“As girls, we’re receiving messages that there’s one way to have value,” Aidy Bryant says, “and it is to be beautiful.” In her Hulu series Shrill, she signals other ways.
Mary Ellen Matthews /NBC
With her sweet voice and added knowing side-eyes, Aidy Bryant has built a career playing smart and sometimes unexpectedly cunning characters.
But even her portrayal of White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on NBC’s Saturday Night Live — which helped earn one of her two Emmy nominations for the series — is never overtly mean-spirited, and she brings that same subtlety to her new Hulu series.
In Shrill, Bryant offers a refreshing take on former Jezebel writer Lindy West’s memoir of the same name, which explains how her frank, feminist online persona earned her that adjective in troll circles.
Bryant is the star as well as a writer and coexecutive producer of the series, which is not a direct translation of West’s stories but is inspired by them.
Her character, Annie, works at an alt-magazine that’s akin to Seattle’s The Stranger, where West spent part of her early career. “What resonated so deeply with me,” Bryant says, “is the idea that, as girls, we’re receiving all these messages telling you that there’s one way to have value, and it is to be beautiful.”
Viewers see Annie finding the courage to stand up — to an employer’s narrow-minded views on health and his own self-importance, to a man-child paramour who doesn’t take relationships seriously and to the self-doubt she’s self-inflicted over a lifetime of being told she doesn’t deserve better.
To Bryant, the title means “to go boldly into being judged.” “A lot of people, probably me included, soften themselves for fear of being called ‘shrill’ or ‘fat’ or ‘loud’ or ‘big’ or ‘aggressive,’” she says. “That’s a big part of what this character and this story are about.
"This is a person who has made herself nice and sweet and acceptable in a lot of ways, and is dipping her toe into not being afraid of the labels that are going to come her way.”
Shrill, which premiered in March and has been renewed for a second season, arrives as Hollywood itself is figuring out how to discuss body imagery. Last year, AMC’s dark and subversive Dietland was canceled after a single season despite strong reviews, while Netflix’s beauty-pageant satire, Insatiable, spawned backlash and yet was renewed.
SNL itself doesn’t have the best history in this area (look up Chris Farley’s impersonation of Linda Tripp). Bryant says she’s been sent cringe-worthy scripts “where a huge crux of the story is that I would have to trick someone into falling in love with me.”
She and her colleagues (executive producers include Lorne Michaels, Elizabeth Banks and showrunner Ali Rushfield) weren’t out to make a “body-positivity-only show,” she notes; they wanted to create a character who wasn’t a stereotypical two-dimensional best friend.
In fact, Annie’s own best friend, Fran (played by British comedian Lolly Adefope), is herself a full-figured woman with a lush backstory. There are also sex scenes, which Bryant was nervous about but felt compelled to include so audiences could see “a fat character having sex in a way that wasn’t a joke.”
Bryant has been joking around since middle school in Phoenix, when she first became interested in improv. At Chicago’s Columbia College, she studied comedy in a program codeveloped by Second City, which recruited her a few years out of college. In 2012 she joined SNL, where she’s been ever since and plans to remain, even while continuing Shrill.
“This story includes a lot of the elements that give a person a full life,” Bryant says. “That’s the really cool thing — you see her family and how she feels when she’s called ‘fat.’ But you also see things that have nothing to do with her body. I loved getting to explore those things.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2019