People expect Kristen Wiig to be funny. She has, after all, been a standout on Saturday Night Live for the past five seasons, embodying dozens of indelible, hilarious characters every week, including Penelope, the petty underminer, the Target Lady, Suze Orman and Nancy Pelosi. She’s the woman who stole her everyscene in Knocked Up and Whip It, and does so again in this month’s MacGruber. She’s the woman who will next star in a film she co-wrote, which is being produced by Hollywood’s reigning comedy king Judd Apatow. But despite these credentials, when people meet Wiig, their expectations aren’t always met: when she’s playing herself, Wiig isn’t that funny.
“When I was living in L.A., I would be out and people would be like, ‘Oh, you’re funny? Do something funny.’ People expect that,” Wiig says. “But it’s what I do for a living. I’m definitely a silly person around people that I know very well, but I’m not the kind of person who shushes everybody in the room to tell a story. I’m just not good at it. Certain people are engaging and they do voices and you’re hanging on every word even though they’re not really saying much. I’m not like that at all. I’m a good listener. I like to talk about real stuff. I think people would be surprised at how quiet and sometimes socially awkward I can be. I’m just a normal person, you know?”
I didn’t. But, over a cup of coffee in the lobby of Midtown Manhattan’s London Hotel, I’m going to learn. Here are the things the 36-year- old actress reveals during our hour-long conversation: she draws portraits and buildings in pen and ink; she tries to give handmade birthday cards; she only drinks one coffee a day; she’s a vegetarian; her boyfriend thinks she’s messy, but she keeps her dressing room pristine; she’s polite and thoughtful. Here are the things she’s saving for work: jokes, voices and quips of any kind. Wiig barely relays any anecdotes. Especially at the beginning of this interview, she rarely answers questions with more than a sentence or two. Sometimes we talk in circles. To wit:
BB: A screenplay that you wrote, which Judd Apatow is making into a film, is going into production. Tell me about that. I wrote it with my friend Annie [Mumolo].
And when does that start? It’s kind of starting now. We’re sort of in production, I think. That’s a big deal. No. [Laughs.]
It doesn’t feel different than other stuff? No, it totally does. I don’t know. I just won’t believe it until I’m actually on set shooting.
So it does feel like it’s on a larger scale? Larger, as opposed to… ?
The other movies you’ve done. Yeah, because it’s my first starring thing.
Are you trying not to think about it like that? Yeah. It’s my first starring role. It is different. It’s weird.
How is it weird? It’s weird because sometimes I just think to myself, I can’t believe this is happening.
If I weren’t trying to demonstrate that Wiig, the woman who has appeared on televisions across the country singing and dancing with a huge, fake forehead and tiny, tiny hands, is as shy as she insists, the above exchange would have been edited down to this: “We’re in production, but I just won’t believe it until I’m actually on set shooting. It’s my first starring role. It’s weird because sometimes I just think to myself, I can’t believe this is happening.” Note that six questions were required to elicit a three-sentence response from Wiig, who, as Judy Grimes, the “just kidding” lady, can rattle off something like 50 clauses in under a minute—in response to zero questions.
There’s a stereotypical story about people who become comedians: The comic is wrestling with some deep, dark, childhood trauma, and uses comedy as a way to process his or her pain. This same pain gives the comedy its necessary edge, the measure of truth that all great jokes need to burn the way they should. Comedians like this are perpetually engaged in a complex performance about themselves. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams and Sarah Silverman, for example, are their own best material. But this creation myth doesn’t fit Wiig. As an improv specialist—before starting at SNL, she was part of L.A.’s famous improv group, the Groundlings—rather than a stand-up comedian, Wiig is not her own best source material. Other people are—usually people who are so outlandish and outsize they seem not of this earth. (Even when Wiig impersonates a real person, like Kathie Lee Gifford, she doesn’t think of her that way: “When I do her, I don’t think, I’m doing Kathy Lee Gifford. I think, I’m doing this character.”) This kind of comedy isn’t a way of exorcising one’s demons; it’s a way of getting out of one’s own skin. Do you consider comedy a way to access parts of your personality that aren’t easily accessed in real life? Like, do you get easily embarrassed? Oh, I get so easily embarrassed! That’s very true. I do. You obviously don’t get embarrassed when you’re… No, because I’m not myself. I’ve never been myself on the show. I’ve never shown up to the Weekend Update desk going, Hi, this is Kristen. It’s like two different people to me.
So, yes, while Judy Grimes spits out 1,000 words a minute, Kristen Wiig does not. And maybe that’s why Kristen Wiig likes to play characters like Judy Grimes so much.
Wiig’s characters come from anywhere and everywhere. “Some of them were inspired by things I see, family members or just a situation that might be funny,” she says. “Penelope is based very loosely on someone I know. I was like, really? You’re going to one- up that? I’m getting a massage in two days and you’re going to say that you’re getting one tomorrow? She did that a couple of times and I completely exaggerated it and turned it up a thousand.” Other characters spring from zanier sources. “You’re sitting with the writers and sometimes you have no idea what you’re going to write,” Wiig explains. “You’re just kind of joking around and trying to make each other laugh. Then, one of us says something stupid and we’re like, ‘Should we write that?’ Then, sometimes we’re like, ‘Why are we writing this? That’s so dumb.’ Those are my people.” Despite her love, and obvious talent, for comedy, Wiig thinks of herself as an actor, not a comedian. “I love performing and improvising and doing comedy every week,” she says. “At the same time, when I think about films that I want to do, they’re not all comedies. Obviously, I don’t get a lot of scripts where I’m a drug addict. I don’t get a lot of ‘serious’ scripts, but the ones I get are exciting. The non-comedic roles that I’ve done have been so fulfilling.” Up next, however, are more comedies. First is MacGruber, based on the SNL spoof of MacGyver, starring her castmate Will Forte. “When they were writing the script they were like, ‘Let’s go fucking balls out.’” Wiig says. “And they did. It’s so good.”
After that, she intends to focus on the Untitled Kristen Wiig Project, the Judd Apatow-produced film that will be directed by Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig. It’s Wiig’s first screenplay and, contrary to websites claiming its name was Bridesmaids, the film has little to do with weddings. “There is a wedding involved,” she says, “but it’s more about a friendship. We [Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who will also star in the film] started writing this movie almost four years ago, before there were all of these movies about weddings. Then, all of a sudden, there were so many in one year. We were like, Uh-oh.”
If the film is as big of a smash as some of Apatow’s previous productions (Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Wiig could conceivably become a movie star. It’s too bad, then, that fame is the part of her job Wiig likes least. “Fame is sort of the downside to what I do. It doesn’t interest me at all. Acting and being in the public, to me, are two different things,” she says. Then, simultaneously sighing and smiling, because she’s self-aware enough to feel awkward carping about any part of her life, she says, “It’s really hard, to be honest. I’m such a private person.”
© 2010 Willa Paskin, BLACKBOOK.