The Nantucket Film Festival returns June 19-24 with a stacked lineup of celebrity guest appearances, screenings of highly-anticipated films and all kinds of fun events. One of the biggest stars heading to the Massachusetts island this week is none other than acclaimed actress and comedian Jane Curtin. On Saturday night, the Cambridge native and Saturday Night Live legend will receive the Creative Impact in Television Award, co-presented by Variety, along with noted SNL writers Anne Beatts, Sudi Green and Sarah Schneider as well as current SNL cast member Heidi Gardner. Curtin and the gang will also take part in an afternoon comedy roundtable discussion prior to the award ceremony on Saturday. Ahead, we chat with Curtin about this year's fest, her Boston roots and some of her favorite memories from her time on SNL.
First off, how excited are you for the 2019 Nantucket Film Festival? Does receiving this award mean a bit more to you considering you grew up in Massachusetts?
It’s lovely being honored and it’s especially lovely being honored with these women. It’s going to be really fun to see them again. I haven’t seen Anne in years and I just adore Anne Beatts. I think the women from Saturday Night Live are just awesome and intelligent. Yes, it means a lot being from Massachusetts. I love Massachusetts. If I could live in Massachusetts, I would. It’s a little bit too far away from New York, but I’m halfway between Massachusetts and halfway between New York [in Connecticut].
I read in a recent New Yorker interview that your first improv audition was at a bakery-turned-theater in Cambridge's Inman Square for a group called the Proposition. What inspired you to audition?
A friend of mine asked me to go and sort of keep her company while she was auditioning. I had no idea what it was. [She said] "It’s improv,” and I said “I have no idea what that is.” She [said], “Well come and you can hold my hand during the audition so I won’t be terrified.” So we went and it was a cute little urban bakery theater. They had a few people in the audience who were auditioning, not many, and it was the end of the day. Amy got up and auditioned and she was the last one and they said, “Is there anyone else here?” I thought well, I can do what Amy can do. It didn’t seem very hard, so I put my hand up and they said, "OK, go in the back room and pick out a prop and you can run out and do your stuff.” So I did and I got the job. She didn’t, but she got the job she really wanted which was doing situation comedy in Dumpsterville. So she was happy, I was happy, everybody wins.
How would you describe the improv comedy scene in Boston at that time?
We were pretty much basing our approach on Second City. Second City had the form we ultimately used. We based most of the show on politics and music, so that’s how we differentiated ourselves from the others. There weren’t that many improv groups. We did a lot of Boston politics and music.
In that New Yorker interview, you also talked about your mother, who graduated from Radcliffe and was the first female parole officer at the old Charles Street Jail in Boston. How big of an inspiration was she for you?
She was a huge inspiration. She graduated from Radcliffe in 1935, which was pretty much the height of the Depression. Women didn’t go to college at that time, it didn’t make any sense, and so she and and her father basically supported their family. She worked two jobs while she was going to Radcliffe. She would go to her reunions every five years and, when I was old enough, I would go with her and my sister. We would sit there and listen to the stories of each woman.
We grew up in the '50s, and you know, you had choices as a woman: you could be a wife and a mother, you could be a nurse, you could be a teacher or you could be a secretary—that’s it, basically. These women were that and something else... It was just crazy. They did crazy things that women didn’t do, and when my mother got married, she married a man who was very traditional. She didn’t work anymore. She couldn't work. She was very good at dealing with people and she was very frustrated she couldn’t do that. But I saw what women could accomplish and I saw how scary it was. We belonged to a country club, and there were rooms girls couldn’t go into like the grill. Girls weren’t allowed and there and I thought, "Why? "I just never understood it because I was exposed to the other side. She inspired me tremendously. She was pretty awesome.
You're a comedy icon thanks in part to your work on SNL, and the show is infamous for its moments when cast members and guests break character during a skit. Do you have a favorite memory of breaking character?
Gilda [Radner] and I had to do an intro to a musical guest and it was after a scene that involved a lot of prosthetics or something. It was a big costume change, but we could only do half, so we ended up in our robes to go out and do this intro. We hadn’t really bothered to find out who the musical guest was because we were busy. So we were standing out there and they had set our mark wrong for the cue lights. We couldn’t see the cards, so Gilda started trying to read the cards, couldn’t see them and all of a sudden I realized that Gilda was behind me because she was laughing too hard, just because she couldn’t see who the musical guest was, which made me laugh a lot. We ultimately did not introduce the guest. We had no idea who it was.
What about a favorite guest appearance?
I have a bunch of them. Steve Martin, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, of course Buck Henry. There are more but I just can’t think of them.
In terms of your recent work, you've starred in more dramatic films like last year's Can You Ever Forgive Me? opposite Melissa McCarthy, and continue to show off your comedy prowess with projects like the upcoming Welcome to Pine Grove!, which also features James Caan and Christopher Lloyd. When a show or movie comes your way these days, what does it need to have in order to inspire you to sign on?
The people have a lot to do with it, a chance to work with just so many good actors and so many good directors. It’s such a pleasure to be on a set and to watch people work and and to watch how they approach their job, because I really enjoy doing that. I’m such a voyeur. Iit’s a social thing for me. I like being around people who have the same goal.
Photo courtesy of Jane Curtin