This article appeared in Esquire, published in October, 2017. Article by Adam Grant.
What makes Kristen Wiig one of the most versatile – and, yes, funny – actors in Hollywood? She’s not afraid to fail. She speaks to Adam Grant about collaboration, managing fear, and her ukulele dreams.
If there’s someone funnier than Kristen Wiig, I want to meet that person. She’s a remarkably gifted writer and performer as well as a trailblazer—not just for women in Hollywood but as a role model for people of all genders. She cowrote and starred in the smash hit Bridesmaids. She was my favorite cast member on Saturday Night Live, and my kids are fans of her voice-over work in Despicable Me 3. She appears in Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, mother!; stars in Downsizing(directed by Alexander Payne) later this year; and was kind enough to chat with me on a Sunday morning while filming next year’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette.
Adam Grant: I’m trying a new conference line that automatically records the call. It looks like you got here first.
Kristen Wiig: I was really enjoying your hold music—there was a song playing and the guy was singing about being on hold. Maybe I’ll call back and listen to it later.
We’re all improvising constantly at work and at home—and we appreciate having people in our lives who make us laugh. In the years you’ve spent doing improv, what have you learned about spontaneous humor?
Don’t try to make jokes. You shouldn’t try to be funny. Well, you shouldn’t try try. Effortless comedy is what you want to go for. If you add little jokes that don’t belong for the sake of them being funny, they just don’t work. When you try to preplan something—which we all try to do—it just never works. With the Groundlings [the comedy troupe in L. A. in which she got her start], I learned how to collaborate, how to give and take. It’s important to set other people up and make them look good. I learned what works by laughing at someone else’s character and being like, “Why is that funny to me?”
So we can become funnier by paying attention to what makes us laugh?
I didn’t consciously say, “Oh, I want to see what makes me laugh.” It’s more subconscious. I think of the movies that make me laugh—like Airplane! Knowing what makes you laugh is going to help you figure out what to say. Is this making any sense? I’m so tired.
That reminds me: I wanted to ask about this ability you have to make awkward moments not feel awkward.
Okay, good point. They’re still awkward, but you make them funny instead of uncomfortable.
I just feel awkward sometimes, and maybe to try to get through it, I try not to make it awkward, but maybe by doing that I make it awkward. I can be socially awkward. I am a lot of the time. I think nervousness comes with the territory when you have a job that’s so unpredictable. Every day you walk on set, you’re going to have a little bit of nervousness.
How do you manage it?
You recognize it. I don’t know if there is a way of managing it. Sometimes when you’re afraid of doing something, you end up not doing it. Other times you do, and then you’re so glad you did—it makes you go back and think, If this feels good, maybe I should try that other thing I was afraid to do before.
You want that nervous energy to do a good job. Being nervous gives you that little edge. It sort of propels you through that show to be on your toes, to push yourself and try new things. SNL can be such an intimidating place—it definitely was when I first got there, knowing how I felt and how uncomfortable I was, being on the outside walking into this established family on a show that’s been on for thirty years. I remember thinking the moment I feel fully comfortable here is the moment that I have to leave.
You’re an expert in becoming the characters you play. How does that work?
I don’t stay in character two weeks before the shoot or anything, but doing sketch comedy has helped. I try to find out who the person is. What does my character eat for breakfast? How does my character walk into a room? What kind of shoes does my character wear when they go out to dinner? It makes me think I can really create this person.
You do these interviews with Jimmy Fallon in which you impersonate Peyton Manning, Michael Jordan, JoJo from The Bachelorette. How do you prepare?
I don’t. I get there, like, fifteen minutes early and they have something for me to wear. It’s really fun for me because I don’t have to prepare stories. It’s kind of like improv. There’s no reason to be nervous because you don’t have anything you have to say, and it really forces you to be in the moment. And when the audience knows that you’re not prepared, maybe they’re on your side a little bit more, too. It feels like everyone’s in the same boat watching you try to make up stuff on the spot. So you feel like you just have a little more freedom to fail.
If someone told me to get onstage and just be myself and start talking, I think I would have a panic attack. It’s much more revealing, and you’re vulnerable—you know all eyes are on you. When you’re playing a character, there’s a bit of a wall there. There’s a barrier between you and everybody else. They know you’re playing this character, and what you’re saying is coming from the character, so it’s seen in a different way. I never wanted to be myself on Saturday Night Live. I wanted to separate the two: being on the show and me.
What motivates you now? You could easily have a career doing comedies for the rest of your life, but you’ve chosen a really interesting variety of projects, branching out into drama. What gets you excited about a project?
I love doing drama; I love doing comedy. I like to be challenged—and I don’t want to repeat myself. So much of it really is the script and the director. It’s kind of a gut feeling: I know pretty early on, usually by page 10 in the script. If I have to think about it too hard, or if I’m wavering, it’s usually not something that I feel really drawn to. I thought Downsizing was such a brilliant, unique, and important story, and Alexander Payne’s one of my favorite directors, and to work with him and Matt Damon, it was a no-brainer for me. And with Where’d You Go, Bernadette, I loved the script, I love the book, and Richard Linklater, and Cate Blanchett—I’ve admired her for my entire acting career.
If you had a year in which you could do a totally different job, what would it be? And you can’t say Target Lady.
Maybe I would do kayak or canoe tours. I’d be like, “There’s some bushes over there.” I would love to shadow so many different kinds of professions. You always have these fantasies of yourself, like, living a different life. Like being in a tiny apartment in some tiny town in France and just painting. I would love to do some weird art installation somewhere. I play the ukulele, and I would love to do that more and maybe do an album. Just to escape and do something else. It’s not always that you want something different, but you’re always curious what that would be like.
Is there something that you’re eager to share that’s not out there yet?
I always think it’s good to have discussions about where the business is going and how women are represented. If I had the platform to just say whatever, it would be to regard the writers more. I feel like we should be collaborating with the writers more when we make movies—they’re the ones who sat in the room and created the world in which we’re filming—and sometimes I feel like they’re just not included enough. That would be my little soapbox moment.
Thank you, Kristen. I really appreciate your taking the time, especially on a Sunday, to answer all my weirdo questions.
It was like therapy.
I’m so sorry.
No, I love therapy.