Hunger: Kristen Wiig
This article appeared in Hunger magazine’s Issue 10, published in July, 2016. Interview by Polly Stenham.
Kristen Wiig is an enigma. Ask most people what springs to mind at the mention of her name and chances are you’ll get an anecdote from Bridesmaids, but don’t let her populist career of late distract you – years before she was playing the disastrous Annie Walker, Kristen honed her skills in LA’s underground improvisational comedy scene. Starting off as a member of The Groundlings in the 00s, Kristen was persuaded to audition for Saturday Night Live, a TV show that was then and still is at the apex of American comedy. “We met, we talked, I sweat. I took it all in and nervously laughed,” she says of the audition.
A handful of call backs later and she landed a job as a fully-fledged cast member, which in turn led to national fame, five Emmy Award nominations and a host of unforgettable characters dreamt up by the actress that have gone down in pop culture history. Lorne Michaels, SNL’s creator, has gone so far as to call Kristen one of the biggest talents to grace its stage since the show began in 1975. Cementing her reputation as one of television’s sharpest performers, Kristen made her big screen debut in 2007 in Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, but it was a film that she wrote herself that catapulted her to international fame and set a new precedent for women in Hollywood. We are, of course, referring to Bridesmaids, the riotous ensemble piece that was a box office smash and proved that comedy is most definitely not just a man’s world. This was solidified when, along with her writing partner, Annie Mumolo, Kristen was subsequently nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
After such a runaway success it could have perhaps been tempting to churn out more Hollywood pleasers, but Kristen’s career post-Bridesmaids has been anything but predictable. She has walked the tightrope between studio flicks and critically-acclaimed independent ventures, seamlessly transitioning from big budget comedy to indies such as The Diary of A Teenage Girl and last year’s Nasty Baby and back again into cinema hits with this year’s Zoolander 2 and the upcoming all-female remake of Ghostbusters. A producer, writer, actress, comedian, and perhaps – as she tells us – soon to be musician, she’s comfortable juggling many titles. And with six films out this year, it looks like she’s only just getting started.
Polly Stenham: So, you’ve had a bit of time off recently; that’s very necessary sometimes, isn’t it?
Kristen Wiig: This is actually the first chunk of time that I’ve had in years. Turning your phone off, telling people you’re not available on e-mail, and really unplugging and disconnecting is completely rejuvenating. We’re so connected to this little square machine, and I wonder if one day we’re going to turn around and say, “no, I need to look up more”. I’m hoping that day comes. Nowadays if you don’t text or e-mail back straight away, people are like, “What’s wrong with you!? Where are you? Is everything okay?” You want to be able to not be on your phone for a week, but for some people that’s just not acceptable now and that’s crazy.
It’s an interesting time to be alive though, witnessing the internet.
It makes you wonder where we’re going to be in three years. Not even ten! Everything is so different; everything is changing so fast.
What I often wonder is will I end up writing plays about plays? You know,
because you’re in the industry and that frame of mind the whole time.
In my brain I can’t just be in one world a hundred percent of the time. There has to be other slices of the pie. One of the slices is work, another is travelling and another is doing something creative that’s not acting, and having a social life. I think, especially when you’re starting out in any job, so much of that circle is work. For me, right now, I’m very happy that more of that circle is my personal life and that I’m not shooting or doing press or anything. My brain and my soul are resisting.
You started in The Groundlings, didn’t you? That’s really interesting. My sister and I went to New York recently and got really into watching Upright Citizens Brigade in Chelsea.
Oh, it’s so fun to go. It’s live and the impact is so immediate. And you’re seeing really talented people who might someday be on Saturday Night Live or have their own TV shows. I love it. It’s just such an exciting art form. You have this bunch of people and you’re like, “Hey, let’s do a show; this could be fun.” Then before you do it you’re wondering, “Are people coming?” And then you do it and you’re like, “Is this even any good?” So many questions; so much uncertainty. You’re watching the creative process unfold before your eyes – you’re looking at people onstage and you can see the real journey.
How did you end up at The Groundlings?
A friend of mine suggested I go. I’d never done improv; I didn’t even really know what it was, but I went and saw a show and then I was like, “I want to try that. It scares the shit out of me, but I have to try that.” I tried it and then it was like, “Okay, this is what I want to do.”
What chimed with you?
I’d always wanted to write but didn’t have the experience. It’s a very hard thing to do to just sit down and start writing when you don’t think you’re a writer. And improv to me seemed like writing – you’re making things up, you’re in the moment, you’re making a dialogue and you’re writing what the character you’re playing would say. Doing improv really helped me.
You write with a partner now. That always fascinates me.
Yeah, Annie Mumolo, who I actually met at The Groundlings. I feel so unbelievably lucky; she and I have so much fun writing together and it’s just easy. As I get older the more I realise so much of what you do and who you do it with just comes down to whether it’s easy. With Annie, we never argue over anything, we just say no when we don’t like something, we laugh and we have a very similar sense of humour. It’s just really fun. Whenever I’ve written by myself it has always been dramatic stuff. Writing with a partner becomes more comedic.
Do you think there are enough opportunities afforded to women in writing or production in film and TV, or do you think you need to make those opportunities for yourself? Writing and starring in Bridesmaids, for example?
Well, the short answer is no, I don’t think there are enough opportunities. But either way it’s always good to create your own stuff because it’s your voice and that’s the only thing that keeps you unique from everyone else. Nobody else has the same thoughts as you.
Why did you want to remake Ghostbusters?
Everything! It’s a really smart and funny story, Paul Feig was directing and I loved all the girls in the cast. It really was a dream. Plus you get to wear the suit and shoot ghosts. I mean, come on…
Comedy is a very personal thing, isn’t it? It says a lot about your boundaries, I think, what you find funny. Do you have a comic hero?
It’s too hard to pick! I was definitely a sitcom kid and I think from watching all of that, you get a sense of what’s funny and of when things try to be funny and they’re not. Why do I think this is funny and no one else does and why do I not get this thing that everybody else does? It’s like this weird science. I don’t even know how to describe it and I think that’s why comedy is so hit-and-miss.
Someone told me, I don’t know if it’s true, that laughter was the sound that cavemen made and it meant that it was safe to go somewhere. That was actually the natural response from our bodies.
That’s interesting. It’s funny that they just didn’t go, “it’s safe guys!” I’m definitely a cackler.
Are you? I like people who snort. I loved your film Nasty Baby, by the way, the twist in that!
Sebastián [Silva] is one of my close friends; he’s a genius. He has proved that you can do things unconventionally, on your own, on a really low budget. It’s so refreshing to be around someone like that in the film business – he believes in film as an art form and as a way to tell stories. He genuinely just lives for art and it’s contagious when you’re around him.
When you see good people do bad things in films, like in that one, it’s really interesting.
Maybe we should just watch a movie and it doesn’t have to be a set thing – which is also just life! People do bad things sometimes, you could be at a party and be having a great time and something horrible could happen. It’s funny how that film sort of messed with people. Do people turn on those characters? Or do they feel sorry for them? Were they bad the whole time? It makes you ask a lot of questions – that’s why I like watching films; I don’t want all the answers to be there. I don’t want to be told how to feel about it, I want to make up my mind myself.
Was some of it improvised? It had that quality at some points.
The whole movie was improvised.
It was one of the things that made me want to do it. Of course, we didn’t just show up and just start talking – we would go over what the scene was about and how our characters would act in certain situations, come up with some dialogue and then shoot it a couple of different times. That was pretty much it. The script was literally just a 30-page outline.
That obviously really worked though. Scripted dialogue can sometimes be too neat, too considered. You seem to mix it up quite a bit in your career – acting, producing, and writing. Did you enjoy producing?
Elements of it are great because you are contributing to the bigger picture, but it’s more like business than I’d like it to be because you want it to be all creative and fun. What I really enjoy is writing and performing.
How do you feel about the Hollywood model and the idea of celebrity, are you more comfortable with it?
“Celebrity-ism” is a strange beast. Honestly, I consider it an unfortunate part of what I do and I think that it’s a shame that it’s so glorified these days… I’ve had to give in to the fact that I’ll never truly understand it or feel comfortable with it.
Do you think there might ever be a point when you have a radical career change?
I think it will always be an art form similar to film. I started playing ukulele a couple of years ago and I’ve been recording music recently and I’m loving having a different creative outlet that has nothing to do with the business and Hollywood. I went to art school, and I used to draw, so I always have a place to go in my head if I’m not interested in doing film. It’s a part of your brain that I think can be a scary place to look at, at first, but then once you filter it out you start doing things you were always afraid to do, you realise that it feels good.
Would you be in a band or is it just solo ukulele?
I’d love to do a solo album, but have people come on. I’m at the early stages of it now, trying to figure out what I want to do, but I’d definitely want to collaborate with people. It’s fun to do it by yourself but also so rewarding to collaborate and make music with other people – especially singing with someone else. Watch this space!