On a recent Wednesday morning, when she’d usually still be sleeping in before heading down to Rockefeller Center at 2-ish to read a Saturday Night Live sketch to a roomful of her peers, actress Kristen Wiig has already spent three hours on the phone with Time Warner, because she’s not getting her emails. Ahh, free time. Such is the fallout of the Writer’s Guild strike, inadverdently providing a way more relatable “Stars – They’re Just Like Us!” moment than any snapshot of a starlet dropping an organic eggplant into a shopping cart.
“So, when I finally get ahold of a real person,” she vents, as we stroll up Columbus Avenue, “they’re like, ‘Did you try this?’ Yep, did that. Nothing. ‘Try this?’ Yep, did that. Nothing.” Kristen and I are hoofing it after giving the restaurant of her choosing – The City Grill – the once-over, with her deciding, today at least, it feels “too restauranty.”
Despite the technological and culinary snafus, Kristen, 34, is smiling, and with the year she’s had, it’s not an unreasonable reaction. She’s decked out in casually elegant, bohemian clothes, including a vintage brown suede coat with a white fleece collar, blouse, and a soft, floppy creme-colored knit hat. Imagine, say, winter fell upon Malibu – not so odd since Kristen, up until the fall of 2005, spent a lot of her adult life in Los Angeles.
In person, Kristen’s hair is a lighter brown than on TV. It’s straight and falls near her shoulders, with delicate highlights that in no way suggest Key West spring break flooz-a-thon ’86. Page Six Magazine’s photo shoot, which evoked the classic Luis Bunuel film Belle de Jour, was a pleasant surprise, because it made her feel feminine and sexy.
“Usually if someone wants to do a photo shoot, it’s because of a comedy I’ve done,” she says. “And the concept is more of a funny thing. But getting your hair and makeup done and wearing these clothes, you definitely feel in touch with your womanly side.” (For the record, she’s well aware that Catherine Deneuve played a hooker in the movie, and she’s fine with it.)
And of course, Kristen gets to play dress-up on a weekly basis. In addition to portraying an array of personalities from Nancy Pelosi to Bjork and having parts in memorable SNL digital shorts, like “Dick in a Box” and the creepily delightful ’80′s spoof “Body Fuzion,” Kristen has created some of the show’s most awesome characters in a decade. Critics have lauded her creations for being “irritating,” but that’s not completely accurate. What Kristen does best is deliver characters with whom we’re all comfortably familiar, then sprinkle in a dash of the surreal.
There’s Penelope, the one-upper who claims she gave birth to her cat; TV reporter Michelle Dison who can’t stop asking the female subjects of her interviews if they’d like to go to the Old Spaghetti Factory; the female half of the A-Hole Couple, an entitled Paris Hilton-y bimbette who thinks everyone looks like a rabbit; and the enthusiastic yet pathetic Target Lady, forever leaving her post at the register in search of bargains.
Lately the Kristen love has reached a fever pitch, with Entertainment Weekly praising her very existence and bloggers rallying for an Oscar nod for her brief but fiendish turn as a vacant TV exec in last year’s Knocked Up. Hollywood execs are crazy for her too, casting her in a funny part as John C. Reilly’s put -upon uberfetrtile teen bride in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story; and in a handful of diverse films due out this year, including another Judd Apatow picture, Forgetting Sarah Marshall; Ghost Town, in which she plays Ricky Gervais’s surgeon, and Pretty Bird, a drama…OK, a dark comedy, which will screen at Sundance.
“It’s a dream come true fro me to do something like that,” Kristen says of Pretty Bird. A story about rocket belt inventors, it is filled, she adds, with “Dark elements, manipulation, lying and deceiving. I love comedy, but I don’t want to do just one thing or be seen as someone who can do just one thing, especially this early in my career.”
And that includes pregnancy-themed movies. In addition to her roles in 2007 baby fests Knocked Up and Walk Hard, Kristen played a hesistant surrogate in the occasionally funny, often bizarre The Brothers Solomon. “My agents don’t really want me to look at anything where I’m pregnant anymore,” she admits.
Right now though, with Hollywood basically having ground to a halt, opportunities are nil, and Kristen’s over the strike, which has shut down SNL. “It’s really weird,” she says, as she walks through her Upper West Side neighborhood.” “Especially now. I started on the show in November 0f 2005, so the past few winters have revolved around my job. And, you know there was Christmas – usually everyone’s bringing in cookies, and our Christmas episode is our biggest show. To not have that, it’s just really depressing. We all miss each other!”
As we wait for a walk signal at 73rd Street, I catch a whiff of her perfume, a patchouli blend that strikes me as a bit daring on a comedian, but it works, especially with the outfit. The light changes and Kristen makes a suggestion that we try Arte Around the Corner – a smaller offshoot of Arte Cafe, so we make a beeline and find a spot at one of of the small marble-top tables along the wall.
After we sit, she elaborates on strike dos and don’ts – as a Writers Guild of America member, she’s extremely careful not to bend the rules, even though when the strike took effect, she was in the early stages of writing two movies. “If you’re writing a script for a studio,” she says, “I know you’re not supposed to be writing [during the strike]. I’m not writing ’cause I’m nervous about doing anything wrong. But if it’s a new idea, and you’re just writing for yourself, I’m not sure. You write it at night, and keep it under your bed,” she says, with a half-grinning, half-questioning look on her face.
Her cell phone chirps, she talks briefly to the caller – live-in boyfriend Brian Petsos – and then apologizes. Twice. She tucks the phone back into her purse, gently pats it, and comands, “Quiet.” Brian is an actor and a writer, Kristen explains, whom she knew growing up in Rochester, N.Y. He moved in with her last August. “He’s really talented. He’s writing, like, five things right now.” A previous, brief marriage to actor Hayes Hargrove ended last year. “We’re on good terms,” she proclaims, begging off further elaboration. “I wish him well.”
From the sound of it, Kristen’s youth in Rochester was not filled with the sort of activities that lend themselves to a successful carrer in, well, anything. In high school, I did my fair share of partying,” Kristen says. Her parents had split up when she was 9, and as she grew up, socializing trumped any acting ambitions. “It was one of those things where you think it would never happen,’ she says. Her lone memorable role, she confesses, was as a munchkin during an eighth-grade performance of The Wizard of Oz.
Kristen admits that her partying (including, she says, beer bongs) continued into college, where she bounced around from Ronoake University to a Rochester area community college. At age 20, to straighten herself out, she spent three months in Mexico at the National Outdoor Leadership School. “You try to find yourself,” she says. “I wanted to expand my horizons.” At NOLs, which, by the way, was conducted entirely out-of-doors (hence the name), Kristen earned credits by teaching the other students. “Phases of the moon!” she says, perkily. “I used an orange as my prop and colored half of it with black marker.”
Then she attended the University of Arizona and was about to embark on a career as a receiptionist for a plastic surgeon, before ditching out and moving to Los Angeles. “I remember looking in the mirror and being like, “What do you want to do?” she says. “And I was like, ‘I want to move to L.A. and try acting.”
Yet once she got there, she froze. “I worked at a hot dog restaurant in Beverly Hills,” she says, her face lighting up. “And Anthropologie. I answered phones. I sold peaches.” Eventually she attended a comedy night that inspired her to sign up for improv classes. Kristen surprised even herself with the range of funny voices that came out of her. Soon she was part of The Groundlings, a famous L.A. comedy group that’s a regular training ground for Saturday Night Live cast members. Like Groundlings Will Ferrell and Maya Rudolph before her, Kristen got the call to audition for SNL. And in 2005, she found herself in New York and on the show.
If there’s any area where Kristen comes off as protective or utterly diplomatic, it’s SNL, which makes sense after you hear her refer to it, more than once, as, “family.” Ask her about her characters, and Kristen humbly cops to creating many of them, or at least stumbling across the inspiration for them. As for the Target Lady: “She was working in Target. In Rochester,” she admits. But she’s also gracious enough to throw props to the writers who help her bring them to life. According to Kristen, no guest hosts have sucked – yes, including Dane Cook – during her tenure on the show. (Her dream host? “Johnny Depp. Oh my gosh! I would love for him to host. But he’s someone who wouldn’t do it.”) No single cast member is her best friend, and no one is cuttthroat. “It’s competitive in that there’s only a certain number of sketches that get on every week,” she says, “But it’s not a competitive environment.”
Drug use, which once seemingly fueled both the show’s successes and its high burnout rate, is not prevalent among the cast today: “I mean, we have a party after the show,” she says. “And sometimes we go out on Wednesday nights, but that’s about it.” With that, she finishes her latte, and looks, for a moment, genuinely bummed that the show is not chugging along as usual. Tonight, at least, she says, she’ll meet some castmates when she ventures downtown to sing Walk Hard numbers with John C. Reilly at the Knitting Factory. “We’ll see each other,” she says, “but still, we’re not doing our job.” She rises to leave, then drops a hand in her purse and rummages again, not for the phone but for her keys. “Oh Kristen,” she says with a crowl, “where are they?” On the upside, at least she’ll have plenty of time to wait for a locksmith.
© 2008 Jeff Johnson, PAGE SIX.