After a decade out of the spotlight, Spokane native and SNL alum Julia Sweeney returns to Hollywood
By Nathan Weinbender
Julia Sweeney has cracked nearly a dozen eggs before she's satisfied with the scene.
They've become props in an audition she's filming in the kitchenette of her mother's Spokane apartment. It's the first role in a major production that she's tried out for in... well, she's not really sure. Ten years? Maybe longer.
A day earlier, Sweeney had been hesitant to even mention the audition to me, let alone invite me to watch. She's nervous, which is surprising when you consider she was once on Saturday Night Live, which has one of the most famously cutthroat audition processes in all of show biz.
She brought it up in passing but quickly changed the subject, because there was just no way she'd ever land such a great role on a show as high-profile as this, and what if she blabs about it to every journalist in town and then doesn't even get the gig?
But now I'm sitting at her mom Jeri's dining room table on a Friday afternoon in early July, as she runs through a short scene — some of which she's written herself — in front of a camera, and it seems pretty damn effortless.
In the scene, Sweeney is playing your standard sitcom mother — well-meaning but overbearing, protective but suffocating. Observations tumble out of her mouth that are no doubt meant to salve emotional insecurities, but land instead with all the delicacy of a knife in the gut.
The character is concerned about her 30-something daughter's weight. She offers dubious dieting tips ("almonds are the cheeseburgers of nuts") as she prepares dinner, while her husband, sick with cancer, vomits in the next room.
It's a dark, lacerating playlet. It's also really funny.
The show Sweeney's trying out for is called Shrill, and one of its producers is Lorne Michaels, who gave Sweeney her big break on SNL back in 1990. The Hulu series, premiering in March, is inspired by former Stranger writer Lindy West's memoir and will star SNL cast member Aidy Bryant as an alt-weekly journalist living in the Pacific Northwest dealing with her Dan Savage-like editor (to be played by Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell) and, of course, her eccentric mother.
This is Sweeney's second callback for the show. During her last audition, the producers told her she was a bit too nice. Could she play it meaner? But she doesn't want to be too mean, either. It's a delicate balance.
Sweeney goes through the scene three times, and each go-around is slightly different from the last. She modulates the intensity of certain lines. She puts emphasis on different words. Even when she trips over a piece of dialogue, she charges through with the determination of someone who's fought in the trenches of improv.
And now watching the footage back, that earlier trepidation has melted away.
"I feel a lot better about this," Sweeney says. "I think I might have a shot."
She then looks down at a bowl full of yolks and deadpans to her mother, who has emerged from the bedroom: "I guess we're having eggs for dinner."
Sweeney says the thread running through her entire career has been her own lack of self-awareness.
"I'm just f—-in' oblivious," Sweeney tells me. "Some people have conspiracy theories or they're paranoid about stuff. I'm the opposite. I should be more paranoid. I assume everyone has the best intentions."
As an example, she says she didn't realize comedy was a viable career option "until way too late." Born and raised in Spokane, Sweeney remembers being exposed to comedy of the '50s and '60s — Bob and Ray's radio routines, the cartoons of James Thurber, the monologues of Brendan Behan — by her father.
"But no one ever said, 'You should go into show business as a funny person,'" she says.
After graduating from the University of Washington, where she double majored in economics and European history, Sweeney moved to L.A. and started work as an accountant. It was a job she excelled at. She also hated it.
"It was weird to be good at something I didn't enjoy," Sweeney says. "I sort of had a midlife crisis at 25. I was always crying on my way to work."
And then she spotted an ad for the Groundlings, the legendary improv and sketch comedy troupe that has a litany of famous performers amongst its alumni — Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Paul Reubens, Maya Rudolph, Kathy Griffin, Lisa Kudrow, Phil Hartman (who was one of Sweeney's improv teachers) and Craig T. Nelson (also a Spokane native).
"They were teaching acting to nonprofessionals, and that was the important part of it," Sweeney recalls. "If they had said, 'actors learn improv,' I never would have responded to it. In college, I took one acting class, and we all had to pretend to be an orange that day. And I left the class, like, 'That's not for me.'
"Then I took a class at the Groundlings, and it changed my entire life."
As she worked her way up to the main company of the Groundlings, Sweeney eventually quit her suffocating office job, going on and off unemployment as she scraped by as a performer. That's where she was spotted by an SNL talent scout, and would eventually join the cast in '90 alongside Hartman ("He was like an older brother," Sweeney says), Mike Myers, Chris Farley ("[He] was so crazy, but I loved him"), Chris Rock, Dana Carvey and David Spade ("He once wrote a sketch for me, and it was so lovely of him").
"In some ways, now I'm more amazed I was on SNL than when I was on SNL," Sweeney says. "You got the feeling you were at the center of the universe, of the media and the zeitgeist. I'm amazed now how much I was part of popular culture."
On just her third episode, Sweeney debuted what would become (for better or worse) her best-known creation, a broad-shouldered, curly-haired and decidedly androgynous office drone named Pat. It was a bit from her Groundlings days, and it birthed what every SNL performer hopes for but doesn't often get: a hugely popular recurring character.
Pat was an amalgam of several people, both men and women, that Sweeney knew, but was primarily modeled after an annoying male co-worker in her office. She says she first tried to play Pat as a man, but because she came across as androgynous in drag, that became the character's defining attribute.
The formula for the Pat sketches is pretty simple: Pat's acquaintances desperately try to determine Pat's gender, asking questions that should ostensibly clear up the mystery but only further muddy the waters. (Example: "If you were a baby, what color would your Pampers be — pink or blue?" "Diapers were all white back then!")
Like the Blues Brothers and Wayne and Garth before, there was eventually a Pat feature film in 1994, the same year Sweeney left SNL. To call It's Pat: The Movie a failure would be granting it a kindness: It was pulled from theaters after a single week, it still holds a 0 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for multiple Golden Raspberry Awards (it lost them all to Showgirls). It was the final nail in Pat's coffin.
Sweeney left SNL before her five-year contract had expired. She deliberately didn't have any other projects lined up, an act of silent protest that she now realizes was foolish, like breaking up with someone and, in defiance, leaving all your stuff at their place.
"I remember thinking, 'I would rather scrub toilets with a toothbrush than be on this show one more week,'" she says. "And I wanted people to know that's how I felt. And I made it so that the only job I could get was scrubbing toilets with a toothbrush."
That era of SNL is known to have been a rowdy boy's club, as cast members like Adam Sandler, Spade, Farley and Rob Schneider pushed their way to the front of the pack. If Sweeney and her female co-stars — including Ellen Cleghorne, Melanie Hutsell and Sarah Silverman — ever got a role in their sketches, it was as a girlfriend or an irritating sister or a bitchy co-worker.
"There wasn't any place for me in that comedic universe," Sweeney says. "They weren't writing anything for women, and if they were, they were playing it themselves in ways I found sort of ghastly. Looking back — again, the obliviousness factor — knowing what kind of careers and opportunities they got versus what the women got ... there's really no way I could have been good enough to break through that. I remember having a very dark time, of listening nonstop to the Pogues, smoking like crazy, a lot of crying, and then just deciding I wanted to leave.
"I always felt like I could just move to a small town and forget I was ever on SNL. And then I did do that."
Following SNL, Sweeney mostly stuck to smaller roles, making one-off appearances on shows like Frasier, 3rd Rock from the Sun and Sex and the City. Ten years ago, she left Hollywood entirely, moving her family to Wilmette, a suburb north of Chicago. Save for the occasional voice-over gig, she's mostly stayed out of the limelight.
Now she's in the process of moving to Los Angeles, and taking on acting as a full-time gig again.
But in the interim, Sweeney found her way back to the stage, performing a series of well-received comic monologues that exist somewhere between traditional stand-up and one-woman show.
Her first, God Said Ha!, detailed her own cancer diagnosis in the wake of her movie's failure and her late brother Michael's battle with lymphoma. It had a stint on Broadway, and a filmed version of the show was produced by Sweeney's friend Quentin Tarantino (she had a small role in Pulp Fiction). Then came In the Family Way, about the dissolution of her first marriage and adopting her daughter Mulan from China, followed by Letting Go of God, in which she discussed her decision to abandon Catholicism.
Sweeney's latest show is titled Older & Wider, which she's bringing to her hometown this weekend. It deals with the challenges of aging, yes, but also with raising a teenager and coming to terms with the fact that maybe she isn't famous anymore. And she dredges up the spirit of Pat, the character she can't escape, and grapples with the cultural implications of her own creation.
"The truth is I'll probably never do something that would wipe out Pat," Sweeney says. "I mean, who knows? But it's unlikely. It doesn't bother me, though."
Mainstream culture's attitudes toward gender identity still have a long way to go, but surely they've progressed beyond those of the Stone Age that was 1991. I go back and watch some of those original Pat sketches online, just to see how tone-deaf they seem by 2018 standards.
In one of them, Pat visits a drug store. The woman behind the counter, played by host Catherine O'Hara, is flummoxed by her androgynous customer's requests for razors — Pat goes for the blue ones, because they're cheaper — and condoms.
"Contraception is the responsibility of both partners!" Pat explains enthusiastically.
In another, a barber (host George Wendt) cuts Pat's hair then asks if he should charge for the $15 men's cut or the $17.50 women's cut. Pat simply hands him a $20 and tells him to keep the change.
Those are mostly innocuous, although one in which Pat applies for a gym membership and is manhandled by the trainers inspires not comedy but sadness and discomfort.
When seen through a contemporary lens, Pat is hardly the most sensitive portrayal of androgyny that's ever been. Sweeney acknowledges that. The character has faced plenty of criticism; just recently, Jill Soloway, creator of the series Transparent, called Pat "an awful piece of anti-trans propaganda." Sweeney told the Wrap website that she never thought of Pat as trans, but that she didn't exactly disagree with Soloway's criticisms.
But here's the thing: Pat isn't the butt of the joke. Pat is happy and content. Pat has a healthy sex life. The sketches acknowledge that Pat doesn't owe anybody an explanation of their gender. (Whether or not the SNL audience picked up on that is another story.) They're also ahead of their time in skewering the ridiculous and unnecessary gendering of everything from disposable razors to public bathrooms.
"Pat is a threat to the patriarchy," Sweeney says. "You can't immediately put this person in a category where they fit into the patriarchy. ... The moment Pat's not funny at all is the moment we've evolved as a culture. The goal of Pat is to not be funny. Pat's just a person, and it's not a big deal to anybody if you don't know [Pat's gender]."
Sweeney says she's met transgender and intersex people over the years who have told her that seeing Pat on TV actually made them realize they didn't fit into a binary box. But that's not to suggest that Pat is some kind of unimpeachable pop culture icon.
"It's not like I want to say, 'Don't disparage Pat.' No, disparage Pat!" Sweeney says. "Disparage that whole idea, because that's what I thought Pat was doing. ... Because I did Pat, I met a lot of intersex people, I've read books and I've kept up on it, and now I have fairly radical views about things. Pat taught me to pay attention to things I wouldn't normally pay attention to."
Two weeks after my first meeting with Sweeney, a breathless, punctuation-heavy email shows up in my inbox.
It's about her audition.
"My manager called and said that the Scheduling Department had called and wanted me to know I was expected to be at a read-through of the script with the whole cast," she writes. "AGH! So I said, 'So I have the part?????????' And they said, 'Well..... kinda sorta. Probably. I mean, I wouldn't make an announcement.' AGH!!!!!!"
And then it was official a couple weeks later: Sweeney had the role. She'd be returning to live-action television for the first time in more than a decade.
Carol, her character on Shrill, is a homemaker and caretaker for her ailing husband. (As of press time, the actor playing Sweeney's TV husband hasn't been announced, but he's another well-known Hollywood veteran you might not have seen in awhile.) She makes everyone's business about herself, sure, but she's not cynical about it, and she's certainly not foolish.
"I'll defend my character," Sweeney says a couple weeks after filming has wrapped. "I think she reasonably tries to insert herself into people's lives, but not everyone appreciates that. When I was auditioning, I was much crazier and meaner than I am in the actual show. It's still annoying, but it's definitely in the realm of what I would do myself, or what any of my friends would do, for their daughter if they were worried about her weight or her health."
Sweeney has been flying back and forth from L.A. to Portland, where the show is being filmed. In the middle of all this, she and her husband Michael are trying to sell their house in Chicago, where Michael still lives. A few weeks ago, they drove Mulan to Ohio State University, where she's a student.
And just like that, after all those years of quiet suburban existence, Sweeney is suddenly back in the thick of it. She says she had forgotten what it was like to be on a bustling Hollywood set, what the electricity of being in front of a camera felt like, how a cast can develop an instant and indelible camaraderie.
"It reminded me of all these wonderful things about acting, having these intense experiences with people and then moving on," Sweeney says. "I forgot the thrill of this big, concentrated effort with so many people. It's completely all-consuming. ... And I love it. I'm sure if I work a lot, I'll get sick of it, but for right now, it's a dream.
"I'm so ready to take Hollywood by storm as the nosy mother." ♦