Amy on the cover of BUST, photographed by Todd Oldham

Amy, photographed by Todd Oldham

Amy, photographed by Todd Oldham

Amy, photographed by Todd Oldham

 

Amy Sedaris Busts Out

INTERVIEW BY MAYA RUDOLPH     PHOTOS BY TODD OLDHAM

With a true life that's stranger than fiction, Strangers with Candy star Amy Sedaris has made a name for herself as the weirdo women want to watch. Gearing up for the release of her Strangers movie, the versatile performer talks to fellow funny lady Maya Rudolph about everything from her breakout career to breakaway china

IF YOU ARE already familiar with her fat-suited-and-track-marked character on the show Strangers with Candy, it may come as no surprise that Amy Sedaris exhibits a wide range of endearingly bizarre behaviors in real life. From her love of prosthetic breasts (BUST photo shoot hint: cut off the tips of lemons for pert faux nipples) to her breakaway dish collection and her pet rabbit Dusty, Sedaris seems to revel in the offbeat. This alone might be enough to explain her propensity towards craftiness and domesticity—when you live in the fantastical world that Sedaris inhabits, you like to keep it tidy.

But it's not Sedaris' idiosyncrasies or her baking that makes her a figure of intense interest; it's her ability to transform herself. She hails from the self-proclaimed "Talent Family," whose amusing quirks serve as the fodder for brother David Sedaris' well-known writing. She came into her own as a member of the esteemed Second City comedy troupe in Chicago, where she met cohorts Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello. The fearsome threesome eventually landed a short-lived comedy sketch show called Exit 57. Their next show was the cult classic Strangers with Candy, where Sedaris became famous playing the morally bankrupt, ex-hooker/high-schooler Jerri Blank. When the show was cancelled after three seasons, she shone in a smattering of bit parts such as a desperate socialite in Maid in Manhattan and a harried secretary in Elf and released the book Wigfield with Dinello, Colbert, and BFF Todd Oldham. Her quirky, entertaining persona has also made her a frequent guest and fan favorite on the Late Show with David Letterman. Her latest project is the Strangers with Candy movie, featuring such heavyweights as Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, which is planned for release later this year.

After agreeing to the interview, Sedaris immediately suggested who she'd like the interviewer to be: sketch-comedy veteran and Saturday Night Live cast member Maya Rudolph. It isn't hard to see why. Like Sedaris, Rudolph isn't afraid to get a little grotesque, whether donning a vampiric blond wig as Donatella Versace or the clothes of a spastic teenager as a member of "Gemini's Twin." In an age where the definition of female comedy is falling down adorably, Sedaris and Rudolph do what it sometimes seems so few women are willing to do—go to any lengths in pursuit of the big laugh. [EMILY MCCOMBS]


Maya: So I'm dying to know about your business that you started, making cheese balls.
Amy: My cheeseballs, right. Well, I've been making them and cupcakes for a long time.

When did you start doing that?
When I got my first rabbit, Tattletail. I looked at her and said, "You, young lady, if you're gonna live here, you're gonna have to get a job," so I started my little cupcake business that I called Tattletail's, and then all the money I made from it would go into a jar and that's what I would use to support her. Then she passed away seven years later, and a year later I got another rabbit, Dusty, and I thought, "You're not going to be a trust fund [bunny], you're not going to be living off Tattletail's money!" So I changed the name to Dusty Food Cupcakes. Throughout all this time I was making cheeseballs, but it was mostly seasonal. They're the perfect thing to bring to a party, you know, like an appetizer. Then Gourmet Garage [a fresh foods grocer] asked me if I would consider selling my cheeseballs there. I used to work for Gourmet Garage, when I first moved to the city.

Oh, you did?
I quit because they wanted everyone to start wearing baseball caps. And I said, "Oh no, please, I can't wear a baseball cap! How about a hairnet?" And they were like, "No." So I ended up leaving, but it was on good terms. Anyway, they called me and I said absolutely.

I heard you talking about it on the Late Show with David Letterman, I was so blown away and impressed. I love the idea of you making cheese balls in your kitchen.
Ever since I was little—with a Kool-Aid stand, and Girl Scout cookies—I've liked having a product. I like going door to door to try and sell it. I don't care if it's 25 cents or a dollar—it doesn't matter. I've been like that my entire life. You can make a lot of money doing a TV show or a movie, and that's fantastic, but it's pretend money to me because it comes in check form and you don't feel like you really worked. Sometimes you do stuff and you don't work that hard for it, and they pay you a lot, and you're like, "I need something that I can complain about. A job to bitch about."

It's sort of like when actors say, "Why complain about what I'm doing? It's better than lifting boxes." But you actually came up with a real recipe that you're selling and that you're making with your bare hands.
But it's mindless work, you know? You can stay up till three in the morning and just sit here making something. I'd rather be doing that than watching television or being at a party. I just like that hunger of being out there [to sell it], and I love working with the public. It's fantastic. I had 12 meetings with different publishers over the last two days and I was in ten different buildings in New York City, and I can't even tell you what I learned yesterday, it was amazing.

People that you don't normally see on a regular basis?
They wouldn't talk to me normally. They're grown-ups, you know what I mean? You're in that meeting and you feel it. They're book people, and you're like, "Man, we have nothing in common." And I'm acting like a grown up—you know, I've got my inflatable briefcase and my version of a business suit and pantyhose—which I never ever wear, but it seemed like I needed to—and beat-up shoes, like I'm hittin' the pavement for a job. So I'm in there in full character, like, "I gotta get a book deal," and they're looking at me like, "Oh my God." I learned so much.

Sometimes if you have a situation like that, someone will say to you, "Oh, just be a character"—like, just pretend. Do you feel like that's an easier way to get through a situation like that?
Well, for me, I'd rather play the person than be it. Sometimes it just makes it more entertaining. You're still yourself, you just carry yourself in a different way. But then when someone points that out in you, you're like, "What are you talking about? Who thinks that way?" It's like when you say something and all of a sudden you see it [in print] and you think, "God, I would never say that," but then you realize you did say that.

It's always creepy to read what you said. Anything taken out of your mouth and shown to you is strange.
[Anyway,] I was trying to explain [to the book people] that I had this cookie recipe that is amazing. The cookies, they just vanish, they're so easy to eat. But the person who gave it to me was this incest victim who had a deaf child. I love telling people that, after they've eaten like 20 of them, because it changes things; it just gives you something else to think about. I like having a story about everything. But in a situation like that, I realized, not everybody thinks that way, Amy, so maybe that's not something to be put out there. I mean, it's just interesting to me, but not to everybody. To me that would sell the cookie.

I've never tried any of your stuff. I would love to.
Yeah, definitely.

You know, every time I see you on Letterman, I'm always so impressed by your shoes. You're always very comfortable in them; you can really walk in heels.
Well, it's because I'm short and ever since I was little, I always played in high heels. Whenever I do Letterman, I take the check from doing his show and that's what I spend the money on—I don't care how poor I am. I buy a really expensive pair of shoes, and then I wear those shoes the next time I do his show.

I love shoes as well; just any sort of great ladies' shoe makes your leg look so wonderful. But I can't walk in them at all; I'm completely flat-footed. But you make it look like you're dancing, like Ginger Rogers.
I love everything about them. Sarah Jessica turned me onto the Manolos. I didn't even know what they were, Manolo Blahnik shoes, and she bought me my first pair.

Oh my God!
And that really changed my life. They're expensive, but they're beautiful and elegant and you can really walk all over the city in them.

To have a comfortable shoe is the greatest glory in New York.
They say that the average New Yorker walks five miles a day. That's why there's not a lot of overweight people here. Because we're constantly walking.

Would you say that's where you get your exercise?
I go through stages. I haven't worked out since last March. But I like feeling in shape. I've always done some lame little floor exercise in my apartment, you know, something really queer. Sometimes I'll get involved at the health club and sometimes I can't go near it. How about you?

I'm really horrible about exercise and health clubs. I actually hate gyms. I don't like them at all. I always feel like an imposter.
I hate it 'cause all those TVs are there and I can't stand the television being on anywhere, especially during the day. It drives me crazy!

There's a gym in my building downstairs, and there's actually an indoor pool that looks over the garden. Of course, I've only been in it twice. I don't know what it is, especially when it's cold outside, the last thing I want to do is immerse myself in water. But it's such good exercise.
I know. It even strengthens your tongue muscles.

Does it?
Yeah, I,was on the swim team for like 12 years when I was younger.

Wow, Were you really?
Yeah, my mom would just literally get up at 7, drop us off at the pool, and then leave. That was a way of exhausting us. So we were always on the swim team.

If you swim now, do you feel like all that stuff comes back to you?
I hate swimming now. I don't like getting water in my ears. But I love the bathtub. Sometimes I take a bath twice a day. I'm obsessed with the bath.

I like bathing, but I think I need more patience to be a bather. I get out of there very quickly for some reason. Like I'm in a hurry.
Me too. I don't spend a lot of time in there. I do everything way too fast. Like, even in monologues, I don't want to take up anyone's time. You know, I've seen the stuff you do on SNL, and what makes you so enjoyable to watch is you have good timing. You can tell when you've got your audience and when you don't have your audience, and you know when you're boring somebody. You can see it all happening, like you're completely doing it for yourself. That's what I look for in a performer.

Thank you for saying that, but it's interesting that that's what you picked up on, because I feel that those are really qualities that you have. There's nothing better than that trust when you're watching a great performer and you don't have to be nervous. You can sit back and relax and be like, "I can't wait, this is going to be good."
But it also depends on the other person. If I'm on Letterman, for example, it's him that makes everything so great. It's like he's driving the car, and he's an excellent driver. You feel really safe with him, like he's not gonna let you go out there and fail. He's so professional and he's so good at what he does. It's such a cozy, good, safe feeling.

I'm so blown away by Letterman and the relationship you have with him. It's born out of pure envy, because I've always loved him—I mean always. I've always had, since I was a little girl, a weird crush on him. I learned when I was an adult that it was also a talent crush, but I didn't realize that as a kid. I was just like, "Man, he's funny!" I thought he was so charming. You handle yourself so well [with him], and he likes you. It's obvious. I'm so jealous.
You know, when people say that, I'm always like, "Oh really, wow, that's nice." But I never think about that and I don't think he does either. He's just there in the moment. I've never met him outside that chair.

I'd always heard that about him, and I was gonna ask you [about it]. I figured you've had coffee at least.
No. One time Richard Gere was there on the show and he was saying to [Letterman], why don't you come backstage and say "Hi" to the guests? I would be horrified if he did that. Because when you come out from the curtain you're genuinely happy to see him. If I saw him beforehand, it would change that moment and then it would seem like the joke's on the audience, like "We're pretending." It's the real deal with Letterman. You know, when he says, "Thanks for droppin' by," you really feel like you're dropping by because they called you the night before. And there's always children and animals running around backstage, and everyone's positive. They always send me thank-you letters. It's really, really a good company, [World Wide Pants, Letterman's production company]. Such nice people work there.

Did they have something to do with making your new movie?
Yeah, they gave us money for the Strangers with Candy movie. I would never in a million years send them a script, I'm just not that way. But they saw the script and they loved it, so they called and actually said, "We want to do a movie." I was like, "Really?" And then the next thing you knew we were shooting it.

Is it completely new stuff separate from the show?
It's gonna be a little different than the show. We had to recast all the students because they all look a little older now, and they had to look really young because Jerri looks older. It has a lot of celebrities in it, which is great, because they're so fucking talented. You know, when a serious actor like Paul Giamatti or Phil Hoffman does something, they're hilarious, because they're so serious about it.

I couldn't agree more. Whenever they host the show, you're always reminded that a great actor is also a funny actor. Like Phil Hoffman—he's hilarious.
I collect breakaway china. It makes me laugh when you can smash a plate over someone's head. We have a peeping Tom across the way, this girl—well, I thought she was a peeping Tom because I could always see her. So when Phil would come over, I would give him stacks of plates and act like we were fighting. "I want you to take this plate, I want you to bust it over my head!"

No! Was she watching you?
No! I guess I'm the peeping Tom! But it's so much fun to do little acting games like that with real actors because they're really good improvisers, and they're just so real.

I agree. That's the kind of stuff that really makes me laugh.
You were in the Groundlings, right?

Yeah, that was how I got lucky enough to come out here.
I remember hearing about it and always thinking, "God, I wish I worked there."

You did Second City, right?
Yeah, but the Groundlings seemed more independent to me.

I would have gone to Second City if I would have had the balls to live in Chicago. I think the sad truth about why [the Groundlings] seem more independent is that there isn't as much of a theater world on the West Coast.
I know. I remember when David—my brother—and I would do plays here, and people would always want us to go to L.A. And when we talked to people from L.A., it was always a "showcase." They would always use that word instead of a "play." That made me [realize that you can't do a] play there because if they spot somebody, [that person] would leave for a TV series; [you'd be] constantly recasting. To me, it's about the cast, and so I just never thought theater in L.A. back then was a good idea.

That's exactly right. It's an industry town. It's like the town has got a big old steel mill or something and everybody's working for it.
So you do like it here in New York, though?

I like it here, but to be honest, I like it more if I'm not working, because when I'm working, I have night hours. Like, vampire hours.
Do you do most of your writing at night?

The writing is usually all crammed at the last minute. Sometimes we start a new piece at 3 a.m. Lately, this year, I've been getting home at 5:30 or 6.
Wow! Do you have pets or anything? Are they affected by it?

No, all I have are plants, which I inherited, because I took Chris Kattan's apartment when he moved to LA.
And he left you his plants? That sucks. I'm not a big plant person. I mean, I like it when I go to other people's houses and they have plants, but I don't have one plant in my house. I get nervous. I've got the five-finger plant, if you know what I'm sayin'. So, do you like to cook or do you usually order out?

I kind of do both. My kitchen's small, I try to cook a little bit, like breakfast or whatever. But I go to California half the time, and I've got a kitchen there that I can really cook in. I've been very proud of making meatballs lately.
Oh, I love meatballs! That's great! Where do you get your meat from?

A wonderful market out there called Gelson's, which is like a gourmet market where they have excellent meats and produce. Nothing made me more depressed than when I learned there was a Gristedes on my corner [in New York].
I have a Gristedes in my neighborhood, too. And there's always like schizophrenics and housewives in there, and they pick up something, like cocoa, and they look at the label and then toss it in their cart. I think, "Why are you reading the back of that? Don't you know what you want?" And I just picture that person's house, like that 30 seconds told me everything about that person.

It takes you to a dark place.
There really was a schizophrenic there one night and she was driving me crazy. And I realized, "This lady is just like me." She was buying big bags of popcorn and I was with somebody and I went, "Man, that lady's annoying." Then I thought, "That's because she has the exact same energy as me—like she's commenting on other people's stuff. That's exactly what I'm doing." It was a moment of truth at Gristedes.

If I had a car here, I think that [grocery shopping] would be different, but I've never had the balls to drive around in my own vehicle [in the city]. I like being driven around and knowing that I don't have to park my car anywhere.
Yeah, I know. I had a car in North Carolina, but I don't really drive anymore.

I have a lot of good friends I met at the Groundlings who are from there. I'm always mesmerized by what I hear about North Carolina.
It's nice. I like the beach and the mountains, and the Southern hospitality. I like the cadence of the accent. I'm really glad that I was raised there. I go back to see family, you know, what's left of my family, but I don't think I ever want to live there.

I'll make it down there one day.
Your job seems like such a fun job, and you can do anything you want, you've got a live audience. To bring up that old expression, "It's easier to apologize than to ask permission." Like, you can just do something. I mean, what are they gonna do? It's live.

You're right. I like that. I like having a job. It keeps you regular in a way. It's nice.
Security is so great. I can always say I have a job because of my cupcakes and cheeseballs, but a lot of people couldn't live the way that I live. "You don't know when your next job is? How can you be 43 and not know?" And I'm like, "Well, it keeps you on your toes." I don't want to get settled.

I think you've lived life the way you want to live it. I think a lot of people could get nervous and freak out [without having a job lined up], and get involved in things that they shouldn't get involved in. I don't mean like gangs or anything like that, I just mean bad work or desperate work.
You know what it is? You can't fool. So you do [what's right for you], and when people say bad things about it—like the Jerri Blank character, not everyone's gonna like that character—the good thing is, it's not gonna affect me whether they like it or not. I've been like that my whole life—doing what I enjoy. It's not that I don't care [what others think], it's that I don't let it affect me.

If you can actually enjoy it, then that really is the whole purpose. Why else would you be doing it?
I know; I always wonder when people hate their job, then why do they do it? I made $115 today in cupcake sales.

Did you really?
How much did you make, Maya?

I made zero. I'm so impressed by your work ethic and Dusty's work ethic. Listen, if you ever need someone to help you do something with your baking...
You shouldn't offer, because I find out what people do best and then I abuse it. If you said, "I can make dresses," I'd be like, "OK, will you make..." I'll completely take advantage of you.

Well, I'm not really a good cook. I want to just watch people cook; I stare at them. It mesmerizes me. I've always had that with girl-oriented things. Ever since I was a little girl, I thought, "I'm not a real girl" because I have a big brother and was raised by my dad. I didn't have any sisters.
Oh really, wow! That's interesting!

So I studied girls all the time when I'd be at sleepovers, like I'd go in their bathrooms and check out their toiletries, so I'd know what girls used, like what kind of creams and makeup. And cooking is like that for me, too, I'm so impressed by it.
You ought to make something on girls, I mean, something called Girl and your perspective on girls.

Maybe I should. All of the characters that I do on the show, I realize they're all drag queens, which really is just a guy trying to be a girl.
I know exactly what you mean. That's how I think of women. "Wow, you're a real grownup, you're a real lady," and people say, "Amy, you're a woman," and I go "Woman? I would never call myself a woman!"

I know! It's true. I think you're a real lady. You're a very poised, charming lady.
Like you said, you don't see yourself that way. You're trying to be a lady, you're trying to be their idea of it and then when you meet a real one, you're like, "Wow, I wonder where she's going."

Exactly.
She's going to a lady meeting! [Sings] "Who's that lady? Who's that la-dy." That would be cute though, your version of girls.

When I'm 80, that will be my show.
Girls, Girls, Girls! One, please!

I hope you'll be there.
I'll probably be dressing you in the back or selling the cupcakes in the lobby.

Please do. I would be honored.
 


© April/May 2005 — BUST