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Big Friends

Lolly Adefope plays the funny bestie on Shrill, but she’s nobody’s stereotype.

Gucci cape, $9,800, and gloves, $430, at Asos pant, $51, at Balenciaga shoes, $1,090, at 620 Madison Ave. Photo: Ruth Ossai
Gucci cape, $9,800, and gloves, $430, at Asos pant, $51, at Balenciaga shoes, $1,090, at 620 Madison Ave. Photo: Ruth Ossai

When Lolly Adefope and I first followed each other on Twitter, I was nervous. She was hilarious, of course, and though I knew her from house parties (and the fact that she’s one of the few young black female British comedians), I’d panicked about drafting a reply that would be funny enough. But later, when we got to meet properly at her ensemble comedy show, Lolly & Friends, in East London, she’d descended on me, pulling me into a big hug. Clearly, we’d both decided that we were going to be friends.

Lolly and I made plans to meet in Central London’s Soho House, an exclusive members club that she’s a part of. “Maybe it’s not going to be quiet enough for the interview,” she tells me before I arrive. “I think the DJ is actually setting up right next to me.” When I find my way inside, Lolly stands out beautifully. She’s wearing a bright-pink jumpsuit that she picked up in a Portland, Oregon, thrift store for $20. We scuttle around trying to find a quiet room, and when we eventually do, I ask a waiter if we can close the door. “No,” he tells us. So we do it anyway and eventually get in trouble, laugh, and close it again.

Asos blazer, $83, and pant, $51, at Christopher Kane earrings. Kalda boots, $430, at Noel Stewart hat. Photo: Ruth Ossai

Lolly plays Fran, the best friend to Aidy Bryant’s Annie on Hulu’s Shrill, the comedy series based on Lindy West’s 2016 book of the same name. Fran’s a magnetic, self-assured black gay woman who is never, ever, waiting for anyone’s approval or asking to be desired. It’s clear that Bryant’s character, still wading through the insecurities of being a fat woman in the world, looks up to her most. But despite the importance of Fran’s friendship to Annie, season one spent surprisingly little time with Lolly’s character. The second season promises more Fran, but in real life Lolly and Aidy have already developed a friendship. The two even celebrated New Year’s Eve at Lolly’s London home. “Aidy is truly a dream come true, in the truest sense of the phrase … I’m in love with her, okay!,” Lolly jokes.

I ask Lolly if she considers herself a good best friend in real life. “I’m such a good best friend,” she tells me. To prove it, I make her list her best-friend qualities, which she does quickly and with great ease. “I try and imagine what I would want to hear when I’m in a crisis. And when my best friend’s in a crisis, I tell her to imagine what she would say to me.” Right on the edge of seeming too heartwarming or soppy, the actress and comedian adds that she’s aggressively defensive of the people that she loves and isn’t afraid to take on a friend’s nemesis — not unlike her Shrill character, who spent much of the first season eye-rolling at Annie’s bare-minimum boyfriend. “I’m very willing to cut people off if they betray the people that I love,” Lolly says. “Too much, to the point that when my friend gets back in touch with these people, I’m like, ‘But I cut them off? Sorry, I thought we were cutting this person off?’”

My first impression of Shrill was that all of the characters are dressed impeccably, but especially the bigger characters, who are always in bright colors and patterns. “I mean, never have I been more envious of a character’s wardrobe,” Lolly says of Fran. “She’s just cool. She wears stuff that I wouldn’t pick up for myself and then I put it on and I’m like, ‘Why am I not wearing this every day?’” Both Annie’s and Fran’s wardrobe highlighted a quandary for the costume department — plus-size fashion is usually dowdy at best and truly terrible at worst. The show had a choice about whether to reflect that or to be aspirational. Lolly notes that a lot of the clothes are custom-made, because the producers wanted to show that the characters are “not constantly sad.” For most fat characters in TV shows — from “fat Monica” on Friends to Kate Pearson on NBC’s This Is Us — their size is always something they want to change. “They’re usually stuffing their faces while crying and moaning about being fat,” Lolly says. “Because being fat is bad,” she continues sarcastically. “Everyone knows that.”

Lolly has no desire to be the loudest person in the room and no demand to be the funniest. Perhaps because she knows she already is. On Shrill, she’s known for dry one-liners like telling Annie that her diet food looks like “a stillborn puppy” or informing her boyfriend “I don’t apologize to white people” after accidentally pepper-spraying him. But in real life, she’s so situationally funny you very quickly realize that her comedy brain never really turns off. She begins telling me about her birthday (September 14) in a slow, quiet, comedic staccato. “I’m a Virgo. That is me. To a tee.” We both laugh. “Me and Beyoncé. And Amy Winehouse! Same birthday.” With some scattered detours about how much we miss Amy Winehouse, I manage to find out that Lolly moved around the U.K. as a kid from Kent, ending up in London, and that her dad is a doctor, and when I ask what her mum did for a living, she chuckles, admitting that she wasn’t completely sure, but “she did some sort of IT-based … computer job?”

Since neither parent worked in the arts, Lolly points to her next most significant influences — Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. “I watched a lot of Kenan & Kel,” she says. I ask her if she’d be Kenan or Kel. “Am I Kenan or Kel?,” she repeats, before pausing for a moment of performative comedic introspection. “Wow,” she says, closing her eyes. “Stop the interview.”

She goes on to recall watching The Amanda Show and That’s So Raven, later following more established comedic actresses like Catherine Tate and Olivia Coleman. She rattles off British comedy greats effortlessly: Chris Morris, Richard Ayoade, Steve Coogan. “For ages, I was like, ‘I want to be a comedy actress,’ but it was such a fantastical dream,” she says. “I was like, ‘I have no idea about that world.’” Lolly thought that she might be able to find her way in by studying drama at university, “but my parents said, ‘Absolutely not.’”

She wanted to go to Cambridge to be in the Footlights (the university’s historic amateur theatrical club where many comedians cut their teeth), but she didn’t get in, so she ended up studying English at Loughborough University in the east of England. It was there that Lolly auditioned for a sketch group called Electric Orange Peel, and got in, despite being a first-year. “It was really good. Well, in hindsight, it was really terrible,” she adds quickly. “But it was a successful show.” Lolly tells me that she did one five-minute stand-up gig before leaving because it felt too vulnerable.

She did comedy internships after college and juggled full-time jobs while auditioning for acting gigs, and even moved back in with her parents for a spell. And even though she tried to avoid the intimacy of stand-up, Lolly still felt exposed in an industry that does too little to accommodate people other than men and svelte white women. Her first role was on a BBC Three sitcom, where she was initially cast as “Annoying Girl” at a costume party. Her character was dressed as Yoko Ono, and when she went to get her makeup done, the makeup artist had no idea what to do with black skin. “It was the first time I’ve ever had my makeup done, and I thought it was going to be amazing. But I could see the stuff that she had in her kit and there was nothing for my shade. She was like, ‘Ah well, you’re going as Yoko Ono, and she didn’t wear much makeup, did she?’ So she gave me some bronzer or powder that wasn’t in my shade and that was about it. So I went back to my trailer and did my makeup myself.”

Gucci hat, price on request, at Louis Vuitton earrings, $1,020, at Balenciaga top, $1,900, at 620 Madison Ave. Photo: Ruth Ossai

Five years and a handful of gigs (including TBS’s Miracle Workers alongside Daniel Radcliffe) brings us to Shrill. Lolly makes her casting sound so simple. She sent two reels in: one that was American, “because it was written as an African-American character,” and one with a British accent — Lolly explains, “I just thought, I’ll see how it goes.” She hoped that they’d want her to do an American accent because she doesn’t like using her own accent in shows. I prod, and she tells me she hasn’t quite worked out how to use her own accent and not be Lolly: “If I’m doing different accents, I feel like I’m acting. If I’m doing my own accent, I feel like I’m saying someone else’s dialogue as myself.”

Unfortunately for her, Shrill wanted her to stay British. “They were like, we love your British accent,” she says. I ask her to do an American accent for me, and she obliges. “So my American accent is kind of like … it’s not perfect,” she begins, mock-flicking her hair over her shoulder. “It’s … there are moments when I become a Valley Girl. Or I can’t, I can’t quite nail it, all the tiiime.” She was almost immediately flown out to L.A. to do a chemistry read with Bryant, and she was in Portland (where the show is shot) three weeks later.

Fran was originally written into the script as African-American, so when the writers made her British, Lolly got to have fun with all the hilarious differences between America and England. “We ad-libbed some stuff in series one about calling 999, for example,” Lolly says. In the upcoming season, she got to have a little more input in the writing process — especially for the episode entirely centered on her character. Though she fears that in using her own accent she doesn’t feel like she’s acting, Lolly couldn’t be more different to Fran, thanking me profusely when I tell her that Fran comes off as very sexy. Not that Lolly isn’t, but sexiness isn’t her leading force. While Fran is all confidence, self-assurance, and a commander of her own sexuality, Lolly is considered, contemplative, and a little bit goofy.

At this point in the interview, an exasperated waiter lets a loud party of five into the room we’ve occupied for too long. Lolly, a solutions-driven Virgo, has a plan. “Why don’t I plug your headphones in and answer the questions into the mouthpiece?” she says. So the rest of the time I look like I’m talking to someone on the phone.

Lolly tells me that she’d read Shrill the book before working on the show and that it had spoken to her a lot. “I loved it. I think it was a combination of it being a topic that I hadn’t really seen nailed,” she says. “It was celebrating [fat people] rather than focusing on fat people being miserable or fat people wanting to change.”

The week of our interview, the singer Lizzo was at the center of a firestorm for wearing an assless T-shirt dress and thong to a Lakers game. I want to know if Lolly feels the difference between how fat black women and fat white women are perceived. The body-positivity movement was reignited in 2012 by women of color — who were then swiftly pushed aside. The movement was co-opted by slightly bigger white women who still upheld traditional beauty standards while deploying the #BodyPositivity hashtag liberally. “A fat black woman has less privilege than a fat white woman,” Lolly says. “And I think that this new phase of body positivity, Instagram body positivity, does kind of lean towards a slightly chubby white woman with long hair, which is very different to a fat black woman with natural hair. I don’t know if people are ready to have that conversation.” In Shrill, Fran’s size wasn’t as closely scrutinized as Annie’s, but Lolly still had the pleasure of reading along as reviewers commented tactlessly on her body when writing about the show during the press tour.

“When Shrill came out, there were some articles that described me as ‘the fat best friend,’ and I was like, ‘Oh,’” she says, deadpan, but laughing. “I mean, this is not me trying to be like, ‘I’m not fat,’ but because I put on weight later in my life, it was kind of a shock. Because I could mouth off as much as I like about how fat is not a negative word, and how it’s a descriptor, and how plus size isn’t a negative word and we shouldn’t be ashamed of these things. And then when it actually happens to you, it’s like, ‘Oh, okay, yeah! Yeah! I’m fat, I guess, if the New York Times is saying that I’m fat?’” I ask if there’s any of the abundance of terms for plus-size women — juicy, fluffy, plump, etc. — that feels like it fits. “I think I do the easy thing, which is to say I’ve got really big boobs and a big bum. It’s not that I don’t think about my size and my weight; I don’t ever think to put a label on it,” she says.

Halpern dress, $2,815, at Amélie Pichard shoes, $290, at Photo: Ruth Ossai

Lolly tells me that it can get tricky playing the role of Fran given that there’s such stereotyping around being the black best friend or the fat best friend. “But that doesn’t mean that there can be no black women as people’s best friends on TV,” Lolly notes. “Just because somebody might hint at a stereotype doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily problematic.” She acknowledges the danger of the sex-crazed black woman stereotype, but hopes that her version of a sexy and alluring Fran transcends that: “I think sometimes … people can assume that if something is in any way close to a stereotype, that it is worsening it?” Trying to maintain the delicate balance of making this character confident without turning her into a sassy black woman has clearly been a challenge — but Lolly’s wry style helps her character toe the line carefully.

Season one of Shrill desperately needed more Fran, and season two delivers, in a way, for some who rightfully might not have felt that the show spoke to them; episode five, for example, takes us to the Nigerian wedding of Fran’s seemingly perfect cousin Abi, to whom she is always compared. “This is going to be 36 consecutive hours of over 100 judgmental Nigerians in one place. It’s not going to be easy,” Fran tells Annie. In the episode, Fran demands that her sexuality, clearly not something her family talks about, is acknowledged — which is answered by a falling out with her mother and a rift that deeply impacts Fran. Lolly is not queer, but being of Nigerian descent, she felt fully embraced by the episode. A Nigerian wedding planner was brought in to ensure that the wedding was authentic, and outfits were flown in from Nigeria for the guests. Lolly tells me she cried when the episode wrapped. “It’s all well and good to have a gay black character, but [not] unless you show the real-world consequences of her deciding to be unapologetic about who she is.” More Fran means more opportunities for Lolly’s droll delivery to shine. It also means the stakes are higher for a show that was lauded for how it dealt with fatness — to step up how it cares for race and queerness, too.

Lolly wants all of that for Shrill. As for herself, she asks: “Can I use this as a request to be in You?” Turns out, in the end, even one of the funniest, friendliest, boldest comics of our time just wants to be murdered on a Netflix show.

Big Friends