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Kristen Wiig: The anti-comedian

Kristen Wiig’s Saturday Night Live characters respond to social discomfort by talking too much and moving too much. They’re a blur of tics and noises. (It’s not coincidental that she does a great Kathie Lee Gifford impression.) But in the dimly lit Gordon Ramsay restaurant of her L.A. hotel, in her hipster black knit beret, Wiig is leaning back, sipping green tea and not talking or moving much at all, just being cool. It’s awkward but not comic awkward. Normal awkward. Usually performers will answer “How are you?” with enough to fill your notebook. But Wiig didn’t do any performing at all until she was in her late 20s. Not college theater, not high school talent shows, not little skits for her parents. In fact, she doesn’t really like to speak to crowds. “At parties, I’ll start talking and notice everyone is looking at me and feel dumb and say, ‘Forget it,’ and then start eating things,” she says.

Which is how she is in movies — no crazy hair, no crazy eyes, no crazy jumping into other actors’ shots. In movies, she’s the anti–Will Ferrell. She played indie small in Ghost Town, Adventureland and Extract. After she was in minor roles in two Judd Apatow–produced movies, Knocked Up and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Apatow asked her — as he has Steve Carell, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel — to write a movie that she could star in for his company. So she and Annie Mumolo, a friend from the L.A. improv troupe the Groundlings, co-wrote Bridesmaids, a dude comedy with a chick-flick plot: a single, unemployed woman (Wiig) is asked to be the maid of honor for a friend (Maya Rudolph) who’s marrying a rich guy.

It’s a smart blend: the Apatow heart squishiness is already built in, and the crude jokes feel new when told from a woman’s perspective. We’ve all seen explosive diarrhea onscreen before — but we haven’t seen it from characters trying on wedding dresses. And until now, no film has given nearly enough attention to the plight of mothers changing the sheets of their pubescent sons.

Still, a movie with both fart noises and gowns is a tough sell, and it took four years for Bridesmaids to get made. “Maybe studios don’t want to see women acting in a way that isn’t womanly,” Wiig, 37, says. “Maybe people don’t.” But the more Wiig devolves into horribleness in Bridesmaids — tearing apart the wedding-shower cake out of jealousy — the more sympathetic she is. “Kristen has this really likable personality that doesn’t require her going big,” Apatow says. “There are certain people — you love them, but you like seeing them abused. It might be the most important comedy quality: ‘I love you, but I want to see horrible things happen to you,’” he adds. “She plays wilted very well,” says Mumolo. “It’s these boiling emotions inside barely making their way out because she’s working so hard to cover them.”

Covering her emotions doesn’t seem as if it requires a lot of work at the restaurant, as we eat our finger sandwiches. The problem is that Wiig is shy, cool and pretty — not the petri dish of insecurities from which most comedians are made. She loved high school. (Not only was she not in any clubs; she was also one of those people who sneaked into yearbook pictures of the clubs to make fun of them.) At the University of Arizona, Wiig studied art. Then she moved to L.A. and did arty jobs: florist, graphic artist for a plastic surgeon (she illustrated what patients would look like after an operation), decorative painter. When Wiig eases up around people — I’ve heard — her weird creativity comes out, and she does a lot of voices and imitations. So many that the decorative painter she worked for recommended that she see a show by the Groundlings, the troupe that trained Phil Hartman, Conan O’Brien and Lisa Kudrow.

She zipped through the Groundlings’ classes and won tons of stage time performing absurd characters, including a very serious composer who writes music for Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade and a chatty Target salesclerk. By 2005 she was on SNL doing the Target Lady nearly every week. In fact, there are weeks when it feels as though Wiig is in every sketch. “There are two people who arrived fully formed — her and Dana Carvey — where you saw what they did in their audition and you put it on the air,” says SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels. “She has that thing that Phil Hartman and Dan Aykroyd had, which is absolute precision, but also this lightness that isn’t what they had.”

The precision of idiosyncratic looks and gestures is what lets Wiig take one-note characters (a woman who can’t keep a secret! A woman who one-ups everyone else’s story! A Lawrence Welk–era backup singer with deformed hands!) and make them compelling in their quirkiness. “As much as she goes to extremes and flies off on a broom, her characters are grounded,” says Bridesmaids‘ Rudolph, who also worked with Wiig on SNL. “There’s an uncomfortable quality to a lot of them that’s painfully funny.” Because her characters are simple, she’s smart enough to retire them long before other SNL cast members would. She’ll no longer do Penelope the one-upper or Gilly the mischievous schoolgirl, not even at Michaels’ request.

Otherwise, though, Wiig seems willing to do anything — including making herself unattractive and being physically uncomfortable. In the hilarious, punky MacGruber movie, not only did she dress up as former SNL co-star Will Forte, but she also got in bed with him in 100° heat in New Mexico. “I dripped sweat onto her, body hair falling onto her. You can see these huge droplets of sweat hitting her in the face,” Forte says. “I don’t remember her even asking any questions about it. It was her birthday also. That was how she spent her birthday — getting mercilessly pounded.” Though she didn’t complain about it on set, you actually feel for her during the pounding.

“She has that sadness and vulnerability that comics have but don’t always show,” says three-time SNL host Jon Hamm, who plays Wiig’s slimy boyfriend in Bridesmaids and helped cast her as his co-star in the upcoming comedy Friends with Kids. “She’s also beautiful. She’d be horrified if she knew I was saying that. This is a lady who can wear coconuts on her boobs and talk out of her butt, but as soon as you say she’s pretty, she gets super-embarrassed. She’s always shrinking into a hoodie or a knit cap and doesn’t want to be noticed, which is adorable.”

Yes, adorable, but less so when you’re trying to get her to talk about herself. Even she is surprised she is getting all this attention, especially as a comedian, which she didn’t see for herself. “I went through my high school yearbook recently,” Wiig says. “I was surprised people wrote I had a good sense of humor. I don’t remember being funny.”

Then we sit there quietly for a moment, putting clotted cream on scones. It’s not unpleasant, actually. It’s kind of like taking a car ride with a good friend and not needing to talk all the time.

Still, I’m thinking tea was a bad call. The hotel had scotch too.

© 2011 Joel Stein, TIME.