YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A life in two new acts

Julia Sweeney is still smiling, from loss of faith to gain of family.

May 01, 2003|James Verini | Special to The Times

Julia SWEENEY'S unassuming bungalow on the southern fringe of Hollywood is lined with books. Walking into her living room, one wonders if Sweeney, the former "Saturday Night Live" cast member, is planning on becoming an adjunct professor or opening a stall at the Fairfax flea market. She's not, it turns out -- she just likes to read.

"I've reorganized," she announces, showing me around. "Here is where I keep my favorite novels now," she says, motioning to a 15-foot-long wall. Sweeney has just begun work on "Letting Go of God," her third one-woman stage show. Like the long-running hit "God Said Ha!" (1996), which dealt with sickness and death, and to a lesser extent "In the Family Way," a chronicle of her journey to China to adopt her daughter, which she's just imported to the Groundlings Theater from New York, "Letting Go of God" is an exercise in gallows humor. So Sweeney's taste in fiction, not surprisingly, tends toward those great but misanthropic postwar Brit-wits, like Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. "If they're stacked horizontally it means I take them out a lot." Half the books on the wall are stacked horizontally.

"Here's the religion section," she says, moving into a hallway. "I'm trying to get rid of those." Sweeney, a onetime devout Catholic who's been flirting of late with various forms of non-belief -- currently she's calling herself a "naturalist" -- is wearing jeans and a purple turtleneck and no shoes. She has probing blue eyes and strong Irish features that have dimmed just a bit with the onset of middle age (she is 43). She recently cut her unruly red-brown hair short, partly out of I'm-a-mother-now sentiment (her impossibly cute daughter, Mulan, is 3 1/2).

Sweeney, who for much of her childhood wanted to be a nun, claims to be done with the church. But its influence still makes itself felt, and in her need to find a meaningful narrative in her life. A journey of loss and realization. Indeed, this need is what her shows are about.

"And here," she says, moving onto a few shelves of philosophy and science books, "is my 'the world is screwed' section." There are occasionally those performers who don't really perform, who seem as though they'd just as soon sit down and have a drink with the audience as entertain them, whose unrushed humanity spills over into their stage persona. If you've ever seen Tom Waits in a small club, you know. David Sedaris does it on the page. Among professionally funny women, Julia Sweeney is this way.

"I never felt that I had to be an actor," she said, settling into an overstuffed reading chair in her living room. "I read all these acting books that said, 'You have to want to be an actor so bad that the thought of not being an actor fills you with dread.' I never passed that test. I love being an actor, but I could see myself working in, you know, a bookstore."

She spends a lot of time in bookstores. She got the idea for "Letting Go of God," a light romp through the history of science and religion, while perusing the "spiritual" section at an airport bookstore. For several years, she'd been growing disenchanted with Catholicism and looking into alternatives, finally finding herself a kind of moderate atheist ("I can't stand the atheist outfits -- I won't wear a beret!") heavily informed by quantum physics and Darwin. But she noticed that all the books in the airport bookstore went the other way.

"They were all like 'How I Found God.' And I thought, why isn't there a book about someone losing their faith and it being this beautiful experience?" So she decided to do a show about it. (She's workshopping it for now at the Knitting Factory).

She insists that she's not particularly fond of the one-woman show format. But the stories she wants to tell just seem to end up that way.

"After 'God Said Ha!' I swore I'd never do another monologue as long as I lived. I hated working in nonfiction. I felt guilty every time I did it because of my parents, like I was using them to get a laugh -- which, of course, I was. But then I went through this experience, and it was so profound."

This time around, she's decided, she'll only perform her shows once a week. "Doing it every night is just so 'Here I am! I'm a single woman with an adopted baby! And I'm telling you all about it!' " said Sweeney. She is still close with her ex-husband, the writer Steve Hibbert. Sweeney remembers getting her first laugh, in the second grade. "There was a rumor going around that one of the fast-food restaurants was serving horse meat. Some of the kids asked the sister about it, and she said it wasn't true. And then I said, 'But if you hear a bugle and your hamburger runs off, you have to wonder!' It was such a bad joke -- but everybody laughed.

"That was powerful," she said. "That was like doing heroin."

Sweeney discovered acting in high school. In one of the few conventional episodes in her life, it was during a production of "Romeo and Juliet."

Los Angeles Times Articles