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So much of Rebel Wilson’s life is brand-new.
The comedy superstar has ventured into new territory by toplining her first dramatic feature, The Almond and the Seahorse, opposite Charlotte Gainsbourg, Trine Dyrholm and Celyn Jones, the latter of whom co-wrote the script (with Kaite O’Reilly) and co-directed the film (with Tom Stern). Based on O’Reilly’s play of the same name, it casts Wilson as an archaeologist navigating life with her husband (Jones) as he recovers from a traumatic brain injury. She finds comfort and more in a surprise relationship with a woman (Gainsbourg) who is dealing with the same challenges with her wife (Dyrholm).
The IFC Films release hits theaters and on demand Dec. 16, less than two months after another first for Wilson: She announced in November that she had welcomed her first child, a baby girl, Royce Lillian, via surrogate. “This has been years in the making,” Wilson posted in making the announcement, which also comes months after she revealed that she’s in her first relationship with a woman, fashion and jewelry designer Ramona Agruma.
There’s more: Wilson will take a brief break for the holidays before she sets off to shoot a new movie in Italy next year while in preproduction on her feature directorial debut. How’s that for a season of firsts? Fortunately, Wilson was game to talk about all of the above with The Hollywood Reporter. The star of Pitch Perfect, Senior Year and The Hustle opened up about how a kiss with Gainsbourg influenced her love life, the impactful advice Robin Williams gave her on set, and whether there’s more dramatic work in her future.
How’s life as a new mom?
It’s pretty good and really busy. This morning, I had to make a decision of having breakfast or putting makeup on. I was just cuddling my gorgeous little daughter and then I realized it was time to run out the door. There’s not enough time. It’s really busy juggling the baby with personal life and [work obligations]. But I’m so lucky to have such a supportive family. My mom has been here and I have my girlfriend, Ramona, who is just amazing. Even having all of them here to help it’s still a lot.
I went from being a single woman to having an instant family, in a way. It’s definitely been a big adjustment. Then, on the work front, it could not be busier. I have so many films in development, I have The Almond and the Seahorse coming out and then I’m directing a movie next year so I’m starting preproduction. It’s really busy but that’s part of the adventure. It’s really one day at a time at the moment.
When you announced the baby, you posted that it had been “years in the making,” so you can’t control where your career and personal life are when the baby comes. You are just doing what every mom does — trying to fit it all in…
Yeah, because while I was going through the egg-freezing process, I wasn’t sure whether it would work at all. You just give it a go but you don’t know. It was hard to even plan it out and think, well, I won’t have any movies then at that time because you don’t know when it will happen. Luckily, I got little Roycie out of the process, which is amazing, but you can never plan it perfectly. We’ll have to work around it and I’ll bring her with me to movie sets. She will be a very international baby.
I am excited to ask you about The Almond and the Seahorse because, obviously, the headline is that this film casts Rebel Wilson like you’ve never seen her before — in a dramatic part. But this is no surprise to you because you started out in dramatic roles in your youth. Can you tell me about that time?
Yeah, I know that it’s different because I’ve been doing all these glossy Hollywood comedies, which I absolutely love as well, but when I started out as an actress, I thought that I wanted to be a Dame Judi Dench-type. That was literally who I wanted to model my career after so I did very serious plays — Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. The thing is that nobody in Hollywood ever saw that work because it was on stage in Australia, which was probably for the best. It was only when I won the scholarship from Nicole Kidman when I was 23 that I started specializing in comedy. I used that to come to New York and go to Second City to work that angle. It just seemed, strategically, to be a better move.
I didn’t think I was funny before that but I don’t think you can come to Hollywood as an actress and say that you do everything. I think that’s a mistake. It’s better as an outsider to come to Hollywood and say I have a niche. But I really wanted to show people my other side. It was hard to get back into it, in a way, after doing so much comedy and improv comedy on film. It was hard to get into those emotional scenes [for Almond and the Seahorse]. With movies like Pitch Perfect, I was playing a version of myself in a way. There’s not a lot of acting required because you’re just having fun with your friends. (Laughs.) It’s very different for a movie like this that we filmed in the freezing cold in the north of England with all these intense scenes.
When your career was going gangbusters, was there a moment when you were just chomping at the bit to try some dramatic work?
I have a picture of this moment right here [as she points off camera]. I was on the set [of Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb]. It was a freezing cold night in London and I was doing a scene with Ben Stiller and just kind of improvising, trying to get more lines in the movie and just chitchatting and bantering while cameras were rolling. Then Robin Williams came up and asked me to have a chat. It was like 2 a.m. and I was like, “Oh my god, of course I can have a chat, it’s Robin Williams!” I wanted to chat with him but had always tried to be respectful and not bother him. We sat for about 40 or 45 minutes in between turnarounds of the camera and he said that I should be doing drama.
I was surprised because I don’t know how he watched that scene I just did and thought I should be doing drama but he said, “You should 100 percent be doing drama as well.” It really stuck with me. And after his death, his daughter communicated to me that he really liked that chat that we had and he had told her about the conversation. I always thought, if Robin Williams thought I could do it, then I may as well give it a try. So we’ve been looking for a project and then Almond and the Seahorse came up. It’s a very challenging script and really gutsy so I thought, let’s give it a go.
Robin Williams is a great example of a comedy legend who also did critically acclaimed dramatic work. Adam Sandler also comes to mind and there are many others. Is there another comedy actor whose range you really admire or a performance that had an impact on you?
Olivia Colman has done a lot of really broad comedy and that is what she was known for in the U.K. I remember seeing her at the Vanity Fair Oscar party and I was like, “Oh my god, I want to be you,” which probably freaked her out. You probably shouldn’t go up to someone at 3 a.m. and say that. But I just think her career trajectory is amazing and she’s played so many incredible roles. There are so many others but she has been really inspiring to me.
Your character, Sarah, in The Almond and the Seahorse, asks so much of you as a performer and she’s also just a rich character to play. She’s an archaeologist trying to navigate this new reality with her partner’s brain injury, she has a fling, longs to be a mother, etc. What’s your process as an actor in preparing for a role like this? How deep did you dig to find Sarah?
Celyn Jones, who is the co-director and my co-star in the film, and I were lucky because it’s based on a play and so there already was a close connection with nonprofits that deal with traumatic brain injuries. They gave us access to so many videos and articles that show what it’s like to care for a person in that condition. In real life, I also dated someone with a traumatic brain injury. It was not as severe as the one in the film with my husband, but there were certain things from that relationship that I could relate to.
We did a lot of research and the script was very well researched so that was a great resource. It’s much more common than what you normally think of in terms of a traumatic brain injury where you might just assume it’s football players. It happens all the time to people.
What was it like to share scenes with Celyn Jones who is also directing?
There were two directors, Celyn co-directed with Tom Stern, who is brilliant. He’s one of the world’s best cinematographers and has done a lot of Clint Eastwood’s movies. This was a micro-budgeted movie, I think $2.5 million, so while there was a lot to do, we had to shoot quickly. But it was really interesting working with Celyn because he had so much to do as the co-director, co-writer and co-star.
There was one day that he came to me and said, “We have to quickly film the last scene of the movie,” because of the schedule and the location. We had to knock it out really quickly but I wasn’t ready yet. I was like, “What are you talking about?” I was in such an emotional state because of my character anyway so I started crying and Celyn is so caring and kind and he talked me through it. He said we would just film it and if for some reason, it doesn’t work, we can come back around and reshoot it later. He’s such a compassionate guy, whether he’s playing the role as my co-star or as the director. We worked through it together.
What was the biggest adjustment for you in going from these big-budget Hollywood films to a micro-budget indie?
I remember when I first walked up to set on day one and there was no trailer. It was 6 a.m. and I was thinking, where am I going to get changed or use the toilet? I was so used to the Hollywood system because I had only really done big movies, really. But it was just that someone was running late and eventually they got me the best trailer they could find in the north of England. Even then, it was a little stinky and gross but whatever, these films are about getting real and not about the luxuries of Hollywood movies so it’s not about that for me.
The other thing is that we had to shoot a lot of pages per day. On a big Hollywood movie, you might do two to three pages per day and on this, we were definitely doing 10 or more a day. We moved through the material quite quickly, but it was great. There was a pace to it and you know that you might only get three takes per scene and for me, that meant that my character might go from zero to a hundred in some scenes. It was a real acting challenge. Knowing that I had to nail it and I wouldn’t have all day ended up being really good. It’s about the performances and that really shines in the movie and that’s what I’m really proud of. It was really fun — aside from having to jump into the freezing cold ocean for one scene. That almost killed us. (Laughs.)
Can you pinpoint the most challenging scene?
The whole thing was kind of torturous. There wasn’t one easy scene in the script. Before filming started, I spent two weeks in quarantine in a London hotel. I really wanted to bring it and not disappoint anyone so I spent the whole time just practicing the scenes every day. I just ran the lines the whole time because I was paranoid that the emotion wouldn’t be there because I hadn’t flexed those muscles in a while.
There’s a scene where I tell Cath (played by Alice Lowe) that I’ve cheated on Joe. It was really freezing and literally snowing though you can’t really see it in the scene. I was freezing my tits off and that was so hard. I think after I tell her that, I just broke down so much and I was crying, crying, crying. That’s not in the movie because I think maybe it was too much but yeah, that one was hard. All the scenes were hard. I think that’s because the writing is so good.
When you’re meant to cry on command, where does your brain go? Is there a specific memory or experience that you try to tap into?
I definitely had to ground my thoughts in things that had emotional resonance for me. I worked with Tasha Smith, who helped Andra Day for her Billie Holiday performance in [The United States vs. Billie Holiday]. That was such a raw, gutsy, emotional performance and I knew that I wanted to bring that for this film. We talked a lot before filming about things that had happened in my life. I had a nana who had dementia brought on by alcoholism so I thought about seeing her in her home at the end of her life. There are scenes in the medical facility where I was remembering that or other emotional moments like my father had passed away.
That’s why I said torturous because it was grounded in really painful, tragic memories of my own. I wanted to bring those emotions. Some of my friends said that I could’ve just used a tear stick or something. (Laughs.) But I wouldn’t have felt as real and because this was such a departure for me, I didn’t want to fake anything. But bringing it led to this really emotional state for me and I kept sending these really weird texts to people during that time. Like, I didn’t go crazy but I was just really sad during those few weeks of filming when I was playing that character.
On the opposite end of all that emotion and crying, you have some romantic scenes in this film and you do a fair amount of kissing…
I was so nervous. Charlotte Gainsbourg was the first woman I’d ever kissed. I’d never kissed a woman before so I was thinking, “Oh God, how’s that going to go?” Charlotte is so cool and French. I took her out for a donut a few days before. Not that she eats donuts, so it was me eating the donuts. (Laughs.) She’s so cool and I absolutely adore her, and I watched her movies in preparation for working with her and that made me feel like this movie must be a walk in the park for her compared to some of the roles she’s done.
Weirdly, I think that our scenes could’ve been a little steamier. With male directors, I think they were being cautious and respectful. Once I’d gotten over that initial [anxiety] of kissing a woman and getting into the scene, I thought maybe it should be more about the emotional moment and we could even make it a bit more sexy or even go a bit further. But we were on a tight schedule so we had to keep it moving.
Since you watched a few, do you have a favorite Charlie Gainsbourg performance?
Well, the one that freaked me out the most was Nymphomaniac. I was able to ask her a bunch of questions about it, like how they did it and how they used body doubles. She’s just so brave as an actress and she does all these fantastic roles. Also Trine Dyrholm is fantastic, too. I love watching all of her stuff as well.
Let’s go back to the first kiss. You’re playing a character who is exploring her sexuality with another woman after they find unexpected comfort in each another and it surprises them. We’re talking a few months after you confirmed that you’re in a relationship with a woman. Are you looking back on this experience of filming the movie any differently now?
When I first read the script, Charlotte’s character, Toni, was written as a man. I was the one who said, “OK, I feel like a woman could play it.” Originally, it was supposed to be Pierce Brosnan playing that character but then schedules didn’t align. I felt that we should open it up to a woman and they offered it to Charlotte. I don’t know why I said that but I just felt it could work.
I had kind of had a situation with a woman before, not a sexual relationship and we hadn’t kissed or anything. But then the kiss with Charlotte came up. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal or anything. Then, weirdly through kissing her in my professional life I thought, well, maybe I should do that for real in my personal life and see how it goes, which I did. (Laughs.) That was in 2021 and then I met Ramona at the end of 2021. If I hadn’t had the experience with Charlotte or the experience with the other woman, I don’t know if I would have ever met Ramona. Having those experiences opened my heart up to it as a possibility. I’m grateful for those two experiences. It changed my love life completely. It’s such an awesome thing.
That’s so beautiful, and it sounds really organic…
Yeah. I have another actress friend who had to kiss a woman in a show and then she became a lesbian for a bit. (Laughs.) And another actress I know here in America, the same thing happened. There’s a couple that I know of actually. It’s something I hadn’t thought of before because I had only dated men. I’ve watched shows about lesbians, like The L Word, but it just never occurred to me. I just thought I liked those shows. But kissing Charlotte was a big thing for me. I was so nervous that day because she’s so cool and I was really stressed. But it was great. Yeah, I don’t think I would have been open to Ramona without those experiences, and she’s just an amazing partner.
Yeah, and there was a bit of controversy surrounding your relationship when you came out, right?
Yes, it was the Sydney Morning Herald. A journalist in Australia basically sent an email threatening to release the story. I’ve been pretty open about my personal life and it was something that I was probably going to share soon, at that point. But it was something that required all of these delicate conversations with people. I come from quite a conservative family and so does Ramona and we were slowly telling people in our lives. That kind of rushed it in a way that was really uncomfortable because we didn’t have time to tell everybody and I didn’t want a journalist to be the one to release a story like that. It’s so personal and I wanted to be the one to share it. Also, I don’t think in 2020 that we need to make a statement.
But this was a snarky journalist who had written some terrible articles about me before and I knew he was going to write something that was not positive. I just thought, well, we may as well put something out there. Obviously, we’re not ashamed of it but it was just our awesome thing together and we were slowly telling people on our own. But that made it public and that’s different for me because while I’m in the public eye, Ramona is not. It’s much harder for her and I wanted to protect her. But what that did is, it made us do it more quickly than we would have on our own.
I’m sorry that happened. I was reading in People that you also had a heavy situation that happened during filming of Almond and the Seahorse with the news about your journey to being a mother with freezing your eggs. Your character in the film is also longing to be a mother so what was that experience like and how much of that personal pain did you put into the performance?
I’d had my eggs frozen and done three surgeries for it, which is quite a lot. Then, I had found a donor and we made a plan for the embryos and I think, at that point, I had 18 good-quality eggs so you think there’s going to be some success there. But then each day, I got a new update from the lab about how it was going and it got down to seven eggs and they had no viable embryos. I had been through so much, lost all this weight and froze my eggs and overhauled my whole life to do this, and to not be able to create life in the way that I had hoped, it was really devastating. I got the news right at the end of the shoot.
A lot of women face this when they go through IVF or similar journeys and it’s a difficult situation and you have to ask yourself if you keep going. Just like my character in the movie, she wants to have a child but you have to look at the situation. So, I could really relate. For me, it took a little time to mourn the process and then I said, “OK, I’m going to go back in and do another surgery.” And that’s how little Royce was born, the fourth time I did it. It’s amazing but it’s a hard process. I guess some people get really lucky, but it’s hard to go through.
Back to the work. You have a lot of comedies that have been announced, but I’m curious if you are leaning toward another drama now that you’ve done this?
I have a lot of comedies in development, yeah. They’re just so fun for me. There are some serious projects but it’s just about choosing the right ones. I’m also planning on directing a musical, an Australian musical. It’s another huge challenge but I’m ready to step into that after being on so many musical film sets in my career and learning from all those directors. It will be hard to fit so many things in but we’ll see how it all pans out next year.
Do you know when you plan to go back to work?
I’m shooting a film next month in Italy called Verona. I don’t know whether that’s been announced yet but it’s essentially the story of Romeo and Juliet. That’s kind of a serious role and I’m playing Lady Capulet, Juliet’s mother, so that’s kind of different, again, for me. God, I don’t even know if I’m supposed to say that.
Will the directing project come after that?
I’m directing that one late next year so maybe first will either be Rock the Boat or another big action comedy. It will depend. I’ve also got a horror movie I’m attached to and the K-pop movie, which is at Universal now. There’s a lot.
Speaking of musicals, there’s a new Pitch Perfect spinoff. Are you watching?
Yeah, I literally just started watching it. Adam Devine is in it and I call him my work husband because I’ve worked with him so much. I just love him, he’s the cutest. Todd [Strauss-Schulson], who directed my movie Isn’t it Romantic, directed it, so I will watch but I’m not finished yet. I’m going to watch maybe when I’m on the plane to Australia for the holidays.
I noticed you launched a clothing line with Ramona. There was some criticism online about the sizing. Did that reach you at all or did you take note?
It was a fun, very limited capsule collection and we couldn’t do multiple colors or a huge size range at the beginning. We just put something out to see how it goes. But I definitely know that after being plus size for pretty much my whole life that there’s a need for inclusivity in sizing. I definitely heard [the criticisms] and I love all my fans and paid attention to it. In this small little collection, we couldn’t do a whole array of sizes but hopefully for the next one, we can and I can make sure that’s covered. I heard the criticism and I totally get that. This was our first experiment and it’s just Ramona and me doing it all ourselves.
You’ve had this personal and professional makeover. Are you noticing a difference in the kinds of parts you’re being offered?
I was very much stereotyped into playing the fat funny girl, which I loved and which I played into and made millions of dollars doing. To me, that was not a negative whatsoever, but sometimes when you transform yourself physically, it can make people look at you in a slightly different way. There can be benefits to that and people look at you and say, “Oh, she’s different now, maybe we should cast her in different projects.” Unfortunately, in Hollywood, people need to see you differently in order to cast you differently or give you new opportunities. There are always some directors who are not like that, and they can imagine a comedic actress being a serious actress but others need to see it first. The physical transformation helped with that, for me, but it’s too early to tell still. We’ll see how it goes.
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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