In a few short years, Kristen Wiig has established herself as a breakout star of the current cast of Saturday Night Live, thanks to popular recurring characters like Target Lady, whispering one-upper Penelope, and perpetually indignant critic Aunt Linda. She’s also received kudos for impressions that include Nancy Pelosi and Suze Orman. Over the past few years, Wiig has developed a promising sideline in film as well, appearing in a slew of Judd Apatow productions like Walk Hard, Knocked Up,and Forgetting Sarah Marshall,in addition to comedies like Ghost Town, Semi-Pro,and The Brothers Solomon. She also found time for guest spots on the cult sitcoms 30 Rock and Flight Of The Conchords, where she played the lazy-eyed owner of a missing epileptic dog.
Wiig can currently be seen alongside SNL castmate Bill Hader in Adventureland, Greg Mottola’s winning comedy about a directionless recent college graduate (Jesse Eisenberg) who spends a memorable summer working at an amusement park. Wiig will next appear opposite Jason Bateman in Extract, Mike Judge’s follow-up to Idiocracy,and as Ellen Page’s roller-derby mentor in Whip It!, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut. The A.V. Club recently spoke with the actress/sketch comedian and Groundlings alum about roller derby, her fear of swearing on live television, almost working for a cosmetic surgeon, and Saturday Night Live.
The A.V. Club: What you get out of movies creatively that you don’t get out of Saturday Night Live?
Kristen Wiig: It’s definitely a different muscle, for sure. I mean, it’s certainly nice not to be live. [Laughs.] With movies, of course, you get different takes, and it’s just totally a different thing, start to finish. You definitely have less time to think when you’re on SNL, you know, because everything happens so fast.
AVC: Do you still get nerves?
KW: Oh my God, for sure! It’s one of those things where, no matter how long you’ve been there, you’re still gonna be live at 11:30, and the opportunity to mess up is the same whether you’ve been there for one week or five years. So you’re always afraid that you’re gonna mess up your lines or forget to do something.
AVC: Are you ever concerned you’ll slip up and curse like a sailor?
KW: That was what I was most nervous about when I first started, on my very first show. Because if I drop something or mess up, I just inevitably just say “Fuck!” or “Shit!” So yeah, my first concern was that I was gonna mess up and say “Oh, shit,” then cover my mouth and know I was gonna get fired. And just urinate profusely.
AVC: It seems like there’s a “one strike, you’re out” as far as swearing is concerned on SNL.
KW: Yeah it’s a lot of pressure being like, “Wow, if I just say this one word, then I’m outta here” for someone who does swear a lot.
AVC: Is it a different kind of pressure than when you were in the Groundlings?
KW: It’s a different pressure, but whenever you’re performing in front of people, on TV or onstage, you just always want to do your best. For me, it’s equal pressure. Because when I do SNL, we do it in front of a live audience. So I feel like I’m performing for them firsthand, and I try to forget that the cameras are there, just out of pure fear. [Laughs.] When I think about how many people are watching, that would definitely make me more nervous. You’re afraid, but you do it anyway.
AVC: What do you get out of Saturday Night Live that you don’t necessarily get out of doing movies?
KW: The good thing about SNL is that it’s the same people every week that you’re working with, and we’ve all become so close and tight because we’ve worked together so long and so closely together. It’s just the nature of the job—it brings you closer together. When you work with the same people for—this is my fourth season—it definitely feels like a family. The surroundings are familiar, you know everyone in hair and makeup so well—all that kind of stuff. It’s a different experience.
AVC: Is there a kind of emotional intimacy that comes from working with the same people over and over? In Adventureland, a lot of your scenes are opposite Bill Hader—
KW: I love Bill.
AVC: In a lot of your films, you end up acting opposite SNL people. Is there a comfort level when you’re acting with Jason Sudeikis or Will Forte?
KW: Yeah. There’s always a comfort when you’re working with someone that you know, and also have comic roles. Probably if I did something more dramatic, it would be the same way. You feel like you can take more chances and feel a little safer.
AVC: How did you get involved with Adventureland?
KW: Greg Mottola, the writer and director—the wonderful Greg Mottola—asked me if I wanted to do it, and he mentioned that Bill and I would be working together. We flew to Pittsburgh for the day to talk to him about it, just talk about the characters. It just ended up working out. I would’ve given anything to work with Greg, I’m such a huge fan of his. He’s the nicest guy you’ll ever work for, so I was super-happy from the very beginning.
AVC: The film is kind of about post-collegiate angst. Did you go through a phase like that yourself?
KW: Oh my God, I’m still in it! [Laughs.] You’re always wondering what’s next. I’ve had probably every job under the sun, from odd jobs to summer jobs when I lived out here in L.A. Trying to get auditions, and I was with the Groundlings, and catering, you name it, I probably did it. Nothing illegal, of course. [Laughs.]
AVC: What was the most colorful job you had while scraping by?
KW: I worked at a floral-design studio for three or four years; I waited tables for about four years. I worked in retail. I worked at a farmer’s market and gave out peach samples. I catered a lot. I worked in a law office for like a day, because that didn’t really work out. I’m sure there’s many more that I can’t even think of, and that’s just the L.A. stuff.
AVC: According to Wikipedia—and everything on Wikipedia is absolutely true—you were hired as a graphic artist by a plastic-surgery clinic to show clients what they would look like before and after surgery, though you never actually took the job.
AVC: It seems like such a strange thing to do.
KW: It’s such a weird job! I was an art major, and I was just getting into all the computer stuff. I can’t even remember how it happened. I just remember that even when he was telling me what the job would be, I was thinking, “I’m not gonna know how to do this!” I ended up moving to L.A. right after that.
AVC: Ethically, that job seems a little nebulous.
KW: Yeah, plus I was like 22 or something. I didn’t even really understand what I was supposed to be doing. I had been going to school there, and I didn’t have a job, so I was like, “Sure, okay!” But then I was like, “No, I can’t do this.”
AVC: It seems like any job in graphic design would be good at that point.
KW: But how would I really know what they look like?
AVC: They would all look like Marilyn Monroe…
KW: I would show them the picture and be like, “Uhh, you might look like this?”
AVC: You’re appearing in an upcoming, Drew Barrymore-directed roller-derby movie with Ellen Page called Whip It!
KW: Yes, I’m so excited.
AVC: What is the term for somebody who does roller derby? Roller derby-ist?
KW: I think they’re just called derby girls.
AVC: Did you have to do a lot of research into the world of the derby girl?
KW: Yeah! We trained for weeks before we started shooting; we had actual derby coaches and derby girls that were in the movie, training with us. They showed us videos of derby games. I wasn’t in L.A. right before they shot it, but a lot of the girls went to actual… What are they called? Meets? Games, I guess. We did as much research as we could. It’s a fascinating culture to me, and it’s a really big one! There’s the L.A. Derby Dolls?
AVC: What did you learn about the shadowy subculture?
KW: [Laughs.] I mean, the game in itself, you learn how it’s played, how you score points, how the teams are. Every team has a different theme, and everybody has a derby name they go by, which is always like a pun on something, like “Malice In Wonderland.”
AVC: Are they all insane-sounding?
KW: For the most part. And then your costume kind of goes with your name. On the team side of it, it’s really an amazing thing for women. It’s extremely athletic and challenging, and the vibe you get is that it’s like a sisterhood. All the girls are super-close. It’s all in good fun, and the games are just crazy and so much fun. Sometimes they have music, and there’s a name for them… I think they’re called fear-leaders instead of cheerleaders. Everybody wears makeup.
AVC: What kind of vibe did you get about how the roller-derby community responded to the movie? It seems like it has the potential to expose it to millions of people.
KW: I hope they like it! They definitely talked with and consulted with so many people in that world. Drew Barrymore directed it, and she wanted to get the world right. They were really good about that.
AVC: As an outsider, it seems like roller derbies are essentially women in costumes going around in a circle and beating each other up. What more is there to it? What are the rules?
KW: There’s the jammer in the back, she wears a star thing over her helmet. She’s the one that scores the points; she has to go through the pack of girls twice without getting knocked down. How many people she passes on the opposite team is how many points her team gets. It’s like a cool, rock ’n’ roll party atmosphere, with a bunch of ladies skating and looking hot and beating each other up. But it’s all in good fun; they don’t really beat each other up. I guess there’s different rules for different leagues. It’s a tough game, but the teams like each other, from what I know.
AVC: Was the part physically demanding? Did you come home black and blue?
KW: Oh my God, yeah. There was like a whole wall in the makeup room of everyone’s bruises, just from falling. The track is slanted, so that was the first challenge—just being able to skate around that. It was very demanding, especially for someone like me, who’s not in the best shape.
AVC: Were you a roller skater beforehand?
KW: Yeah, I knew how to skate. I roller skated when I was younger, but when you’re on a track that’s slanted and you’re with other people all skating in a pack, it’s a whole different sport.
AVC: What kind of director was Drew Barrymore? Was she a vicious slave driver or a harsh taskmaster?
KW: She was amazing. She was extremely organized and, of course, not surprisingly, the most nurturing, sweetest person to be on set with. She’s honestly one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with.
AVC: What can you say about the new Mike Judge movie you’re in, Extract?
KW: I play Jason Bateman’s wife. The quick plot is that he is thinking about having an affair, and he basically feels too guilty to just go out and do it. So he figures that if my character had an affair first, then he would be able to do it. So he tries to set me up to have an affair. I don’t want to give away the whole plot, but that’s the main gist of it. He’s so great, I loved working with him.
AVC: When you were in The Groundlings, was there a particular type of character you gravitated toward? Did you have a niche?
KW: The good thing about Groundlings is that it has such high turnover that you do scenes at the most, four or five times if you were in the junior company. And the main company show would last just a couple of months—there was nothing that lasted much longer than that. I did the Target lady and my Aunt Linda character there. But I only did them once.
AVC: When you’re doing a character like that, at what point do you realize that it’s connecting with audiences? Is it generally an instant thing, or can it take a while?
KW: I don’t know! I feel like you can never really tell. It’s certainly nice if people recognize it when you perform it the second or third time on the show, but I’m not one to read blogs or anything like that. So I don’t really know what people are thinking. [Laughs.]
AVC: But do they ask you to do these characters again, or is it something you pitch? How does that dynamic work?
KW: Sometimes. Like, if I wanted to do another character, I might just tell them, “Oh, I’m gonna try this this week.” And there have been other times when they’re like, “Oh, why don’t you try this character this week.” It’s both.
AVC: Are you more comfortable playing characters that don’t necessarily look or sound anything like you?
KW: I wouldn’t say more comfortable; it’s not really a conscious decision. I just sort of come up with them. I guess I don’t really consciously think of them as being so different from me. Looking back, I guess so, but it’s not really a conscious decision. That wasn’t a very exciting answer!