family. And I always read the book, thinking, “It will find the people it’s supposed to,” and I have felt that way from the response that I’ve gotten. It’s a hard thing to share some of that stuff with people and to have those experiences be the ones we share, but if anything, it’s nice not to feel alone and to feel that you have some connection and understanding and love from other people.
You’ve done so much during the pandemic; you should be proud of yourself.
Yeah, I feel like I’ve been a bit more open, maybe because of it. I let some guards down because it turns out, it wasn’t helpful to have them.