Ten years ago, Julia Sweeney dropped out of Hollywood.
After four seasons on “Saturday Night Live,” two acclaimed stage monologues, “God Said ‘Ha!’” and “Letting Go of God,” appearances on television and in movies, she and her daughter, Mulan, left Southern California and moved to Willmette, a suburb of Chicago, where her husband, a biophysicist, owns a business. The idea, she says in her latest one-woman show, “Older and Wider,” is that he would be the breadwinner. She could be the bread eater.
And she loves bread.
Sweeney, who was born and raised in Spokane, embraced her life as homemaker and stay-at-home mother. She made dinner every night. She ferried her family around to appointments and lessons and school and wherever they needed to go.
And she mostly stayed out of show business. She wrote a book, “If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother,” that came out in 2013. She voiced Mrs. Squiggles, the head-banging monster mom, in the Pixar film “Monsters University.” She played a few clubs with her friend, singer-songwriter Jill Sobule.
That was pretty much it.
“It was a living hell!” she exclaimed recently, while sitting at the dining room table of her mother’s South Hill condo. “By which I mean 80 percent was great, and 20 percent was hell.”
Now, Mulan is heading off to college. As Sweeney said, “I got my ‘get out of jail free card’ on her graduation day. No one is more happy about it than me. Second most happy person? Her!”
So Sweeney is diving back in.
She’s moved back to Hollywood, to the small house she bought in the early ’90s and has been renting out for the past decade. Her husband is staying in Willmette for now, and the couple will fly back and forth.
On Monday night at the Tractor Tavern in Seattle, where she performed “Older and Wider” to an enthusiastic crowd of fans, friends and family, she alluded to her short, gray hair and described her figure as “matronly.” Age 58, it seems, is the perfect time to re-launched a career in Hollywood.
“You don’t have a look like this,” she deadpanned, gesturing the length of her body, “and waste it.”
Laughs aside, she’s taking this new career phase seriously. She’s relaunched her website, www.juliasweeney.com, and is planning regular newsletters featuring video clips, musings and news. She’s also auditioning for roles.
She knows Hollywood is notoriously hard on older actresses. She’s up for the challenge.
“Now that I’m post-menopausal and going back to Hollywood, I’m so excited,” she said. “Because I never felt like I was really in a category. I could never really compete to be the beautiful woman. I feel I’m now released from being judged in that way. … I feel like, yeah, this is how I look. This is what you got with me, and I don’t have to worry about anyone parsing out my looks, when what I’m delivering is my ability to act and be funny.”
Her dream gig: to play a mom on a TV sitcom. “My dream is to play John Mulaney’s mother,” she said. “Because I love him so much.”
But she’s not sitting around waiting for Hollywood to come to her. She’s getting out there in the best way she knows – on a stage, telling stories.
Her latest one-woman show, “Older and Wider” just wrapped up a run in Chicago, and she’s starting to tour it. Eventually, she’d love to stage it in New York, and eventually film it. In September, she’s bringing it to the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
“Older and Wider” came about from a variety of places. A movie she wrote and hoped to direct withered when the financing fell through. So she spent a summer watching Netflix standup comedy specials, with her daughter, to see what she liked, what she didn’t like.
She had the idea that she wanted to do something more in the stand-up comedy vein, rather than a strict monologue. She wanted to hold a microphone. She didn’t want to be controversial, like with her previous shows, “God Said ‘Ha!,’” about her and her brother’s battles with cancer, and “Letting Go of God,” where she discussed becoming an atheist.
“The point of me doing my new show was to show I could just be funny in a mainstream way,” she said. “That was my thinking. I’d done ‘Letting Go of God,’ and I’m always controversial. … I wanted to prove I could be mainstream funny.”
But she also wanted to talk about Al Franken – her former “SNL” colleague, longtime friend and U.S. senator who was ousted from Congress after sexual misconduct allegations surfaced about him.
“I was so upset about how that all went down,” she said, referring to how Franken was pushed out of the Senate. “I wanted to explain my point of view about it, and I thought I could do it in a funny way.”
Funny thing is, though, she never even mentions Franken.
Initially, she had a 15-minute segment of her show devoted to Franken and the #MeToo movement. And as she developed the show, earlier audiences were reacting positively to it.
Too positively, it seems.
“The audience response was so big for it,” she said. “I thought everyone who left my show, that’s what they’d be thinking about, not about everything else I have to say. So I cut it.”
Instead, she centers on adopting Mulan, getting married, dropping out of show business and embracing domestic life. She talks about the time her daughter dated a young man who voted for Donald Trump. And she discussed her most famous character, Pat, the androgynous person she played on “SNL.”
Pat has come under scrutiny recently as being transphobic. Sweeney has said in interviews that the humor of the character was centered on other people needing to figure out whether Pat was male or female, and that she never thought of Pat as being transgender. But she understands the criticism.
As she wonders aloud in her new show, “Was I the Al Jolson of androgyny?”
Back in Spokane
Sweeney graduated from Gonzaga Prep in 1977 and earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Washington. She moved to L.A. and landed a job in the accounting department at Columbia Pictures. Eventually, she joined the improv troupe the Groundlings. It was there that Lorne Michaels saw here and asked her to join “Saturday Night Live.” She worked on the iconic series for four seasons, alongside Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Chris Rock, Kevin Nealon and Mike Myers, among many others.
Even at the height of her fame, she always came home to visit family and a group of school friends she’s still close to.
“I’m a Spokane booster,” she said. “I love everything about it.”
She’s looking forward to bringing “Older and Wider” to Spokane in September, where she’ll take center stage at the Fox. Even if she admits to a few nerves about filling a venue that seats nearly 1,600 people.
“But that was my first job, at the Fox theater, as an usherette and selling popcorn when it was a movie theater,” she said. “And I was really excited and participated in things when they were renovating it, and so I also thought, screw it, I’m doing the Fox theater and, if it’s half full, oh well.”
Her mother, Jerri, who turned 80 last summer, is doing what she can.
“My only help,” Jerri Sweeney chimed in, “is my investment club. All 10 of them want to come. And the beauty shop, too.”
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