"It's so weird," says Kristen Wiig as we sit down at the offices of LT-LA in Los Angeles to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast and begin discussing what it was like for her to return to Saturday Night Live to host the Nov. 19, 2016, show, an appearance for which she received her eighth Emmy nomination. (She has yet to win.) Wiig made her name as a castmember on the NBC variety show between 2005 through 2012, and producer Lorne Michaels today counts her among the "top three or four" castmembers ever. "I go back to SNL and it's the same," she explains. "My dressing room's still upstairs and I feel like I haven't left. But, maybe because I'm on the West Coast now, it feels like I worked there 10 years ago," as opposed to just five.
Wiig, who is 44, was born in New York and raised in Pennsylvania. A soft-spoken but rebellious adolescent, she eventually became an arts major at the University of Arizona — "I figured I'd be an art teacher," she says — but changed her plans after taking a performing arts course one summer and finding that she "loved it" and got positive feedback about her abilities. Not long thereafter, on a whim, she packed up her belongings in her car, left school and relocated to Los Angeles, hoping to see where her newfound passion could take her. For many years, it didn't take her far — she worked odd jobs in order to pay for acting classes on the side. Despite the fact that she "had never done" comedy, she auditioned for and joined The Groundlings, the fabled improvisational sketch comedy group that long has served as something of a farm system for Saturday Night Live. She performed there for years, many of them unpaid, and says of that time in her life, "I learned everything about performing from every angle." After graduating to the highest ranks of The Groundlings, the main company, Wiig and her manager decided the time had come to mail an audition tape to SNL. The result? Two trips to New York to audition in Studio 8H for, among others, Michaels, Tina Fey and Seth Meyers. But, despite receiving very positive feedback, the new season of the show started without her. "I thought I was done," she recalls — and then, after three shows had aired, she was told she had the job.
Few castmembers, and especially few female castmembers, ever have resonated as much on SNL as Wiig did, thanks to an array of weird and eccentric characters such as Target Lady, an overly enthusiastic employee of that store, and Aunt Linda, a film critic with terrible taste — both carryovers from her Groundlings days — as well as Gilly, an overgrown schoolgirl who always apologizes, and Penelope, who habitually one-ups her friends. Still, despite positive feedback that started early and only grew, Wiig says she "never" watched the show during the years when she was on it, and also was extremely uncomfortable with her growing fame. "It scared me a little bit and I just didn't want things to change," she says. "I didn't see any good side of it." Wiig also insists that she never even considered staying at SNL beyond the length of her original seven-year contract: "It's a tiring job — you age when you're there," she says, adding, "I wasn't able to travel or see family very much." Still, she emphasizes, "For me, those were just the best years of my life."
It was during SNL offseasons, during those seven years, that Wiig first got involved with movies. A small but hilarious part in Knocked Up impressed Judd Apatow and led to a years-long process that resulted in Bridesmaids, which Wiig wrote with her Groundlings pal Annie Mumolo and Apatow produced. In between, Wiig also appeared in the critically acclaimed Adventureland (2009) and All Good Things (2010), her first drama. But it was Bridesmaids, released in 2011 and the first movie to feature her as its central character, that made people sit up and take notice. The film grossed more than $200 million at the box office, brought Wiig and Mumolo an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay and spawned countless think-pieces about how the doors for women in comedy had now been broken down — but then it wasn't followed by many female-centric films at all, and most of those that did follow ran into impassioned criticism, for one reason or another, including another in which Wiig herself starred, 2016's Ghostbusters. "When people say, 'Oh, we're gonna give more female-centered movies a chance,' you're not reading the fine print," Wiig says, "which is, 'Oh, but, they have to be like this.' They want to see women acting like guys." (Case in point: the most famous scene in Bridesmaids, the aftermath of food poisoning. "The scene was not our idea and it was not in the original script and we didn't love it," Wiig reveals. "It was strongly suggested for us to put that in there." She adds, "I didn't want to see people shitting and puking.")
Wiig followed Bridesmaids' success in the most unexpected of ways: not by cashing in and making populist studio fare, but rather by taking on lead roles in several dark and quirky indie dramedies. In Girl Most Likely (2012), she portrays a playwright who loses everything and moves home with her mother; in The Skeleton Twins (2014), she plays a woman who attempts suicide on the same day as her brother (fellow SNL alum Bill Hader); in Welcome to Me (2014), she's a mentally ill woman, obsessed with Oprah Winfrey, who wins the lottery and then uses her winnings to create her own talk show; and in The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), she's the hard-partying mother of the title character. The fact that her characters, like these, tend to be unhappy, lose everything and then learn something about themselves on the road to redemption, is not lost on Wiig, but also not something she is able to explain, she confesses.
Lest anyone think Wiig — who will be seen in the coming months in three highly anticipated films, Darren Aronofsky's Mother!, Alexander Payne's Downsizing and Richard Linklater's Where'd You Go Bernadette? — has lost her sense of humor, she also returned to SNL as a host in 2013, just one year after leaving the show, and then again in late 2016, in the midst of its most-watched season in 23 years and most Emmy-nominated season ever. "This year was a crazy political tornado, and I think because it was so hard, SNL really gave you a chance to at least be in the conversation without feeling depressed," she says. "Not to mention the cast, I think, right now is on fire. It just felt like an important time for the show." As for her personal contributions that resulted in an Emmy nom, she says, "The two [sketches] that I think of are the one I did with Kate [McKinnon], the Whiskers [R We one], and the QVC one with Cecily [Strong]. We couldn't get through either one of those without laughing." She adds, "Working that muscle again, and working with some of the same writers that were there when I was, is just so fun. I mean, it's a hard, long week of madness and just laughing so much."