After a short-lived stint on SNL back in 2016 and a memorable one-season arc as Dev’s girlfriend Rachel on Master of None, Noël Wells is done being a bit player in someone else’s universe. “I’ve never been interested in being picked,” says Wells. “I’d much rather write something for myself.”
In the intimate tale of self-discovery Mr. Roosevelt (out Friday) — which she also wrote and directed — Wells plays Emily, a struggling L.A.-based aspiring comedian who returns to Austin when her beloved cat, Mr. Roosevelt, passes away. Short on money and friends, she finds herself staying with her ex and his Instagram-perfect new girlfriend, where Wells wrestles with the person she’s become and the life she’s left behind.
While Wells insists the film isn’t autobiographical, it clearly comes from a very personal place; she did move from Austin to L.A. to do comedy, she does have a cat, and the opening scene shows her auditioning unsuccessfully for a sketch show (which includes busting out her flawless Kristen Wiig impression). It also gives her the opportunity to reflect on today’s showbiz ecosystem, from the vicissitudes of YouTube stardom to the way women’s creative achievements are constantly demeaned and undervalued. At one point, Emily delivers a tirade against the word “quirky” that belongs alongside the Gone Girl “cool girl” rant in the annals of feminist-cliché takedowns.
I chatted with the outspoken comic about being a woman in Hollywood, what she learned from SNL and Master of None, and why it’s absolutely essential for her to create her own stories.
What inspired Mr. Roosevelt?
I wanted to have a character who was having a hard time connecting with people. She’s using comedy to try and connect with people but it’s not quite working in the way that she hoped it would; but by the end of the movie, she kind of gets over herself and there’s a level of setting herself aside which helps her connect. And when I was sitting down to write the script, I knew I wanted to set my first film in Austin. I had always planned on coming back to my college town and sort of paying homage to the city, especially because so much of my complicated adolescence took place there.
There’s a lot of uncomfortable comedy sex in the film, including a scene where the guy she’s sleeping with is tweeting while she’s giving him a blow job. Is sex with comedians particularly bad?
Well … [pauses] yeah. I think when you are trying to be intimate with people that are so incredibly self-obsessed, it’s not going to work. It’s not going to be romantic and it’s probably going to be one-sided. This is like the immaturity of being a 20-something, when you start realizing this isn’t what you want for yourself and you’re going to stop getting drunk and going home with these people who you’re being used by, and where you’re also putting yourself in the position to be used. Emily needs to grow up a little bit.
Have you ever had someone tweet during a sexual encounter?
No. But I’ve definitely had hookup situations be interrupted by those sorts of conversations where it’s like you’re really not engaged with me on this level, you’re just thinking about yourself. Those people who kind of look at things from a bird’s eye view where every action is something they can kind of take notes on, and you’re just like, I’m a person and this is also my experience — what are you doing?
I was bummed that Rachel didn’t end up having more of a role on Master of None this season. The relationship between Dev and Rachel felt so much more believable than the relationship between Dev and Francesca.
Full disclosure, I haven’t seen it. What I will say is, I don’t know how the second season was made, but me and Aziz did rewrites together, so most of what you’re seeing of Rachel were things I came up with. They are grounded in my perspective of the character. So if you responded to her feeling real, I think it’s because I really got a chance to make her real. It was a very collaborative experience and actually gave me a lot of confidence to be able to finish my movie.
Are there more nuanced, interesting roles for women in comedy these days or is it still a lot of one-dimensional stereotypes?
It’s 100 percent still [the latter]. But I never just wanted to be an actor — I always wanted to create my own content. Getting on SNL wasn’t just about getting cast. I had written all this stuff in my audition, and I wrote several things that got on the air. But to me I’ve never been interested in being picked. So when I do get sent things, most of the time I do pass on them because it doesn’t feel like it would be fulfilling. I’d much rather write something for myself. The movies and comedy that I love the most, even if there are men starring in them, often the men wrote the parts for themselves. I don’t shirk that responsibility.
Looking back on SNL now that you have some distance from it, how have your feelings about that experience changed or evolved?
I think before I still had this idea that if you work your way up you can get to the top, kind of like going through school. But that’s just a way to put off you taking your entire life into your hands. I’ve been thinking about my career as more of a business. Like, if I were to start a business and I’m the only one that believes in me as a business, what do I do? So any time I audition for something and I don’t get it, instead of being upset about whoever they cast, I think, If this were my business what would I do for my business right now, what could I be working on, can I create something for myself instead?
I think we come from a generation of kids who have really genuinely bought into the promise of doing well, and if you do well and play by all the rules, you’ll be rewarded. And I think it’s becoming exposed that that’s not really happening, and you can be great at something and you can have something great to share with the world, but then the world’s kind of stacked against you; and the machine and the institution — as we’re seeing — are revealed to be archaic and sexist and hiding sexual predators.
I believe artists just have to take everything back into their own hands. I know how to make a movie, I know how to tell a story, and it doesn’t need to fulfill someone else’s agenda who’s been around for 50 years. Those people aren’t really in touch with what’s interesting to people our age, they aren’t as progressive as us. So instead of yelling at them to give us the opportunities, I think we need to just take the opportunities for ourselves. Especially as women.
In the film, your character gets very angry when someone refers to her as “quirky,” and she goes on a rant about how that word is used to undermine womens’ intellect and complexity. Is that something that came from personal experience?
Definitely. People see the movie and they’re still like, Oh, what a quirky film. The only difference between the character and me is that I think it’s funny now when people say that. I think when I was 25, I would have argued and gotten really mad and gotten in someone’s face. Now I’m more like, Oh, isn’t it cute that you think that way. You just don’t understand and I’m not going to waste my energy trying to engage with someone who doesn’t have the consciousness to comprehend my capacity to create, because it leaks my energy. When the trailer came out people were telling me how cute it was. It’s just strange to have someone be like, Aw, isn’t that cute, you made a movie. The content is ignored, as is the sheer force of what has to happen to make a movie, the power you have to wield to make that come together. Everything you’re seeing onscreen is a decision I’ve made.
It seems like there’s been a tipping point lately, particularly with the Harvey Weinstein stuff, when it comes to women talking about how they’re mistreated in the industry. How do you feel about this sort of sea change — or, at least, what appears to be the beginning of one?
It makes me feel more sane. Most of my life, I’ve felt insane because these sorts of things happen — they’ve happened to me — and you try and talk about it and no one can hear you. Hearing that not only has this happened to other people, but seeing at what level it’s being covered up, just validates my emotions, like, When that happened to you, there was nothing wrong with you for feeling horrible. If anything, it’s just making me believe more in my perception of reality, which for so long has been twisted around — not only in how women feel about ourselves but also our position in relation to men, and how our worth is tied up in what a man thinks of us.
Even last week I was getting into arguments with guys who still make excuses for guys who do these kinds of things. It’s like, You know what, you’re wrong, and you need to hold your wrongness. And we can give them the space to change, but I’m not going to take care of them being wrong anymore. It’s like: You’re the one who did something wrong, you take care of the feeling that comes with being wrong. You called me right after therapy so I’m very worked up [laughs].