NEW YORK — Kristen Wiig has just come off an average Saturday night, one that required her to wear a 2-foot-high wig, shuffle lethargically around a stripper pole and bury her face in Helen Mirren's cleavage.
"I was like, 'Are you cool with this? 'Cause I'm really gonna get in there,'" Wiig said of rehearsing the "magical bosom" scene on Saturday Night Live with the 65-year-old British actress. "She was like, 'Oh yeah. Do whatever you need to do and stay in there as long as you want.' And I did. It's pretty intense in there."
Since joining the cast of SNL in 2005, Wiig has emerged as one of the sketch comedy show's most valuable players for her exuberantly weird characters, including the world's most enthusiastic Target checkout lady, the freak sister in a family of Lawrence Welk singers and a bug-eyed Nancy Pelosi. Now, at 37, she is shedding the goofy costumes, accents and outlandish behavior to attempt that trickiest of parts: a real person. Wiig's first leading big-screen role is in the Friday release Bridesmaids, which she also co-wrote.
"All my characters are someone you don't want to talk to at a party," said Wiig, who offstage is surprisingly introverted for a woman who makes her living wearing snaggle teeth and doll hands. "It's always that person who's being too loud, doesn't have any social boundaries or says the wrong thing."
In Bridesmaids, by contrast, Wiig plays a relatively normal, single thirtysomething whose life is thrown into disarray when she's asked to be the maid of honor in her best friend's wedding. SNL alumna Maya Rudolph is the agreeable bride, Rose Byrne of TV's Damages is an alpha bridesmaid, Melissa McCarthy of Mike & Molly is the groom's crude sister and Mad Men's Jon Hamm is a gorgeous jerk.
Directed by Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig, Bridesmaids is the first female-driven film to come out of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up producer Judd Apatow's mainstream comedy factory. And though the broad outlines of the script by Wiig and writing partner Annie Mumolo fit comfortably in the white satin ghetto of the wedding genre, the execution is decidedly unladylike, with pratfalls, poop jokes and athletic sex.
"We wanted to write a comedy, not a female comedy, just a comedy that has a lot of women in it," Wiig said at a hotel in her Soho neighborhood in New York. "There's a difference."
Added Mumolo: "We don't want this to be some fluffy, frilly story. ... We wanted it to be real."
Reality often comes from the serious beats in Bridesmaids, as Wiig's character, Annie, faces moments of loneliness and self-doubt. A pastry chef whose bakery has gone under, Annie crafts intricate cupcakes for no one and moves back in with her mom in a state of financial and emotional defeat. She's a woman, her nosy roommate observes, whose diary reads like "a very sad handwritten book."
Wiig, a native of Rochester, N.Y., moved to Los Angeles after studying art at the University of Arizona and developed her comic sensibility in four years spent at the Groundlings, the L.A. improv troupe whose members have included Will Ferrell and Conan O'Brien. It was there that she honed some of her now-famous characters, including befuddled film critic Aunt Linda; the giggling, chirping singer Bjork; and Target Lady, who is based on an actual clerk Wiig encountered.
Wiig joined SNL just after Bill Hader, with whom she shared a manager. "I heard there was this new girl coming in from Groundlings," Hader said. "I thought, 'I'll help her out, show her around.' I remember her first table read. I wrote this Vincent Price sketch, and she proceeded to do a spot-on Judy Garland. ... Immediately, it was like, oh ... she's better than all of us. She's Michael Jordan. She's gonna be running the place."
Wiig's first notable film role came in 2006 as a slutty mom in a little-seen film Feig directed called Unaccompanied Minors, but it was a small scene in Knocked Up in 2007 that won Wiig fans outside the SNL audience. As a passive-aggressive E! channel staffer, Wiig told Katherine Heigl's character, "We don't want you to lose weight, we just want you to be healthy, by eating less."
Wiig would go on to provide some of the most memorable laughs in the films MacGruber, Adventureland and Paul, and play a rare straight-woman role in the roller derby movie Whip It. Between films and SNL seasons, she and Mumolo spent years honing their script.
Apatow, whose oeuvre has largely been devoted to the extended phase of twenty- and thirtysomething male adolescence, said he sees little difference between Bridesmaids and his other films besides all the skirts.
"We said, 'We're gonna make a great, funny movie that stars primarily women,'" Apatow said. "If it works, men will come too."