Aidy Bryant on 'taking the reins' in her new Hulu series Shrill
On the new Hulu half-hour series, which is backed by big names including Lorne Michaels and Elizabeth Banks and is adapted from Lindy West’s best-selling book, Bryant stars as Annie, a budding journalist juggling a dopey love interest, a mercurial boss, and a flimsy sense of self-worth while fighting through society’s darker corners to find true joy. It’s grounded and tenderly funny, a slice-of-life that centers on a character typically relegated to the margins.
For Bryant, who also serves as co-executive producer, this was all very much by design.
The series evolved into her expression: Bryant co-wrote many of the episodes and got final pass on all scripts. “They really let me take the reins,” she tells EW. Working closely with West and showrunner Ali Rushfield, Bryant looked inward to authentically tell Annie’s story. “We just wanted to have a fat character with a normal life,” she says. “There’s a lot of stuff [on Shrill] that really happened to me or Lindy or someone else in our writers’ room.”
EW caught up with Bryant ahead of Shrill‘s premiere. Read our full interview below. Shrill debuts Friday on Hulu.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So this is your first big TV project. How did it come together on your end?
AIDY BRYANT: I read the book a couple summers ago and when I read it I was like, “Oh my God.” It was such a crystallization of so many things I’d thought previously, put on paper. I saw so much of my own experience in it. When I heard that it had been optioned by Elizabeth Banks, I called my agents and was like, “Do you know what they’re making? I loved this book.” My agents were like, “It’s so weird, they just called us about you — let’s set the meeting.” I was interested in helping write and produce the next thing I did, and they were like, “Let’s do it.” It was a very serendipitous, beautiful thing. It was really nice. It was a dream scenario and very breezy.
So how did you, personally, want to shape the series, in terms of tone, characterizations, etc?
We knew we had this foundation of the book. Especially when we were sitting down to be like, “What are we going to do here?” The thing we kept coming back to was: We just wanted to have a fat character with a normal life. [Laughs] Let her have a full, normal life that has friendships and all these positive sides. That it’s not just her schlumping around in a big cardigan being like, “I’m trying to lose weight.” She has a full life, but is tormented by these inner-demons — and exterior demons! All these things. But ultimately, this fat character has a lot of stuff going for her. For us, that manifested in the show being pretty grounded, trying to keep it real without going too wacky.
Was creating that kind of story an empowering experience for you?
Oh my God, yes, of course. With Lorne and Elizabeth and even Warner Bros. and Hulu, they put their trust in me in a major way. They really let me take the reins. I got to be in the edit and all the music meetings — all these elements where I ended up shaping the show. I could’ve seen them being like, “Who are you? You’re an actress? Why do you want to get in there?” They trusted. Literally, from the marketing to everything, it was such a thrill to be involved and shape it as a whole. Literally: Be a producer!
How did you bring your own life into the material?
There are tons of little moments — in the very first episode, the scene in the coffee shop: Someone really did grab my wrist and say, “You have a tiny wrist and you’re not meant to carry around this much extra weight.” There’s a lot of stuff where it’s like, “That really happened to me or Lindy or someone else in our writer’s room.” That was part of what we wanted to show — here’s a person just trying to do their best in their career and all these things, and these exterior forces tell you, “You’re already bad.”
Speaking as an internet writer, I particularly related to when Annie is hit with a barrage of online hate.
It’s a dark place! That is such a thing that almost everybody in the world has felt now. Someone saying something mean on the internet, it’s such a jarring experience. It can feel so violating. Sometimes it can feel so targeted. Like, “Why does this person hate me?” That was some of the stuff we wanted to get at, especially because Lindy has had this really extreme targeted harassment. That’s insane. Like, “What is the world?”
Lindy is also working on the show. How did you work with her?
I was nervous to meet Lindy because I was such a fan of her writing. So much of it, for me, has been so galvanizing. To get to work with her was such a joy. Ultimately, she wrote this Bible of our show, which is the book. It felt like, from when we started, that we were already 10 miles ahead because we had so much emotionally rich material, these flagpoles that we could build the show around. She was great. She has such an understanding of these issues, and so much empathy and sympathy. A sense of the bigger picture in injustice. She’s so good at putting that stuff into words; that’s the ultimate gift.
Do you have a favorite scene that you filmed so far?
There’s a date scene in episode 2 that I loved filming. We shot it for a long time. Carrie Brownstein was our director: There was a lot of improvising! We were eating Italian food. It was a really, really fun night. My scene partner Luca, who plays my boyfriend in the show, ate maybe eight plates of lasagna over the course of shooting that scene. I thought he was maybe going to die. [Laughs] It was really fun.
I love the setpiece in the second episode, too, of Annie doing a “restaurant review” at a strip club. The shot of you eating with dancers all around you alone —
Oh my God, okay, wait — maybe that’s my favorite. [Laughs] That was so cool. Those girls were so badass. They all performed the hell out of it. It was just so fun to get to sit and watch.
I’m wondering what the experience of working in a writers’ room was like. It’s nothing like SNL, right?
I’ve worked at SNL in a writers’ room for a long time, but yeah, it’s different. We divide and conquer at SNL — everybody goes off and writes their sketches and then we come back together and we rewrite, you’re in pairs and that kind of thing — but [Shrill] was so fun for me, to be in a true, old-fashioned writers’ room, where we all got to just talk through everything together all day and pitch ideas. The divide of the work came down to Lindy, Ali Rushfield my showrunner, and I writing the first two scripts, and then the rest divvied out among our writers. I did a final pass before we shot it, just to make sure it was in my voice and those kinds of things. But then I also have to say: We were super collaborative with our directors and all our cast, as far as wanting to improvise and, if something felt wooden, let’s lose it or let’s try something. That’s where I started, improv stuff and Second City, and I love being able to do that on the set. On SNL, you just don’t have time for that.
Anything you felt nervous about doing? You film some pretty intimate sex scenes, for one.
Any time I got nervous to do a sex scene or anything like that, I was like, “It’s worth it to me.” It’s an element of telling this character’s story. This show is about body and self-worth, and letting go a little bit. How can you not have sex be part of that? It would have felt like a lie to exclude that from who she is. It was also important to me to show a fat character with some dignity in that space — in her sexuality. Sometimes with fat characters, sex is portrayed as a joke, or a total romp — like, “She’s jumping on him! He’s going to rip his clothes off!” We tried to really keep some integrity intact. Any time I was like, “Oh, I’m going to take my pants off?” I was like, “Well, it’s serving a purpose.” I just had to do it!