Texas Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Noël Wells to debut MR. ROOSEVELT in Munich
Noël Wells in MR. ROOSEVELT
Noël Wells was born San Antonio, Texas in 1986. Her father is Tunisian and her mother half Mexican. She studied radio and TV broadcasting at UT Austin, began performing sketch comedy at college and moved to Tinseltown in 2010 to make it as an actress. She shot a video of her impressions of celebs like Kristen Stewart, Mary-Kate Olsen, Britney Spears and others for the casters. While she was waiting for casting calls, she uploaded the video to YouTube, where it went viral. After the success of her impressions, she kept shooting YouTube videos with friends, including shower sketch "sequence_4", which has almost 10 million clicks by now. Thanks to her YouTube success, she was signed by sketch platforms like Cracked.com and CollegeHumor, where she created characters like the frighteningly quirky Manic Pixie Dream Girl, with which she wrote YouTube history.
In 2013, she was signed by comedy flagship SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, acting across from Tina Fey in the parody version of Lena Dunham's "Girls". But her turn with SNL only lasted one season, a setback for Wells. In 2015, things started looking up again when she was cast by Aziz Ansari as female lead Rachel in hit Netflix comedy MASTER OF NONE, which was nominated for four Emmys 2016 and won "Best Comedy Writing". MASTER OF NONE is now in its second season. The 30-year-old will present her feature directing debut MR. ROOSEVELT at FILMFEST MÜNCHEN, which she wrote, directed and acts the lead in.
You're screening MR. ROOSEVELT in Munich, which is about an aspiring comic actress who made a few viral videos in LA and returns to Austin, Texas for a few days for the burial of her cat. It sounds a lot like you, circa 2011. How autobiographic is it? Was there a cat? An ex-boyfriend?
I like to say that almost everything in the movie has happened to me in some sense but all of it is completely made up. But the cat, the boyfriend, failing to live up to creative goals and dreams, and being nervous to show my boobs in public are all based on some version of reality.
Isn't it weird directing yourself, playing yourself? Doesn't that mess with your head?
I’ve been turning the camera on myself since I was in college and then editing that footage for years, so I have a lot of practice watching myself, hating everything I do, and then realizing you just have to get over yourself and worry about the story you’re telling. During the edit, I would talk about two different people, one, the character “Emily,” like, Emily wouldn’t DO that, we need a take where Emily does this, I like how disheveled Emily looks here, and then I would talk about the actor, “Noël,” like, ugh Noël, why did you break in this scene, why is Noël doing that with her hand, that’s not what Emily would do, Noël. Then, there’s also the other level where I’m watching myself as a director, too, watching what I did or didn't do as a director, and how I failed the character Emily, the actor Noël, and the scene I was creating. I might be schizophrenic.
As Kristen Stewart
You started YouTubing almost by accident, when your impressions of female celebs went viral. Now you have over 18 million views. What's the secret? Any advice for young YouTubers out there?
I have no advice for YouTubers because I never set out to be a YouTuber and don’t make a living off of YouTube. For me, YouTube was always a place to drop the things I created, it’s like a screening room where anyone can come by and visit. My general advice to anyone making anything is, do you, be brave enough to share it but don’t be precious with what happens to it.
You said your favorite YouTube videos are the ones where you're making fun of the Internet, which are like "Comedy Art". Can you give an example?
It feels weird to say that I like “trolling” people, but I certainly like to play with expectations, flip things on their head, and see what happens. My Toxic Shower video, sequence_4.mov, was originally what me and my friend Molly Green were calling “comedy art”… even the name of that itself was supposed to be funny. But we had been making these dance/lip sync videos that from an outsider’s perspective may seem very earnest, but there was no end goal, we just wanted to make things. When we made sequence_4, we thought “Okay, so people will see a thumbnail of a girl in a shower, then they’ll feel compelled to click, but then she will be pouring food on her head in the shower and it will be funny because they didn’t expect that.” The most effort we put into that was just figuring out the best comedic escalation of the food. We thought maybe 500 people would see it.
That, I guess, was the funniest part of the whole thing, we never anticipated anyone would see it except for a few random dudes who were tricked by a thumbnail. Now that video has millions of views, and people ascribe all sorts of intent to it, like, we were trying to get views, we were trying to titillate people, were trying to get famous. No, me and Molly were bored and we were trying to make each other laugh. But it was scary when it happened, because suddenly you’re very exposed. People told me to take it down, and I thought, no, I can’t do that, that would mean I’m afraid of the things that I made… you just have to live with it and watch what happens, and never take any of it too seriously.
Some of your best YT videos involve you having very cringey breakdowns halfway through the video. Is comedy painful? Is pain funny?
I’m not really sure I can say funny is, because I see a lot of people who think they know and I don’t find what they do funny at all. My strongest opinion about everything is, I like to see things that feel truthful. Laughter, to me, is a relief. It’s like an exposure of something pent-up inside, and a reaction to something we’re supposed to hide that’s being brought to the light. And maybe it’s funny to see someone melting down because that’s something we usually try and hide, and so to get to watch it happening, and to see someone getting to the point where they can’t hide anymore and now they’re losing their shit, maybe that’s funny because it’s their truth finally coming out. I do think it’s funny to expose all your darkness and have it out there for people to see. I dunno, man.
You say you hate improv, but you wound up doing a lot of improv with Aziz. Is it just the right chemistry, or what was the difference, craft-wise? Improv your answer. Go.
Yeah, I think there are just different realms of improv and comedy. I really am not very good at the type of improv that is referential, with a lot of pop culture and movie references, a lot of JOKES, because I just don’t have a ton of knowledge of all of this stuff and so I can’t keep up. There are people who are great at it, but I’m just not one of them. With MASTER OF NONE, it was more of a grounded show, and the character of Rachel was starting from a place I understood. So organically, I was improvising and escalating, and coming up with character-specific jokes, but Rachel isn’t a comedy genius, so she wouldn’t say hard jokes because that wouldn’t make sense. I guess, in the end, I just needed to realize I’m not bad at improv, I just need to “improvise what I know.” And I think I know characters and how people’s minds work more than anything,
With Aziz Ansari in MASTER OF NONE
In MASTER OF NONE, Aziz says, "You don't really cast with YouTube videos". Is that a barb? Is he right? Can YouTube hurt your career?
I don’t think YouTube can hurt your career. Maybe some people will have a certain perception of you if you’re rolling out crappy videos or they’re judgmental, but if you’re making good stuff and you’re continually growing, then nothing can stop you.
You're writing BAD COUPLE for Comedy Central with your real-life partner, writer Flint Wainess, which is in redelevopment. Is that bad for a couple, too? Or do you just roll with it?
No partnership is perfect, and working together isn’t always easy and fun. But the things that really keep this all going is that for Flint and me, comedy trumps everything. The world is too stupid to not be laughing about it, and any fight we have, any bad thing that happens, it’s usually resolved with us saying “Wouldn’t it be funny if we wrote this…”
What made you want to direct MR. ROOSEVELT? How do you like shooting long-form in comparison to sketches?
I like creating and making things. Directing to me was always what I was working toward, and so, to me, the difference between sketches and something longer form is akin to writing songs and writing an album. A movie is just a bunch of ideas you figure out how to string together into something that would want to watch all together, like making an album is taking all these musical ideas you have and weaving them together into a record. And so it’s been just a long process of building up my confidence to take the bigger step.
You shot on Kodak 16mm. Why? Was it worth the trouble?
There are a lot of reasons I wanted to shoot on 16mm, but the easiest answers are, I’ve been shooting film photography for years and feel very comfortable with the medium. I also wanted the film to have a different look and feel than a lot of other indies that are all shot on the same digital cameras. 16mm has a texture to it that’s different than 35mm, it’s a little “rough-around-the-edges,” it feels scrappy and imperfect while still looking great. I didn’t want the movie to be extremely polished, I wanted it to feel like the character and also like me as a creator… I don’t have the filmmaking pedigree or the most high-tech equipment and I’m not interested in showing off the school I do have with fancy camera movements, but I did WANT TO MAKE A MOVIE, and I wanted it to be realistic and cinematic at the same time.
Ever been to Europe? What do you look forward to in Munich?
I just got a passport for the first time in my life last year, and I’ve only visited Canada! So I’m so excited to come to Europe!
-Interview: Collin McMahon
Mit Tina Fey bei SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE