Abby Elliott and Jamie Lee Curtis on What Makes The Bear One of One

Abby Elliott

Photo by Jennifer Rovera/Camraface.

When Abby Elliott made her debut on Saturday Night Live at 21 years old, she seemed destined for a career in comedy. As the daughter of Chris Elliott, it was already in her DNA. But after the SNL stint lasted four years, Elliott spent the next while bouncing around projects. Along came The Bear, which has given Elliott’s character more to do with each new season. Now in its third, her character Sugar Berzatto, sister to Jeremy Allen White’s Carmy, is extremely pregnant, crescendoing into a harrowing episode in which she goes into labor, and the only person by her side is her estranged mother Donna, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Just before the third season dropped, they reunited to talk about growing up with famous parents and why The Bear is unlike anything they’ve ever worked on. 


JAMIE LEE CURTIS: What year were you born, Abby?


CURTIS: Fuck you. Thank you for that. 

ELLIOTT: New York City, Upper East Side. My mom had a natural birth.

CURTIS: Well, you have a beautifully shaped head.

ELLIOTT: Thank you. You do too.

CURTIS: I was born at Cedars, before it was Cedars-Sinai, it was called Cedars of Lebanon. It was where the Scientology Center in Los Angeles is now.

ELLIOTT: Whoa. Like the beautiful building on Franklin?

CURTIS: That giant on Sunset. The Scientology mega center.

ELLIOTT: Wow. That makes sense. I mean, it looks like a hospital.

CURTIS: I know, but it’s not as nice as the Upper East Side. You know what’s so perfect about this already?


CURTIS: I realized this morning, when I woke up, that we’re going to be talking about mothering. 

ELLIOTT: And we went right into it.

CURTIS: Unintentionally. 

ELLIOTT: No segue. So happy to see you.

CURTIS: The last time I saw you, you were very sweaty, and now we’re allowed to talk about it.

ELLIOTT: I know.

CURTIS: The beauty of this show is the amount of secrecy and protection that they employed. Not to be controlling–they do it because they want people to experience it purely and not have a bunch of pre-digested ideas about it.

ELLIOTT: Exactly. As much as I hate doing an interview and saying, “I can’t say anything about the new season” it is for a reason. 

CURTIS: You and I share a lot, Abby Elliot.


CURTIS: We are both children of actors. We first met when I’d been cast, but obviously it hadn’t been discussed yet. We ran into each other at the SAG Awards.

ELLIOTT: Yes. It was in the lobby. I felt such a connection to you immediately. 

CURTIS: You were the first person on the show that I ran into, knowing I was going to be on it and I was going to play your mother. I had this incredible feeling about you from the beginning, because you have a very hard job in the show. I really appreciate the delicacy with which you do your work. 

ELLIOTT: Thank you.

CURTIS: You have to contain a lot. I want you to talk about Sugar in that way, because I feel that from you as a performer. 

ELLIOTT: With the show, I had to contain a lot because I didn’t know where it was going. In season one, I’m peppered throughout eight episodes. And I was like, “Am I going to be a part of the kitchen?” I also didn’t really know what was happening in the chaos of the kitchen. I think Chris Storer liked that, that those scenes can breathe a little more and it’s not as erratic and chaotic. But I was holding back because I had never done anything like that– where I didn’t know the direction of where the character was going to go. And then when you were cast, it was like, there’s going to be this history. That was so exciting. We were all just figuring it out as it was going along, but at the end of the day, Chris had this master plan. 

CURTIS: But you know what? None of us knew our stories.


CURTIS: You’re a mommy of your two children. You don’t know their stories yet.


CURTIS: We don’t. We have fantasies, but that’s the beauty of both life and art. In fact, you have to understand, as audience members, we digested the whole season as one big freakin’ fantastic meal. We kind of knew the story, but we didn’t know the ingredients of the meal didn’t know the story. Only Chris did. Well, Chris and Joanna [Calo]. 

ELLIOTT: Yeah, exactly. What I knew was that this terrible tragedy happened in their family and that I am trying desperately to get my brother to deal with the grief, and I’m the middle man between our mother and Carmy. That’s all I really knew about the first season. You came on, you brought Donna to life. Truly could not have been anybody else.

CURTIS: Well, on some level, I will agree with you simply because I know her so well. Let’s talk about the Christmas episode for just a second.


CURTIS: Because it’s where we meet the whole family. Not only Donna, but we also see the real dynamic of Michael in the family, and the relationship between Michael and Carmen and Michael and you, and then all the cousins– the real cousins and the Faks. It is such an interesting idea to drop that in the middle of the second season. It establishes a level of understanding within the community of the family.

ELLIOTT: Yes. I felt so sad during that episode. I remember someone asking me afterwards, “Did you have fun?” I loved performing, I loved being with these amazing people, but I was sad that whole time. And Jamie, when you grabbed my face, I completely went somewhere else. That was completely unplanned. You improvised it brilliantly. That was just in my gut, my response of, “No, you’re going to be okay.”

CURTIS: But it’s also a child telling a parent that they’re going to be okay when it should be the other way around.

ELLIOTT: Absolutely. 

CURTIS: And it just breaks my heart every time I see it, because my parents are both dead, I loved my parents, but the idea of a child needing to take care of their parent–

ELLIOTT: I know.

CURTIS: And the fact that you, Sugar’s character, is the one that’s always taking care of everybody else, making sure that everybody else is okay. It was a heartbreaking moment.

ELLIOTT: I have been told so many times by people that they’re the Sugar in their family. And to me, it just means everything. I’ve never played a part where I’ve felt so deeply connected to. 

CURTIS: It’s beautiful work because it’s so raw.


CURTIS: You were such a child in that moment. It was fantastic.

ELLIOTT: Thank you. You brought it out. It was that one moment of pushing it, and then I went back to the times in my life where I felt uneasy, like a scared child. Childhoods are never perfect, right? That’s why I disassociated in my head. Because Chris was like, “That was amazing, when she grabbed your face and you said that.” And I was like, “Wait, what happened?” 

CURTIS: Babe, I got on a plane back to Los Angeles after that few days in Chicago. I’m telling you, I sat on the plane going like, “What the fuck just happened?” 

ELLIOTT: I feel that way right now. I’ve been so out of sorts since we wrapped. Being in Chicago, it really is a bubble there. But the work that everybody brings to the show, the caliber is unlike anything I’ve ever worked on.

CURTIS: It is its own beast. People have asked me a little bit about it, and I feel almost disloyal to try to explain what the experience is like. It’s unlike most jobs.

ELLIOTT: It truly is.

CURTIS: It’s like trying to describe a great meal. You can’t, you have to experience it. And people have experienced the third course of the meal, season three. What they now know is that you are a mommy.

ELLIOTT: And that you are a grandmommy.

CURTIS: I’m guessing, too, you didn’t know prior to reading the script what was going to happen–that Sugar goes into labor and she tries to find Pete.

ELLIOTT: He’s golfing.

CURTIS: And he doesn’t have his phone. She tries to find Carmen–

ELLIOTT: No luck.

CURTIS: And that the only person she could reach is Donna.


CURTIS: I can’t imagine a better way of telling that story. Why don’t you explain what the episode is about?

ELLIOTT: She’s laboring, which I think is so beautiful that I was given the opportunity to show the process of labor. And I need Donna desperately in that moment. I need you to be cool. I need you to not be you. 

CURTIS: In a way, don’t we always want our key people not to be themselves.

ELLIOTT: Yes, exactly. “I love you desperately. Please don’t be you right now. Just be the person that I need you to be.” It’s shot in real time. We did two 20-minute takes. We bounced around a lot, we improvised. There’s a lot of under-the-surface conflict and pain while I’m in physical pain. I loved being able to switch back and forth between the pain of these memories and then the literal excruciating pain of childbirth. In the episode, you’re telling me about your births, and I don’t really want to hear it from you, but I also want to know that it’s going to be okay, if that makes sense.

CURTIS: Sure. What I will add to that is, the family has been very separated for seven years now, five years before the second season. I mean, Carmen is Carmen. Clearly he and Donna, they haven’t spoken. And there’s been sporadic contact between each of the characters.

ELLIOTT: Right. Nothing is resolved.

CURTIS: The truth is that it was the perfect time for these two women to be together. For the reader who may have no idea what we’re talking about, the way this works is, we all get sent these scripts. It’s not like Abby and I met prior and ran lines or anything. You go to the set, and in this case, we walked into this very small delivery room.

ELLIOTT: At a real hospital.

CURTIS: Yes, and he had three cameras set up. When we walked in, Chris said, “Okay, let’s roll.” I looked at him and I was like, “What do you mean?” He said, “We’re just going to run.” I said, “The whole episode? We’re going to do the whole thing now? Like, all of it?”

ELLIOTT: Yeah. Not broken up in bits, no retakes. Completely raw, unrehearsed.

CURTIS: I’m 66 years old. I’ve never done a play. I did one TV version of a play where I had a seven-minute monologue. Besides that, I have never done anything to the extent that we were able to do together. I was so thrilled that it was with you.

ELLIOTT: Oh, me too. The way that you work is incredible. I’ll say it again, it could not have been anyone else. And when you got to town, I was like, “Should I see if she wants to get coffee and we can run?” I talked to Chris about it and he was like, “I think that this is really best untouched.” He also didn’t really touch the script. Once it was out to us, it didn’t change.

CURTIS: Oh, believe me, when I started learning some of the monologues, I kept saying to him, “Is this sort of the script, Chris?” And he was like, “This is what we’re shooting.” 

ELLIOTT: It was not perfect, but Chris doesn’t want it to be perfect. Life isn’t perfect.

CURTIS: And mothering isn’t perfect. That’s what we’ve been able to see through the writing and the storytelling. Human beings aren’t perfect. I don’t give a fuck how many Instagram videos there are of people who are experts about this or that. The truth is, nobody knows much and we do the best we can.

ELLIOTT: Exactly. Things evolve and change. And even in that episode, I don’t think the audience is going to come out of it like, “Well, they wrapped that up with a neat little bow. They’re now on good terms.” It isn’t that at all. It’s the process, the connection, the moment.

CURTIS: The forgiveness. To me, you forgave her enough to let her show up for you. She shows up imperfectly, but she shows up at a moment when you couldn’t find anybody and you needed her. And I love the fact, by the way, that you and I are both moms of two.

ELLIOTT: I know.

CURTIS: It’s so funny. For some reason, the algorithm believes that I have babies.

ELLIOTT: Jamie, your algorithm is very similar to what my mother also sends me. I will literally get duplicate things from the two of you. And I’m like, “Mom, Jamie just sent me this.”

CURTIS: I love that. Again, we are both children of actors. Let me ask you a couple questions about that because I certainly have had my fair share.


CURTIS: How much did you know that your dad was different from other people’s dads?

ELLIOTT: I grew up in Connecticut. A lot of my friend’s dads were commuting to the city for work every day. Going in the morning, coming back at five for dinner. My dad wasn’t like that. He would go to L.A. for a couple of months and come back every other weekend, or he’d be home for a year, or he’d be writing a book at home in his office. My dad, he’s my hero. He’s childlike in a way. We always had fun with him. He dissuaded us, if anything, from going into the business until I was 18. Then he was like, “You can do whatever you want. I know you’re going to do this anyway.” What about you? Did you know?

CURTIS: My parents were famous from movies a long time ago, so they walked in a room before I did. If I was new in school, kids knew who my parents were. There was always this layer of wanting to be unique and individual.

ELLIOTT: Were there other famous people’s kids?

CURTIS: Yeah, sure. Born and raised in L.A., there were quite a few. 

ELLIOTT: I did not have a lot of friends whose parents were in the business. I was old enough to see my dad catch a wave of getting bigger, seeing the ups and downs, and seeing how it affected him, how our lives changed.

CURTIS: Yes, the great benefit to being a child of people in the industry is that you have a front row seat to, as you called them, the ups and downs. Show business is a brutal profession, even for people with wild success. There’s always that point where the success goes away. It just does. And it’s hard to watch people reach a level of fame and then either be in acceptance that they don’t have it anymore or constantly be looking for it for the rest of their lives. But then you went into comedy, which was your dad’s métier. 

ELLIOTT: I wanted to do drama, but my dad encouraged me to go into comedy. He’s like, “Why don’t you take improv classes. It’s just a good muscle to flex and it’ll help you with other things in life.” I started at UCB in Los Angeles, and the Groundlings, and I got into a sketch group called The Midnight Show. I was their impression girl, but I didn’t have 10 or 15 years of hardcore experience before SNL. I was 21 when I was hired there.


ELLIOTT: I sent in tapes, then I flew to New York and auditioned, and met with Lorne. They hired me, and the next week I was on the show. The politics of the show were so unlike anything I had ever experienced. When it came down to Saturday, I loved performing. I knew what I was going to do, I felt like I could make the audience laugh. It was the constant auditioning through the week, that process of trying to get a sketch on air.

CURTIS: I know only because I was a host. By the way, not my thing. Probably the last thing I should have ever done was host Saturday Night Live twice, but I was privy to the undercurrents of competition, and a lot of misogyny, and a lot of hierarchy. It was sort of like Succession, but in comedy, to see if you could get something on the air.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, absolutely. I remember reading Jay Mohr’s book, Gasping for Airtime, and that really helped me because that’s exactly how I felt immediately when I started. It’s not that anyone was unkind, it’s just the system. I think social media has really changed the show there. It was 2007 when I started. Twitter had just started. There was a revolving door of women coming in and out. They’d hire a woman, fire her. I was kind of scared the entire time, but I’m so glad I did it. I’m grateful to Lorne. As difficult as it was, he gave me that break.

CURTIS: I have two things to tell you. One is that Tony Curtis, when I told him I was going to be an actor–

ELLIOTT: Yeah, how did he react?

CURTIS: This is literally what he said to me. We were in a car on Santa Monica Boulevard at the corner of La Cienega. He looked at me and said, “Never let them shoot you with anything less than a 50.” That was the entirety of his advice to me as an actor, was never let them shoot you with anything less than a 50 millimeter lens.

ELLIOTT: Oh my god. Did you take that advice?

CURTIS: Well, no, because I have a face the size of a door wedge, so the truth is a wider angle lens actually is good for me. You can shoot close-ups of me with a 35 and I look really good.

ELLIOTT: That’s good to know. I have a tiny head.

CURTIS: But the other thing he taught me, and I swear this is the only thing he ever said about show business, he said, “Remember that every contract that you sign has the words in perpetuity in the contract, which means forever.” 

ELLIOTT: It is forever.

CURTIS: And they own it forever. That was good business acumen to know. But here’s what I will say to you. I’ve had a couple jobs where I really believed that people had confidence in me, the way you just said about your dad and about Lorne. And those are the jobs that have given me the career I have today. But I will tell you that Chris Storer–

ELLIOTT: Yes. I feel the exact same way. And I was just about to say that.

CURTIS: That’s the confidence.

ELLIOTT: The trust.

CURTIS: And in the safety of this kitchen– this creative kitchen if you will– I got to tell you, it’s changed my life.

ELLIOTT: I agree.

CURTIS: It now makes me want that always.

ELLIOTT: The challenge, it feels like a gift. And that’s what I told him.

CURTIS: It is a gift. And he gave us each other. He let me be your mommy. Neither one of us knew what he was going to throw at us. We didn’t talk about it, you and I. And then, we were there. In that moment, these two women, both whose parents were professionals in the same fields, had this very intimate experience together with cameras rolling. And you were spectacular.

ELLIOTT: Vice-versa. I will never forget feeling that empowerment. I love you.

CURTIS: I love you too, Abby. And I’m happy that the light is shining on you so beautifully because you deserve it all.

ELLIOTT: You’re the best.