She sparkled in three Second City comedy revues over the past couple of years, but I had no idea what to expect when the time came to interview the comedic actor Stacey McGunnigle. The characters she has portrayed onstage have been varied, nuanced and fully formed. Where she began and they ended wasn't clear. That she would be an expressive redhead was my best guess.
We meet at the Second City theatre in downtown Toronto. She has moved on from the company, but she's still part of the close-knit Second City family, which is proud of her recent big-time career move: Last month, the 28-year-old McGunnigle, the pride of Alliston, Ont., landed the title role on the NBC pilot Ellen More Or Less, one more stage in her heady ascent through the comedic ranks.
The story of a plucky woman who used to be overweight, but has shed the pounds and is readjusting to life, Ellen More Or Less is one of a dozen or so comedy pilots that NBC is considering for its 2014-15 season. From that crop, at best a handful will be picked up. McGunnigle will know by next month if the show will make it to air.
When her casting was announced in the trade papers, there was mention of the comedian landing the role after "wowing NBC brass with her screen test," but also that her coup was possibly aided by the fact that Ellen mirrors McGunnigle's own real-life story as a "former fat girl." When asked about that description of her younger self, the tall, fit, fiery-haired actor uses words like "chunky" and "awkward." She relates to Ellen. "I can access the parts of her character in myself," she says. "She doesn't have it together, but she's very confident in her chaos."
For the past few months, McGunnigle has shuttled back and forth between Toronto and Los Angeles. Just last week, she finished filming the Ellen pilot. Shooting it was an exhilarating experience, she says. Sitting down with the cast – which also includes TV veteran Mary Kay Place – reading the script, suddenly it all became real. "I thought, 'This is right out of the movies.' And then I realized, 'Oh, this is where the movies are made.'"
A survivor of the rigorous Second City training program, McGunnigle is no rookie. But being involved with the network that made Seinfeld, Friends, 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live is an almost surreal event for someone who grew up in a family of "comedy nerds." Her favourite sitcom was Roseanne, because she identified with the imperfect characters. "Seeing them, I realized that I wasn't crazy and that my life wasn't crazy and that my mother wasn't crazy," she explains. "You were watching yourself on television."
As a teenager, McGunnigle didn't take road trips to see bands. Instead, she and her friends headed to the Yuk Yuk's comedy club in nearby Barrie, where she saw standups like Jon Dore ("What a babe!" she shrieks) and Gerry Dee (silence).
Later she went full circle, performing at Yuk Yuk's as part of a Great Canadian Laugh-Off talent contest. "I thought to myself, 'I've made it.' " She studied at York University's theatre conservatory – "a pretty serious bunch" – and quickly made her way through the Second City pipeline, from touring troupe, to understudy status, to mainstage ensemble.
"It's a great success story," says Klaus Schuller, the producer and executive director of the Toronto branch of the legendary Second City sketch-comedy organization that's famous as a breeding ground for comedic actors who went on to greatness in the business of being funny. Whether from the Chicago troupe or the Toronto ensemble, future stars who passed through the company include Alan Arkin, Shelley Long, Stephen Colbert, and SNL icons Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Mike Myers and Tina Fey.
But most of Second City's comics don't ever land a place with Saturday Night Live – much less grab a lead role in a sitcom. "Stacey showed up," says Schuller, "as someone unknown and with no buzz about her, and auditioned and did an amazing enough job that they're pinning the hopes of the show on her."
Comedian Naomi Snieckus agrees. "For a role like this, thousands of people would have been considered," she says. "It's a huge lottery." Snieckus is a Second City alumna and one of Canada's most gifted improv comics. She also co-produces The Casting Room, a lighthearted Web series on the ins and outs of auditioning. While Snieckus says that McGunnigle's story as a relative unknown landing such a big-league spot is rare, she notes as well that "people in the business want to discover people. Stacey's low profile actually may have helped her."
Each winter, comedians and actors descend on Los Angeles in search of roles in the new crop of TV projects. Pilot season, as it's known in the business, is extremely competitive, and most emerge from it empty-handed. For Ellen More Or Less McGunnigle sent in a tape and auditioned in person, but initially the producers planned to go in a different direction. Before a final decision was made, however, she made a second tape and tested again for the studio and the network. She was in an L.A. hotel room when the show's producer gave her the good news. "I let out a silent scream," she recalls.
McGunnigle has a reputation for being fearless in her willingness to dive into characters, take risks, and leave everything she has on the stage. "It's a roller-coaster ride, and Stacey had nothing to lose," says This Hour Has 22 Minutes star Shaun Majumder, who's also a busy L.A.-based comic and a veteran of the pilot-season carnival. "I don't know her, but I imagine she was just going to be her, and that was what led NBC to decide that there's no one else out there quite like her."
So, just being herself. Stacey being Stacey, more or less.