Chatting with Comedian-turned-filmmaker Noël Wells
Psychological salves, SNL, and steering her own ship
By Kristi Kates | July 22, 2017
Big-city executives aim at a windowed corner office and a company car, chefs aspire to open their own restaurants, and doctors dream of headlining their own medical practice, but most comedic actors … ? They typically view Saturday Night Live as a career pinnacle. Texas native Noël Wells didn’t. She simply saw SNL as a jumping-off point to a more diverse career.
Wells, who graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2010, had dabbled in acting as a hobby; she had been a cast member of "Esther’s Follies," Austin’s modern-day vaudevillian show. But after college, she worked as an editor and a motion graphics artist. The pull to performance, however —comedy, in particular — was strong. So she decided to pursue ensemble acting work and moved to Los Angeles. By 2013, she’d gotten noticed and joined the cast of SNL during its 39th season. In July of 2014, SNL announced she wouldn’t return to the show.
It was far from a death knell for Wells’ career. She spun right around and quickly moved on to a slate of well-reviewed guest appearances (The Aquabats! Super Show! and Comedy Bang! Bang! being two), and in 2015 snagged a co-starring role on the Netflix comedy series Master of None, playing the girlfriend to lead Aziz Ansari.
Her latest project is her own: a film that she wrote, directed, and acted in. Released in 2017, Mr. Roosevelt premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival, winning the Audience Award in the Narrative Spotlight category, as well as the Lewis Black Lone Star Jury Award. Wells is bringing Mr. Roosevelt to this year’s Traverse City Film Festival, so we caught up with her by phone to find out more.
Northern Express: I know you did some comedic acting in college, but what first drew you to it? Was it a specific inspiration, or … ?
Noël Wells: I was a pretty goofy, energetic kid, and while I did community theatre in middle school and some in high school, acting felt like it came backwards out of wanting to express ideas, stories, and all the characters I saw around me. As for comedy, without getting too heady about what is funny, I think I see a lot of contradictions and pulling and tearing apart in the world, and I have very strong instincts to find ways to reconcile conflict. Humans are a bundle of contradictions, and I love exposing those contradictions — not to tear people down but more to be like, “See! We’re all stupid! But don’t get upset, it’s wonderful, and we can laugh and share a quesadilla.” It’s a psychological salve for me.
Express: Your turn on SNL was really entertaining, but being on the show didn’t end up being a long-term thing for you. In a prior interview, you called SNL a “comedy dinosaur,” a comment for which you got a little backlash. What happened there?
Wells: I’m so glad you asked this. It bummed me out to see that ‘comedy dinosaur’ headline, as it was far from my intent of what I was hoping to express — and a good reminder that clickbait is king. They ended up changing the headline because it was misleading, but by that time, the story based on the headline had been picked up by multiple news outlets. I got to see firsthand how quickly these things spread and how it becomes a game of telephone, and I learned a valuable lesson about how I would like to express myself and to avoid engaging in discourse that contributes to our cultural negativity. And also, maybe I’m not really as much of a comedy person as I originally thought and don’t have strong opinions about it!
Express: So at what point did you decide, ‘Yeah, I can definitely do this comedic acting thing’ as a career?
Wells: When I started out writing my own characters and putting them on their feet or filming them, it was a no-brainer that I could do it. It felt like I was uniquely qualified to, but I was absolutely garbage when it came to acting in other people’s things. I just tried way too hard and it felt very phony. So I took my first and only acting class in L.A., and the teacher’s mantra was basically “You are enough,” and I never understood what that meant. Like, how am I ‘enough’ when I’m supposed to be playing this big idea and character. But one day, I was so frustrated with myself that I resigned myself to playing the character of this one scene as me — and what do you know, it actually worked. He was actually right. Now I get it: You don’t try and do the character, you do you — but through the circumstances of the character and their traits, you become someone else.
Express: What inspired the idea for your film Mr. Roosevelt?
Wells: The movie started several years ago as the idea of this character Emily, who was a sort of self-absorbed millennial type, who was hardworking but very lost and couldn’t get out of her own way. I personally felt that way, and I saw so many people around me also feeling that way. I wrote a couple versions, all of her going back to Austin and facing people from her past who had gotten their lives together, but the scripts were all over the place. The centering event of Mr. Roosevelt came to me, and I thought it was the perfect vehicle to take the traditional ‘coming home because something bad happens’ indie trope and turn it on its head. Because to her, her drama seems to be the biggest drama in the world — but compared to the stakes of other people’s dramas, it’s absurd.
Express: You wore so many hats for this film — writing, directing, and acting — which are you most proud of, and why?
Wells: You know, I really am proud of my directing. I went to film school but never admitted I wanted to be a director. It just felt so disingenuous and everyone has this idea of what a director is supposed to be, and it always made my skin crawl. And I don’t know that much about cinema history, and I can’t get into a pissing match with anyone about directing, but somewhere in my body I just knew I could do this, and I would be good at it, and while I made a lot of mistakes, and there are so many things I wish I had done differently, I see this final product, and I see all this amazing work everyone put into it and how I got to steer this ship — it’s a pretty cool feeling when it lands.
Express: So what’s next on your schedule, Noël? Can you give our readers a sneak peek?
Wells: I have two movies I acted in coming out on Netflix soon, The Incredible Jessica James, starring Jessica Williams, and Happy Anniversary, starring me and Ben Schwartz. I’m working on several writing projects and plan to direct a second feature soon.
To find out more about Noël Wells, visit her official website at noelwells.com. Her movie, Mr. Roosevelt, will screen at the 2017 TCFF.