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Wiig out with Kristen

Kristen Wiig has a friend who’s just like the one-upping, know-it-all Penelope she plays on “Saturday Night Live.” But, Wiig says, the friend hasn’t made the connection. “Someone like that wouldn’t recognize herself, would she?” Wiig asks.

Other characters have similar origins. The Target lady – who speaks with flat vowels – is actually based on a Target clerk who “said a word that sounded funny when I asked her for directions. She said ‘empire’ like “empirrrrrr’ and something just clicked in my head. I wanted to write about her.”

Aunt Linda, the film critic, came to life on a plane trip. Wiig heard a woman complain about the movie on the screen “and I just got my pen out and started writing on a napkin.”

Most times, she says, characters are born from such inspiration. Once she’s intrigued, Wiig huddles with one of the show’s writers and they create a full-blown sketch.

“It might just be I want to play a certain type of person. It might be a look. It might even be something someone else suggests.”

Experience as a member of the Los Angeles-based improv group The Groundlings served her well. Wiig learned how to craft those characters, put them into play and let them breathe. The job helped her win the “SNL” gig and, now, scene-stealing roles in movies.

In “Knocked Up,” the summer’s big comedy hit, Wiig plays a network official who doesn’t hesitate to throw in nasty comments when one of the characters is questioned about her job performance. She did “that passive/aggressive thing” during the audition and, Wiig says, director Judd Apatow called her and said, “I want you to do that in the film. He just fed me lines and directions. It was so fun to be free and improvise. But when you leave the set you have no idea what you said, if you were bad or you were funny or even if you’re going to be in the movie.”

Critics have singled her out, saying she steals every scene she’s in.

Now, other directors expect the same level of participation. “When I audition, I just try to bring something to it that’s funny. When it’s a regular role, I don’t want to come in with a wig on.”

Oddly enough, the Rochester, N.Y., native hadn’t planned on an acting career. She was an art major. “I was at the University of Arizona when I got a job at a plastic surgeon’s office doing graphic design – to show people what they would look like after the surgery. I was supposed to start on a Monday and it was a Saturday when I had one of those moments: What would I do if I could do anything? I literally packed up my car and didn’t tell my parents.”

Wiig moved to Los Angeles, stayed with a friend and “freaked out about how I would break the news” to her family. The friend advised her to get an audition or enroll in a class so it wouldn’t seem so bad.

After a stint at the Lee Strasberg school, she found The Groundlings and worked her way up.

“It took a while but then I started to get little parts on sitcoms.”

Then “SNL” came calling and another dream was realized.

In the future, Wiig hopes to write and direct “and have my own show.”

She blushes when she talks about the possibilities. She loves Joan Cusack’s work and wouldn’t mind a similar career.

Now, though, she loves the “SNL” process.

“I don’t think it’s harder for women there,” she says. “If there’s a male host and they want to do sketches with a girlfriend or a wife, we each get a shot. So much of what you see depends on what gets picked. You could be in a lot of sketches that never make it to air. But I’ve been lucky. Sometimes, they’ll even say, ‘We want an Aunt Linda this week’ and I’m on the show.”

© 2007 Bruce R. Miller, SIOUX CITY JOURNAL.