Amy Schumer is in a familiar position. She’d have every right to be fed up about being back here, but instead she’s facing it with admirable open-mindedness and even some optimism. Once again, there has been histrionic reaction to one of her projects and, once again, here she is setting the record straight about any number of misconceptions.
That’s the thing when you’re a cultural lightning rod. You might bear the brunt of a charged debate. But you also end up pretty electrified yourself.
When the trailer was released for Schumer’s new comedy I Feel Pretty, there was instant, vitriolic backlash to the perceived message of the film. “I was surprised,” Schumer tells us, sitting in a Manhattan hotel room in the middle of a long press day. It’s near the end of a marathon publicity push in which she has yet to break stride in the measured way she’s engaged in the debate the trailer sparked: “But then I understood it right away.”
In the movie, Schumer plays Renee Bennet, a low-level employee for a glossy beauty company who is practically crippled in every aspect of her life because of insecurities about her appearance. She feels like she’s not attractive enough, stylish enough, or skinny enough to be respected or noticed, let alone to deserve career success or a love life. This is all even though she’s objectively, well, pretty: She looks like Amy Schumer decked out in a sunny studio rom-com’s wardrobe budget.
After falling off a spin bike at SoulCycle class, Renee wakes up believing she is the most beautiful person in the world, a boost of confidence that leads her to pursue and attain all she’s desired from life. When will Renee realize that it’s not her appearance that changed, but her attitude and belief in herself?
It should be an empowering message, but you wouldn’t know that from the reaction to the trailer. Sight unseen, the film was accused of body-shaming women, of setting a standard of beauty so high that someone as conventionally attractive as Amy Schumer doesn’t meet it, and for arguing that if you’re not beautiful you need to suffer a head injury in order to believe that you are.
The film is, of course, far more nuanced than that.
“People felt like this was supposed to be a movie where I play the really ugly girl and then I get pretty in the end or something,” Schumer says, addressing the criticism. “But that’s not what it is. It’s just about somebody with really low self-esteem.
“It’s a metaphor for how much you want to be able to communicate to the people you love that you think are gorgeous, that you wish they could see themselves the way you see them,” she continues. “People just kind of projected their own stuff onto it. That doesn’t surprise me. I think people do that for everything. But I really hope that doesn’t keep them from seeing the movie.”
While you might expect a star to be angry or defensive in a situation like this, Schumer actually found the backlash clarifying. It even fueled her passion for the film and its message.
“I think the trailer really triggered people, which is part of the reason why I think there is such a need for this movie right now,” she says. “And I hope that people do give it a chance. I know they’ll feel good leaving it. I really believe that.”
The film’s message shouldn’t be distilled down to just confidence in body image and appearance. While, yes, the trailer focused on Renee’s head trauma-induced revelation that she’s now beautiful, it’s also about the journey a person requires to give herself permission to be happy and accept good things in her life.
It’s not just I feel pretty. It’s I feel happy. I feel worthy. I feel valued.
We suggest to Schumer that one reason she might feel so passionate about this project—she served as a producer but unlike many of her other self-created projects, it was written by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein—is that it’s an emotional arc she might recognize because she recently traveled it herself.
In the last two years, she wrote a best-selling memoir, lured Goldie Hawn back to the screen for their film Snatched, premiered her first Netflix special, and made her Broadway debut in a play written by Steve Martin, for which she could receive a Tony nomination next month.
In February, she married chef Chris Fischer in a surprise Malibu ceremony.
And while she’s been the subject of relentless and polarized media debate and fascination, she’s pointedly redirected that attention to talk about hot-button issues that are important to her, including the #MeToo movement, inclusion in Hollywood, and preventing gun violence.
We don’t want to project, but might she be in a happy place in her life?
“I am. You can project that,” she says, smiling. “Everyone still has problems, you know? And I still have a family…” She lets out a loaded laugh that most of us can relate to. “But yeah, generally, I’m pretty psyched.”
It hasn’t been an easy place to get to. Like Renee, it required dismissing the blockers we put up, thinking they protect us when really, they might be keeping happiness away. “It’s an ongoing journey, for sure, but I’ve got a really good baseline now that I didn’t have before,” she says.
As a kid, she felt great about herself. “I didn’t just not think about it. Like, I thought I looked amazing,” she says. “My parents were like, ‘You are very gorgeous,’ and I really just bought it.” She was bullied as she got older, as grade-school kids started behaving like grade-school kids. “I stayed pretty strong throughout,” she says. “I was like, no, I’m pretty gorgeous. But then over time it just kind of chipped away.”
A good friend group and social life in high school helped rebound her confidence and develop an identity she felt happy with. But everything changed when she was dropped off for her freshman year at Maryland’s Towson University, a school that happened to regularly show up in rankings of “hottest college girls.”
“No one knows you, and you’re just like truly judged on your appearance, like fully,” she says. “There were very gorgeous chicks, and I couldn’t really compete. All the self-esteem was just gone from my body. It was a process to get it back.”
When she started working as a stand-up comedian and broke out with her Comedy Central series, Inside Amy Schumer, her confidence was all over the place, at odds with her success. “Getting bullied, getting trolled on the internet at first is a shocking thing—just all those controversies over the years,” she says, looking exasperated even at the memory of them.
Then she reveals maybe the most heartbreaking but illuminating thing about what it’s like to be a celebrity, what it’s like to be divisive, what it’s like to be Amy Schumer.
“It’s not a super uplifting story, but at a certain point you get truly desensitized to it,” she says. “I couldn’t read something mean about my physical appearance and feel it if I tried. I think that is from a good amount of desensitization, but also from really learning the lesson that she learns in the movie, of like, your experience of me has nothing to do with what I look like or who I am. It doesn’t even feel personal at this point.
“I’m really proud of myself,” she says, with the kind of conviction that lets you know she really means it. “I like myself. So that helps.”
A major source of that pride comes with being able to use her platform for activism—not to mention developing the confidence to be able to deflect the hatred hurled by those who don’t agree with her, or more broadly, those who think a comedian and actress should stay out of politics.
She’s been a vocal advocate in the #MeToo movement, and became a case study in the push for gender parity when she famously renegotiated her Netflix payday after learning that male comedians Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock were paid significantly more than her.
She campaigned on behalf of Hillary Clinton in 2016, and for perhaps her most personal cause, partnered with her cousin, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, to push for stricter gun control laws and increased mental health funding after a fatal shooting at a Louisiana screening of her film Trainwreck.
While she had been insistent on hiring diverse writers and directors for Inside Amy Schumer, she’s had a fire lit under her recently to work toward more inclusivity in all fields. “I had the inclusion rider before Frances [McDormand] had her moment,” she says, referencing the Oscar-winner’s galvanizing Best Actress speech calling for contracts that stipulate gender and racial diversity on future projects. “This is something that’s been on my mind.”
Then there’s the content of her work and the nature of her celebrity itself, which seems to fuel its own cottage industry of think pieces regarding sex, feminism, consent, and body image. Her very existence is, in some ways, political.
Our conversation touches on everything from theBoardlist.com, a website with the goal of mobilizing women into more boardrooms, to a TED Talk from transgender activist Paula Stone Williams, to the shame studio executives deserve to feel for waiting so long to give audiences a studio tentpole film as gloriously black as Black Panther.
We wonder whether these varied talking points cause a bit of interview whiplash, going from talking about I Feel Pretty to discussing school shootings but, she says, “these are things I’m thinking about, too.”
“I feel like they really do go together in this [project], whereas when I was doing the play, Steve Martin’s play, that didn’t feel very relevant to the moment, and that’s kind of hard for me,” she says. “This feels really relevant to me. With the #MeToo movement, with Parkland, with all that, because something that really holds people back, especially women, is not having the confidence and not feeling the self-worth to speak up, or not be the most productive version of themselves they can be.”
She then articulates what, whether or not she intends it as such, might be construed as Amy Schumer’s manifesto, or at least her mission statement at this point in her career. “I have a voice that’s important,” she says. “I don’t think I’m always right. But I think my voice is valid and worth something.
“Something like gun violence, where I was completely uneducated, I would have kept quiet and stayed in my lane as a comic if I had a capacity to do that,” she concludes. “But I just don’t. It’s harmful to me, personally in my career, to be so divisive. But I don’t even have that option to shut up. And I don’t understand how anyone does, actually.”