Becoming Pat requires two hours, a padded bodysuit and a $10 wig. It also involves a lot of makeup, which is why Julia Sweeney is sitting patiently on a tall stool in front of a large mirror ringed by light bulbs, the workplace of a horrified makeup artist named Billy B. Sweeney, and has just told him to smear skin-colored foundation on her lips, making them all but disappear. Now, she directs him to spread the blush around the corners of her nose to make it seem like she has a cold or just plain bad skin. Billy B., who usually glamorizes models for Cosmopolitan, protests a little at first but gradually surrenders to Sweeney’s charm.
“Poor Pat,” she says, examining the results thus far.
Julia Sweeney, who is second-generation Irish American and talks constantly to everybody, blithely informs Billy B. that she employed monster-makeup artists when making the movie It’s Pat because they were not inhibited by a sense of obligation to make her beautiful.
Suddenly, Billy forgets his old obligations. He experiments with a brown mascara wand on Sweeney’s eyebrows to make them puffy. The result is formidable, in Donald Trump’s league.
“Now, we have the little mustache thing,” says Sweeney, who is wearing a black baby-doll dress with red, yellow and purple flowers printed on it. You would never have imagined that the actress who plays Pat would have such nice legs. Billy takes her chin in his hand, stares intently at her face and paints a shadow of a mustache above her upper lip. “Phuh, that is so ugly,” he says.
Sweeney pulls on a matted wig and changes into the bodysuit, a big, lumpy affair that leaks stuffing like an old couch. It gives her a humped back and a shapeless torso. Once in costume, Sweeney scrunches her neck down into her shoulders to give herself a double chin, arranges her face in that familiar smirk and places her hands awkwardly at the tops of her thighs. She is suddenly the real thing: a misfit, an outcast, a social pariah. Almost as if she cannot help herself, she starts gurgling and wheezing — Pat noises — and of Sweeney herself there is nothing left. The padded bodysuit has erased the last of her femininity, lending her the puzzling androgyny that is Pat’s central appeal.
Weirdly enough, that aspect of Pat was an accident, says Sweeney, who invented the character while performing comedy sketches at the Groundling Theater, in Los Angeles, and then made Pat famous during four seasons on Saturday Night Live. “I didn’t observe people who were androgynous and then make an androgynous character,” says Sweeney. “I observed men and women who had weird qualities, and then when I put them together, I couldn’t decide whether it should be a man or a woman, so I just made it someone you didn’t know. To me, it was all about a real weirdo. That was where the inspiration came. It came from when you work at the office, and there’s this one person who’s just so fucking weird.”
Sweeney, a self-described film geek, left her home in Washington for L.A. in 1982 because she envisioned the city as a movie Mecca. “I thought L.A. would be a community where everyone knows about film, and we would be discussing Lillian Gish’s career over lunch, and we would all be rushing off to the museum to see some John Ford silent that they just unearthed,” she says with trademark self-deprecation. “I came down and got a job as an accountant and found out it was just a factory town.”
The inspiration for Pat came from three of her office mates in the accounting department at Columbia Pictures. Sweeney says: “They were two guys and a woman, as it happens. One guy was just really obnoxious and oblivious in that way that Pat is. You know, asking really obnoxious questions and standing too close and not leaving when it’s really clear that everybody wants Pat to leave. The other guy did all the drooling stuff. He had all these problems with his upper-respiratory system: His eyes watered all the time, he drooled, he was always stuttering and sneezing. Then there was this woman who wore the dorkiest clothes every day.”
Three years of accounting were enough for Sweeney. “I had a feeling deep inside that I wanted to be an actress, but I was too embarrassed to tell anyone. I would never take acting classes in college — I couldn’t sit and emote and all that shit — but I knew that I was an actress. So I was living with this secret, and then finally I decided I was going to tell people. Their reactions were — I mean, it’s not like I’m this ingenue, and I wasn’t even that young — so it was like ‘Oh, God. Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?'” But after studying improv at the Groundling, she made it into the theater’s main-stage company, where she started doing character sketches. When scouts from Saturday Night Live visited (SNL often recruits talent from the Groundling), Sweeney auditioned with five of her characters, including Pat.
Now, after four seasons with SNL, Sweeney has decided not to return this fall. “It’s a real male-dominated place,” she says. “Maybe if you were in the trenches in World War I, that would be a comparable boys’ club. Actually, I always loved that challenge — you know, making it in the boys’ world. But eventually, that kind of fight just became so draining that it was taking away from me. I love all the people, and I still love the show, and I thought, ‘I want to leave before I feel bitter, and I’m on the edge of it.'”
The feature-length movie It’s Pat, written by Sweeney and two friends, Stephen Hibbert and Jim Emerson, offers Pat a chance at true stardom. “At first, actually, I wasn’t interested in doing it,” Sweeney says of the film. “I didn’t want to see another movie based on a character from a TV show.” She was persuaded to do the project by 20th Century Fox, the studio that initially solicited the script. “We thought, ‘OK, let’s just write this and see if we like it.’ Then we wrote the script, and, of course, it became our daughter — our child, I should say. But, unfortunately, Fox did not like our child. They put it into turnaround.” Disney stepped in last June. “[Michael] Eisner was a big fan. He had called me the year before to say, ‘I love that character, let’s develop that character.’ And he said, ‘If Fox balks, give me a call.’ So it was one of those very dramatic Hollywood moments. Of course, I immediately called Eisner, and within two days we had offices at Disney.”
The movie revolves around the mystery of Pat’s gender. But on the big screen there is the added twist of a confused love triangle. Pat struggles to maintain a relationship with the also-androgynous Chris, while their neighbor Kyle — an uptight Republican type married to a blonde in the Junior League — becomes obsessed with Pat. Kyle consequently wonders if he is gay or straight — a thorny question if Pat is your new flame. The movie was made for about $8 million. “Very, very low budget,” says Sweeney. (Wayne’s World, for example, cost $14 million.) “That was one of our biggest priorities, to keep it low budget so that we could make it as offbeat as we wanted to without having to appeal to a mainstream audience.”
Disney, however, seems interested in as large an audience as it can get. The studio has planned a nationwide release. “I really think it’s kind of quirky,” says Sweeney. “I thought, ‘Oh, just go for an upscale, hipper audience and forget Iowa.’ But they’re going to go for everybody.”