Abby Elliott on the Indie Comedy ‘Life Partners’ and Her Life After ‘SNL’
It’s obvious, even from her facial expressions, that Abby Elliott still has mixed feelings about her time on ‘SNL.’ Which seems like a completely normal reaction, considering how all-encompassing the demands of that show can be for be anyone, especially someone like Elliott, who had almost four full seasons (she joined the cast for the eighth show of the 2008-2009 season) on the show, and was then not brought back for a fifth.
Elliott, of course, comes from long linage of comedy royalty. Her grandfather, Bob Elliott (now 91) is one half of the famed Bob and Ray comedy duo, while her father, Chris Elliott, is the comedy hero of every Gen X-er who was fortunate enough to stay up late enough as a kid to watch ‘Late Night with David Letterman.’ Now, Abby Elliott — obviously putting ‘SNL’ behind her — co-stars in ‘Life Partners,’ premiering this week at the Tribeca Film Festival.
In a bit of a turn for Elliott, she plays Vanessa, the villain in a story about the friendship between a straight woman, Paige (Gillian Jacobs), and her lesbian best friend, Sasha (Leighton Meester) and the tribulations that follow as they start dating Tim (Adam Brody) and Vanessa (Elliott), respectively. And knowing Elliott best for her work on ‘SNL,’ she’s kind of surprisingly great at playing a character that is quietly full of herself.
I met Elliott at a hotel in Midtown Manhattan. She seems shy in person — at least compared to some of the boisterous characters we’ve seen her play — but extremely cordial. And she was surprisingly candid about her time on ‘SNL,’ and we learn who exactly she’s playing in the new ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ — and it’s not quite who you think.
I would not have guessed you’d be so good at playing the villain.
[Laughs] Yeah. It was really fun for me to play, because I think the writing was really good. You know, I think it’s fun when villains are a little soft-spoken and not so, you know, in your face.
Did it appeal to you because it was different?
Yeah, I really like it. I like doing it. I like, kind of, being a little smaller — and I’m more comfortable, in that sense. It’s definitely different, but I like it a lot.
You’re so known for comedy, it that what you want to continue doing?
Yeah. Well, I’m waiting on a pilot, a multi-cam sitcom, which I really like that — you know, in front of an audience, which I’m comfortable. I love doing that, ‘How I Met Your Mother‘ and that sort of think and finding the jokes and hitting them and all that. But, I really want to do some different stuff and movies like this are a great way to break out in that.
Considering who your grandfather is and who your dad is, would it be harder to not be doing this for a living? Could you have just been an accountant?
You know [laughs], I think so! I don’t know.
It seems like it would be pretty ingrained.
I’ve thought about it. A lot.
Yeah. I thought about What else could I do? Is there anything else I can do? And I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m good at anything.
Oh, come on. I’m sure you would make a fine accountant.
Not with numbers. No numbers. But, maybe a realtor? I like houses [laughs].
"All of the elements that suck about this business. They’re sort of condensed at ‘SNL.’ And I think I took it really hard…"
It’s just hard to imagine growing up in that family and saying, “I don’t want to have anything to do with this.” But there are people like that.
I think it was so not forced on my sister and I — it was not forced on us at all. And I think that made it even more appealing.
Do you think that’s when people run into trouble? When it’s forced?
I think so. I mean, it was never like, “This is what we do in this family.” My parents were like, “This is really hard and fucked up.”
I know you were really young, but did you see your dad on something like ‘Get a Life’ and think, I want a piece of that?
Yeah. Going to visit my dad, he was always on set for some sitcom — ‘That ’70s Show’ or ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ — and we’d go out for spring break and visit him and it was just like, “Oh, yeah, this is what I want to do.”
Your dad had been fairly outspoken about not enjoying his time on ‘SNL,’ so it always surprised me you went on the show. I can’t imagine he was telling you, “What a great time that was.”
He was definitely– he was like, “This is really hard.”
But he was older when he went on the show.
He was older. I think, in retrospect, I’m not sure that it made sense that I went on so young. But, it happened. You know, I wish I had a little more experience at comedy theaters and stuff.
But you can’t really say “no.”
Did you consider waiting?
I think my dad actually did that. He was approached as a writer initially. And he was like, “I’m too young, I want to do it a little later” … and I was like, “No, no, no; I want it now, I want it now.”
Is it hard to do an impression of someone right to their face?
Yeah, it is!
You didn’t hold back in front of Zooey Deschanel. I’m sure there are people who are not as keen to that…
I think there are certain people that say they like it and they don’t.
Have you run into that?
No. I mean, I think that you can tell sometimes when people are like, “Oh, yeah, it’s really funny. My God, that’s great!”
With Zooey, did you pitch that idea to her?
Yeah, I had done it already on the show. And when she was coming on, it was just one of those things that made sense. And she had seen it and I was friends with her before, so she knew.
If Meryl Streep had hosted, would you have done your impression in front of her?
That seems intimidating.
It would be intimidating, but I’m such a fan of hers, it’s coming out of love. It’s Meryl Streep! She has that– it’s her. And I can’t ignore that. I have to make fun of her.
If you meet her, you should just go right into it.
Yeah, yeah. I would do it. I would need to get into it, like with a cashmere sweater, a cheese plate and a glass of wine. Or something.
Do you look back at your time on ‘SNL’ fondly?
[Pauses] I do.
You did pause before you answered.
[Laughs] I’m glad that I did it. But, I’m also glad where I am now and a different place than there.
What do you mean by that?
Well, I’m glad that I did it and I’m glad that it’s over. I think it was a really great training ground for me and I learned so much there and got to work with amazing people. It’s sort of like all of the industry condensed into all of the elements that suck about this business. They’re sort of condensed at ‘SNL.’ And I think I took it really hard when I was there.
But that seems normal. It would be weird if you didn’t care.
Yeah, yeah. So it’s very– I think it was in my head, but I’m really happy about the stuff that I did on the show. I’m proud of it.
You should be. I felt your last season was your strongest season. I wouldn’t say it was surprising that you didn’t come back because there was a lot of rumors about you doing a pilot, so I assumed you were looking to leave. So, when you didn’t come back, at first I thought it was your decision.
It was at first. But then the pilot didn’t work out. I think, now, people are doing that more — Andy [Samberg] went and did a show after ‘SNL’ and Nasim [Pedrad] is doing a show. I think it was just one of those things where it was like, “Am I going to be on ‘SNL’ or not?”
I felt like you were getting a lot of stuff on the air your last season, so I was surprised.
Yeah, it was surprising.
You’re going to be in ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’?
I saw that you were, but I don’t know who you’re playing.
I play April’s roommate. It’s sort of a revamped Irma, but my name is Taylor. Yeah, so she’s like her best friend type character.
Was that fun?
Yeah, it was really fun. We finished shooting.
Do you get to be with the turtles at all?
Oh, that’s great.
Well, I’m not sure. I know they’re shooting a lot of new stuff for it. [Note: Elliott wanted to clarify, too, that she hasn't seen the final movie yet.]
What did happen with the pilot for ‘Ben and Kate’? Why did that fall through?
It was like a tricky situation where I couldn’t audition for it and then the head of Fox decided he didn’t want me at the last minute. We were about to shoot the next day.
That sounds like a tough month.
Yeah, it was a tough couple of months.
Mike Ryan is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.