Always the bridesmaid
.As a funny woman Kirsten Wiig stars in her first major film, she talks about taking a risk to start acting, discovering improv and coping with the pressure of success
The first time I meet Kristen Wiig is very strange. We've just emerged from a 10-minute sneak preview of her new film Bridesmaids from a London hotel's basement cinema. Blonde-haired and wire-thin, Wiig is ready to meet and greet in an adjacent function room, where we're served cupcakes and champagne. All very nice -- and apt for a film where Wiig plays Annie, a singleton pâtissière who must organise her best friend's bridal bash -- but a little odd all the same. Ushered from one group of cake-munching hacks to the next, the comedian Simon Pegg recently dubbed "the funniest woman on the planet" looks as embarrassed as we are
While it's all part of promoting your first major feature, the 37-year-old Wiig is not used to being the centre of attention. Be it as a regular member of legendary US television sketch show Saturday Night Live or learning her craft in a variety of big-screen supporting roles, from Mike Judge's office comedy Extract to Drew Barrymore's roller-derby movie Whip It, Wiig is more at ease in an ensemble. And you won't find her constantly cracking wise.
"People are surprised when they meet me that I'm not telling jokes and talking in different voices," she says, when we sit down more privately later on. "For me, it's what I love to do when I'm at work. But as a person, I may be in the room for a while at the party before you notice that I'm there."
All that's about to change with Bridesmaids, though. Taking $100m in the US (three times its modest budget) after just three weeks on release, it's the sleeper hit of the summer that's destined to elevate Wiig to the next level. While she's had some behind-the-scenes help -- Paul Feig (The Office) directs, Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) produces -- the fact is, it's her script (co-written with her friend Annie Mumolo) that has been gaining great word of mouth. Couple that with a fabulous female cast, including Maya Rudolph, who plays bride-to-be Lillian, and Rose Byrne, monstrous as new best friend Helen, and this is more than just a Hangover for girls.
True, there are gross-out gags aplenty (a meal that ends in food poisoning redefines the phrase 'toilet humour'), but Bridesmaids is not just catering to our baser instincts. With her cake-making business as unsuccessful as her love life, Wiig's character Annie is like an American answer to Bridget Jones. "She's reached that part in her life -- and I think a lot of women can relate to this, where they have their friends, and their friends are their family and their support," says Wiig. So when Lillian announces her engagement, "it makes Annie look at herself before anything else. She thinks, 'is there something wrong with me?'"
Smartly, Wiig has clearly learnt from comedy king Apatow, who gave the actress her first big screen role in Knocked Up and has since produced several hits with her in. "People always walk out of the theatre from one of his movies, and they're laughing. But at the same time, they always mention how they have heart. And that's important. If I'm watching comedy, I want to have other emotions as well."
It's certainly a trait that Wiig and Mumolo invest in Bridesmaids, not least in the tender on-off romance between Annie and a good-hearted cop (played by Chris O'Dowd, star of the British sitcom The IT Crowd).
While there's also a cameo for Little Britain's Matt Lucas, Wiig goes a little gooey at the mention of Irish comedian O'Dowd. "I remember [in the audition] when he left the room, we all looked at each other and our eyes got really big. We just knew it was him. He's so wonderful in the film, everyone just falls in love with him." It's not the first time Wiig has worked with comics from this side of the pond: she played a vague dentist opposite Ricky Gervais in Ghost Town and was a one-eyed trailer park owner in this year's Simon Pegg alien comedy Paul.
Her attraction to British and Irish comics clearly stems from her roots -- her father is Irish-Norwegian, her mother English- Scottish. Born in Canandaigua -- one of the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York -- her father owned a marina on the lake while her mother was an artist. Her parents divorced when she was nine, and she then lived with her mother and older brother Erik (who is mentally disabled) in nearby Rochester. She had a "busy social life" at school, but was not one for performing in plays. "Deep down, I probably always wanted to do it, but I just thought because I didn't like to talk in front of people, that probably would be a hindrance!"
For a while, she looked to follow her mother, attending the University of Arizona to study art, with a brief view to becoming an art teacher. The closest she ever got was, while still at college, winning a job to show patients computer-rendered sketches of post-cosmetic surgery operations before they went under the knife. She pulled out of the gig, though, two days before she started. "I was like, 'what am I doing? I don't think this is what I want to do with my life'. That was when I decided that I was going to pack up my car and drive to LA. It happened all in the same afternoon."
Arriving on the West Coast, Wiig started taking acting classes and "immediately got terrified" because she had no experience and thought she was terrible. It stalled her for three years, during which time she worked in a store. It was only when a friend told her about The Groundlings -- the LA improv troupe that launched the careers of Lisa Kudrow and Will Ferrell among others -- that her interest in performance was reignited. "I had never seen improv before. I was like 'They're just making that up! I want to be able to do that!'"
After taking classes there, she eventually graduated to Saturday Night Live, via the most nerve-wracking audition of her life. "I remember I crammed in a lot of stuff into five minutes. Looking back, I probably sounded like a crazy person, talking in 12 different voices."
Showcased in that first audition were the chain store clerk The Target Lady and stuffy movie critic Aunt Linda, both of which became regular characters for her across her six seasons on the show. Accordingly, SNL's producer, Lorne Michaels, has ranked Wiig as one of the "top three or four" cast members of all time. Not bad when you consider this is the show that launched the likes of Mike Myers, John Belushi and Bill Murray.
With a small role upcoming in comedy-drama Friends With Kids alongside Jon Hamm (who turns up as Annie's cad lover in Bridesmaids), the New York-based Wiig admits she now might take a well-deserved break. A beach maybe? "Something like that. Or the extreme opposite ... an igloo. Something where no-one is around and I can sit and stare at the wall. I'm actually not a sunny vacation person. Luckily, my boyfriend is the same way."
The man in question is producer Brian Petsos, whom she has known since she was 15 (though their romance is recent, following the demise of Wiig's four-year marriage to actor Hayes Hargrove).
Still, Wiig knows that she can't holiday for too long, given that the success of Bridesmaids has put her in a prime position. Perhaps not quite "the funniest woman on the planet", as Pegg stated, but alongside the likes of 30 Rock's Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman, certainly one of a new breed of female comediennes ready to give the big boys a run for their money.
So, is she good at coping with the pressure? "I'm getting better," she says. "You have to take time for yourself. That's one thing I've realised. Otherwise you'll drive yourself crazy." Given the success she's now enjoying, that's just going to get harder.
Bridesmaids is released on June 24
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