This article appeared in V Magazine, published in January, 2014. Interview by Sarah Cristobal.
FROM HER EARLY DAYS AT GROUNDLINGS TO THE HALLOWED HALLS OF SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE TO BREAKTHROUGH HOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTERS, KRISTEN WIIG HAS MADE A CAREER OUT OF CELEBRATING THE ABSURD. WHILE SHE WOULDN’T HAVE IT ANY OTHER WAY, HER LATEST ENDEAVORS INCLUDE MORE DRAMATIC ROLES, LEARNING TO PLAY MUSIC, AND STEERING CLEAR OF JIMI HENDRIX’S FRIENDLY GHOST.
She may be one of the most-adored actresses in recent memory, but to get a true sense of just how concerned Kristen Wiig is with her rising celebrity status one only needs to visit her official website. While some of her famous counterparts chronicle their every waking moment in Chrome and live or die by likes, Wiig’s online destination features a curious illustration of the actress by her friend Jason Polan accompanied by a short bit of text: “Kristen Wiig is not on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, MySpace, or any other social networking website.” This isn’t a ruse. There is no secret alias account floating about. Wiig actually means it. In fact, over an hour-long coffee talk one realizes that for all of her fantastical characters, the woman herself is actually rather quiet and quite sincere.
“I never go on the Internet and I’m not a computer-tech person,” she says, sounding unintentionally green. “I love talking on the phone. But it’s funny when you call someone instead of texting, it’s like Are you okay, what’s wrong, why are you calling?”
This notion of connectivity (or lack thereof) was a key plot line for Wiig’s holiday vehicle, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, an adaptation from the short story by James Thurber, directed by and costarring Ben Stiller. Wiig plays the wonderfully normal Cheryl, a recently divorced single mother and photo researcher at Life magazine. The object of Mitty’s affections, she unknowingly inspires him to wake up from his daydreaming stupor and face life head-on. It’s a hard-core feel-good film, one that sees Mitty traveling to the farthest reaches of the globe to track down a vagabond photographer played by Sean Penn. In the film, Wiig delivers the movie’s seminal message, “Life is about courage and going into the unknown.”
The actress’s career dovetails with the sentiment. After growing up in rural communities in both Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Rochester, New York, she attended the University of Arizona to study art and ended up taking an acting class out of curiosity. A few years and a smattering of odd jobs later, the burgeoning star found her footing in L.A. as a member of the Groundlings improv comedy troupe. It wasn’t long before she caught Lorne Michael’s eye at Saturday Night Live, where she proved her mettle for five years alongside the likes of Will Ferrell, Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, and Jason Sudeikis, all of whom she affectionately refers to as “brothers.”
“I think subconsciously I always knew that I wanted to be a performer,” she says. “But I also just thought that every kid likes to perform in front of the mirror. I also came from a town where no one really left and said, I’m going to Hollywood, I’m going to try be an actor.”
Her brave demeanor served her well during the filming of Mitty. That scene where she plays acoustic guitar and sings “Space Oddity?” Yes, all her. “I hope Bowie likes it,” she says sheepishly. “I’m such a huge Bowie fan, and that song is so anthemic. It’s just an amazing song.”
Wiig recorded the tune at the Electric Lady studio, famously founded by Jimi Hendrix, in 1970. The legendary guitarist only spent a few weeks there before his untimely death, but don’t ask if she was summoning his muse. “I’m afraid of ghosts,” says Wiig in all seriousness. “I’m sure he’d be very friendly though. Jimi the friendly ghost!”
At the end of last year, the Ferrell-Wiig tag team reunited for more high jinx in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. (It’s clear that the SNL cronies are one another’s perfect foil, as evidenced by their unrehearsed shtick at the 2013 Golden Globes: “Marielle Streep for Hope Floats, she was one sassy sheriff!”) In January the duo will rise again in the Matt Piedmont-directed The Spoils of Babylon, on IFC. “It’s so fun to shoot something dramatic for comedy and just be so over-the-top,” she says. Comprised of six episodes, the miniseries is an ’80s-style soap-opera spoof depicting a rags-to-riches family with an all-star cast of Tobey Maguire, as her adopted brother and lover, and Tim Robbins, as their dad, with cameos by Jessica Alba, Val Kilmer, and Haley Joel Osment. Ferrell plays Eric Jonrosh, a forlorn author whose best-selling novel is the basis of the show. (He introduces each segment from the confines of a candlelit steak house banquette.) “We’re embracing that old-school dramatic miniseries acting style and music,” says Wiig. “There are over-the-top scenarios with people dying and fires. You name it, it’s all in there.” The Funny or Die producers even created a subplot centered on a faux documentary featuring the Babylon actors as ’70s-era thespians. “I wasn’t Kristen on set, I was called Lauoreighiya Samcake,” says Wiig. How meta.
Having successfully ticked the comedy box, Wiig has recently expanded her repertoire with more dramatic roles. Both Mitty and last year’s Girl Most Likely were departures from her usual slapstick characters. On the horizon are Craig Johnson’s The Skeleton Twins, in which she and Hader play twins who are reunited after each separately escapes death; Welcome to Me, where Wiig stars as a woman with borderline personality disorder who wins the lottery and buys her own talk show; and Nasty Baby, alongside Alia Shawkat, directed by Sebastian Silva (Crystal Fairy), in which a gay couple are trying to have a child with the help of their best friend. Given Wiig’s propensity for elasticized characters, those who don’t know better might be bracing for hilarity. But these projects are not intended to be full-on farce. In fact, the actress is most excited about Silva’s movie, which is considered a straight drama (i.e., one that doesn’t even broach the drama-comedy divide). “I don’t try to switch it up just to switch it up,” she says. “I think some people are like, Oh wow, well, why are you doing drama now? When I first wanted to start acting, I was probably drawn to drama first and then I got into comedy, but I hope I can do a bunch of different things. I want to direct, I want to write more, and, I don’t know, do music and paint.”
She’s famously already made the quantam leap as a screenwriter with 2011’s Bridesmaids (along with her best friend, Annie Mumolo), and while they are working on something new (“it will be very different”), Wiig is also quite musically inclined these days, writing lyrics and practicing guitar on her own. “I don’t think I’m good enough to say the sentence ‘I play music,’ but I’m trying, I’m learning. I’m teaching myself the guitar, I’ve written a couple of songs, but I’m not going to be going up in any coffee shop soon. I’m not good enough yet.”
The rest of 2014 will see how the hoi polloi relate to her character choices. In the meantime, she doesn’t really care one way or the other. “People know you how they know you, which I always say,” Wiig concedes. “I don’t even know if that makes any sense, but if you know someone is a comedian and they do a dramatic role, you’re like, I didn’t know that they wanted to do that. People are always very surprised.”
Perhaps if people don’t like her creative choices, they can go ahead and tweet about it. The actress is too busy living her life to worry about such matters anyway.