Strangers With Candy: Changing the Wallpaper in the Kitchen
September 3, 2004
Amy Sedaris waits under a pink umbrella beside a busy street in Livingston, N.J. She confers with her director, Paul Dinello, and gets a makeup adjustment. It's a night shoot, and a summer storm is brewing. It's not dusk yet, but it feels like it.Sedaris wears a ratty fur jacket, dangling earrings, belly padding, and boots with raccoon tassels. She looks like a broken-down streetwalker as drawn by R. Crumb.
It's the last day of shooting on the feature "Strangers With Candy," based on the highly irreverent cult television series from Comedy Central. Sedaris once again plays Jerri Blank, a hard-boiled 46-year-old parolee who returns to her former high school with a jaundiced eye on matriculation. In this early scene from the script, Jerri has just been dumped from a prison bus and is about to begin her new life.
Sedaris takes her place on the sidewalk, facing the camera. She strikes a familiar Blank expression: overbite in gear, eyes not quite focused. The general impression is of a cartoon rodent who's been dozing in a half-empty liquor jug and has just been spilled out on her ear.
Spectators huddling beneath nearby trees watch Sedaris mouthing the standard Jerri Blank self-description: "I was a user, a boozer, a loser...."
Though this is the last night of filming, Sedaris later explains that it's the first night she's been fully at ease:
"I figured it would all just come back. It's like I only have one character and it's her. I just use the same kind of face but always change the background. It's like one of those actresses who aren't versatile but think they're versatile. So I thought: 'Oh, great--a junkie whore. I'll hop right back into it.' But I had this dental surgery a week beforehand, and my mouth was all stitched up and swollen because it got infected, and so I couldn't practice before we started shooting."
The TV "Strangers," a parody of afterschool TV specials for young people, played for three seasons, ending in 2000. The show provided leading roles for its three co-creators--Sedaris, Dinello, and Stephen Colbert--a trio who had met in the Second City comedy troupe several years before.
According to Dinello, after the series ended, the team felt burned out on the characters for a time. Eventually, though, they began collecting bits for a return to Flatpoint."Jerri's like a mildew," says Dinello. "You've got to give it time to go away for a while. Then let it grow back."
Enter the Los Angeles producing team of Mark Roberts and Lorena David. Their first film had been a 1997 spoof of "Pulp Fiction" called "Plump Fiction," starring Dinello in the John Travolta slot. For several years Roberts and David had sought new projects with him.
Recalls Roberts: "One day, two years ago, we were on the phone and Paul says to me, 'How would you feel about a "Strangers" movie?' I practically hung up on him in mid-sentence and called Comedy Central and said, 'Is this possible?'
"Sedaris-Dinello-Colbert quickly assembled a script. But it was not until earlier this year, when Roberts and David made contact with David Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, that financing for a "Strangers" movie became a done deal. Once that happened, the project was put on the fast track. (This occurred largely because Colbert was scheduled to cover the 2004 political conventions for "The Daily Show." His "Strangers" scenes were filmed at the top so he'd be able to head to Boston with the Democrats in July.)
Before long, several high-profile performers signed on for supporting roles, beginning with Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick. Among others who came aboard were Philip Seymour Hoffman, Allison Janney, and Ian Holm. The use of stars is one way in which the movie will differ from the series, which largely used unknowns in supporting parts. How will this play with diehard fans of the series?
Says Sedaris: "I just hope they don't turn on us for the movie: 'You've changed the wallpaper in the kitchen! That's not fair! We hate you!' " She feels she understands the protective--potentially resentful--sentiments of fans who were there from the beginning: "I know that's how I feel when I find something I love. Next thing you know, everyone knows about it. And then I don't want to play anymore."
Dinello claims that the team has been mindful of the "Strangers" faithful, but they also knew that they had to tell the story of Jerri from the beginning--for the uninitiated. In a way, the movie is a prequel to the series. Scenes depicting Jerri's prison life were shot in a Bronx correctional facility. "We were interested in seeing Jerri's backstory," Dinello says. "We kind of vaguely knew what it was, but we had never really shown it. So it was fun to see her in jail. She seemed so natural there."
If the film does well, the creators would consider additional "Strangers" projects. Largely, of course, it depends on Sedaris' feelings. Although she's written for and performed in New York theatre ("The Book of Liz," co-written with brother David), the actress has no immediate plans to return to the stage. She is working on ideas for a new television series. But first she'll portray busybody Gladys Kravitz in the big-screen version of "Bewitched." After her strenuous "Strangers" workout, she happily anticipates assuming a supporting role:
" 'Abner! Abner!' That's all I have to say. Which is perfect."