Can Kristen Wiig Turn on the Charm?

This article appeared in The New York Times, published in May, 2011. Article by Susan Dominus.

Kristen Wiig shows up seven minutes into the movie “Knocked Up,” an assassin in a junior executive’s suit, meeting with the television production assistant played by Katherine Heigl, who their boss has decided is ready to go on the air. Wiig’s character is every middle manager who clings to her authority by association; she shows her boss small reassuring smiles while revealing subterranean loathing toward the young woman with the promotion. She tells Heigl’s character that they cannot legally ask her to lose weight. “We would just like it if you go home and step on a scale and write down how much you weigh,” she says. “And subtract it by, like, 20.” “Knocked Up” is a movie filled with slapstick, screaming and shtick, and yet Wiig, with nothing more than her small, tight smile and death-by-platitude lines, practically stole the show with that two-minute scene. “After I saw how much people loved it in the movie,” says Judd Apatow, who wrote and directed the film, “I instantly asked her if she had any plans to write a script for herself.”

Wiig doesn’t exactly fit the mold of a traditional leading lady — she is more like America’s eccentric aunt than its sweetheart — but she was, in fact, working on a screenplay starring herself when Apatow asked. “Bridesmaids,” which she was writing with her best friend, Annie Mumolo, is a comedy about the friendship between two women: one planning her own wedding while the other, the single girl played by Wiig, is on a steady downhill slide. After Wiig’s character melts down in a key scene, her best friend, played by Maya Rudolph, shouts, “Why can’t you just be happy for me and then go home and talk behind my back like a normal person?”

The kinds of characters Wiig has perfected on “Saturday Night Live” — carefully observed, idiosyncratic and, yes, occasionally annoying — have served her well in the scenes she has stolen in other films: as an oddball surgeon in “Ghost Town,” an oddball yoga instructor in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” an oddball theme-park owner in “Adventureland,” an oddball crime fighter in “MacGruber.” But could that sensibility carry a whole movie? Apatow decided to take the chance, hoping to marry Wiig’s sharp sense of character and fascination with minute human details to the broad, bawdy set pieces and fail-safe physical comedy he is known for. The film, one of the better-reviewed movies at the South by Southwest festival this spring, plainly shows the commercially successful hand of Apatow, but it also reveals that Wiig can be as funny in the role of a relatable everywoman as she can in those absurdist characters. Watching the movie, you do not have the sense of Wiig as a comedian stretching to take on a big role on the big screen; she seems more like an actress who has been trapped in the successful career of a comedian.

In person, Kristen Wiig comes off as a little nervous. When we met, she was wearing a black wool cap that hid most of her dark blond hair, giving her the same anonymity that sunglasses would, and she was worrying about the restaurant she chose. She had never been there before — what if it were weird? She seemed to reconsider every statement shortly after making it. Did she just say she could draw? Just a little — it’s not as if she thinks she is some great artist. Talking about “Bridesmaids,” she said, “It’s my first . . . starring role, I guess, is the term?” as if owning up to an embarrassing disease. “And it is a comedy, and comedy is very subjective, and yeah, I’m nervous.” Once again, she autocorrected: “But in a good way.”

She is not explosively anxious, or neurotic and hyperverbal, like many of her best-known characters on “Saturday Night Live”; all that energy seems tamped down into a more controlled cautiousness. She is unfailingly reserved and polite.

Wiig, who started on “Saturday Night Live” in 2005, quickly established herself with characters like the Target Lady, a gung-ho checkout clerk with boundary issues and an unplaceable accent. Many of Wiig’s characters are embarrassingly enthusiastic about something: a surprise party or the physical appeal of a love interest (in one sketch, Wiig plays a local newswoman awkwardly hitting on her female interview subject). Their unchecked excitement — the raw wanting — makes the characters painfully nervous; and the combination of emotions bumping up against one another makes for comedy. The roles she invents are “always smiling on the outside and dying on the inside,” says Paul Feig, who is best known as the creator of “Freaks and Geeks” and who directed Wiig in “Bridesmaids.”

So much of what we think of as the comedic impulse comes from a performer’s neediness — the need to be the center of attention, no matter what humiliation it requires. Wiig manages to be a scene-stealer whose attention seems focused outward, on the small-time weirdos of the world whose mannerisms she adopts and then builds on, finding their humanity and their specificity. No one can point to someone who is, in fact, just like the Target Lady — and yet there is something instantly, almost eerily recognizable about her.

The character was inspired by a few words Wiig actually did exchange with a clerk at a Los Angeles Target — “just the accent, nothing she actually said,” Wiig says. Other creations have sprung from as little as a facial expression or a gesture. Gilly, a fiendish Orphan Annie with intent to kill, was what Wiig and her co-writers attached to a pulled-back smile Wiig thought was goofy enough to merit a character. A 1920s character who keeps telling her friends not to make her sing — none of them, in fact, have asked her to — evolved when something about the way Wiig was dramatically hunching her shoulders inspired her co-writers to start riffing.

Wiig is clearly a darling of Lorne Michaels; she seems to be featured in more sketches than any other performer on any given episode. Asked to rank Wiig among the show’s top performers, Michaels did not hesitate. “Top three or four,” he says (lest anyone need reminding, the group’s alums include John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Will Ferrell, Mike Myers and Dan Aykroyd). He also appreciates her quiet containment, so different from her bravado on camera. “An old shrink of mine would say she doesn’t ‘spill over,’ ” Michaels says. “There are people who I have worked with — and quite a few people I’ve worked with — who are always in some state of crisis: their boyfriend left, their agent is lying. What I’m getting at is she’s ‘still waters run deep.’ ”

Wiig is a more polarizing figure for viewers: they either love Gilly, with her mischievous mugging and her “Sor-ry” catchphrase, or find her excruciating. (Some small subsection of viewers have started a Facebook group called Kristen Wiig Is NOT Funny. “That Gilly skit makes me want to punch a baby,” one member rants.) And many of her characters are, by their nature, annoying, like Penelope, a hair-twirling nudge who one-ups everyone with a trailing voice and a steady patter of increasingly surreal tall tales.

“I never think of them as annoying,” Wiig says. “If I had to put them in a category like that, I would just say a lot of my characters are that person at a party that you don’t want to talk to, because maybe they’re talking too much. It’s fun for me to play people that are just kind of odd.” In person, Wiig seems so concerned with not giving offense; with her characters, it’s as if she is cathartically acting out her worst fears of irritating, enraging or generally alienating the people around her.

Paul Feig ardently believes that all comedians’ humor starts with some kind of insecurity: “Very secure people are not funny, bottom line,” he says. Is that true of Wiig? He amends his theory slightly: “Comedians are the ultimate people pleasers.”

Wiig was never a comedy nerd. She did not listen over and over again to Steve Martin’s “Wild and Crazy Guy” or even act while she was in school. If anything, she says, she was terrified of speaking in public. After her parents divorced, she went to high school in Rochester, where she lived with her mother (she has one brother, who is mentally disabled and with whom she is close). In a distinct break from the standard comedian back story, she loved high school: “I was social and discovered partying at a young age,” she says. It is also where she met her current boyfriend, the actor and filmmaker Brian Petsos, although the two were out of touch for many years.

Wiig majored in studio art at the University of Arizona and took an acting class for the first time to fill a requirement. Her teacher told her that she should think about continuing to act. “I was like: What? No — I’m. . . . No. It didn’t even cross my mind.” But the thought stayed with her.

At a loss for what else to do, she dropped out of school in her early 20s and moved to Los Angeles to try acting after all. A friend took her to a Groundlings show and “something just clicked in me,” she says. She started taking classes there (and eventually entered a short-lived marriage). A clip from that era shows Wiig — regular-person-size, as opposed to waif-thin, as she is now, and brunet rather than blond — impersonating a sweet, daft tooth fairy who confesses, her face screwed up in dainty disgust, that “sometimes I don’t take the tooth.”

For close to a decade, Wiig made her living with a variety of odd jobs — working at a florist shop; painting interiors. She took off three months to travel to India, where, among other things, she meditated at a monastery. At some point after her return, she worked as a waitress at the executive dining room at Universal. “I just had a meeting with Adam Fogelson,” Wiig recalled, referring to the chairman of Universal Pictures. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my God! You used to sit at Booth 10!’ ”

It was only in her early 30s that Wiig started earning enough from acting — she had a part on Spike’s fake reality show, “The Joe Schmo Show” — to give up a day job. Her colleagues sense that a relatively late arrival to fame has given her a sense of ongoing gratitude. Jennifer Westfeldt, the writer, actress and director best known for “Kissing Jessica Stein” who cast Wiig in the forthcoming “Friends With Kids,” recalled a half-day’s worth of shooting that involved Wiig and most of the crew standing around in freezing rain. Westfeldt apologized profusely to everyone, she says, and “Kristen said something like, ‘Any day getting to work is better than not.’ ”

It would be easy to see Kristen Wiig as someone following the same career trajectory as Tina Fey, another “Saturday Night Live” star who went on to make comedies — starring women and for women — with big box-office appeal. But if Fey is a banner-carrier for the cause of women in comedy, Wiig seems uncomfortable with the role. Try to suggest that her film has the potential to alter the market for female-driven comedies, and she resists. “Well, there’s ‘Baby Mama’ and ‘Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,’ ” she says, naming two movies that came out more than a decade apart. “There are definitely movies where the cast is predominantly women.”

“Bridesmaids,” in which many scenes were improvised, feels somehow different from the ones she names — it is the kind of film you might get if Judd Apatow decided to collaborate with Lisa Cholodenko, a mixture of indie quirk and broad audience-pleasers. You can pretty much guess which scenes Apatow and Feig added to Wiig and Mumolo’s script, beginning with the opening shot: a loud, slapsticky sex scene between Wiig and a cad played by Jon Hamm. But for all its broad appeal, the film still has plenty of moments that feel quiet and dramatic. In one memorable scene, Wiig’s character painstakingly constructs an elaborate cupcake and contemplates it, her mouth twisted into a jagged, sad line, before taking a massive bite — an act of self-destructive defeat rather than of indulgence.

If Apatow was going to make a movie with Kristen Wiig, he made it clear, he wanted to capture the outrageousness that had made her a television star. “No, we’re not going to sit and talk,” Mumolo remembers Apatow saying about one scene of sedentary dialogue. The two female writers were occasionally wary about some suggestions made by Apatow and Feig — like a scene in which the bride and most of the bridesmaids come down with violent food poisoning. What were Wiig’s reservations? She shot a look. “Just that it was a huge scene about women vomiting” and defecating in their pants. “We wrote the script, and we didn’t really have anything in that tone, and it seemed to be such a big statement,” she says. Apatow assured her that if it did not work, they could cut it. Wiig and Mumolo — a writing partner from her Groundlings days — ultimately agreed that it did work.

Before she shoots a scene, Apatow says, Wiig might ask a lot of questions or talk a lot about what she might do; but once the camera starts rolling, he says, “she seems to be at her most comfortable as a person — she has complete confidence as she’s doing it. You can almost feel her heartbeat slow down.” Wiig’s performances on “S.N.L.” inevitably invite comparisons to famous funny ladies — zany like Carol Burnett! Feminine like Goldie Hawn! Watching the film, I kept thinking there was some other actress I could have seen playing the part with the same compelling likability as Wiig, but I could not summon the specific person; it took me a few days to realize it was not a comedian at all but Laura Linney.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Wiig was on the set of “Saturday Night Live” rehearsing a sketch about Mary Shelley, played by Helen Mirren, and her landlord, Frank Stein, played by Fred Armisen. During a break while lights were being adjusted, Bill Hader, with whom Wiig appeared in the recent film “Paul,” whispered something in her ear. “Breath,” she intoned, pulling away. “Hot breath.” Occasionally she broke character to give an appreciative cackle as Armisen moaned and mugged, keenly aware that even seasoned comedians appreciate an audience.

Seth Meyers, who is the show’s head writer and hosts “Weekend Update,” says Wiig is “a really big laugher at the table on Wednesdays,” the day when writers propose sketches. “Which is excellent,” he says, “because although everything’s funny, there’s a real cloud of professional judgment hanging over the proceedings. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was trying to set people at ease.”

During rehearsal, Wiig was dressed in denim shorts over tights — long and leggy, she looked like a dancer (and in fact, studied ballet for close to seven years). She would like to do more dancing, she says. She might design furniture one day. She is interested in fashion. She used to write poetry. She optioned the film rights to a novel called “Clown Girl,” about a clown living in the surreal town of Baloneyville. “If I can be doing something in the arts till the day I die,” she says, “I would be very, very happy.”

Wiig, says her friend Drew Barrymore, who directed her in “Whip It,” “is different from a lot of comedians who sort of have a gargantuan, I-want-to-take-a-giant-bite-out-of-this feel.” With her movie, Wiig is making a conscious play for above-the-title stardom, yet according to Apatow, “she tended to enjoy writing for other people more than herself.” And she never watches her performances on “Saturday Night Live.” “I don’t want to know what I look like when I’m doing those things,” she says, “because I think I’ll be too conscious of it when I do it again.”

Wiig is equally wary of mining her own life for comedic material. “She wouldn’t have to do that,” says Tina Fey, who puts her own psyche on display with “30 Rock,” recently wrote a memoir that covers her first gynecological exam and announced her second pregnancy on “Oprah.” “Because she has other characters. I got nothing. All I got is two versions of me — Kristen has a deep reserve of these characters.”

Slipping into those characters on the set of “Saturday Night Live,” Wiig seemed at her most relaxed. That ease in disappearing into a role may be precisely what makes her so comfortable to watch, even when she is playing characters who are irritating or, in the case of “Bridesmaids,” increasingly on edge. When she was eventually called back to rehearse her next scene, Wiig’s face brightened. Before she left, she tried to explain her recent jitters. “The nerves for me about the movie are all just personal,” she says. “It’s like you’re a painter and you have a gallery show — and you’ve been working on it for years, and you want to show people and it’s who you are and you’re expressing who you are. And ultimately it doesn’t matter what they think.” She pauses. “And you are, like, O.K. . . . But do they like it?”