Here are two sentences you won’t hear used together very often: “Did you see the new movie with that Saturday Night Live actor? What a subtle, nuanced performance.” The hammy overacting required for a sketch show like S.N.L. rarely translates to the big screen. It’s like hiring a mime to interpret a poem. But there are always exceptions to the rule. Take Kristen Wiig, who’s been one of the most popular cast members on S.N.L. since she got the gig in 2005. Some people think she’s a comedy genius. Me, whenever I watch her doing a character like the Target Lady or Penelope or, god help us, Gilly, I can’t help but wonder, “Wait a minute, is this a MADtv repeat?” I mean really, does every character have to be bug-eyed and over the top? Ironically, her repertoire of comedic aliases never fails to make me think of another overused S.N.L. caricature, Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian. The moment one of Wiig’s scenes sputters to an end, I honestly expect her to look straight at the camera and shout, “Acting!”
But something remarkable happens when Wiig leaves Studio 8H and walks onto a movie set. She becomes a master of restraint. Remember her small role in the Judd Apatow comedy Knocked Up? With just a handful of lines and nothing in the vicinity of a punchline, she created a woman driven by seething jealousy and resentment and passive-aggressive rage. Her screen time was less than half what she’s given for an average S.N.L. skit, and yet it made every character she’s done on TV look like they had the emotional complexity of a knock-knock joke. In Ricky Gervais’ Ghost Town, she delivered some of the movie’s funniest and richest moments with an effortless deadpan, demonstrating how just the slightest tweak in inflection can make all the difference. In fact, her entire movie canon thus far—Adventureland, Walk Hard, Extract, Whip It—has been an acting lesson on how to be funny without being the loudest person in the room.
Wiig’s latest movie, MacGruber, which opens nationwide today, seems like it could go in either direction. On the one hand, it’s a movie based on a Saturday Night Live sketch, which hasn’t been a good idea since Mike Myers was still funny. But on the other hand, there’s the already infamous MacGruber theme song, “Champion,” sung by Wiig (in character as MacGruber’s love interest Vicki St. Elmo), which could’ve been bad awful but turned out to be hilarious awful. Trusting her better instincts, Wiig played it straight, singing with a cringing sincerity that wouldn’t sound out of place on any synth-rock 80s movie soundtrack. “Don’t give up on your dreams,” she croons. “Grab the dragon by the tip of its wings.” If the song is in any way indicative of the tongue-not-in-cheek tone of the rest of MacGruber, this may actually be the S.N.L. movie that nobody expected. And Wiig, once again, will have defied the critics (yeah, yeah, my hand’s in the air) who thought she had the career longevity of Melanie Hutsell.
When I called Wiig to talk about MacGruber, I was admittedly a little anxious. I’ve heard journalists grumble about her, complaining that she’s one of those comics who clams up when a camera isn’t pointed at her. But she was charming and generous, exactly what you hope comedians are like behind the scenes but almost never are.
Eric Spitznagel: There’s a part of me that really wanted this to be a sixty-second movie. MacGruber tries to defuse a bomb, and then boom, everybody’s dead. Roll credits.
Kristen Wiig: But that would just be the sketch, right? It would just be the sketch on the big screen. I think people would be bummed if they paid all that money for two minutes.
But that’s why it’s funny. It’s a practical joke on the audience. You get them to come out and pay their eight bucks or whatever, and then it’s like, “Oh sorry, we thought you all knew this was kind of a one-joke premise.”
I think Will (Forte) and (director) Jorma (Taccone) did a really smart thing by writing a movie that was totally separate from the sketch. Because in the S.N.L. scene, aside from MacGruber, there really isn’t anything to these characters. You don’t really know who these people are, especially Vicki, my character. All I do is count the time we have left before the bomb explodes.
I was surprised it took a full hour in the movie before you finally said, “Fifteen seconds, MacGruber!”
Wait, I don’t want to give away the end!
(Laughs.) O.K., sorry, scratch that. This movie may or may not involve a bomb that MacGruber tries to defuse…
…even though that’s the entire joke of the MacGruber S.N.L. sketch.
I’d hate to ruin it.
You think that ruins it? You’re not gonna ruin the Blues Brothers movie by telling people it’s about blues music. Nobody’s gonna be like, “Really? I thought they were into emo.”
Yeah, but the MacGruber movie and the MacGruber sketch are two very different things. With Vicki, it was like, “O.K., who do we want this person to be?” And it was kind of great. They made her this really funny character who writes pop ballads and is kind of tangentially involved in the crime-busting biz, or whatever you call it. I still don’t know what it is that she does. People ask me, “What does Vicki do?” And I don’t really know. She counts down how many seconds are left until the bomb kills everybody and… I guess that’s about it. That’s pretty much her job description. I guess she also does some karate kicks.
You do realize that the expectations for MacGruber are pretty low, right?
Oh yeah, of course. It’s been an uphill struggle from the beginning. There was no time to write the script, and then we had just 28 days to shoot it. And every one in the world was like, “Why are you making this movie? It’s an S.N.L. movie. Are you crazy?” People were questioning whether it was going to be good before we even made it.
But isn’t that at least somewhat justified? Movies based on S.N.L. sketches don’t have the best track record. The law of averages is against you.
I did think about it. But Will and Jorma and John (Solomon) wrote such a funny script, and it was just so satisfying. I think it’s really, really funny, and I’m so proud and happy to be in it.
I think the main thing about this movie that’s going to surprise audiences is that you have an almost superhuman gag reflex.
(Laughs.) Are you talking about the sex scene?
We’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s start with the scene where you’re showered with the bloody chunks of an exploded Maya Rudolph.
That was a really scary scene to shoot. They put me in front of this machine that was black and ominous-looking. It had a hole in the center, and all they told me was that stuff was going to shoot out of it. We had to do it in one take, because I couldn’t mess up my dress or my hair. I was just freaking out.
Did the special-effects guy at least give you a hint what they were planning to blow in your face?
They told me what it was, but I honestly can’t remember anymore. I’m pretty sure they used real human flesh.
And then there’s that very graphic sexual encounter between MacGruber and Vicki. Everything about it reminded me of Last Tango in Paris. Is it wrong that I made that connection?
(Laughs.) Oh my god, it’s so wrong. But it’s good that you would find anything even remotely sexual about it.
Except instead of butter, there’s Will Forte’s natural secretions.
For me, it’s somewhere between Top Gun and The Room. It’s in that vein of sexiness.
I’m not sure how to discuss the profound grossness of this scene without giving away too much.
It’s tough, yeah.
How about this: If you’ve got a Furry fetish but prefer your bears to be really, really, really sweaty, this may be the hottest cinematic sex scene you’ll ever see. Does that sound right?
That’s about it. Actually, I think you could just say this: If you like beautiful, sensuous, emotional love-making, you’re going to really enjoy this scene.
Paint a picture of that day on the set for us. Were you emotionally and physically prepared for what was about to take place?
I don’t know if it’s possible to be emotionally prepared for anything that happened in that scene. I was really nervous in the weeks leading up to it. It was the one scene where I was like, “Oh my god, I wonder what that’s going to be like.” And then I found out we were shooting it on my birthday.
Worst birthday gift ever.
But it was actually really fun to shoot. I know it sounds kind of creepy to say, especially talking about a sex scene, but I know Will really well, and he’s like my brother. We just kind of laughed our way through it. It was so dumb and sweaty and hot.
Hot as in…?
Hot temperature-wise. We were shooting in Albuquerque and it was like 95 degrees, so everyone was covered in sweat. Especially Will. It just congealed in his chest hair.
Will told me that because of the oppressive heat, he usually walked around the set naked. Did you ever have to tell him, “Dude, for the love of god, cover your boys?”
Well, he was never completely nude. He had one of those cover-ups. What are they called?
A cock sock?
Yeah. It’s like a little strap with fabric. It’s skimpy, but it’s not like he was hanging out.
So you’re claiming that he exaggerated the extent of his public nudity?
Well, he was definitely nude. And don’t let him kid you, he’s like that on Saturday Night Live too. It could be the middle of winter in New York, it doesn’t matter. He’ll be naked. (Laughs.) He’s one of the most free-spirited, wonderfully joyful people I’ve ever met in my life. And I think that really comes across, even when he’s playing an asshole like MacGruber. He’s a lovable asshole.
Who likes to be naked.
Who loves to be naked. All the time, for any reason.
The original sex scene in MacGruber was apparently so explicit that it almost got an NC-17 rating. I’m a little frightened to ask but, what ended up on the cutting room floor?
Someone was telling me that the ratings board actually counts the number of… and this is their word, not mine… the number of pumps.
Pumps? As in forward thrusts of the groin?
(Laughs.) Yeah, yeah. Our sex scene had too many pumps. We were just over the pump quota.
And how many pumps are considered excessive?
It’s got to be at least thirty.
Thirty pumps? That’s when it crosses the line and becomes obscene?
I’m just guessing. I have no idea. But when you look at our sex scene, it’s got to be at least thirty. Will was really going to town with the pumps.
MacGruber ended up with an R rating, which is still going to keep away some of your underage fans. Do you recommend that minors sneak into their local cineplex or get fake I.D.s?
Oh god, that’s putting me in a very awkward position. I think you do have to be a certain age to see parts of this movie.
How many pumps before it becomes inappropriate for an audience in their late teens?
(Long pause.) I’m going to say three. For sure three. Maybe less. I don’t know, when I was that age, I was sneaking into movies. I mean, I’m not encouraging it but… wow, I really don’t know what to say here.
Vicki is in love with a man with a mullet. How did you get to that place as an actor?
How do you mean?
Well, did you use that old Stanislavsky method of affective memory, like when you think of something sad from your own life to make you cry during a scene? What went through your head when you’re looking at MacGruber and your character is supposed to be thinking, “Yeah, that guy’s mullet is delicious?”
That’s a very good question. I think Vicki is attracted to MacGruber because she’s also trapped in another era. He’s kind of trapped in the 80s, and her personal style is very much the 70s. So she doesn’t look at MacGruber and his mullet and think he’s clinging to the past. She sees somebody who’s ahead of the game, a proactive man. I think that’s why they’re such a perfect match.
But what about you? Do you, Kristen Wiig, find mullets attractive?
Some people could probably rock a mullet. I don’t know, it depends on the person. I don’t hate the mullet as an entire hairstyle genre. I take it person by person. And I think after this movie comes out, the mullet may be making a comeback. You might as well get used to seeing it.
Speaking of mullets, I saw you and Will last month on some wrestling show called Raw. What the hell was that about?
Oh my god! It was so fun! We weren’t even sure what we were getting into. Will just told me, “Yeah, we’re doing this W.W.E. thing,” and then the next thing I know, I’ve got a script and we’re in costumes and there’s a rehearsal with these wrestlers, and I’m like “Is this….? What? What are we doing?”
You looked a little dazed, but I wasn’t sure if that was you or Vicki.
(Laughs.) It was probably both. It all happened so fast. We showed up at the arena and like an hour later we’re in front of 18,000 people and it’s live and we’re in a ring with some wrestler named Vladimir. I don’t even know.
And then for some reason you’re telling a ginormous wrestler, “I’m sure your mom’s uterus is awesome.” The whole thing was so beautifully bizarre and wrong.
(Laughs.) Yeah! It was so fun and so crazy, and in some ways, it’s pretty similar to what we do on Saturday Night Live. We’re all playing characters, and they write up these little sketches that we fine-tune during rehearsals.
Wait, what? Are you telling us that professional wrestling is fake?
(Long pause.) I don’t know what you’re talking about. I couldn’t really say that for sure, could I? All I know is that they were aware we were coming, and the stuff with us was scripted in advance. I have no idea about the rest of it.
© 2010 Eric Spitznagel, VANITY FAIR.