This article appeared in The New York Times, published in December 25, 2020. Interview by Dave Itzkoff.
Getting to play Cheetah was even better for the “Saturday Night Live” star, who loves superhero movies: “It was huge on my list of things I wanted to do.”
“I want you to know, I dressed up for the interview,” a dryly sarcastic Kristen Wiig said from a computer screen. Clad in a well-worn sweatshirt, she was relating a familiar plight: how a monthslong regimen of video chats and conferences had gradually worn down her efforts to appear presentable on camera.
“First you’re fully trying to look normal,” she said Tuesday. “And then you’re only normal from the waist up. And now I’m just like, this is me. I’ve got baby food on me and we just have to accept ourselves.”
Wiig had recently returned to Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, the actor Avi Rothman, and their two young children, after a whirlwind New York trip. She was there to host “Saturday Night Live,” the NBC institution where she was a cast member, playing dozens of endearing eccentrics and likable outsiders.
That would be a fitting finale to anyone’s 2020, but Wiig still has one more act: She is a star of “Wonder Woman 1984,” the DC superhero sequel that Warner Bros. released in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday.
This follow-up to the 2017 blockbuster “Wonder Woman,” directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot as the Amazonian champion of the title, might not seem like an obvious fit for Wiig: She is better known for outrageous comedies like “Bridesmaids” (which she acted in and wrote with Annie Mumolo) and melancholy independent films like “The Skeleton Twins” and “Welcome to Me.”
But when you look more carefully at her character, it’s not hard to see why Jenkins chose Wiig to play Barbara Minerva, a timid antiquities expert whose desire for acceptance and fascination with her colleague Diana Prince (Wonder Woman’s alter ego) eventually drive her to become the villainous Cheetah. Playing Barbara Minerva lets Wiig trade blows in comic-book action sequences, while also calling upon her finely tuned talents for introversion and extroversion.
As Wiig said Tuesday, “I’m excited and equally nervous” to see how viewers will respond to her performance in what’s easily the biggest film of her career.
She also spoke about how the role came about, her love of superhero movies and her new life as a mother of twins who were born earlier this year. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Before “Wonder Woman 1984,” did you ever imagine yourself playing a villain in a comic-book blockbuster or aspire to play one?
It was an aspiration, for sure. It was huge on my list of things I wanted to do. I love big action movies and I love superhero movies. I loved all of Chris Nolan’s Batman movies and all the “Avengers” movies, “Deadpool” — you name it, I’ve seen it. I saw “Wonder Woman” in the theater when it opened, and when she came over that trench, the crowd was cheering. And it was a female superhero, so I got really emotional about it.
You’ve made a lot of idiosyncratic independent movies, too. Is it now impossible for you to go back to that world?
I don’t know if I could say I only want to make a certain type of movie. I’ve done movies with literally no budget and the dialogue was all improvised, like “Nasty Baby,” which I made in Brooklyn with my friends. I always tell myself I want to be happy when I show up on set, and I say yes to things I want to do.
How did you find out that you were being considered for “Wonder Woman 1984”?
I got a call from my agent that Patty Jenkins wanted to talk to me. And I was like, just tell her yes, no matter what it is. I was hoping it was a “Wonder Woman” thing, but I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know if I would have one line — if she wanted me to be the crazy neighbor next door that’s like, “Goodbye, Diana!”
Did your feelings change when you learned she was considering you to play Barbara Minerva?
I knew about Cheetah, but there are so many different versions of that character and I was curious as to what she was going to be. But when I heard Patty’s ideas, I understood a little bit more why she thought of me. Maybe because Barbara’s really awkward in the beginning — I do have that side to me. And then after I got the part, she got into more detail of who Barbara was.
What interested you about the role at that stage?
I always love bad guys that you’re rooting for a little bit, where you understand why they’re bad. The thing that I loved about her is that there’s always Barbara in there. Even when she fully becomes Cheetah, you can see Barbara in there and Diana can see Barbara in there. I loved that conflict that it puts her in, and puts the audience in, because she’s so likable and nervous and insecure. We all have moments where we’ve felt like Barbara before.
Is it pigeonholing you if I say that I saw flashes of some of your best-known “S.N.L.” characters — uncomfortable loners like Penelope and larger-than-life misfits like Target Lady — in your performance?
I mean, they’re all inside me. I don’t know how to get rid of them. [Laughs]
Are the introverted characters just natural extensions of yourself?
On “S.N.L.,” I have to find in me, what does insecurity feel like? And then take it to a 10 or 11. But whether I’m doing a character on “S.N.L.” or in “Wonder Woman,” I have to find what I think that is in me. There’s definitely characters I’ve played where I don’t have anything in common with them, and I still have to figure out how to get there in an authentic way.
Do people expect you to be big and boisterous in real life because they’ve seen you play those kinds of characters before?
Oh yeah, all the time. When people know you are an actor, period, they think you’re going to tell this amazing story of what happened to you on the way to dinner and it’s going to be captivating. Add the fact that I’m known for doing mostly comedy and it’s like, “OK, where are the voices?” I’m not going to do characters right now. It’s assumed that acting is an extroverted thing. But it’s not, necessarily.
So where do you find those qualities in yourself when you’re playing those kinds of roles?
It depends on the character, but once I’m doing it — especially on “S.N.L.,” because it’s live and you have millions of people watching — you just get in a zone. And then afterward you snap out of it. It’s funny because even though Barbara in the beginning is nervous and unsure of herself, I found it harder to play that than who she becomes later.
Why was that harder?
Because I was resistant, at the beginning, to add humor to her. I didn’t want her to seem too much like things I had done before, or to seem like I wasn’t able to do this part without adding something that wasn’t Kristen. But Patty and I had this one talk that completely shifted my brain, where she was like, if you allow yourself to just let that humor come out, it’s going to feel authentic and it’s not going to feel as strange as you think it does. And it completely changed my experience. When Cheetah is evil, it’s like, OK, now I’m this person. Maybe because there is more of me in Barbara, I actually had a more challenging time with that part of the shooting.
Was there physical training for this role?
[Exhales audibly] Yesss. Almost two months before we started shooting, I got a trainer — the movie wanted me to, just to get started. When you watch the movie, we learned and did all of those fight sequences, in addition to our stunt people. There’s definitely some C.G.I. elements later on, but for the most part it’s wire work. That’s all real people. I was basically sore for like nine months. And it’s very easy to complain and say, oh my God, I can’t even walk up the stairs. But to be honest, being stronger was so helpful, to get into who this character was. It just made me feel really good.
[The next few questions contain mild spoilers for “Wonder Woman 1984.”]
There’s a scene where Barbara, just starting to come into her powers, enters a party and is delighted to find she’s the center of everyone’s attention. Was that as enjoyable for you to make as it is for her to experience, or do you feel the glare of the spotlight even more?
It’s a combination of both. The set was really amazing and whenever you’re in a scene with a lot of background [actors] looking at you, you can’t help but feel a little more self-conscious. But it was the part in the story where Barbara’s really starting to turn and feel it. She probably went to those parties before feeling so invisible. And this is different for her — her life is changing. So that was really fun to play.
There’s another sequence where, in classic comic-book fashion, Barbara gets to take revenge on a scummy guy who harassed her in an earlier scene. Was that satisfying to make?
I loved shooting that scene. Barbara is so sad and has always wanted this other life, and with that comes so much anger that she didn’t even realize she had. And to see her be able to just unleash it, and be like, “Oh, I like how this tastes — I’m going to keep going,” it was really fun to shoot that. I like how it wasn’t just a random person that was robbing someone in an alleyway. As a viewer, you’re a little conflicted — you’re like, oh, I like that she’s doing this to this guy. But then she goes too far. We have to acknowledge that. I’m not condoning it.
Is it possible that Barbara doesn’t just want to be Diana’s equal or superior, but that she’s attracted to Diana?
Like, attracted attracted? I’ve heard people suggest that. As far as my intentions in how I was playing it, it was really just her seeing Diana as the beautiful, popular girl that has the best life and everything I don’t have. There’s so much admiration there. But if people want to see it that way, it’s definitely up for interpretation.
[Spoilers end here.]
Warner Brothers’ decision to make “Wonder Woman 1984” and other coming movies immediately available on HBO Max has elicited a wide range of reactions from filmmakers, talent and audiences. How do you feel about it?
It’s a complicated question. We’re all still mourning the whole theater experience and it’s hitting a lot of people. But I will say I didn’t personally feel comfortable telling people to go out if it’s not safe, and I’m happy that people can watch it now without worrying about their health. It’s really complicated and no one’s winning right now. But it being out on Christmas and knowing that people get to watch it and be safe is the best scenario, if it has to be this way.
Are there any lessons you can take from a movie of this scale and apply to your smaller, more intimate comedy and drama performances?
Yes — going into a role and being nervous is probably normal for most actors. It is for me. But when it’s over, that feeling that you did it, it just makes you feel like you can take more risks on the next thing you do. There were definitely times where I was very self-aware of just how big the role was. Truthfully, I don’t go on the internet, but I know there were people that were, like, surprised that I was playing this role. That can get in your head, even though I try not to read any of that. But ultimately I do want to take more risks and I think it’s important for me to feel that nervousness when I’m doing stuff. It makes me find something deep inside that I didn’t know was there.
How are you finding motherhood so far?
It’s great. Great isn’t even the word — it’s better than great. It’s strange that it’s all in quarantine. That’s a huge negative side to it, because we obviously can’t do anything or go anywhere or see certain family members. But they’re amazing and I’ve never been happier in my whole life. I’m such a homebody. I’m happy to be with them all day. Obviously not under these circumstances, but I love being home with them.
What are you hoping to get for Christmas this year?
I would love a nice, framed photo of me and my husband and my kids. It would just be a nice thing to have. And maybe some good moisturizer.
Now that you’re a mom, is everyone going to get you a robe for Christmas?
[Laughs] I hope not!