Holy cow(bell)! Sorry, I’ve got SNL on the brain, and I know this week’s interviewee wasn’t even in that sketch, but I am really having trouble containing my excitement. I should really “simma down” but interviewing a former SNL cast member was a total comedy nerd’s dream come true. Readers, I am proud to present an interview with the one and only Cheri Oteri! Cheri not only preaches the importance of not limiting yourself, but she is a shining example of where hard work and persistence can get you. Cheri is one of the most highly regarded Saturday Night Live cast members who made audiences laugh for five seasons. Since her days as a sketch comedy star, Cheri has been gracing the big and small screen in both comedic and dramatic roles. You can next see her in the TV movie Christmas in Conway airing this December!
HMC: When did you first realize that you wanted to act and were way funnier than a lot of people?
CO: [Cheri laughs] Hmmm, let me see. I wanted to act when I got into the Groundlings. I think I always wanted to but I just didn’t dream that big. I moved to Los Angeles to get into the music business, and I did, I worked at A&M Records. While I was there, a lot of people said, “Oh, you should do stand up.” I couldn’t see myself as a stand up. I grew up watching Saturday Night Live and thought: what ever that is, I could do that. But then I thought: Well, I bet a lot of people are saying that. I was limiting myself.
Then I got into the Groundlings and it was the kind of comedy that I always loved…I was happy in the classes. Then, I got so into it that I thought: If I could become a Groundling I would be the happiest girl in the world. After years there (and I did become a Groundling) and things started happening, I realized that this was the course I should go… [Comedy] felt like such a perfect fit for me.
What training did The Groundlings provide you with to help set you up for your successful career?
For Saturday Night Live it was the perfect training ground because we did characters, we learned how to write, and improve skills—you exercised that muscle all the time.
What’s your most prominent memory from your SNL audition and how did you prepare for it?
We had a certain amount of time, [about] seven minutes, which you could push to about ten. You could probably do three or four characters without a whole lot of props, so if you wanted to make any [costume] changes, make it one thing. You had a short amount of time to get your characters out. So it’s okay to throw on a wig on or removing an article of clothing or putting another article of clothing on…you change really quickly and go from character to character.
…But I was happy with all the characters I did; the thing that I was insecure about was doing an impression. I didn’t do any impressions…I would never have attempted to do Barbara Walters like I did later on the show. I learned to do impressions by studying them. So that was the only thing I was really insecure about, the other things I felt really good about cause they were all diverse characters. I had practiced them so much.
Before I auditioned for SNL, I had an audition, maybe…for a girl, named Stephanie Miller, and she was doing a sketch and talk show. So I had gotten my audition down of doing characters, and I remember being devastated when I didn’t get it… I was up for that it came down to between me and another girl, and I didn’t get it and I was so upset and sad, and then the next audition I got was Saturday Night Live and it’s so funny because every time I spent preparing for that it was preparing me for me for SNL, a way bigger audition.
What was your favorite character from when you were on the show?
Probably the talk show person, Cass Van Rye from “Morning Latte,” because I got to sit down, I didn’t have to choreograph, and the characters made me laugh a lot. When Will [Ferrell] and I would write them we would just crack up. It was so wonderful to just sit down and do a character; I loved those characters so much, it was something I so enjoyed and it was effortless. [Cheri laughs]
What is the craziest thing you have ever done for a laugh either on SNL or just in general?
I remember doing Ross Perot, and I had prosthetics all over and a business suit. I couldn’t believe how much I looked like an old man. It was really a strange thing to see on tape and was really funny, I think, to see a woman playing this guy and looking so much like an old man. I loved not limiting myself to any kind of character, whether it be a man, woman, a kid, old, young, and it was pretty out there doing Ross Perot, and it was disturbing to some people to see that, but it made me feel like to could be anybody.
It seems like you were able to make a pretty smooth transition from SNL to other film and TV roles. How did you go about that?
Well, it wasn’t easy. When you’re on SNL you’re offered a lot of things; where you’re doing something else your profile is high, so you get offered things. And it’s not even that you are necessarily right for the part, it’s just because you’re on a TV show and your profile is high and there is a lot more open to you.
But I think it has always been difficult for people to cast me, because when you do big broad characters that are so far from yourself, like I did on SNL, they don’t know exactly who you are or what you’re like as a regular actor. So, it made it more more difficult for me to be cast as just a normal actress. If I could go back, I’d do more characters doing straight stuff so that people could have seen me more as an actress and not just a comedic actress, but I wouldn’t change anything because SNL was a place to do characters and I loved doing characters. It wasn’t such a smooth, easy transition, (and it still isn’t because it’s like starting over). What SNL did for me did not necessarily lend itself to regular television and grounded characters, so that makes it difficult. But, then again, I wouldn’t change a thing I did on SNL because I had so much fun doing characters.
Can you talk a bit about how improv training translates into scene work in movies and TV shows?
The great thing is you can always make a character a little better because you have that improv background and writing background. If I’m doing a character, if I’m playing a role, I can usually beef it up and usually make it funnier. A lot of times directors want to make it funnier and there are a lot of times they don’t want anything changed. If you want me to make something better, I have the skills from improv to do that if [directors] want me to. A lot of the time I’ll get a role and they say, “Cheri, feel free to add stuff and improvise.” What I didn’t realize is they’re saying, “Feel free to re-write this. Make it funnier, and not get paid!” [Cheri laughs] I say that as a joke, of course… It can be a lot of fun.
But I always like it when something is already well written of the page, then I don’t have to do anything. The fun part is delivering someone else’s visions and words and making them real…
I hear you’re filming a movie, Christmas in Conway, now. Is this project one where you get to improvise or do you stick to the script?
It’s already written on the page. The character, when I read it, it was very obvious who she was. Maybe I’ve added something or a line here, but it was pretty much on the page. As you get to know a character and as the director feels comfortable with you possibly adding something, but I didn’t really have to. I’m working with a wonderful actor, Andy Garcia, and I wouldn’t want to throw him any curve balls.
What’s your character like and what is the movie about?
It’s a Christmas kind of a movie. It’s very deep. Mary Louise Parker and Andy Garcia are married and she is sick and it is over the Christmas holiday. I’m their neighbor, who [Cheri laughs], it’s really funny because all she cares about is running the Christmas showcase in her front yard, and she’s always disliked the guy next door, played by Andy Garcia, and they’re always fighting. It’s a really funny character for me to play even though it’s a serious film. I’m the neighbor that no one wants to have!
What advice do you have for aspiring actors, especially those interested in comedy?
Standup is getting out there and into the clubs. The more you do, the better you get at it, and encourage people to come and see you. If you do more theater, there are so many wonderful theaters: the Groundlings, Second City. Try to get into an [improv] theater group because even if you don’t make it through their program, the lessons that you learn are wonderful. I would also take a dramatic class as well because then you have all of these tools in your pocket—you’d be able to transition between comedy and drama. Take different classes to stretch yourself…Perform in front of people however you can so that people can come out and see you and you are honing your skills.
To get into a theater company is so wonderful because you are surrounded by your peers and you’re constantly studying. Then once you do get a big break you want to be able to sustain it. The more you learn in your classes, the more you’ll be able to sustain the [big] break you get. Just stretch yourself in every way.
Sometimes I think about how I had to repeat a level in the Groundlings. I felt so bad about it. But it was the best thing that ever happened to me because it made me better and I wasn’t ready to move on. If I did move on (like I wanted to) then I could have gotten dropped. It is always better repeat and get better at it. The four years I spent at the Groundlings, that I spent studying and performing, I was ready by the time I got SNL because I had worked so hard… I am so thankful for all of the class time that I had. ♦