Kristen Wiig swaps ‘Saturday Night Live’ for ‘Paul’

This article appeared in The Guardian UK, published on February 12, 2011. Article by Steve Rose.

Pegg’s Paul co-star has been in demand from comic royalty including Judd Apatow and Mike Judge, but now she’s bringing her own “real women” to the screen.

It’s often observed that there aren’t enough decent comedy roles for women in the movies but that’s just not true. The real problem is that all the decent comedy roles are going to the same person: Kristen Wiig. Everyone seems to want her in their gang. From comedy heavyweights such as Judd Apatow, Will Ferrell and Mike Judge, to Drew Barrymore’s rollergirl power gang in Whip It. She crops up in 30 Rock, Flight Of The Conchords, on the Funny Or Die website, in animations such as How To Train Your Dragon and The Simpsons; you name it.

Then there’s Saturday Night Live, the long-running US sketch show which Wiig basically rules these days. She is the gang. Aided by a huge array of wigs, tics, costumes, and catchphrases, Wiig creations like Target Lady (under-socialised middle-age checkout assistant), Penelope (pathological, hair-twiddling one-upper), and Gilly (irritating overgrown schoolgirl) are practically national archetypes in the US. Not to mention her parody of Christine O’Donnell’s “I’m not a witch” speech. In recent years, she’s featured in more SNL sketches than any other performer. If she’s not careful, the league of underemployed comediennes will take out a contract on her.

Now here she is with another gang: the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost crew, who obviously decided they needed Wiig on board if their new sci-fi comedy Paul was going to crack America. Predictably, she fitted right in. “Even the first day we met for a camera test, we were already making up songs and goofing around, and I was thinking, ‘OK, this is going to be fun.'” It helped that apart from Pegg and Frost, Wiig had worked with virtually everyone in the cast before: Seth Rogen (Knocked Up), director Greg Mottola (Adventureland), Jason Bateman (Extract), even Sigourney Weaver, who’s hosted Saturday Night Live.

Wiig plays the ugly-duckling daughter of a Christian trailer park owner, who’s somehow dragged into Frost and Pegg’s Winnebago for most of their fanboy road trip-turned-alien-smuggling adventure. Her character goes through an interesting transformation for a knockabout geekcom. Confronted with a real live alien (voiced by Rogen), her faith is shattered, and she subsequently indulges in everything she’s spent her whole life thinking was bad, including sex, drugs and colourful entry-level swearing (“Ain’t that a bag of tits?”). The religious right aren’t going to like it. “There’s been so many alien movies, and no one’s ever stopped in the middle and said, ‘Wait. Is there a God?'” she says. “I’m sure it will be controversial to some people, but I don’t think it’s mean-spirited or judgmental.”

As Pegg’s love interest in Paul, though, Wiig threatened to do something even more controversial: break up the happy couple. Having seen Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, she was aware of the long-established buddyship Pegg and Frost share, which continues in Paul. “It was interesting to be in a film with people so close to each other,” she says, tenderly. “You felt safe, like they were taking care of us.”

Wiig pleads jet lag. She’s had a total of five hours’ sleep since doing Saturday Night Live two days before, she explains. It’s now Monday lunchtime, first thing in the morning New York time, yet she looks like she’s about to go out to dinner. Black cocktail dress, stiletto suede boots and immaculately flicked hair. She looks like a 1970s Jane Fonda.

Wiig has been doing Saturday Night Live for six years now. At the age of 37, she might well be ready to move on, as so many have in the past, from Bill Murray to Tina Fey to Will Ferrell. Doesn’t she feel like something’s got to give?

“Yes, hopefully not my sanity,” she says. “We do get the summers off, though.” Wiig excels in the broad caricatures on SNL, but on camera she’s commandingly subtle. In her best work, she almost plays her roles straight, giving her lines just enough nuance to let you in on the joke. “I think that’s probably closer to me in real life,” she says.

She’s just completed a movie she wrote with Annie Mumolo: a wedding comedy called Bridesmaids. It looks like it could be a female version of The Hangover, with a host of other funny women including Rose Byrne, Maya Rudolph and Ellie Kemper (from the US Office). “We swear, we talk about sex, we’re real people,” she says. “It’s full of characters who don’t have their shit together. We wanted to write a movie with a lot of women in it. Not that there aren’t good roles for women, but there aren’t enough.” So it looks like the league of underemployed comediennes can cancel that hit on Wiig after all. And Wiig can stop joining other people’s gangs and start her own.

With that, she’s ready to stumble off jet-lagged to a TV interview. “I hope I made sense,” she says apologetically. “Everyone in this country’s gonna think I’m drunk or something.” You totally made sense, I tell her.

“Oh good,” she says with a wink. “But I am drunk.”