Wedding bell blues: 'SNL' star Kristen Wiig has big-screen engagement in Paul Feig's 'Bridesmaids'

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Since it first stormed the airwaves in 1975, “Saturday Night Live” has served as the launching pad for some of the biggest comedy icons of the past 30 years. Still, as many comics have learned, joining the ranks of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players isn’t necessarily a direct path to mega-stardom. For every Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler or Tina Fey, there’s a Yvonne Hudson, Gary Kroeger or Victoria Jackson—performers who never found much success outside the confines of Studio 8H in 30 Rock. (That’s Rockefeller Plaza for all of you non-New Yorkers and/or non-Fey fans.)

Of the current cast, Kristen Wiig is consistently regarded as the player most likely to become Hollywood’s next big comedy star. The 37-year-old New York native joined the show in 2005 and quickly made her presence felt, originating such funny characters as Penelope, Judy Grimes and the Target Lady (as well as such unfunny character as Aunt Linda, Junice Merill and—shudder—Gilly). Two years after her “SNL” debut, Wiig started to pop up in small but memorable roles in feature films like Knocked Up, Adventureland and Whip It. This month, she takes the leap to full-fledged movie star with Bridesmaids, a romantic comedy she penned with her writing partner Annie Mumolo (both are alums of the L.A.-based comedy troupe The Groundlings) and stars in opposite a quintet of funny women, including former “SNL” star Maya Rudolph, Aussie actress Rose Byrne and sitcom veteran Melissa McCarthy.

Opening May 13 from Universal Pictures, the movie casts Wiig as Annie, an unlucky-in-love single girl whose best friend Lillian (Rudolph) is the new recipient of a diamond engagement ring. Torn between conflicting emotions—happiness for her childhood pal, but depression over her own love life, as well as her bleak career prospects—Annie reluctantly accepts Lillian’s offer to be her maid of honor. At the engagement party, she meets the rest of the bridesmaids, a kooky crew that includes overworked and oversexed housewife Rita (former “Reno 911!” star Wendi McLendon-Covey), glowing newlywed Becca (Ellie Kemper of “The Office”) and Lillian’s oddball soon-to-be sister-in-law Megan (McCarthy). Last but not least is Helen (Byrne), the wealthy, conniving trophy wife of the groom’s boss who has been cozying up to Lillian in the expectation that she would be named maid of honor.
To say that Helen and Annie fail to hit it off would be an understatement; the two women loathe each other at first sight and spend much of the movie competing for Lillian’s affections. Whenever Annie falls short in her duties (which, unfortunately for her, happens fairly often), Helen stands ready to swoop in and save the day. Naturally, Annie’s awful but hilarious screw-ups—among them, choosing a restaurant that gives all of the women food poisoning right before a bridal fitting and bringing the bachelorette party to a premature halt by grounding their Vegas-bound plane after a bad reaction to some potent anti-nausea pills—don’t improve her increasingly tense relationship with Lillian or her extremely fragile self-esteem.

Ensuring that Bridesmaids would be the breakout vehicle that takes Wiig’s career to the next level—instead of landing her on the extensive “Where Are They Now?” list of former “SNL” stars—weighed heavily on the mind of the movie’s director, Paul Feig. “I came into this movie as a huge fan of Kristen’s,” he says, on the phone from Los Angeles. “So I wanted to make sure that the film showcased all the talents she has. I didn’t want to see Kristen Wiig star in a movie where she’s not being funny or she’s just reacting to funny people around her.”

Feig’s first exposure to Bridesmaids occurred roughly four years ago when the movie’s producer, Judd Apatow, invited him to a table read of Wiig and Mumolo’s just-completed script. The two men had a long history together, dating back to the short-lived but fondly remembered series “Freaks and Geeks,” which Feig created and Apatow executive produced. “Judd invited me saying, ‘I want you to think about possibly directing this,’” Feig remembers, adding that Apatow extended a similar invitation to two other potential directors as well. (Interestingly, both of those contenders were also guys—as far as Feig is aware, no female directors were approached to helm the movie.) “We did the table read and gave them a lot of very good notes.

Then, for whatever reason, the movie went away for a bit and when it popped back up, Judd got a hold of me and I was onboard. I’m so glad he did because other than loving the script, I love working with actresses and doing stuff about female characters. On ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ my favorite person to write was always Lindsay [the show’s conflicted central freak, played by Linda Cardellini]. It was important to me to show that women can carry a movie and that Hollywood should be making more comedies with strong female characters. I’ve always felt that women are very underserved in movies, especially comedies.”

After signing on to direct the film, Feig worked closely with Wiig and Mumolo to get their script into shooting shape, a process he describes as a “very healthy and fruitful collaboration.” One of his and Apatow’s early notes to the screenwriters was adding a franker, funnier edge to the film’s sexual humor, something that Apatow had done to great success on The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. “We were pushing for more sex talk than I think they originally wanted to do,” says Feig. “But once we told them to do it honestly, the floodgates opened and all this funny stuff came out that was ten times dirtier than what I was pushing for.”

Meanwhile, Wiig and Mumolo were adamant about keeping both emotions and the comic set-pieces realistic for the women in the audience. The result, says Feig, is “a very honest women’s comedy that is still pretty big and commercial.”

Bridesmaids certainly has the potential to become this summer’s premier comic blockbuster…at least until The Hangover Part II arrives on Memorial Day weekend. At a recent Manhattan screening, the theatre regularly erupted in laughter and the jokes were clearly landing with both girls and guys. “That’s good to hear,” Feig says happily when informed of the audience’s response. “I wanted to make a movie that’s clearly going to be marketed to women, but when guys show up, they’ll be like ‘This is really fun!’ The Devil Wears Prada worked on that level for me too. Guys get dragged to it and then they see that it’s a relatable story for everybody.”

One of the reasons for Bridesmaids’ wide appeal is its broad mix of comic styles and tones. In addition to the aforementioned raunchy sex talk, there are pratfalls, gross-out gags, tossed-off asides, witty banter (particularly between real-life best buds Rudolph and Wiig, whose characters enjoy what Feig jokingly refers to as a “wo-mance”) and even a sweetly amusing love story between Wiig and Irish actor Chris O’Dowd, who plays a charming state trooper who falls hard for Annie. (“Mad Men” star Jon Hamm also contributes a memorable supporting turn as the Mr. Wrong in Annie’s life.)

“This is my favorite kind of comedy because it’s just like real life,” Feig explains. “Everything is serious one second and then suddenly everyone’s laughing and then something terrible happens, followed by something weird. What unifies it all in this particular film is Kristen’s character. As an actress, her natural instinct is to want to play the comedy more real and not go for overt humor. And what’s brilliant about her is that she can get some very funny stuff to come out of a very real response to a situation. People invest in Annie’s story so much that they can laugh and suffer with her as she’s dealing with the insanity of the bridesmaids and then root for her to hit it off with Chris. It all feels consistent because the emotional tone is consistent.

“Sometimes these kinds of movies go off the rails because they aren’t grounded emotionally,” Feig continues. “In the past, I’ve found it difficult to pitch big commercial comedies because people at the studios feel like all the humor has to be crazy and nuts. So I’ll be talking about script notes in a very dramatic way and they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s still gonna be funny, right?’ And I just think, of course it’ll still be funny! But if the story and emotional journey isn’t real, then all the jokes in the world aren’t going to save you, because you’ll just be going from joke to joke and you don’t want to live and die on each joke. You want to be propelled through the movie by caring about the characters and enjoying when they’re funny or get stuck in a funny situation. If the characters and their motivations are real and it’s clear that the actors like and respect their characters, then you can get away with murder.”

Prior to and during shooting, Feig gave his cast lots of leeway to put their own stamp on the characters that Wiig and Mumolo had outlined on the page. For example, Rita’s weariness with her husband’s constant demand for sex grew out of material that McLendon-Covey improvised during the rehearsal process. And while O’Dowd (best known on these shores for the cult British series “The IT Crowd”) adopted an American accent for his audition, Feig suggested that he perform the role in his native Irish brogue. “The minute he did that, the character just blew up. He took the part and ran with it and was able to take some of the more dramatic speeches and make them funny and real. He and Kristen had an immediate chemistry too, which was great. And audiences engage with him so quickly. When their relationship falls apart in the middle of the movie, you can hear audible ‘Oh no’s!’ from the women in the audience.”

According to Feig, the role that underwent the biggest changes from script to screen is Megan. Originally conceived as a slightly weird woman who’s constantly trying to befriend Annie, in the finished film she’s a sexually ambiguous, plus-sized hedonist with a hearty appetite for life’s many pleasures. At times Megan is so over the top, she borders on cruel caricature. But Feig is quick to say that the character that appears onscreen is the one that McCarthy specifically set out to play. “Melissa is a force of nature and she designed Megan’s look and attitude. We’ve had a few comments from people who were mad at us for doing that to her, but this was a person she really wanted to play. We didn’t want to hold her back, because she knew the character inside and out. Her performance was so real, I just felt, ‘Hey, we’re going to let you go and do your thing.’”

Speaking a few weeks after Bridesmaids’ premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Feig sounds thrilled that the movie and, in particular, its leading lady have been garnering so much positive buzz. “I’m just enamored with Kristen’s performance—every time I watch the movie, I see new things she did.”

Besides transforming Wiig from an ensemble player into a movie star, Feig hopes that Bridesmaids will kick-start his own career as a feature film director. In the years since “Freaks and Geeks” ended, the 48-year-old USC grad has worked steadily in television helming episodes for some of the funniest shows of the past decade, including “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” and “Parks and Recreation.” But prior to Bridesmaids, his sole big-screen credit was the little-seen 2007 family comedy Unaccompanied Minors, about a group of kids stranded in an airport after a bad snowstorm.

“I’m kind of taking a break from TV now and plan to jump into another movie,” Feig says, adding that he has a few projects lined up and is waiting to see which one secures a green light first. “TV comedy is in a great place right now, but I feel like there are never enough great movie comedies. I’m hoping to try and help make better ones that are big and commercial but have a grounded sensibility to them and are about people we care about. That’s really the goal.”