‘Who are all these ugly people?’ Amy Sedaris talks Strangers with Candy fans, her friendship with Stephen Colbert, voicing a talking cat on Netflix, and everything in between.
Amy Sedaris is the original James Franco.
A multi-hyphenate before it was even cool, the prolific actress you’ve seen in so many TV show guest spots, scene-stealing film supporting roles, and adorable Downy commercials tells me, “If someone asked me how would I describe myself, actress would be at the bottom of the list.”
That might be surprising for fans of Sedaris who fell in love with her as Jerri Blank in the cult hit Strangers with Candy, lived for her delirious line readings as Carrie’s book publicist on Sex and the City, and are delighting in her voiceover work right now in Netflix’s just-released animated series, BoJack Horseman. But truth be told, there’s no business card large enough to cram in all of the occupations Sedaris, well, occupies her time with.
An expert crafter and consummate host, she’s the best-selling author of the 2010 book Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People (its cover can be fashioned into a hat) and the 2006 entertainment guide I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. She’s co-authored several plays with her brother, David Sedaris. She once ran a cupcake and cheese ball business out of her home kitchen, and recently staged a rabbit intervention for her longtime friend, Stephen Colbert.
In fact, rabbit care is a major passion of Sedaris’, evidenced through her series of informative how-to videos for raising a floppy-eared pet and her love of her own beloved bunny, Dusty, who recently passed away. So it’s with no trace in her voice of such a thing sounding slightly unusual that Sedaris interjects “I had a dying rabbit on my hands” into an unrelated story about her acting career.
A great New Yorker, Sedaris has also become well-known as a staple on late-night talk shows, highlighted by recent stints performing questionable CPR with Jimmy Fallon or demonstrating a Shake Weight alongside Jon Hamm on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live! She’s been a favorite guest of Dave Letterman’s, especially, having appeared over two dozen times since 2002.
Letterman once described Sedaris in, what became abundantly clear after conversing with her, perfect fashion. “What you have to understand about this lovely woman is, in addition to being a fine actress and a wonderful comedienne, she’s peculiar,” he said. “You have to keep that in mind because she’s like—and joyfully, gladfully—different from everybody else walking around on the planet. That’s what makes her special. That’s why we embrace her. But, you know. She’s not hooked up right.”
As we gab, she exhibits the barreling, kinetic energy of a person whose mind has already reached the punchline of her story while she’s still only telling you the exposition. “We did it!” she exclaims, both excited and relieved, after an interview that was so endearingly peppered with several “Oh gosh, I hope that made sense…” addendums to her answers ends. Belying all of it, though, was a warmth, hilarity, and, as Letterman so perfectly points out, peculiarity indicative of how Sedaris hasn’t merely been able to sustain passions for a disparate number of interests, but also achieve outsized success and retain consumer interest in all of them.
(As further proof of that warm, hilarious, peculiar personality, Sedaris tells me of when she first became aware of Strangers with Candy’s cult fans: “We were like, ‘Who are all these ugly people?’” Hehe.)
So it’s in the spirit of Sedaris’ myriad passions and interests that our recent conversation of her spanned the equally varied topics of her role on BoJack Horseman, balancing all of her various careers, her love of rabbits, saying goodbye to Letterman’s talk show, her good friend Stephen Colbert, Strangers with Candy, and just about everything in between.
How did Amy Sedaris end up voicing a cat on a Netflix animated series about an aging sitcom horse?
Will Arnett and I have talked for years about trying to do something together, because I love just about everything about Will. Then I just got a phone call. When they told me that Will Arnett would be the star of it, I was like, “Oh, absolutely.” Because as easy as voiceovers are to do—you don’t have to get dressed up, you just go to the studio—there’s something that can be a little annoying about them as well. But this wasn’t annoying at all. Everybody was in L.A. and they would have a table read, but I was in New York in a hospice situation—I had a dying rabbit on my hands—so it was a perfect job to have. It was a brutal winter here in New York City. All I had to do was sit in my apartment and get on the conference call. And then I’d just walk to a studio on 19th Street and record it.
What was your initial read on this premise, making the washed-up child star a horse?
I think it’s great. What I like about it is—I don’t know my good terminology so well—but I like that it’s a sitcom itself. It’s serial, is that the word for it? You can watch it in order. I don’t know if a lot of animated shows are like that—I don’t watch a lot of them—but that’s what appealed to me about this show. That, you know, it could’ve been live action. But once I saw the drawings—a lot of times you get scripts for animated shows and then you see the illustrations and you’re like, “Oh really? That’s what I look like? I don’t really want to play. I don’t know the voice for that.” But when I saw the drawing for this I immediately thought, “Oh yeah, great.”
You play Bojack’s agent and girlfriend. How disastrous would that be in real life?
Could you imagine? I guess because she’s such a professional she can turn it on and off. It’s always funny when people can be that way. I’m like, “Who are you?” You know what I mean? It’s like a “feelings aren’t facts” kind of a thing. That’s what I like about that character. It’s like, “Oh, you idiot. Run for the hills.” Will is just, ugh, god, so perfect for it.
You don’t have to name names, but you’ve worked with so many people in Hollywood. Is the deluded hubris we see in Bojack ring true with people you’ve encountered in your industry travails?
Have I met anyone like him before? No. [Laughs] Not that I can think of!
So why is that such a lingering stereotype in the way pop culture represents Hollywood?
I know! The big star who isn’t anymore but still demands all that treatment, but he’s just an idiot and a loser and if he wasn’t supported by all those people he’d be nothing. I guess that’s happening out there somewhere, but I personally don’t know the situation. But it must be!
The first episode has an interview between BoJack and Charlie Rose, and Charlie asks him, “So what have you been up to these days?” in that sort of derogatory way indicating that he’s been doing nothing. I feel like journalists must ask actors that a lot. How infuriating is it as a question? Especially for you, who’s constantly working on a dozen different things.
It’s always nice to say you’re working on something, but I know people hate that question. I try not to ask it either. Because it’s also like, even if you’re the busiest person in the world it’s just like, really? It’s just an annoying question. It’s maybe even boring to talk about. For me, anyway, that’s why I do so many different things. So at least I can say I’m working on something. I can say, “Oh, I’m developing a line at Fishs Eddy.” Or, “My rabbit’s dying, so I’m being a 24-hour nurse right now.” Or, “Oh, I’m cleaning out my storage unit.” It’s always interesting to me when there aren’t other interests going on. When there are people who this is all they do, who are sitting at home waiting for their phone to ring. That’s one thing I knew I wasn’t going to do. That’s what inspired me to do the books. I’m not going to sit around and wait for that. I’m going to create my own work, to have something else going on.
What is the reaction you get from those actors who are just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring when they find out just how many other things you have going on?
Lots of times I’ve had to be like, “Oh, I can’t do that. I have a rabbit conference in St. Louis.” You know? They probably just don’t think it’s important, or whatever. Or I’m like, “I have to make 250 potholders in two weeks. I can’t do that.” Or, “My rabbit is 12 years old. There’s no way I can go to L.A. right now.” So I’ve turned down work for little things like that. They probably just think I’m insane. Because most people will do anything to have a career, and all that. But if someone asked me how would I describe myself, actress would be at the bottom of the list. I don’t really know how to answer that question, but it wouldn’t be the first thing. It might be the first thing if I’m trying to get a passport! But maybe not if I had to ask myself that question.
You’ve done so many voiceovers and get a lot of voicework. What do you think it is about your voice that lends itself to that so well?
That’s a good question because I mispronounce everything. I really do. I have terrible diction. I panic when I have to read out loud. I just don’t have a good ear. There’s just lots of words that I always mispronounce or my accent will sneak in or I’ll misuse a word. I don’t use a lot of big words. I use 16 little words to make up for that big word. And I’m never embarrassed when someone corrects me and I’m never embarrassed for line readings, because I learn from that. I take direction well.
People who love you are obsessed with your talk show appearances. You’ve been on Letterman what seems like a hundred times, in the best way. How are you feeling about his run ending?
I’m going to really miss Letterman. Letterman really is just the best. He’s the kind of guy who, if you’re going to start telling a story, he’ll interrupt it with a question about some small detail that will take the story in a completely different direction that you didn’t even plan on telling. What I like about that is that I’m not a really good storyteller, because my mind will think a little bit too fast for me and I leave out key things, so he makes it more conversational. I really feel like when I do the show that it’s just the two of us and I forget that there’s an audience there. You just feel really safe. I just love him so much. It’s going to be sad when he goes.
People are excited for Stephen Colbert to take over the show, but there’s still a little bit of a mystery surrounding what it’s going to be like because people are so used to watching him on The Colbert Report as that “Stephen Colbert” character. Most people can’t imagine what he’ll be like as himself. You’ve been friends with him for years. Any insight?
Well, he’s got that Southern charm. He’s genuinely interested. He’s engaging. He’s a very positive person. He can see the good in everything. I think he’ll go to that other character that he plays on that show because that’s part of him, too. He’ll mix it. But once you’re out there and there’s a live audience, everyone’s playing a different version of themselves. You know? There’s a camera in front of you. There’s an audience. You automatically are different. I just think people will see this other side to him, because he has this whole bag of tricks people haven’t even seen yet. This guy can do anything, and his reference level is so high. It’s going to be from talking to politicians to talking to reality TV stars, but he’ll be able to do it. It’s gonna be a good show.
One of my favorite stories that I’ve read about the two of you was that you once staged a rabbit intervention at his house.
I didn’t even know he had a rabbit! I was like, are you kidding me? How could you not tell me you had a rabbit?! I had to find out from Paul Dinello. So I went to a party at his house and I met his rabbit, and I was like, “Do you have any idea what you’re doing wrong?” He wanted to get rid of that rabbit, but the kids wanted it, so it stayed. Because when my rabbit died he was like, “Want a new rabbit?” But I sent him some hay and some information and he turned it around. It’s a really cute little bunny and it’s doing really well. It lost a leg. It has three legs. But I got on his case about it, for sure.
You got a lot of attention for your guest turn on Broad City. People seem to be really rallying around these girls. What do you think it is that everyone is so smitten with?
I really like them. They’re such down-to-earth girls. They’re easy to talk to. They’re so funny. I don’t know how these young people are capable of writing their own shows and getting them up. I’m so impressed with them. But the set was fun. I went to wardrobe—I wear a size 5 shoe—and I went to the wardrobe department and they handed me a size 8 shoe to wear. And I thought, this is perfect. I’m going to wear the size 8 shoes. So that’s why in the show I wore the tube socks and put the big shoes on, because I was like, “Oh, it’s going to be that kind of show.” That’s what I like about it. I liked the premise of the show. And I liked the tone of the show. They were doing it by themselves with a tiny crew, which reminded me of when I was doing Strangers with Candy.
Yes! Strangers with Candy! Go on…
It was like doing a show out in the woods. We didn’t even know we had an audience until we went on a book tour for Wigfield and then all these ugly people came out of the woodwork and we were like, “Who are all these ugly people?” They were like, “Those are all the Strangers fans! The outcasts!” Which really are the best audience.
What is it about Strangers with Candy that has made it such a cult hit all these years?
I have no idea, to tell you the truth. I wonder that as well. Maybe because we didn’t do any really big press for that show and had a lousy time slot and nobody was really behind it that people felt like they discovered it on their own. They felt like they had invested in the show and made it something, which I think is the way to go, personally. These days with all the advertising and promotion and such being shoved in people’s faces, I’m like I’m not going to watch that show just because they want me to so badly. Strangers with Candy was word of mouth, so maybe that’s it. Maybe it was because we didn’t really know what we were doing. We just did whatever we thought made us laugh. If it made us laugh it got into the show, so we had so much control and made up the rules as we went along. Maybe that shows? I really don’t know.
The people who love it are absolutely obsessed.
Now I get people that say, “Oh, my mom watched that show!” I’m like, oh, it’s a different generation. These people’s kids are watching it now. It’s the outcast. That’s the audience. That’s the audience it attracts, which really is the best crowd. Jerri, she was just that. The misfit. The lovable tramp. Those are the people that watched it.