05/03/2015 04:39 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2015

With 'Welcome To Me,' Kristen Wiig Dons Her Newfound Indie Crown

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

"Saturday Night Live" alumni tend to form predictable career paths: They star in broad comedies that double as extensions of their work on the series, then attempt to wow us with an off-kilter dramatic performance that confirms they're worth more than sketch-show idiosyncrasies. Some forge their own paths in television (see: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jimmy Fallon), but most linger in the admittedly fruitful shadow of the famous words "live from New York."

Kristen Wiig, on the other hand, has been quietly breaking with her "SNL" heritage since exiting the show in 2012, and this year offers a trifecta of films in which the actress not only masters dramatic roles -- she is a marvel in them.

First up is "Welcome to Me," which opened in select theaters this weekend and expands nationwide on May 8. Wiig's best role since "Bridesmaids," the film casts her as Alice Klieg, an Oprah-obsessed hermit with borderline personality disorder who uses her $86 million lottery winnings to fund her own daytime talk show. Its topics, all of which revolve around Alice, are very un-Oprah-like. Instead of finding "aha moments," Alice devours an entire piece of homemade meatloaf cake (after discussing its "carbohydrant" quantity), reenacts melodramatic moments from her adolescence and neuters dogs on live television. That description sounds like one long "SNL" sketch, and parts of "Welcome to Me" very well could have been. But that's what makes the movie a perfect interlude in Wiig's career: The accessories of her broad-comedy background are intact, but what resounds is a heartfelt character study that never reduces Alice's mental condition to a punch line.

kristen wiig

Clockwise: "Welcome to Me," "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" and "Nasty Baby"

Wiig, whose participation in movies like Paul Feig's female-centered "Ghostbusters" reboot indicate she hasn't abandoned big-budget comedies, does not think of her indie-film trajectory as strategic. In fact, while discussing "Welcome to Me" earlier this week, Wiig told The Huffington Post that she receives fewer "SNL"-esque scripts than one might imagine. There's a misperception, then, that her dramatic parts -- which have recently included "Hateship, Loveship" and "The Skeleton Twins" -- mean she is drifting away from the comedic realm. "It's just the timing of it," she promised.

Still, by the end of 2015, audiences will have a fuller interpretation of Wiig's range. In August, the '70s-set "Diary of a Teenage Girl," based on Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel of the same name, will arrive with almost no "SNL" trappings whatsoever. One of this year's Sundance Film Festival standouts, the dramedy finds Wiig playing Charlotte Worthington, a self-absorbed Patty Heast obsessive glued to the halcyon hippie days that have just passed her by. Meanwhile, Charlotte's boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) is having an affair with her dumpy teenage daughter (Bel Powley). Powley is at the film's center, but Wiig's performance is her most dynamic work yet. In Charlotte, she captures both the anger and idealism that boiled beneath 1974 San Francisco as it reeled from Watergate and the Vietnam War.

Also due out in the near future is "Nasty Baby," an even smaller-scale indie about a gay couple in Brooklyn (Sebastián Silva and Tunde Adebimpe) attempting to have a baby with their close friend. A down-to-earth Wiig portrays said friend in the movie, which begins mostly as a comedy before its third act takes a swift dive into thriller territory.

After premiering at Sundance, "Nasty Baby" was acquired without a set release date. If it opens in 2015, the movie could be sandwiched between Wiig's part in this summer's bombastic heist comedy "Masterminds" -- the latest offering from "Napoleon Dynamite" director Jared Hess -- and a supporting role in Ridley Scott's much-anticipated "The Martian," which could factor into next year's Oscar race.

For "Welcome to Me" director Shira Piven, there was never any doubt that the same actress who gave us Target Lady and Gilly would fit firmly into Eliot Laurence's script, which Piven helped to develop. She told HuffPost she was targeting a performer who existed in a "comic space" and could stretch into dramatic characterizations, rather than the other way around -- Bill Murray in "Lost in Translation," for example. (Were she to recruit a dramatic actress who can pull off comedy, Piven said Kate Winslet would have been her first choice, citing "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" as evidence.)

"We batted around a lot of lists of actresses, but in my mind she was really the one," Piven said of Wiig. "I love those performances from comic actors who are asked to do something really heartbreaking."

Wiig was the first to sign on, and a slew of others followed: Linda Cardellini as Alice's patient best friend; Tim Robbins as her patient therapist; James Marsden, Wes Bentley, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Joan Cusack as the patient network executives who supervise Alice's show.

Wiig acknowledges that Alice is hard to like, but because the character occupies some of the same fictional space that her "SNL" roles did, Alice's idiosyncrasies -- often tied to the demonstrative facial expressions that highlight Wiig's humor -- accentuate the character's oddities without dehumanizing her.

"Eliot wrote such a detailed description of this character that I kind of just pictured it in my head as I was reading it," she said. "It was so great just having him on set, even for little things like saying, 'I feel like when I walk maybe I should be a little stiff up top.' He was like, 'Oh yeah, show me. Yeah, that feels like her.' Because she has a mental illness, I wanted to be respectful of it and not comment on it and not make fun of her in any way, and if comedy came out of it, it was because of her just doing something funny, not because she’s sick."

There's something similar happening in "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," where Wiig is in full bad-mother mode. Unlikeable for entirely different reasons, the character still manages to ignite sympathy because Wiig's performance is full-bodied in both appearance and actions.

In keeping, this transition to deeper storytelling seems natural for someone whose more memorable "Saturday Night Live" moments seemed to inhabit her entire body, à la Dooneese and impressions of Suze Orman and Liza Minnelli. In the same way that Wiig's Oscar-nominated screenplay for "Bridesmaids" (written with Annie Mumolo) was heralded as a watershed for women in comedy, the future of Wiig's career seems destined to become one of the "SNL" roster's big-screen triumphs.

That's the mark of a prosperous "Saturday Night Live" departure: a career that draws from and dismisses its sketch-comedy roots in the same breath. Meet Kristen Wiig, burgeoning indie queen.


  • "Welcome to Me" (May 1)
    Directed by Shira Piven • Written by Eliot Laurence

    Starring Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, James Marsden, Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tim Robbins

    What to expect: Kristen Wiig's post-"SNL" career is earning its indie crown this year, with "Welcome to Me" easily becoming her best role since "Bridesmaids." Wiig plays an Oprah obsessive with borderline personality disorder who uses her $86 million lottery winnings to fund her own nutty daytime talk show. [Trailer]
  • "The D Train" (May 8)
    Focus Features
    Written and directed by Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel

    Starring Jack Black, James Marsden, Kathryn Hahn, Jeffrey Tambor and Mike White

    What to expect: What sounds like a rowdy bro comedy -- Jack Black and James Marsden get up to shenanigans before attending their high school reunion -- has been heralded as a warm, if far-fetched, confection. [Trailer]
  • "I'll See You In My Dreams" (May 15)
    Bleecker Street
    Directed by Brett Haley • Written by Marc Basch and Brett Haley

    Starring Blythe Danner, Sam Elliott, Martin Starr, Malin Akerman, June Squibb, Rhea Perlman and Mary Kay Place

    What to expect: Blythe Danner scores her best screen role in years with this affectionate film about a widow who starts a new chapter after her beloved dog's death causes her to lose some zest. [Trailer]
  • "Slow West" (May 15)
    Written and directed by John Maclean

    Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius and Rory McCann

    What to expect: This Coen brothers-esque Western is part absurdist thriller and part coming-of-age quest. Follow a naïve 16-year-old (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he and a mysterious bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) cross the post-Civil War West in pursuit of the former's romantic interest. "Slow West" won the Sundance Film Festival's World Cinema Grand Jury Prize. [Trailer]
  • "Love & Mercy" (June 5)
    Roadside Attractions
    Directed by Bill Pohlad • Written by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner

    Starring John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks and Paul Giamatti

    What to expect: Critics have championed "Love & Mercy" as a spirited respite from paint-by-numbers music biopics. Paul Dano plays Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson during the height of his fame in the '60s, while John Cusack takes over during the '80s, after Wilson's spotlight had dimmed. Variety characterized Atticus Ross' original score as a hybrid of the Beach Boys and Animal Collective. [Trailer]
  • "Live From New York!" (June 12)
    Directed by Bao Nguyen

    What to expect: "Live From New York!" doesn't pack as much juiciness as the book of the same name, but even a rudimentary look at the cultural impact of "Saturday Night Live" is delightful, especially with a veritable who's-who of cast members, writers and hosts from the series' 40-year run on hand. [Trailer]
  • "The Wolfpack" (June 12)
    Magnolia Pictures
    Directed by Crystal Moselle

    What to expect: The winner of Sundance's top documentary prize, "The Wolfpack" introduces us to six kids who've never left their New York City apartment. Their only entree into the outside world is through the movies they watch -- until one brother escapes. Consider the movie a sort of "Grey Gardens" for the modern age.
  • "Dope" (June 19)
    Open Road Films
    Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa

    Starring Shameik Moore, Kiersey Clemons, Tony Revolori, Zoë Kravitz, A$AP Rocky and Blake Anderson

    What to expect: We promise you do not want to miss this rousing comedy, which may be summer's funniest and most heartfelt film. Keep Shameik Moore's name handy, too -- he's the star of "Dope" today (playing a nerdy high schooler who gets caught up in an Inglewood drug dealer's inner circle after attending a rowdy birthday party) and the star of all of Hollywood tomorrow. [Trailer]
  • "The Overnight" (June 19)
    The Orchard
    Written and directed by Patrick Brice

    Starring Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche

    What to expect: We were huge fans of "The Overnight" after seeing it at the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals, where the impeccably cast comedy played to raves. At the center are a young couple (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) whose child is invited to the home of their new neighbors (Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche) for a so-called playdate. But when the kids are put to bed, the real party begins, with increasingly eccentric results. [Trailer]
  • "Infinitely Polar Bear" (June 19)
    Paper Street Films
    Written and directed by Maya Forbes

    Starring Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana

    What to expect: This warmly received dramedy has made the festival rounds since premiering at Sundance in 2014. At last, we'll get to see Mark Ruffalo portray a manic-depressive father who attempts to win back his wife (Zoe Saldana) by taking responsibility for their two rowdy young daughters. [Trailer]
  • "Tangerine" (July 10)
    Magnolia Pictures
    Directed by Sean S. Baker • Written by Sean S. Baker and Chris Bergoch

    Starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O'Hagan, James Ransone

    What to expect: Two transgender prostitutes roam Los Angeles to track down a pimp boyfriend who is cheating on one of them. Shot entirely on iPhones and produced by Mark and Jay Duplass, "Tangerine" is one of the summer's most unique offerings. [Trailer]
  • "The Stanford Prison Experiment" (July 17)
    Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez • Written by Tim Talbott

    Starring Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Logan Miller, Nelsan Ellis, Tye Sheridan and Michael Angarano

    What to expect: This slow-burning psychological thriller chronicles the explosive 1971 experiment in which college students simulated roles as prisoners and prison guards. Things didn't end well for the real-life exercise, but they did for this film, which won Sundance's screenplay prize in January.
  • "Mr. Holmes" (July 17)
    Roadside Attractions
    Directed by Bill Condon • Written by Bill Condon and Jeffrey Hatcher

    Starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney and Colin Starkey

    What to expect: Based on Mitch Cullin's novel "A Slight Trick of the Mind," Ian McKellen plays a long-retired Sherlock Holmes, who, at 93, explores the circumstances of one final unsolved case. [Trailer]
  • "The Look of Silence" (July 17)
    Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

    What to expect: A sequel to the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary "The Act of Killing," "The Look of Silence" explores a surviving family of the Indonesian genocide as they confront the men who killed their brother. [Trailer]
  • "Irrational Man" (July 17)
    Sony Pictures Classics
    Written and directed by Woody Allen

    Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey, Emma Stone and Jamie Blackley

    What to expect: If you can still stomach Woody Allen's May-December romance films, then know that "Irrational Man" is, well, another Woody Allen May-December romance film. At the center is a disillusioned philosophy professor (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls for a student (Emma Stone) and can finally address the existential quandaries that plague straight white men. [Trailer]
  • "The End of the Tour" (July 31)
    Directed by James Ponsoldt • Written by Donald Margulies

    Starring Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Ron Livingston, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer and Anna Chlumsky

    What to expect: James Ponsoldt made a name for himself with "Smashed" and "The Spectacular Now," but this David Foster Wallace portrait is his true calling. Based on a Rolling Stone journalist's five-day road trip with the "Infinite Jest" author, "The End of the Tour" is a revelation for Jason Segel, who portrays Wallace, as well as another successful tally mark for the biopic genre. Keep it on your radar throughout Oscar season.
  • "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" (Aug. 7)
    Sony Pictures Classics
    Written and directed by Marielle Heller

    Starring Bel Powley, Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård and Christopher Meloni

    What to expect: One of the most inspired coming-of-age tales in years, the '70s-set "Diary of a Teenage Girl" introduces us to Bel Powley, who is remarkable as a dumpy teenager engaging in an affair with her mother's boyfriend. That mother is portrayed by Kristen Wiig, who might just one-up her "Welcome to Me" performance with this self-absorbed, Patty Hearst-obsessed character, and the boyfriend is Alexander Skarsgård, whose delicate turn underscores the movie's sketch of the post-hippie unrest that broiled through American culture.
  • "The Gift" (Aug. 7)
    STX Entertainment
    Written and directed by Joel Edgerton

    Starring Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton and Allison Tolman

    What to expect: Joel Edgerton makes his directorial debut with a thriller about a young couple hoodwinked by an old acquaintance who shows up bearing secrets. [Trailer]
  • "Grandma" (Aug. 21)
    Sony Pictures Classics
    Written and directed by Paul Weitz

    Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Nat Wolff and Sam Elliott

    What to expect: It's time for The Lilisance, because Lily Tomlin, at 75, has earned what may be the role of her career, playing a lesbian poet helping her granddaughter accrue money for an abortion. Humorous and poignant, "Grandma" deserves to kick-start Tomlin's Oscar talk.
  • "Sleeping with Other People" (Aug. 21)
    Written and directed by Leslye Headland

    Starring Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie, Natasha Lyonne, Amanda Peet and Adam Scott

    What to expect: The director of 2013's raunchy "Bachelorette" is back with a movie that's perhaps even raunchier. But "Sleeping with Other People" is also an ode to romantic comedies, with a womanizer (Jason Sudeikis) and a serial cheater (Alison Brie) struggling to make sense of their platonic relationship. Come for a mustachioed Adam Scott as Brie's romantic hangup, stay for Sudeikis using an empty plastic bottle to teach Brie to masturbate.
  • "She's Funny That Way" (Aug. 21)
    Clarius Entertainment
    Directed by Peter Bogdanovich • Written by Peter Bogdanovich and Louise Stratten

    Starring Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Kathryn Hahn, Will Forte, Rhys Ifans, Jennifer Aniston and Cybill Shepherd

    What to expect: Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach backed Peter Bogdanovich's first big-screen release in 14 years simply to ensure it got made. The results offer a troop of A-listers whose monogamy-handicapped characters intersect amid the backdrop of the Broadway community. [Trailer]
  • "American Ultra" (Aug. 21)
    Directed by Nima Nourizadeh • Written by Max Landis

    Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman and Tony Hale

    What to expect: Lionsgate announced the release of this buzzy film just in time to make our summer preview, describing the plot thusly: "A stoner and his girlfriend's sleepy, small-town existence is disrupted when his past comes back to haunt him in the form of a government operation set to wipe him out." We're in.