Amy, photographed by Todd Oldham

Amy, photographed by Todd Oldham

Amy, photographed by Todd Oldham
 

AMY SEDARIS

Ever wonder what the image of a craggy, inappropriate 47-year-old ex-teenage runaway, recovering drug addict, and retired stripper would look like projected on a big screen, 15 feet high? With the new film version of her cult television show, Strangers With Candy, Amy Sedaris is about to show you—and that's just the beginning

BY WHOOPI GOLDBERG
PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD OLDHAM


Amy Sedaris is a woman for whom the term "out of bounds" holds little meaning. Having cut her teeth as a member of Chicago's famed Second City comedy troupe, the comedian has made a name for herself by going where others might blanch, both in her stage performances and in the myriad characters she's created—among them Jerri Blank, the psy­chologically teetering middle-aged protago­nist of her cult Comedy Central series, Strangers With Candy, and now of a new film. A onetime teenage runaway, Blank is a self­described former "boozer, user, and loser" who returns to high school as a 47-year-old freshman after a life spent supporting her addictions by working as a prostitute, a stripper, and a criminal. Created by Sedaris, along with cohorts Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello, the character was based on Sedaris's impres­sion of '70s motivational speaker Florrie Fisher, and the series, which ran for three seasons, was a spoof on the television after-school specials of that era, with Blank arriving at warped conclusions about the teenage land mines of sex, drugs, and eating disorders at the end of each episode. The new big-screen version of Strangers With Candy directed by Dinello, is a prequel to the taboo-bashing series and includes cameos by Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
WHOOPI GOLDBERG: Hey.
AMY SEDARIS:
Wow. [Goldberg laughs] Thanks so much for doing this.

WG: I have a million questions for you.
AS:
Oh, no.

WG: Yes. A million. First of all, Strangers With Candy. The title slays me. So where, why, and how did you come up with that character, Jerri Blank?
AS:
Well, I always liked those after-school specials, because they were so unrealistic. So I wanted to do a version of them where people learn the wrong lesson and the teachers are righteous and selfish. I like playing older people too. Jerri Blank is also such a disguise kit. I hardly ever get recognized. On the rare occasions that I do, I think, Oh, I'm starting to look like her because she's got my face. That's one thing that's so great about when you do characters in your specials and stuff: It's just you. Maybe you need one little prop to hold or to hide behind, but you've always been good at making a face, and that is important to us as performers. All of our muscles are in our faces.

WG: And so few people allow us to use them. People want you to lead them verbally when, in fact, it's really all about what's happening on somebody's face or physicality that makes the character happen. Do you find that people have a hard time relating to what you do?
AS:
I think people have a difficult time putting me in a box. They want me to do one thing, or they're like, "We love that you like to do these characters. Now go into makeup so you look really pretty, and put on this Chanel suit, and play." Well, I'm not going to have fun with that. There are plenty of girls who can do that, but I need something to hide behind. I just think that people have a hard time putting me in a category. I don't know if that answers your question.

WG: It's a great answer: You want to do what you do.
AS:
Yeah, and what I do is different. I never really thought to do a film. I just wanted to perform. Making films is difficult for me because I like to do things only one time. With a live audience, you can go up there, do whatever you like, and then, oops, the show is over, and it'll be different tomor­row night. You can give me all the notes you want, but I have a connection with the audience, and I know what's out there, and I thrive off it. But when you're making a film and you have to do things multiple times, you wind up either apologizing or asking permission. It's tough for me because there's only so much you can do within a film. You still have to be that character in that space. But I want to play dress up. I want to pretend. I want to feel like that character I'm playing is someone different. I want to have a hump and a mole with a few hairs coming out of it. I want crow's-feet.

WG: Were you very shy as a kid?
AS:
No, I wasn't. Were you?

WG: Me? Yeah, I was terribly shy. I lived inside my brain.
AS:
Well, I did, too, but I wasn't shy about it. Don't you feel lucky, though, to be able to live inside your brain? I love that I can escape into my head and that I can enjoy being by myself and never get lonely.

WG: Do other people think it's odd?
AS:
Yeah, sometimes. But I am who I am. My friends know that. And, you know, I'm pretty close with my family, and we all have that in common, so to me it's not a weird thing.

WG: Are you writing these days?
AS:
I'm working on a hospitality book right now. It's due in October. I'm designing it with these kids. They're really young, and they're making my mock-up book, which I pasted together by hand. So they're transferring it into the computer world. I told them that I didn't want to know how old they were until the project was over. Didn't you just finish a book?

WG: I did a kids' book.
AS:
It's on manners, someone told me.

WG: Yes. It's called Whoopi's Big Book of Manners. The subtitle is No One Wants to See You With Your Finger Up Your Nose.
AS:
[laughs] That's fantastic.

WG: I called it that because one of my pet peeves is being in a car and looking over and seeing someone with their finger in their nose. It ruins my day.
AS:
One of my pet peeves is someone sitting in a rocking chair but not rocking. That drives me bananas, because I'm such a rocker. I'm like, "If you're not going to rock, then get out of the chair and let me sit in it."

WG: So what else are you up to? Are you writing a new show for yourself?
AS:
I want to do a show based on my book. I've always wanted to do a hospitality show, with hand-painted sets and this woman who is speak­ing to an imaginary audience. Even when I cook now I have a running dialogue going on in my head. So that's what I would like to do. I would like to have it take place in a house where there is a room for rent, which would create a reason for people to come over, and a tractor trailer fl sale out front, because that will create a reason for people to call.

WG: You have to write a part for me.
AS:
You can be the pesky neighbor with hi finger in her nose all the time.

WG: My character could be baking muffins that nobody ever eats because I don't wear gloves when I'm cooking.
AS:
Do you cook?

WG: No.
AS:
No, you don't?

WG: No, I can't. [laughs] I wanted to at you: What do you think about just before you fall asleep at night? Do you hear music your head? Do you see scenes of things you've thought about during the day? Do you create a montage?
AS:
Well, I live in Greenwich Village [in New York City] and it's really noisy, so all of my dreams take place outdoors at a little campsite. [Goldberg laughs] But I'm really obsessed with saying my prayers before I go to bed. I do the whole thing of reciting what I'm grateful for—I go through the people, recap my day, say thanks for my bunny and my apartment. I've never gone to sleep without doing it. What is it for you?

WG: I'm not a big sleeper, but I love to imagine a blanket going over the city. For me, there’s this thing that happens from about 1:30 A.M. until 3 A.M. where it's like watching someone in slow motion pull a blanket up and tuck themselves in. I love to think about that happening.
AS:
That sounds comfortable, like a coating.

WG: Are you a relatively happy person?
AS:
I am. I only say that because other people have said that to me.

WG: Do you feel like you are?
AS:
Well, I'm drawn to depression. It's what inspires me. But I'm pretty content and good-natured myself.

WG: Do you dance?
AS:
No, but I love to watch other people dance.

WG: Not even when you're at home alone?
AS:
Never. I'm never naked in my house, either. [Goldberg laughs] I never walk around naked, and I never dance. I bet you do both.

WG: No, I couldn't bear to take my clothes off. It's too much work. [Sedaris laughs] Do you have conversations with yourself?
AS:
All the time. That's why when I've done interviews, I've always been like, "Let me interview myself. I'll knock it out in, like, 15 minutes." I can argue with myself. I can criticize myself. I know what to ask. I think it's a healthy thing.

WG: If you were interviewing yourself, what is the one question that you would ask?
AS:
"What is it that you do?" That's a hard question for me to answer. Not too long ago, I had an argument with someone, and they asked me that, and I couldn't really give them an answer. I do all kinds of things, but what is that one thing that I do? I guess I hope I always stay interested in things—that's a fear of mine, to lose interest.

WG: What was the first thing you ever bought with a paycheck that you earned?
AS:
I always like to try to do something special with my paychecks. My first job was working at Winn-Dixie, and I bought a Black Hills gold ring at the mall. When I did a show on Comedy Central, I had a party dress made for myself by this woman Mary Adams, on the Lower East Side. I run a cupcake and cheese-ball business out of my home, and all the money from that goes into a jar, and I use it to support my pet rabbit. When my first pet rabbit died, I spent $1,500 on a little coffin. I had her cremated and her ashes put in there. I still write the rabbit letters, and I put them inside.

WG: Now, are these tiny, bunny-size letters, or regular size?
AS:
They're small, rabbit-size letters. I'll leave her notes and put them in there with the ashes. I had the coffin hand-painted by an artist. It's very special. Sometimes I'll open it up and go, "Wow, I sure have written her a lot of letters over the years." My new rabbit chewed on the coffin, so there are some nice teeth marks on it.

WG: So the new bunny has issues.
AS:
Exactly. It's a full-time job over here. A full-time job.
 

Whoopi Goldberg has achieved worldwide recognition and critical acclaim for her work as an actor, producer, author, and humanitarian. She will hit the airwaves this month as host of her first radio show, Wake Up With Whoopi.


Photo credits:
Top:
Amy Sedaris as one of her many characters, a waitress who serves up nothing but attitude. Suit by DOLCE &GABBANA. This spread: Vintage necklaces by FOLEY & CORINNA.
Middle: Sedaris summons fated '60s pinup Sharon Tate. Dress by DANA FOLEY.
Bottom: Sedaris out-spooks the original mistress of the dark, Elvira. Top by ELLEN BERKENBLIT. Dress by DANA FOLEY. Cosmetics by MAC. Hair products by L'OREAL KERASTASE. Styling: SAM SPECTOR. Hair: JIM CRAWFORD/Contact. Makeup: KABUKI/kabukimagic.com
Special thanks: NEO STUDIOS.

© July 2006 — Interview