Beware of Amy Sedaris in `Strangers With Candy'

The comedian, actress, author and professional baker says she likes playing `unattractive people'


First-time visitors to Amy Sedaris' home in Greenwich Village hear a clanging noise coming from the direction of her apartment as they emerge from the elevator. She uses the sound and a few friendly words to guide them around the right corners. Could she be banging on a pan?

After all, Sedaris, though most famous as an actress, is also known as a dedicated cook -- and even has a wacky entertaining book coming out in the fall. And, sure enough: There she is wearing a blue-checked apron over a ruffly white dress -- she loves aprons, she later explains, and often wears them all day.

Her apartment is a study in quirkiness: living room adornments include a rubber turkey, a stuffed squirrel and dozens of paintings. Her pet rabbit Dusty has the run of the one bedroom. She keeps her daily-expenses "allowance" money, earned from her small bakery business -- cupcakes, cheese balls and, soon, wine butter, sold through local stores -- in a jar by her door. She grabs some later, as she heads out for an eyebrow waxing.

The rattling sound, it turns out, came from a quarter inside a tin can sporting a Red Cross symbol.

"If you take the quarter out and you shake it, it's sad. It's like when you need help and no one's listening to you," she says, and refers to victims of Hurricane Katrina. "How horrible that must have been."

Well, that was unexpected.

But then, the things that come out of Amy Sedaris' mouth often are, both in person and when she's in character, playing odd ducks like Jerri Blank.

Jerri is the ex-druggie, ex-prostitute, ex-con, strange-looking middle-aged woman at the center of Strangers With Candy, a movie that opens in July in Baltimore. It's based on a Comedy Central cult hit that ran 1999-2001; the complete series DVD set was released yesterday.

Sedaris co-wrote the show and movie with Stephen Colbert -- who now has his own mega-popular Comedy Central show, Colbert Report -- and Paul Dinello. She's been pals with them since their early days in Chicago's Second City comedy troupe. The men play teachers in the movie, and Dinello also directed it.

In recent years, Sedaris, 45, has appeared in more mainstream venues, and more as the pretty, normal-looking woman she really is. She's a frequent guest on David Letterman's show. (Letterman's company, Worldwide Pants, originally financed the $3-million film, which was completed in 2004.) She had a recurring part in Sex and the City. (Sarah Jessica Parker, a friend, appears in her new movie. So do Deborah Rush, Ian Holm, Allison Janney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Parker's husband, Matthew Broderick.) And when Sedaris touted her October book, I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence (which she wrote and designed), at the recent BookExpo America, she wore a crisp Betty Crocker-like dress that gave her a fresh-faced, only slightly wacky gloss.

But her heart, it seems, belongs to people like Jerri.

"I like playing unattractive characters, because they have it harder in life. And also, not that many movies are made for unattractive people. It all seems to be for pretty people, and I'm kind of tired of that. I like the audience Strangers has -- misfits and outcasts," she says.

In Strangers, Jerri returns to high school at age 46 after 32 years away and tries her best to blend in. The movie, a prequel to the TV series, shows Jerri's first day back home, where she finds her father in a coma. Soon after, she enters a science fair, believing that winning it will bring him back to consciousness. Sophomoric and subversive, the movie sneaks in a pro-tolerance subtext.

Jerri, who has an overbite and eye tics, carries more pounds than Sedaris, courtesy of the bottom half of a "fatty suit," an apparatus Sedaris first wore in real life. On a return home to North Carolina, she fooled her father into thinking she had gained weight, as her brother David, the best-selling humorist, recounted in one of his essays. She also wore it, or otherwise disfigured herself, in plays she wrote with David in the 1990s, including Stump the Host, Stitches and One Woman Shoe.

She's been in other people's plays and a few movies and TV shows. But many observers think she could be more famous.

"I'm not that ambitious," she says, leaning back in a rocking chair with chipped paint and fat floral cushions. "I just want to enjoy what I do. I don't want anything more than that."

Aileen Jacobson writes for Newsday.

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