2017 has been quite a year for Sasheer Zamata. The veteran actor and comedian released her first comedy special, Pizza Man, in March, and ended her four-year run as a cast member on Saturday Night Live by being ceremoniously carried off the stage during the closing credits. Now, she’s landed her first starring role in director David Haskell’s The Outdoorsman. In her first project since leaving SNL, Zamata plays Mona, a woman recently fired from her job who’s forced to reassess her expectations. Things grow complicated when she meets Jason (Brent Morin), an aspiring author who’s determined to spend a year living in the wilderness.
Having appeared in a variety of supporting roles in everything from Transparent, Bojack Horseman, and People Of Earth, Zamata takes on the role with a dynamite performance of a woman dealing with the uncertainties of life, both professionally and personally. Just before The Outdoorsman’s world premiere at this year’s Austin Film Festival, we got the chance to talk to Zamata making the leap to romantic lead, how it built on her previous work, and what she plans to do next.
It’s somewhat of a tradition for actors to leave SNL and make the leap to the big screen. What made you decide on The Outdoorsman?
David Haskell and I met with him a while ago. We just had a really nice conversation, he was talking about the project and I thought it was something that people haven’t seen me do before. I haven’t had the opportunity to be a romantic lead. And then he mentioned that Brent Morin was involved, another comedian. I really like working with other comedians because it’s easy to bounce off of them and improvise and joke around, so I was excited to do that.
Even the title, The Outdoorsman, indicates it’s Jason’s story. And the idea of an ill-prepared idealist wanting to spend a year in the woods is a great plot, but it’s the character of Mona that really anchors the movie. How much of that dynamic was on the page versus what you brought to the character during filming?
I think we discovered that together. David was very open to collaboration, thankfully. Not every director is, so it was nice to be in an environment where I could suggest stuff and see if we could play around with things. It was a little bit on the page, but I think throughout the process, we were able to have more of Mona’s personality in the script and in the final product and have her be an important part of the story. Jason starts with some lofty goals where Mona’s just really trying to figure it out.
There’s also something universal about someone who’s lost their job and not knowing what the next step is, too.
I think that’s what I also liked when reading the script initially because I’ve done that. I’ve had moments of my life where I wasn’t sure what the next step was going to be or where I was going to move to or what job I was gonna take, or even where I was living. I think that is a very relatable part of people’s lives, where you’re just like I know somebody needs to change, but I don’t know what. I felt like I could really tap into that as an actor.
On that note, you’ve got a history of playing bit parts and supporting roles in a variety of projects. Was it exciting to take on the co-lead in a movie so soon after leaving SNL?
It did differ because as of now, or up until The Outdoorsman, most of the parts I’ve done in movies have been the comedic relief, which I’m always happy to do because I’ve been doing comedy for years. This was nice to do a role where I was funny, but that wasn’t the point of why I was there. You get to see more range. You get to see her mad, you get to see her sad, you get to see her hopeful. It was nice to be able to explore all these different sides of this character and showcase that.
You’d mentioned the history you had a rapport with both the director and your co-star. How did that play out in the day-to-day on set?
Well, David was very communicative the whole time and he would brief us in the morning what we were doing that day, then if we had any questions or suggestions or concerns about anything in the script of anything that we were doing in a scene, we would talk about it. And it didn’t feel like a relationship where ‘you’re the actor and you have to do what I say.’ He was very open to hearing what we thought our character needed.
Sometimes we needed nothing and we just did what was on the page, but sometimes we would get to explore more and try things out, while we’re actually shooting and the cameras are rolling and seeing where things go. And sometimes David would shout things off screen, behind the camera and say like try it like this. Or try it again but do it like this. You know, like, it was very, not loose, but not so rigid way of going. I liked it.
There is something organic about watching the relationship between Mona and Jason develop on screen.
Yeah. I think because we goofed around off screen so much, it helped our relationship on screen. While we were in these scenes, we would do multiple takes but as we’re doing different takes, we would find new things to play with and new treasures that maybe we didn’t see before, just reading the script. I think it was a good balance. The script was definitely in there, but we were able to have liberties with certain things.
How much liberty did you get in your first scene where you trash your boss’s office to goad her into firing you?
[Laughs.] I think we knew that I would flip out, but it wasn’t all written. We choreographed it as we went. So eventually we were like, okay, “We really liked it when you moved to this side of the table and then throw the book down and slap the papers.” And then by the end, it was like a well-oiled machine but when we first did, I kind of just like flipped. And then we just tried to see what makes sense camera-wise? Then we just played with it. It was really fun to terrorize this woman for, for a few minutes.
Now that you’ve got “romantic lead” under your belt, what are you looking to do next?
I’m in the midst of trying to sell a TV show, also trying to sell a movie. Also, my best friend Nicole Byer, she has a TV show called Loosely Exactly Nicole, and I’m in L.A filming that now, which has been super fun because working with a friend is the best.
And still doing a ton of standup and I’m actually hosting a Spotify podcast that’s coming out November 14th. It’s about music across the country, called the United States of Music. And all sorts of things. But I’m very excited for what’s to come. Oh, I’m also shooting a movie in December. So yeah, things will be busy for the next couple of months. I’m just excited for people to see what I’m doing.