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PASADENA, Calif. – Aidy Bryant would like you to know that fat people are just out here, living their lives.
In her new Hulu comedy “Shrill,” based on the memoir from fat-acceptance activist Lindy West, the “Saturday Night Live” star plays one of them: Annie, a woman who has attractive sexual partners, struggles in her career, has a great best friend and a dog, and just happens to be fat. It’s the kind of representation that has been sorely lacking in pop culture, and Bryant can relate.
“I always had, like, sex,” says Bryant, 31, who also wrote for the series. “I always had sexual partners who were attracted to me or I dated. I had great best friends who filled out my life. … And I think that’s what we were truly trying to show. A full life of a fat person. … Some of that stuff is really painful and difficult, but I also relate to a lot of the more joyful elements, too.”
“Shrill” was filmed in Portland, Oregon, and the series has a sweet, laid-back, West Coast vibe. Annie works at an alt-weekly newspaper under a cruel and fitness-obsessed boss, Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell), and lives with her best friend Fran (Lolly Adefope). She has an on-again-off-again relationship with stoner man-child Ryan (Luka Jones), who veers between charming and annoying. The cast around her is strong, but it’s Bryant’s show, first and foremost. But it’s a different role from the type Bryant usually plays on “SNL”: Annie starts out timid and repressed.
The discussion around “Shrill” seems to prove that a show like “Shrill” needs to exist at all. At a Television Critics Association panel last month, questions ranged from cringe-worthy to hide-under-the-covers embarrassing. One, directed at producer Elizabeth Banks, inquired why the gorgeous actress would even want to make a show about a fat woman.
As much as it focuses on other aspects of Annie’s life, “Shrill” includes instances of bullying and fat shaming. In a first-episode scene, a personal trainer accosts Annie and tries to guilt-trip her into signing up for workouts, and was inspired by Bryant’s life.
“Someone really did say to me, ‘You have a small frame and you’re not meant to carry around this much weight,’” she says.
“I really believe that when (the trainer) is making those comments to her, she thinks she’s helping Annie. She thinks she’s saying a good thing,” Bryant says. “And I think by showing the full scope of that interaction, and what it feels like for the person receiving those types of comments, that it does help the viewer recognize that it’s not OK.”
“Shrill” is not meant to be preachy, she adds, “(but) it humanizes those kinds of interactions. And it puts a person behind it, who hopefully by the end of that season, you really love Annie and you don’t want those kinds of things to be happening to her.”
The series also explores online harassment, a persistent danger for many women, people of color and other marginalized groups, including Bryant and her “SNL” co-star Leslie Jones. These days, Bryant steers clear of Twitter.
“When I started playing Sarah Huckabee Sanders I was just inundated with hundreds of tweets,” she says. “They were 50% conservatives telling me that I was a fat, ugly pig who shouldn’t be allowed to play such a strong, dignified woman, and then 50% were liberals who were telling me I was too gorgeous to play such a fat, ugly pig. And so both sides were making me incredibly sad, because I’ve really made an effort to never talk about how (Sanders) looks and only talk about what she says and does.” The social-media platform, she says, became “just a window for these people to shout random things at me that I don’t want to see and make me sad about humanity.”
Although other series including NBC’s “This Is Us” and AMC’s “Dietland” have recently portrayed fat women on TV, they’re often centered exclusively on the characters’ weight. As a result, Bryant feels pressure for “Shrill” to be the breakthrough, dimensionalizing series.
“We only had six episodes, so that’s not a lot of real estate,” Bryant says. “We knew what we could accomplish in that amount of time. … I hope if we get to do a second season, or a third season, (and) the further away we get from where we meet Annie, which is like hating herself, wanting tiny thighs … the deeper we get into her adventures, her life and the things she gets up to, outside of her body.”
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