When Cecily Strong sat in Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" anchor chair for the first time this fall, she had only one goal in mind: Don't cry. "I'm a crybaby, so I express every emotion with tears," says the Springfield, Illinois, native. "But they would've been happy tears — I would've been bawling because I was so excited."
You can't blame her for being psyched. In only her second season on SNL, she's been promoted from lowly featured player to heir to the throne coanchor Seth Meyers will vacate when he leaves to host NBC's Late Night early next year. "Cecily's had a meteoric rise, as opposed to my molasses-like one," quips Meyers.
It's almost literally a dream come true for Strong, who has worshipped SNL for as long as she can remember. "I've always been a night owl, so I think I started watching it when I was 5," she recalls. "I'd trick babysitters, like, 'My parents let me watch this!'"
Her family didn't discourage her comic tendencies. "I grew up on comedy," says Strong, whose father was an Associated Press bureau chief who impersonated the governor of Illinois at state functions. "My dad would rent Marx brothers and Abbott and Costello movies, my mom and I watched Gilda Radner specials and Tracey Ullman, and my brother got me into alternative comedy — The Kids in the Hall and The State."
Still, when she went to college at the California Institute of the Arts, she studied to become a serious actress. "I would do scenes where I was being dramatic and emotional, and people would laugh," she says.
Strong soon realized her destiny was comedy, so she moved back to Chicago, where she "could be poor and my parents could buy me groceries" while she took classes at the famed Second City and Improv-Olympic theaters.
After joining SNL, she quickly scored with characters like Mayor Bloomberg's overenthusiastic sign-language interpreter and the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party, a popular "Update" bit. "Cecily combines intelligence and fun in a nice way," Meyers says. "She has a real confidence behind the 'Update' desk and an understanding of how you connect with the audience."
That on-camera self-assuredness belies an inner shyness. "I have crazy, socially awkward anxieties," Strong says. "But somehow I love to play people who are really confident. It's my opposite."
So far, it's working. She's even gotten to work alongside Kristen Wiig and Tina Fey, both of whom returned to SNL as guest hosts. "It was so special for me to play with these heroes," Strong says. "I just wanted to absorb everything from them."
Unlike some "Weekend Update" anchors, including Fey and Meyers, Strong doesn't plan to cut back on her sketch work. "It's fun to play crazy characters and also be yourself," she says. "Not everybody gets that opportunity."
She's hoping executive producer Lorne Michaels (who handpicked her for the "Update" job) will give her a coanchor after Meyers exits. "I don't know who it'll be, but I'd love to have one," she says. "Coming from an improv background, I love playing off people and collaboration. I think I'm stronger that way."
During her first hiatus, she worked with SNL cohort Bobby Moynihan in the big-screen comedy Staten Island Summer, produced by Michaels. And she's been talking with director Paul Feig, who turned Wiig into a movie star with Bridesmaids, about another film.
But right now, she's focused on getting settled behind the anchor desk. "Last year, it was really exciting just to be a part of SNL, and now I get to be a part of 'Weekend Update,'" she marvels. "It's like, 'What are they going to do to make me cry next year?'"
Saturday Night Live airs Saturdays at 11:30/10:30c on NBC.