When comedy’s reigning godfather, Judd Apatow, was casting for the role of Katherine Heigl’s passive-aggressive female boss in Knocked Up, he called on Kristen Wiig. “We improvised on film for a few hours, and everything she did tore down the house,” he says. “I had never seen anything like it. And it wasn’t that people liked her because they knew who she was. It was just something that connected from the first line out of her mouth.”
Wiig’s universe has tilted on its axis since then. After the box-office hijack that was last summer’s Apatow-produced Bridesmaids (close to $300 million in grosses and counting), which Wiig co-wrote and starred in, everyone knows who she is. She’s like a stealth bomber who had been lobbing her comic grenades weekly on Saturday Night Live to a dedicated core of fans, then suddenly exploded in a blaze that lit up the whole sky.
Not that the preternaturally modest Wiig would ever willingly concede as much. “People assume your life changes more than it does,” she says. Then, when pushed, “If anything, people see me differently, and yes, there are opportunities.” Opportunities that include spreading her wings as a dramatic actress, in the upcoming Sean Penn–directed The Comedian, in which she stars as a retirement-home worker opposite Robert De Niro’s washed-up funnyman. “They bond over the fact they both have holes,” she says.
Wiig’s offstage diffidence is as marked as the all-out zaniness with which she throws herself into her characters in the sketches she writes and performs for SNL. (“For someone who’s very, very talented, she at times carries herself like an underdog,” says Apatow.) The thread is the way she pulls mumbling, underconfident women to the center of her comedy. “Her sense of humor can go to an almost bizarre level,” says Maya Rudolph, her former SNL colleague and her castmate in both Bridesmaids and this month’s ensemble comedy Friends with Kids. “But it’s combined with something quiet and slightly uncomfortable. She plays small, awkward moments so well.”
The layers that go into her performances, however extreme, are a key to Wiig’s ability to pack interest into even the lightest moment. “There’s a high-octane whimsy, an effortless imagination, and a seamlessness between what you look through to the joy or tragedy underneath,” says Penn. “She has the kind of mystery you generally associate with an actress and not so much with a comedienne.” Wiig starts out on an impression—of Michele Bachmann, for example (now sadly out of range)—by just listening to the voice, and avoids making fun of her subjects. “I try to make up my own version of a person,” she says. She’s out there without being kooky, and she understands that emotion—the surprise, winning ingredient of Bridesmaids—only makes the humor funnier.
Wiig landed at SNL at a time when the show had an unprecedented roster of female talent, including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch, and Rudolph (soon to return from maternity leave), but, says her costar Seth Meyers, “I don’t know if anyone ever showed up better equipped for the show than Kristen did. She was immediately great at it, and it’s a very hard job to be great at. Her characters were broad but built out of incredibly subtle observations.”
Thirty-eight-year-old Wiig grew up in Pennsylvania and upstate New York, came to comedy by accident, and took time to launch her career while honing her skills with the Groundlings improv group in Los Angeles, years in which she worked all manner of part-time jobs that no doubt fed into her repertoire of outrageously ordinary people and situations. The worst? “I answered phones in a law office,” she remembers. “This is going to make me sound so stupid, but the phone system was so confusing, I literally couldn’t figure it out. Someone explained it to me. . . . ‘OK-well-you-press-this-and-you-put-them-on-hold-and-you-have-to-transfer-them-through-this-thing-and-then-you-have-to-press-these-two-buttons-and-press-0-0. . . .’ ” She lasted a day.
Working at SNL, where she’s been for seven years, is by all accounts like diving into a pool, swimming underwater, and not coming up for air for eight months. “It’s a six-and-a-half-day week,” Wiig says, by the time you count the live show, the after-party, and the after-after party. “This year I’ve been an after-after sort of girl. Sometimes I need to blow off steam and go dance really hard.” The Saturday after she squeezes the Vogue shoot into her workweek, she will get home from the show at 2:00 a.m. to be picked up at 4:00 for a 6:00 a.m. flight to L.A., where she will immediately go into hair and makeup to appear at the Golden Globes, where she has been nominated as Best Actress in a Comedy for Bridesmaids. “I’m going to need a lot of under-eye work,” she deadpans. “Concealer.”
You’d never know it from the bad sweaters and slip-on shoes she wears as her SNL characters, but Wiig, who is waif-thin and pretty, is a fashion hound off-screen. She admires the idiosyncratic style of Alexa Chung and Chloë Sevigny and loves Alexander McQueen, Nina Ricci, Isabel Marant, and changing up her look. “Lately it’s been a seventies vibe with high-waisted pants and the blouses tucked in. Now I’m much more of a sneakers, sweatshirt, leather jacket. . . .” As for the Globes, she hasn’t decided what to wear yet. “I’m going for forties-sexy with a little bit of rock ’n’ roll and kind of a little ghostly,” she says cryptically. “I always say I want to look haunted.” (She ends up wearing a suitably spectral floaty and flesh-colored Bill Blass dress.)
Wiig is cagey about how long she will be staying at SNL now that her light has so definitively burst out from under its bushel. She is working on several scripts, including one with her Bridesmaids co-writer Annie Mumolo that she says won’t be a sequel. She would like to direct. And she’s feeling less afraid these days to take creative risks. “When you go out of your comfort zone and it works there’s nothing more satisfying.” Expectations of her are infinite. “I don’t go to a dinner party where people don’t refer to her as a genius,” says Penn. “She’s a writer, she can invent characters and stories, and she has a touch that translates. It’s her game to play.”
© 2012 Eve MacSweeney, VOGUE.