It's a funny business being Kristen Wiig
Braced against the chill on an unusually cold day in Los Angeles in a fine jacket and slim-cut pants, shiny hair tousled and statement jewellery glinting in the animation studio's fluoro lights, Kristen Wiig looks effortlessly chic. Until, that is, she opens her mouth, and out pours the comic actor's trademark offbeat monologue.
When asked to describe her role in the upcoming film Despicable Me 2, she fixes her eyes on the ceiling and ponders, "What else can I say about my character . . ." She then laughs uproariously before quieting to a psychotic mumble, "I don't really know".
When posed an earnest question about which animated characters have affected her, she replies, just as earnestly: "Elmer Fudd. I definitely cried. He just wants the rabbit, but he can't get it - because that would be the end of Bugs Bunny, they wouldn't be able to do any more shows - but it's just . . . sad, every day . . ." she stifles a teary sniffle, "haunting".
It would be easy to say "she's just like her character", since there's a familiar tone that Wiig brings to each role. But as one of the finest character comics working today, is she "just like" the put-upon Annie from Bridesmaids, or any of her kaleidoscopic range of characters from US comedy institution Saturday Night Live? Or is she more like the edgy Imogene from the upcoming low-budget comedy-drama Girl Most Likely, which The Hollywood Reporter described as "smart and brassy"?
In truth, she's like all of them and none of them at the same time. It's clear from spending even a short time in the 39-year-old actor's presence that her own personality traits inform much of her work, and it's that appealing deadpan eccentricity that has seen her catapulted into the comedy spotlight - though whether or not she feels comfortable there is another question entirely.
Born in Canandaigua, New York, to an artist mother and marina manager father, the school-aged Wiig hated speaking in public. "I would miss school just so I didn't have to do it," she has said. She later attended the University of Arizona, where a teacher noticed her aptitude for performance during an acting elective, and encouraged her to pursue it. Dropping out of college and moving to California, she began her comedic journey with Los Angeles-based sketch and improv comedy troupe The Groundlings in her early 20s, taking piecemeal work until she debuted on Saturday Night Live in 2005, joining the cast fulltime the following year.
She finished up in May last year and has since returned as a guest host - a true mark of superstardom. The show's overlord, Lorne Michaels, has said he considers Wiig to be in the "top four" all-time great SNL cast members - no faint praise considering it's the show that launched the careers of Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Eddie Murphy, to name just a few.
Of Wiig's on-screen presence, Michaels told The New York Times: "An old shrink of mine would say she doesn't ‘spill over'. There are people who I have worked with - quite a few people I've worked with - who are always in some state of crisis: their boyfriend left, their agent is lying . . . What I'm getting at is she's ‘still waters run deep'."
Indeed, to meet Wiig in person is to be somewhat surprised by her cool, if not entirely calm, persona: like many famed character actors and comics, she has a detached quality that lends itself to total transformation when in front of a camera, which sets her apart from her peers.
Her fellow SNL alumnus and comedy leading lady Fey is more or less "Tina Fey" all the time;
Wiig, on the other hand, seems to be lying in wait until the next character rolls around.
With SNL as a springboard, Wiig moved into film and excelled in the type of small roles that caused audiences to crane their necks as though to extend her moments on screen just a few more seconds.
An incredible performance as a passive-aggressive television executive in Judd Apatow's Knocked Up in 2007 launched her to the big time.
"After I saw how much people loved it in the movie," Apatow later said of her performance, "I instantly asked her if she had any plans to write a script for herself."
That script turned out to be Bridesmaids, written with her pal Annie Mumolo - the film that would prove it is viable to make female-fronted, big-budget comedies. It made box-office history, taking in more than US$300 million (NZ$380m) worldwide to become Apatow's most successful production yet - and was acclaimed by critics.
Wiig is circumspect when it comes to the topic of Bridesmaids as a cultural milestone or barrier-breaker.
"It's so hard for me to know the impact, I mean, ugh . . ." She pauses and thinks deeply, becoming uncharacteristically serious. "I mean, I guess there have been more opportunities since then, but I don't know. That would be amazing. It's a shame that something has to be ‘opened up' [for female actors] in the first place - it should just be there already, but I hope so."
Yet of the films that came in Bridesmaids' wake, many were hampered by the media's inability to take them at face value, instead assessing each one with an air of, "Is this the next Bridesmaids?" The dark, ribald Bachelorette, for example, seemed to prove, in many critics' minds, that audiences are only prepared to go so far when it comes to women on screen doing everything their male equivalents indulge in.
Still, Wiig's Despicable Me 2 co-star Steve Carell sees female comedians as a beacon of hope in a comedic landscape that has become increasingly barren.
"Kristen, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler - I mean, they're a lot of really funny, talented people," he says.
"And they're doing inventive things, too . . . That, to me, is inspiring, because when you see the same thing over and over and over, you think, ‘Well, that's it, that's the realm of modern comedy'. And then you see something that completely surprises you - it's like a gift, it's exciting."
Unlike Fey and Poehler, however, Wiig seems a little uneasy about making the jump from "funny woman to the left of shot" to out-and-out stardom.
In 2012, she was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People. "She never thought she was making a statement about women in comedy," Apatow said in a short essay for the list, "just about making a movie she could be proud of."
Perhaps slightly less prestigiously, she was also named Peta's Sexiest Vegetarian of 2011, but she remains low-key and self-effacing about the accolades.
Her burgeoning fame has increased interest in her private life. Her five-year marriage to fellow actor Hayes Hargrove ended in 2009, and she has dated the Strokes' drummer Fabrizio Moretti for the past year or so.
Moretti dated Drew Barrymore for five years in the early 2000s. Barrymore, a friend of Wiig's (and one of the celebrity impressions Wiig took to her SNL audition), is thrilled about the pairing. "It all seems so wacky and incestuous, but that's how life works," she told Allure. "It seems fitting that they would find each other."
Wiig may be cautious about courting fame, but there is indeed a new guard of female comics who are breaking through the barriers of character comedy to become major stars.
Coincidentally, two of them are Bridesmaids supporting players Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson, who have gone on to act in a suite of film projects.
As for Wiig herself, her filmic slate is packed with upcoming projects including Girl Most Likely and Anchorman: The Legend Continues, and another voice-acting gig in the form of How to Train Your Dragon 2.
The topic of Bridesmaids 2 remains up for debate, but she is heartened - albeit in a bittersweet way - that so many people see her as a comedy trailblazer.
"I have a mixed reaction in that it's sad to me that [films for women] haven't always been there, because there are so many funny women, for decades, who have been in this business," Wiig says. "So it's kind of a weird thing: yes, it's so wonderful that it's more on people's minds and that they're recognising it, but at the same time, it's like, well, shouldn't it have always been that way?"
Despicable Me 2 opens nationwide on July 4.
Sunday Star Times