Comedy Queen Kristen Wiig Is Back With a New Life, Glam Look and Star-Packed Series

A few weeks before this year’s Golden Globes, Kristen Wiig went over to Will Ferrell’s house in L.A. to brainstorm how they might co-present an acting prize at the show, which was reinventing itself as new and improved after a series of scandals. The event was among the first major Hollywood gatherings since the actors strike ended in November, with a guest list of stars hoping to fit six months of thwarted awards campaigning into one night, and Wiig and Ferrell were expected to lighten the mood. “We wrote stuff out, and then we would be like, ‘Wait, how does this end? Is this funny?’ ” Wiig says. “And then I was like, ‘I have this song on my phone that really makes me laugh. Can I just play it for you?’ ”

Wiig played the song, a jaunty little ditty called “Fluffing a Duck” that has been used on some apps and video games and, Ferrell says, “We simultaneously started moving our bodies in the most silly, stupid way. We’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, what if this keeps playing and it has a special power over us?’ We threw everything out that we had previously talked about for three hours and just pivoted to building something around this dumb little music cue.”

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Kristen Wiig was photographed March 6 at Sunbeam Studio in Los Angeles.
Kristen Wiig was photographed March 6 at Sunbeam Studio in Los Angeles. Nili Lotan dress, Brandon Maxwell coat, Tiffany & Co. necklaces, Black Suede Studio shoes.

Wiig wasn’t sure the idea would work, but she and Ferrell feigned confidence to skeptical Globes producers, fending off a request to trim the sketch. “It’s like, ‘This is so dumb, but it makes us laugh. Who cares? Let’s just try it,’ ” Wiig says. The simple bit, built upon two performers’ shared commitment to goofiness, punctured the self-serious image of the rebooted awards show and ended up being one of the night’s most genuinely funny moments. In the room at The Beverly Hilton, where comedian Jo Koy was bombing in front of stars like Taylor Swift and Ben Affleck, the audience seemed both delighted and relieved by a joke that wasn’t on them. “That audience really wanted to laugh,” says Lorne Michaels, executive producer and creator of Saturday Night Live. “They weren’t even sure they should be there. What you saw was the sheer joy of [Ferrell and Wiig] making each other laugh. It was so reassuring.”

The “Fluffing a Duck” moment is signature Wiig. In an era of algorithm-driven entertainment and preplanned viral moments, her “Who cares? Let’s just try it” ethos feels refreshingly instinctive and spontaneous. Wiig has made a life out of improvisation — starting when she dropped out of the University of Arizona and moved to L.A. to try acting on a lark — and she’s clearly still comfortable winging it now, at age 50. Asked if she had a career master plan, Wiig is emphatic. “Hell, no,” she says. “Oh my God, no. I believe things just fall into place when they’re supposed to. SNL — you can’t plan for that. I was living day to day and had ideas of things I wanted to do, but with this business, you can’t predict. I don’t know what I’m going to do for the next year.”

Wiig’s latest bow to serendipity is Apple TV+’s Palm Royale, a 1960s-set comedy series premiering March 20 in which she plays the lead, Maxine, a social climber trying to infiltrate Palm Beach high society among a group who seem oblivious to the women’s movement and other social changes happening around them. Laura Dern, who had originally developed the show with the intention of playing Maxine herself, recruited Wiig when her own post-COVID scheduling pileup seemed like it might imperil the show. (Dern, an executive producer, now plays a supporting role.) Palm Royale, which Wiig also executive produces, makes use of some of the SNL alumna’s particular gifts, like her knack for physical comedy and her ability to find the humanity in a character doing something unsympathetic, in this case lying and scheming to be accepted by a group of wealthy women. “I thought about, if she’s going to see the world this way, how does she move through life and convince people and stay so positive?” Wiig says. “And have this pretty shallow goal, but be likable? We all have times in our lives where we wanted to be someone else and maybe fit in with a certain group. It always is more than just wanting someone to like you. It’s always deeper, that need.”

Wiig is sharing this over a meandering walk in Descanso Gardens, a botanical preserve in La Cañada, in the foothills of L.A.’s Verdugo Mountains, near where she lives with her husband, comedian Avi Rothman, and their 4-year-old twins, Shiloh and Luna. In a beanie, sweater, jeans and boots, she goes mostly unrecognized by passersby, even as we swing through the Japanese garden and the camellia forest for the third or fourth time, vaguely lost, like the Griswold family passing Big Ben and Parliament in National Lampoon’s European Vacation. “Wait, this is where we were,” Wiig says, steering us into a familiar-looking oak grove. “This may not be a trail.”

Wiig is who you hope she’d be — funny, warm. “Let me walk in the wet,” she says, choosing the muddier side of the path to protect my shoes. Not having been to Descanso Gardens before, I have packed as if we might be overnighting in the Sierra Nevadas rather than doing an interview in L.A., bringing multiple layers of clothing, two liters of water and several snacks. “Do we need a pocket knife?” Wiig says of my preparedness. “A tarp?” As I try to ask a series of journalistic questions in a relatively straight line, Wiig takes in the world around us. “Oooh, what do you think they’re talking about?” she asks regarding a pair of women having a conspiratorial-looking conversation near the rose garden. Of a green plant on the trail: “Is this sage? This smells sagey.”

Wiig’s life path has taken unplanned loops and detours. As she was publicly charting a busy and fulfilling career, she was also quietly trying to start a family. In January 2020, after years of IVF, she and Rothman had their twins via surrogate. “It was such a struggle,” Wiig says. “When you go through it, you meet other people who are going through it, and it’s almost like this secret little — the whispering conversation at a party. It feels like not a lot of people talk about it.” Wiig, who guards information about her personal life and isn’t on social media, has opened up a bit about her fertility journey. “It is such a private thing, but maybe it doesn’t have to be,” she says. “It’s part of my story and part of how I got my amazing family.”

Kristen Wiig
Kristen Wiig


Wiig grew up in western New York and central Pennsylvania, with zero show business ambitions. Her dad, who was in the boat business, “loves a pun, is just old-school funny,” Wiig says. “Definitely influenced my sense of humor.” Her mother, an artist, is, “with love, not that funny. She will admit that. She’s just an extremely sweet, loving mom.” Wiig planned to be an art teacher and was majoring in art at the University of Arizona when she had an epiphany after taking one acting class, dropped out and moved to L.A. without telling her parents. When she finally called them, “They were terrified,” Wiig says. “It was, ‘Do you know how many people try to do what you’re doing? Do you know how many people actually make a living?’ I had no experience. I never was a lead in a school play or anything, so I think they were a little like, ‘Where is this coming from? Maybe this is just a phase.’ ”

While living in Los Angeles and taking acting classes in the late ’90s, Wiig saw a Groundlings show with Jennifer Coolidge, Michael Hitchcock and Holly Mandel. “I was just like, ‘That’s it. That’s what I want to do.’ I had never really seen it before. And I just signed up for classes immediately.” At Groundlings, Wiig developed a sense of family, and a joy in writing. “I love that putting-on-a-show-in-your-garage type feeling.” She also learned what would become a key career takeaway, and one that has endeared her to her co-stars ever since. “The thing about Groundlings is making your partner look good,” Wiig says. “That’s always just pounded into your brain. When in doubt, if you’re scared to do an improv or whatever, make the other person look good, and then you end up having a good scene. The audience knows you’re having fun. The audience knows you actually like each other, and it just creates a bigger joy bubble.” Pedro Pascal, who played opposite Wiig in 2020’s Wonder Woman 1984, describes what it’s like to be in a joy bubble with Wiig this way: “She would make you feel like you’re not alone and she’s just as nervous about a scene. And so then you can link yourselves together with that vulnerability and just have fun. In an organic way, you suddenly realize that you’re dancing with somebody.”

A tape including one of Wiig’s Groundlings characters, the Target Lady, helped get her an audition and a meeting with Michaels, which eventually led to her SNL debut in 2005, and addition to the cast in 2006. Some of Wiig’s most memorable recurring characters, Michaels says, rested on the vaguest wisp of an idea, like Surprised Sue, an excitable woman who can’t keep herself from giddily ruining surprises. “The woman who was surprised,” Michaels says. “That’s the whole thing. What was written down?”

Wiig played fan-favorite SNL character Dooneese with Jon Hamm
Wiig played fan-favorite SNL character Dooneese (with Jon Hamm).

SNL was a creative boot camp and Wiig was a ready soldier, making fan favorites out of weird characters like Dooneese, one of four singing sisters who perform on The Lawrence Welk Show and who had a giant forehead, tiny hands and a tendency toward inappropriateness. Many of her popular characters — “just kidding” travel writer Judy Grimes, has-been actress Mindy Grayson — seem to be barely containing a nervous breakdown. “You’re in a world that won’t be replicated anywhere outside of 30 Rock,” she says of SNL. “Nothing moves that fast. Nothing takes up that much time. No one has to change costumes that quickly. It does make you think: You can do a lot in four minutes.” As pressured as the show sounds, Wiig says, when sketches were cut or didn’t work, there wasn’t time to ruminate. “You always know there’s next week.” Wiig found the breakneck pace of the work “like being on the water rapids. You’ll end up at the end at some point.” She had other nerves-busting hacks, too, like listening to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” before going onstage.

As unrehearsed as Wiig’s performances seemed on SNL, Michaels says, there was meticulous preparation behind them. Wiig’s talent just made it invisible. “There’s a precision,” Michaels says of her performances. “What she does, you never see the work, or how it came to be. It’s like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. She makes it look easy.” Wiig was one of the most prolific and capable castmembers in SNL’s nearly 50-year history, with none of the offstage drama that seemed to dog many of the show’s other major stars. It’s been over a decade since she left SNL, but, Wiig says, “That place will always be home.” Wiig’s SNL sendoff was among the starriest in the show’s history — host Mick Jagger sang her “Goodbye, Ruby Tuesday,” Steve Martin and Amy Poehler showed up, and Michaels danced with Wiig onstage in a moment that felt like the father-daughter dance at a wedding. Asked who might take over when Michaels retires, Wiig says, “I don’t even want to think about that day.”


Before leaving SNL in 2012, Wiig starred in 2011’s Bridesmaids, a success by any measure. The movie grossed $306 million worldwide — the highest of any Judd Apatow-produced film — and earned two Oscar nominations, including an original screenplay nod for Wiig and her co-writer, Annie Mumolo, and a supporting actress nomination for Melissa McCarthy.

Pascal says that years before he worked with Wiig, for inspiration he used to rewatch the scene from Bridesmaids where her character — single, underachieving, broke Annie — flings back the curtains on the first-class section of an airplane while drunk and on tranquilizers. Annie is trying to reconnect with her lifelong best friend, bride-to-be Lillian (Maya Rudolph), who is seated with snobby, wealthy bridesmaid and aspiring BFF Helen (Rose Byrne). “That movie is in my top five comedies of all time,” Pascal says. “From the day I saw it, I have had the perfect response to any given person or moment with, ‘Youuu doooooooo?,’ ” he says, imitating Annie’s slurred, sarcastic response to Helen’s humblebragging. Dern, too, cites Bridesmaids as an example of Wiig’s skill, but using a dramatic scene, one where Annie is crying alone on her sofa after having alienated her friends. “At the core, that movie is about her longing to belong, wanting to matter,” Dern says.

Bridesmaids seemed destined to usher in an era of female-driven comedies at the box office, but that promise has never really been fulfilled, the dominance of last year’s Barbie notwithstanding. “People get scared,” Wiig says. “What’s wrong with having a big female cast, why is that scary?” Bridesmaids seems like an obvious choice for a sequel, but Wiig is decidedly uninterested in it. “It’s never been a conversation,” she says. “That story had an end, and it’s so beloved to me for 10 million reasons, and I think it’s OK to just have it exist in the world as it is.”

Wiig played a self-destructive best friend of the bride in Bridesmaids
Wiig played a self-destructive best friend of the bride in Bridesmaids.

Wiig launched her post-SNL film career at 39, right around the age when Hollywood forgets what to do with women besides casting them as wives. Nevertheless her work has been steady and varied, from the 2014 indie drama The Skeleton Twins, in which she played fellow SNL alum Bill Hader’s estranged sister, to Wonder Woman 1984, in which she starred as a socially awkward friend who evolves into a villainess cheetah, to 2021’s Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, an unabashedly silly buddy movie that she wrote and produced with Mumolo.

Her Palm Royale character, Maxine, has elements of Wiig’s previous creations — an outsider yearning for acceptance, like Annie in Bridesmaids bursting into first class, or Penelope, the SNL character who constantly one-ups other people with absurd claims. Abe Sylvia (The Eyes of Tammy Faye) adapted the show from Juliet McDaniel’s 2018 novel Mr. and Mrs. American Pie, a satire of ’60s- era social striving. “Everything was changing, but all they’re caring about is who’s going to be a member of the club and who’s going to be the popular girl,” says Dern, who plays a feminist activist with a mysterious past. “It’s like they’re still caught in middle school, which is the most vicious time in anybody’s life, unless they’re part of a country club.” When Dern developed Palm Royale but realized it might have to go forward without her, “It was like, ‘Well, wait a minute, who’s really the perfect person for this part?’ ” Dern says. “I called [Wiig] up and I was like, ‘Girl, I have put my heart into finding this character. I’m not just asking you as a producer. I’m also saying as an actor who spent time trying to capture who this character is, there is no one but you who could run with this.’ ”

Kristen Wiig
Kristen Wiig

The ensemble cast includes Allison Janney, Ricky Martin, Kaia Gerber and Carol Burnett, now 90, whom Wiig met at their first table read. “I feel like I’ve known her my whole life,” says Wiig, who watched The Carol Burnett Show as a kid. “She inspired me so much in the work that I’ve done, especially characters and SNL stuff. Not to mention just having stories that you want to sit and listen to for hours, about what it was like working back then, especially as a woman who was in charge of her own show.”

Wiig as Maxine in Apple TV’s Palm Royale, with Josh Lucas, who plays her husband.
Wiig as Maxine in Apple TV+’s Palm Royale, with Josh Lucas, who plays her husband.

The costume design, by Big Little Lies’ Alix Friedberg, and production direction, by Westworld’s Jon Carlos, make Palm Royale feel like Game of Thrones for the kind of people who appreciate Slim Aarons photography and vintage handbags. Dern says that as a producer, Wiig brought care and enthusiasm for those details. “She’s giddy onscreen and she’s giddy offscreen,” Dern says.

Wiig says she’s beginning to think about taking some of that interest in craft to the next logical step. “[Directing] just feels like the next thing for me,” she says. “The thought of it excites me and scares me, and I think those are two good barometers to try something new.” She’s working on a solo writing project now, a new experience after decades of collaboration. “The biggest challenge is just disciplining yourself to sit down and do it,” she says. “You need to have an actual writing appointment.” As much as she’s known for her ensemble work and her larger-than-life characters, there’s a level of introversion to Wiig. As a teen, she worked at her grandfather’s nursery and seed company, and her favorite part was watering plants alone.

When the pandemic arrived and the world shut down, Wiig was in nesting mode with her twins. “It was like, ‘Oh, you mean just stay home and look at my newborns? OK,’ ” she says. Now, when she’s not working, Wiig says her life is “just momming it, getting kids to school, etcetera.” She has some relatable pastimes, like watching nearly every show in the Real Housewives franchise — her favorite character is New Jersey’s Dolores Catania, who “just seems like someone who would be a good hang and a good friend.”

When we finally land at the garden cafe — the pocket knife was never needed — Wiig selects a single string-cheese stick, and it turns out to be buy-one-get-one-free day for that item. She seems genuinely tickled by the lucky break too, handing me one for the road. Wiig’s appeal to audiences, Michaels says, comes from the palpable sense of joy she imbues into everything she does, and she’ll be back hosting SNL on April 6. “When Kristen’s performing, you see she’s really happy doing it,” he says. “The lightness is what I love most.”

Kristen Wiig
Kristen Wiig

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This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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