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From the Groundling Up : How Julia Sweeney Landed on the Stage of 'Saturday Night Live'

December 16, 1990|KARI GRANVILLE

FROM NEW YORK — As a parodist, actress Julia Sweeney has a keen eye for the ironies and absurdities of life, even if the life happens to be her own: An accountant tries out for a comedy troupe, becomes a local star and gets discovered by "Saturday Night Live."

All because she lacked management skills.

When Sweeney left Seattle for Hollywood with degrees in European history and economics, all she wanted from show business was a vice presidency in some studio's business affairs department. She got her studio job, as an accountant, and worked five years climbing the corporate ladder. But it became apparent that she wasn't a born boss: Her charges spent a lot of time on the phone, filing their nails.

"I was really good at what I did," Sweeney says. "But I had no idea how to supervise people. I couldn't discipline them. I would never make someone stay late to do anything."

Fans who saw Sweeney perform with the Los Angeles comedy troupe The Groundlings might recognize in this scenario something of Sweeney's best-known character, Mea Culpa, described by the actress as a "hyper-apologetic wallflower." Mea, too, was put in charge of an office in the 1988 play "Mea's Big Apology," in which her boss is found dead, his body draped over a copying machine. The office is thrown into chaos, an important deadline looms, work piles up-and in the end, Mea finds not only love but managerial skills as well.

A similarly happy conclusion seems likely for Sweeney's serendipitous plunge into show business. A month ago she was chosen by producer Lorne Michaels to become "Saturday Night Live's"' newest actor. She is only a featured performer (as opposed to full cast member). But then so was Eddie Murphy.

Like any young comedian, Sweeney knows "SNL's"' legacy for launching spectacular careers, and of the projects that have recently come her way, "Saturday Night"' is the one she wanted most.

"I kind of felt like I was going to get something-you can feel a little heat coming on you when you start going out for a bunch of stuff," Sweeney said, sitting in her new office at NBC headquarters in Manhattan. "But I can be a school marm in a TV series for the next 20 years. I'm not going to be young enough to do this show for that many more years."

Sweeney was 25 and established in her accounting career before realizing she had a dormant urge to be a performer. She hadn't acted since her high school days in Spokane, Wash., when she appeared in the chorus of "South Pacific." Later at the University of Washington, where she was student body vice president, it was student politics, not drama, that called.

"I couldn't admit I wanted to be an actress for a whole lot of years. I would cry on my way to work just thinking I wasn't meant to work in an office," she said. She suppressed her impulse to act for the reason most people do-the fear of seeming silly-and tried to satisfy the yearning to perform by secretly reading Dramalogue. Then one day she happened across a review of a Groundlings show.

"I said, 'That's exactly what I want to do."'

Sweeney called the Groundlings and asked how to join. She started in a beginning improvisational comedy class in 1984, and worked her way up to performing, joining the group's main cast in 1987. Along the way she got bit parts in several TV series and movies, most notably in "Gremlins II," as an allergy-plagued secretary in an animal lab, and as a cook in TNT's remake of "Dinner at Eight." Between acting jobs she did free-lance accounting. For now, Sweeney has one more scheduled appearance with the Groundlings, in the group's special New Year's Eve show. Sweeney's husband, cartoon writer Steve Hibbert, a former Groundling whom she married in 1987, will direct the production.

The couple plans to spend the next six months in New York, until "Saturday Night Live"' goes on hiatus. After that depends on what happens to Sweeney on "Saturday Night Live."

Sweeney isn't thinking about what turn her career might take next. As she prepared for her third "SNL" show, she stopped between rewriting sessions and rehearsals to savor her current success again.

"When I got this job, I thought I'll probably have few feelings of sweet success as poignant as this," she said. "Most things in this business you can't want for that long because they don't last that long I But with this show, which is always casting people and goes on and on and on, you can literally be hoping for 10 years."

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