She’s Really Shy, But That’s a Secret

This article appeared in The New York Times, published in January, 2009. Article by Melena Ryzik.

Everyone knows someone like Penelope, the hair-tugging, chronically fibbing one-upper (Speeding ticket? “I have 99 speeding tickets. I was speeding so fast I broke the sound barrier.”) that Kristen Wiig plays on “Saturday Night Live,” or so she’s beginning to hear. Or maybe they’ve — you’ve — had a run-in with the gum-popping, eye-rolling, demanding megajerks; the chatty, bargain-hungry Target cashier; or an irritated armchair film critic like Aunt Linda, who mispronounces Scorsese but loves “Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties.”

These are the oversize, wacky-yet-true characters that Ms. Wiig, 35, has used to build an audience as a star of “SNL.” Though her fans recognize the personalities, they may not recognize the actress, who disappears weekly in middle-agedly bad outfits and worse hairpieces. (If you’re waiting for a wig pun, stop.)

With the departure of Amy Poehler last month, Ms. Wiig has become, during only her fourth season, the most veteran female cast member on the show. Aside from standouts like Gilda Radner, “SNL” has not been known for developing female comedy brands until the Tina Fey era. In the last live broadcast, in December, Ms. Wiig appeared in every sketch but one. Though she may pop up as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or the financial adviser Suze Orman when the show returns live next Saturday, she will most likely, at some point, put aside the impressions and take on a warbly voice and an ugly knit to play someone more everyday.

“There’s something about a Christmas sweater that will always make me laugh,” she said in a recent interview in a cafe near her home on the Upper West Side, which is woefully devoid of tacked-on flair.

So too is Ms. Wiig, who describes herself as shy and never thought of herself as funny — still doesn’t, in some ways.

“My personality, people don’t — they’re surprised when I tell them that I do comedy,” she said, sipping ginger apple cider. In a gray-and-black striped V-neck, very slim-cut black pants and woolly boots, with perfectly manicured, shell-colored nails and her hair tucked into a knit billed cap, she looked the polar opposite of the manic, tacky characters she plays. She looked tasteful and unassuming.

But over the last year — when Ms. Fey and others may have finally stiletto-stomped the masculine surprise at the notion of a funny woman — Ms. Wiig has emerged as a comic standout. On “SNL” and in films like “Knocked Up,” in which she stole her few scenes as an undermining TV executive, she cornered a character-driven humor that is appealing without being mean spirited. Like Will Ferrell she is not winking at the audience.

“She has this thing that Lily Tomlin used to have,” Lorne Michaels, the “SNL” producer, said, “which is that her characters are never losers, or at least they’re not thinking they are. They have confidence; they think it’s going well.”

In a phone interview Ms. Poehler, her frequent writing partner, said: “Even though Wiig plays a lot of quirky, nervous characters, she’s really like a very solid person, like a real rock. I can depend on her personally, and onstage you just never are not afraid that Wiig is not going to nail it.” (“I want The Times to note that I used ‘Ms. Wiig’ the entire time; I never called her by her first name,” she added, lying.)

Ms. Wiig came to “SNL” from the Groundlings, the storied Los Angeles improv troupe that was home to Mr. Ferrell, Maya Rudolph, Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow. And she came to the Groundlings — and to acting — mostly on a whim.

As an art student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ms. Wiig, who spent high school in Rochester, N.Y., was required to take a performance class. “I was terrified,” she said. “I don’t really like talking in front of groups of people. Through high school if ever I had to give a speech, I would try to get out of it or not go to school that day. But then it would always backfire because then you had to do it the next day when everyone had already gone, which is more embarrassing. But I took the class, and I liked it, and the teacher was really encouraging for me to keep doing it.” With a year left, without telling her parents, she dropped out to try acting in Los Angeles.

“Of course, when I got there, I was like, what am I doing?” she said. “I have no experience, and all the women here are models, and so I just immediately started working at Anthropologie,” the clothing chain. It was one of many day jobs she held in her 20s, including working at a hot dog stand; selling white and yellow peaches at a farmer’s market (“ ‘What’s the difference?’ ‘The white ones are sweeter.’ That was my day.”); answering phones in a law firm; baby-sitting; designing flower arrangements; and serving lunch to executives on the Universal Studios lot.

In Los Angeles she tried one traditional acting class. “It was one of those very Method classes where you have to sit for an hour with your eyes closed and pretend you’re drinking, like, hot soup,” she said. She didn’t take to it. But a co-worker invited her to see a show of the Groundlings. “I’d never known anything like that,” she said. She began taking classes with the school and within a few years made the Sunday company, the junior team and, about a year later, the Main Stage cast.

“That place changed my life,” she said.

Even among the Groundlings talent, “she definitely stood out,” said Mindy Sterling, an actress (Frau Farbissina in the Austin Powers franchise) and a veteran Groundling who taught Ms. Wiig as well as Ms. Rudolph and Ms. Kudrow. “She has a very sort of subtle quality to her,” Ms. Sterling said. “It’s not that she necessarily was clever. She’s an observer, and she can mimic and then bring her style to it, and that was what was really mesmerizing. There was something very real and accessible, always a sense of ‘Oh, my God, I know who that person is.’ ”

She added: “You know what? She’s pretty. You don’t usually see pretty funny women; you see goofy funny women. And I think she is a goofy funny woman, but she’s very attractive. And my son” — for whom Ms. Wiig baby-sat — “loved her.”

For her “SNL” audition in 2005 Ms. Wiig did characters that would become her TV staples, like the Target lady and Aunt Linda. Even now they are sentimental favorites. “When I first did the Target lady at Groundlings, it was just a black box and me,” she said. “And then the first time I showed up on set and there was a Target set with a cash register, I teared up a little bit.” She was hired midseason and, after 11 years in Los Angeles, moved to New York on a week’s notice. “She wasn’t 20, where you were looking just at potential and it wasn’t yet formed,” Mr. Michaels said. “It was just all there, I think in the same way it was sort of all there in Dana Carvey.”

Ms. Wiig’s impressions start with the voice: “When I’m working on something or they give me a tape and say you have to be this person, I don’t watch it. I just listen to it.” But she doesn’t watch the show later to see whether they work. “If they tell me not to do it anymore, then I don’t do it anymore,” she said. The bombastic take on Ms. Orman, whose money-saving tips on “SNL” include making your own maxipads from double-sided tape and baby socks, came about because Ms. Wiig is a fan. She gears up to perform by warming up the studio with a song — Blondie’s “One Way or Another” or, lately, Prince’s “1999,” with her cast mate Fred Armisen on guitar — and she does watch, and laugh at, scenes she’s not in on the monitors. Mr. Michaels said that had there not been a demand for Ms. Fey to take on Sarah Palin, “Kristen could’ve played it equally well.”

Aside from “SNL” she has completed movies like “Whip It!,” her friend Drew Barrymore’s film about roller derby; “Adventureland,” from the “Superbad” director Greg Mottola, about a kid working at an amusement park; and Andrew Jarecki’s “All Good Things,” her first dramatic role. (Now, she said, she’s ready for the Method class.) She seems most excited about producing a movie written by her boyfriend, Brian Petsos, with whom she occasionally pops up on in bits shot in their apartment.

Her brief marriage to another actor, Hayes Hargrove, was the topic Ms. Wiig was most squeamish about. But in general she was self-effacing. “Does anyone really care what I have to say?” she said.

Though she was careful not to sound negative, comparisons to her female colleagues leave her cold. “I don’t think that’s fair,” she said. “Why can’t there be a lot of great women who are doing great things?”

Among the “SNL” cast mates, however, the perception of their competition was an inevitable topic of discussion. “The world of lady comedy is a small circle sometimes,” Ms. Poehler said, “and there’s always the thing that there can be only one female at a time in the top seat.” She added, jokingly: “I would like to send Kristen Wiig a shiny new captain’s hat because she’s taking over the captain’s position.”

Describe that lady-comedy crown, please. “It would be really stiff and high,” Ms. Poehler said, “and when you tipped it over, birds would fly out of it, like squawking pigeons, and then you could bite into it, and it would be marzipan.”

As usual Ms. Wiig was game to look ridiculous, and she knew what to wear to make that funny.

“A turtleneck, “ she said. “Some sort of slack. A slip-on shoe.”