Rebel Wilson broke out in in the first “Pitch Perfect” movie as "Fat Amy." Many of the film's jokes — and even more in this year's sequel — are about the size of the overweight singer. This focus on her weight is no laughing matter to some people, including comedian and actress Julie Brister.
Brister describes herself as a fat actress. She recently wrote about this for Slate, in a piece called "Large as Life: What it’s like being a Fat Amy-sized actress in Hollywood." She talked about her piece with the Frame.
Brister writes that fat actresses are often treated as fat first and as actresses in a distant second.
"A lot of things that I go out for are characters or roles that are totally defined by their weight, instead of being just a regular person. And so the choices that that character might have to make also usually relate to the weight, and as a fat woman, my life goes beyond my size. So I would love to see that reflected in what I see in TV and movies," Brister says.
The way the character of Fat Amy is portrayed goes from bold to mean-spirited in the sequel, Brister says — an example of how larger actresses are often portrayed.
"One of the main things that kind of sticks in my craw about that is that she's still referred to as 'Fat Amy.' And I feel like they get away with saying that, 'Well, I say that myself first so that other people don't do it behind my back.' But then it just gives everybody license to call her 'fat' to her face."
Brister moved to L.A. when she was almost 40 years old, which she says actually gave her access to a wider variety of roles than younger plus-sized actresses might find.
"The kinds of roles that I tend to go out for aren't necessarily exclusively fat-defined roles, nor are they the fat best friend roles. And I have friends who are younger who that is their niche. And those roles I think are far more offensive, because those roles are just exclusively the butt of a joke."
She hasn't always been able to be selective about her roles, especially when starting out, but having an agent has helped her to avoid feeling humiliated on camera.
"I've taken roles that are fat jokes, or where I've been hired exclusively because of my size, that I thought were hilarious. So it's not like I'm not able to laugh at myself or not laugh at the situation. But at some point, once I got representation, and once I sat down and had a conversation with my agent where we commonly decided, you know, there are certain kinds of roles that I would prefer not to do. I felt like I was taken care of in that matter."
One of the roles she played earlier that ended up being more humiliating involved Brister getting frozen yogurt poured on her chin and her chest — in the middle of an active commissary during lunch hour.
"It was a ROUGH day," Brister says. "Sometimes, when you do a day-player or one-day things on a show, you sometimes don't know what you're really doing until you talk to wardrobe. And that was one of those situations, where I knew that I was coming on and I was playing a celebrity, but I did not have the full context of the role."
Once she was in the situation, Brister says she didn't feel comfortable turning back.
"I didn't feel comfortable saying no in that situation, and I didn't have an advocate to kind of guide me. So I ended up doing something I didn't feel great about myself for doing, but I did it."
Brister says that experience changed her.
"I think of it often. And I think of it when I see other larger women doing things on TV and in movies, where I know that they've compromised their dignity. And I know that that was a rough day for them."
Still, there is hope — Brister says she thinks that being a particularly great actress can open doors, regardless of body image.
"Melissa McCarthy is a fantastic actress. Even before 'Bridesmaids,' she was working, playing parts that maybe weren't just defined by their size. And I think especially of the part she had on 'Gilmore Girls' as Sookie — which, you could say that that was a fat best friend role, but that would be like the best fat best friend role out there. Because she was a multidimensional person, and was not just exclusively defined by her size, and fit in with the other characters on the show. She was never a joke. Nothing was ever at her expense."
Another shining example for Brister is Kathy Bates, who is such a great actress that Brister says she's been able to largely supersede playing size-driven roles altogether.
There's plenty of fault in these roles to go around, from the writers to the actresses themselves, and even the audiences who laugh along. Still, Brister says she doesn't blame the actresses.
"The actor took that role, and there is an actress out there who might do something that compromises her dignity, and she doesn't care. And, you know, more power to her if she's numb to that experience. I have a hard time. I think I'm a pretty tough lady, but there are certain things that I think I would have a hard time numbing myself to."
Brister says that, sometimes, she's probably been on the other side of that equation.
"I've taken roles that maybe other actresses feel like, why would she do that? And that's just the way that it is. I hope that we would, as a society, and as a culture in this business, would aim higher, you know? There are definitely certain shows where you're going to see it more than other shows, but I don't think that people's views on fat people are going to change anytime soon."
Brister says she's happy to do a role that has a fat joke she thinks is funny. In a role on the show "Good Luck Charlie," which she put on her reel, she plays a vacationing woman in a scene that includes a joke about her size.
"To me, it felt more benign. It didn't really bother me. There's nothing mean about it," Brister says. "And also, that lady — that lady was just an oblivious, loopy lady, and I enjoyed the loopiness of that lady a lot more than I was offended by a mild fat joke."
One issue that Brister isn't excited about — the double standard for larger men in TV and film.
"'Dadbods' are so cuddly and, as we've been hearing lately, so attractive to women these days. And a dadbod is essentially a fat guy. So I'm not going to call fat women a 'mombod,' and I think that 'curves,' there are plenty of people out there that appreciate curves. But like a fat, doughy lady is not going to be getting any love from young hot studs anytime soon," Brister says. "Those kinds of sitcoms with the fat dad and the skinny wife — oy. They drive me nuts."
Brister also teaches improv with the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, but she says that teaching improv has been something where body image largely doesn't come up.
"I'll tell you why — because in improv, you can be whatever you want to be. I rarely set out in a scene and make myself a fat lady. In improv, it's all — we cater to your imagination, and to the improviser's imagination, and you can be whoever and whatever you want to be."
There are roles that Brister has had the opportunity to play that she says she's very proud of, and they aren't about her body.
"I was on 'Playing House' last year playing a nurse in an episode that actually won a GLAAD Award, called 'Let's Have A Baby.' I was very proud of my work in that, and I have a recurring role in the Comedy Central show 'Review,' where I play the attorney to the main character, Forrest MacNeil. And that role has nothing to do with my weight. I love it."
The Slate article has drawn a positive response, with people approaching Brister to talk to her about it.
"I've had a lot of thank yous from people, and so I'm glad that I could put something out there that people could respond to and relate to, and feel like that they could really learn something from."
Comedy Central's "Review," which Brister appears in, returns in August.
Watch Brister in this UCB comedy video: