Amy on the cover of Venus, photographed by Joe Oppedisano

Amy, photographed by Joe Oppedisano

Amy, photographed by Joe Oppedisano

Amy, photographed by Joe Oppedisano

Amy, photographed by Joe Oppedisano
 

STRANGER THAN FICTION

With Strangers With Candy finally on the big screen and a new book on its way, Amy Sedaris is coming to a theater—and coffee table—near you

By Rebecca Flint Marx         Photography by Joe Oppedisano

Amy Sedaris earns her living making the kind of expressions that your mother always warned you about. You know, the ones that would make your face freeze that way. Only when Sedaris makes them, you kind of want her face to freeze, if only because it's so difficult to find that many other sources of pure, blood vessel-popping hilarity in everyday life. Case in point is Sedaris' portrayal of Jerri Blank, the anti-heroine of Strangers With Candy. Created by Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and Stephen Colbert, Strangers ran on Comedy Central from 1999 to 2000. The series followed the travails of Jerri, a 46-year-old "ex boozer, user, and loser" who returns home after years of prostitution, drug abuse, and jail to start up where she left off—as a student at Flatpoint High. With a past almost as fearsome as her overbite, Blank (and Sedaris) earned a cult following that will undoubtedly grow when the film version of Strangers is released in late June.

Although Jerri Blank is Sedaris' most well known character, she's far from her only enduring creation. Sedaris began making a name for herself as a member of Chicago's Second City back in the 1980s and was then indirectly introduced to a larger audience through the work of her older brother David, who immortalized his family in books and numerous essays. Amy and David collaborated on several plays, including the Obie-winning One Woman Shoe. Amy also has found another kind of immortality as a supporting actress in films such as Elf, The School of Rock, and Bewitched. Often, she is the best part of any film she appears in. For instance, her few scenes as an aggressively tanned rich bitch are the only reason to subject yourself and other living things to Maid in Manhattan.

In addition to her work on Strangers, Sedaris has worked on several TV shows, including Sex and the City and Monk. Perhaps most notably, she's made numerous appearances as herself on The Late Show, where her witty and easy banter with David Letterman has made her an audience favorite.

Offscreen, Sedaris keeps herself busy churning out cupcakes and cheeseballs that are sold at local coffeehouses and gourmet stores, respectively. Sedaris' recipes were the springboard for what has become her most all-consuming project entitled, I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, a how-to guide on entertaining that will be published later this year. Sedaris recently found some time to chat with Venus from the West Village home she shares with her beloved mini-rex rabbit, Dusty, voicing her thoughts on everything from after-school specials and tampon commercials to the perils of wearing a fat suit and what it takes to entertain a lumberjack.

So I just saw a photo of Florrie Fisher [the ex-heroin addict and prostitute who in the 1970s won cult immortality with a public service announcement and autobiography, The Lonely Trip Back], and she was a dead ringer for Jerri Blank.
Florrie looked like Mike Dukakis. Paul [Dinello] had found the PSA at Kim's Video. He watched it and said, "This is the character you should do." In the pilot [of Strangers] I wanted to look like her, but it was too hard to do. The Lonely Trip Back is so hard to read. She's such a liar.

So how did you create Jerri's look?
First of all, when I met with the wardrobe people, I told them I wanted to dress like I owned a snake. For the hair, I wanted to look like a pro-golfer. I wanted her to be one of those people who dress attractively and always have style, always wear make-up, and always have their hair done. Jerri cared about how she looked—she thought she was pretty on the outside, just ugly on the inside. Jerri likes herself. I want to play people who like themselves. I don't think she was grotesque or ugly.

Although Jerri has a large fan base thanks to Comedy Central, do you worry about whether she'll appeal to the average moviegoer?
I do. At Comedy Central, we did this ratings thing and found that women didn't care too much for Jerri. But a lot of guys liked her. They'd show [Strangers] to their girlfriends, and if they didn't like the show, they knew they wouldn't be a good couple.

What kinds of challenges did you have in translating Strangers to the movie screen?
We wanted to be loyal to its cult audience. The movie is different in a lot of ways on purpose. We have a lot of celebrities in it [including Sarah Jessica Parker, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick]—not to get people to the theater, but because they're good actors. Personally, I wanted Willie Nelson to be my dad.

Why?
His look, his braids, everything about him. I thought he'd be a really cool dad for Jerri—people would like her more.

You wore a fatty suit to play Jerri, and the shoot lasted for five weeks. That sounds kind of uncomfortable.
I am the weakest link in the movie. We couldn't afford air conditioning on the set, and I wore a wig, a turtleneck, jeans, and the fatty suit. My mind was pitch black, that's how hot I was. I called my doctor and asked, "What do Alzheimer's victims take? Is there anything I can take?" I lost 10 or 12 pounds during the shoot. There's only one scene where I'm not wearing the fatty suit: I'm in a car with my stepmother, and I thought, "Why the fuck do I have to wear the fatty suit?" So I did the scene in boxers.

Aside from Florrie Fisher's PSA, Strangers was inspired by after-school specials. Do you have any favorites?
I love The Best Little Girl in the World, with Jennifer Jason Leigh. And Helen Hunt in the one where she jumps out of a window. I love anything where a mother's giving her daughter hell and the father's weak. I wanted Jerri to have a secret room, because I love anything secret. I also wanted Army recruiters in the school hallways, because they would totally go to Flatpoint High. I had the scene set perfectly, but in the end we didn't use it.

You and Stephen and Paul go all the way back to the '80s, when the three of you were doing Second City in Chicago. Do you remember your first impressions of them?
I remember Paul being really silly, like a kid. He still is. Stephen went to Northwestern [University] and seemed a little bit aloof. That changed once we started working together. Stephen would never laugh onstage. Paul and I wanted to break him. So one night I wore these icky teeth, and he broke. He went to the bathroom and got angry, and after that, he laughed.

Stephen once described you by saying, "She's an idiot savant—and her savant is making faces."
He's right. I'm more of a visual person. I like to be broad. I'd be perfect acting for deaf people and people who can't read. I always stand in front of the mirror and try to come up with funny faces. I do a really good Frances McDormand. I showed it to her and she laughed.

Did you make a lot of faces as a kid?
Oh, yeah.

Who did you make faces of?
My Greek grandmother was such a character, so I imitated her. And we'd visit her in the convalescent home, and there were a lot of characters there. My dad would have a good face when he'd get mad. David taught me about characters when we were growing up, so a lot of it came from me imitating him. Jerri's voice is based on this lady, Jean, who David and I met. David tried to imitate her and I tried to imitate him. I would always try to change her background but it would always be the same thing. Like when someone like Morgan Fairchild talks about always doing something different for every role, but it's the same fucking thing all the time.

So what draws you to these kinds of characters, especially the ones who a lot of people find physically unattractive, even repulsive?
I guess because I'm the underdog and misfit, and I relate to them a little bit more. I don't think about beauty. I just think about my body and myself being one big prop. And they're more interesting than pretty people. Pretty people can be pretty dull. Usually because they have different opportunities because they're pretty. It's harder for people who aren't.

Yet it's so rare to find actresses who want to take such a risk or even be seen without mascara.
When I do a film, I'm on the set and they always curl my hair and put make-up on me. I'm like, "Fuck." 'll always comb a script thinkin, "I hope I don't have to kiss anybody or act sexy." I personally need something to hide behind. I'm not an actress. I'm more a performer or a clown.

It's funny in a way, because you do hide behind your characters, but at the same time, people may assume that they know you because of David's books.
David could write a book where he'd really tell stuff that would bother us, but we don't really mind what he writes. Because I'm on talk shows, I'm used to being out there. The feeling may be different for some of my other brothers and sisters. But I'd much rather be "David's sister" than him be my brother. Our plays that we did together will always be my favorite things I ever worked on.

Do you have plans to collaborate on another one?
I hope so. It would be nice to do something over in Paris or London—I like the feeling of getting a new audience. Here, they know about me or about David, so it's becoming something else. There are other expectations and pressures.

Speaking of upcoming projects, you've got a book about entertaining, called I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, coming out later this year.
I wanted to do a TV show. I thought the best way to write it was to do a book first. I like to entertain, and I love Betty Crocker books. I thought it would be fun to put my recipes out there and use my props and then write about what it takes to entertain. It's also for people who don't entertain, or for awful guests who are like, "I've done that and I didn't know it's inappropriate." It's about getting back to basics: talking to each other, not having music dominate the room or the TV on. Just simple entertainment. I put myself in different situations: how to entertain a lumberjack—which is how to make a hot lunch—old people, children. I have a gypsy section, which is about food on foot. I write about alcoholics and what a pain in the ass it is to entertain for people who get drunk and think they're so funny. I involved all of my riffraff friends and would literally lie on my back and tell them what to do. It was so much fun. Paul Dinello helped me. I told him, "This book is going to be serious." So the humor came from him making fun of me. He's like, "People are gonna expect it to be funny." But when you mix humor with cooking, it's so queer. Paul said that no one's going to use these recipes, which broke my heart. I'm serious, but I want it to be humorous, too. That's the story of my life.

How long have you been working on the book?
A year and a half. I've never worked so hard on anything. I'm always thinking of new ideas and deadlines. And it hasn't been copy-edited yet.

Sounds like good preparation for the demands of TV production.
If I end up doing a show, it would be so much fun to create it and bring on my own team and do my own commercials. Even if it was on public access, I would be content just doing it.

I read somewhere that you've always wanted to make commercials.
I'm dying to do a tampon commercial! I would either be horseback riding or, like, on a mechanical bull, and then I'd stop in the middle of it. Or I'd say something like, "It feels so good, you never want to take it out." I also want to do a Depends commercial. Not to make fun of it, and not to aim it at the elderly or "females with discharge." I want to do it like at a comedy club. People need to see these products from a different angle. Even these drug commercials could be so much better if you showed like an argument between two people or someone experiencing extreme mood swings—like, jeez, this lady needs to take something!

So there's obviously a lot you'll attach your name to. Is there anything you won't do?
I always tell my agency that if the word "celebrity" is in front of a role, I won't do it. I just don't think of myself as that. There's nothing I absolutely wouldn't do, I just don't want to do anything where I don't have control. As queer as it sounds, I want to feel like I'm playing or feeling like it's pretend.

On the subject of celebrity, do people recognize you on the street?
Cops mostly. People recognize me more from being on Letterman and Sex and the City. Jerri Blank was such a disguise kit, when [people] do recognize me from Strangers With Candy, it tells me I'm starting to look more and more like Jerri Blank.

When you get recognized, what are those interactions like?
It's usually brief, 'cause if I'm out and about it means I'm focused and running around. I get a lot of mail that I answer, and usually people will tell me how they are like Jerri. Or they think they know me and then they will compare it to something I have said or I have done and I'm just thinking, "Oh, you've got it all wrong." Again it's about being misunderstood. I don't mind being recognized because it's not to the point of annoying. I am naive. If someone comes up to me and asks me about butter while I'm shopping, it would never occur to me that they were asking me because they recognized me from Monk or something.

While we're on the topic of imagined intimacy, you've told past interviewers that people always assume you want to be married with children. Is this still the case?
Sure. Now I tell people, "I'm trying to have a baby." And they say, "But Amy, you're not even seeing anybody!" Marriage doesn't work anymore. When are people going to realize that? It's never made sense to me, ever. I had boyfriends my whole life, but I haven't had one for the past five years and I love it. Everyone in my family is really good at entertaining ourselves. So if I have [a boyfriend] fantastic. If not, fantastic.

What are your requirements for an ideal boyfriend?
David always says I'd have to date someone with an accent, because I love accents. And he'd have to know how to fix something. I need a guy who can do that and have his own hours and own bedroom. Somebody very independent but who would understand me like my friends understand me. But I don't notice people on the street; I'm not looking.

You're not sitting at home at night, moping like Miss Lonelyhearts in Rear Window.
Right. David and I did a play where I was an older woman who went out with a guy who used me. The guy turned my basement into a bar. I'd said to David, "I want to do a love story." It was fucked up, but it was fun.

Styling Credits:
Hair by Steven "Perfidia" Kirkham
Make-up by Greg Vaughan
Studio courtesy of Soho Studios, NYC

Amy Sedaris' Cupcakes

1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter
1 and 3/4 cups of sugar
Beat well
Add 2 large eggs
2 teaspoons of pure vanilla
1/2 teaspoon of salt
2 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
2 1/2 cups of flour
1 1/4 cups of milk
Beat well, fill cups, bake at 375 degrees for 18-20 minutes. You should get 24. I get 18, 'cause I am doing something wrong.

FROSTING
1 box of Domino's confectionery sugar
1/4 cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon of pure vanilla
[Tony's Note: My pal Katie says that you should also add a stick of butter, but Amy accidentally left this ingredient out.]

Whip for a while. Color if you want to.

P.S. FROM AMY
"One thing I should mention is that I will be selling a craft on the fredflare.com site. It's my first craft that I am selling legally. It's called an eye burrito and all the money will go to the House Rabbit Society. What's an eye burrito?

You fill a burrito-size bag with raw beans, dimes, or kitty litter and make a nice cover for it and lay it over your tiring eyes. You can refrigerate it if you want."
 

© Summer 2006 — Venus