When Cecily Strong takes a seat at the "Saturday Night Live" Weekend Update desk Saturday , friends and teachers from Oak Park will be cheering her on, some watching for hints of inside jokes they shared in high school.
"She's no diva," said Matt Johnston, 33, of Rogers Park. He and Strong knew each other through mutual theater friends. "She's fun, she's nice, she's funny and she's not pretentious."
Strong, 29, who will begin co-anchoring the show's satirical news segment this season, grew up in Oak Park and attended its public schools until she left Oak Park and River Forest High School in 2001 to attend the Chicago Academy of the Arts.
Johnston, like some others who knew Strong, was not surprised when his friend made it onto the show or when she was picked to join Seth Meyers for the prominent segment.
"Whatever she wants to do, she's going to do it and succeed at it," said Laura Lopardo, 33, of Oak Park, whose sister was a friend of Strong's. "That's what I've known about Cecily since she was 13 years old."
Lopardo and Johnston said some of Strong's popular TV characters had their genesis in sleepovers and breaks between classes, including her impersonation of Latina teen "Mimi Morales."
"It's really cool seeing sort of the fruition of all the early stuff, all the messing around we used to do," said Lopardo, recalling late nights in front of a mirror doing impressions of friends with Strong.
Teachers who directed Strong in school performances recalled a rare talent who put in the necessary hours to do well — whether the young actor was playing a lead role or backstage doing makeup for a show.
"She is somebody that I think a number of directors she's had would say, 'She's going to make it someday,'" said Patt Cheney, now a speech coach and special education instructor at Oak Park and River Forest. When Strong was in Oak Park, Cheney worked with her on shows and drove her to rehearsals for an All-State Illinois High School Theater Festival production of "Big River."
Cheney knew Strong as a dramatic actor and said she would not be surprised to see her former student move into serious roles or even become a director.
Paul Noble, an English teacher at Oak Park and River Forest, directed Strong in a production of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible."
"(Strong had) just sort of this unnerving quality that sort of made her take risks on stage or make weird choices other people wouldn't make, that would always make her interesting to watch," Noble said.
Lopardo also thinks "Saturday Night Live" is only the beginning for Strong.
"In my mind people have only begun to see what she has to offer," she said.
The budding star takes time to wish all her old friends "happy birthday" and congratulates them on major life events, Lopardo said.
"I'm really happy that a good person, a good friend, wound up with the things she worked really hard for coming to fruition," she said. "With all the crazy celebrities, I'm really happy we have a normal one."