Noel Wells may not be a familiar name yet, but she is already a familiar face and voice. She spent a season as a cast member on Saturday Night Life (2013-2014) and a season on the Emmy-winning series Master of None. She has also contributed vocally to animated shows such as The Awesomes, Gentleman Lobsters, American Dad and Wander Over Yonder.
Wells is breaking out in 2017, adding writer-director to her resume with Mr. Roosevelt, the 20-something coming-of-age comedy she co-stars in with fellow comics Nick Thune, Britt Lower, Daniella Pineda, Andre Hyland, Doug Benson and Armen Weitzman. Charming and funny to interview, the conversation drifted from talk of cats and existential crisis to how to stage your own sex scene.
Lesley Coffin: Is Mr. Roosevelt based on a real someone?
Noel Wells: Yes, my cat's name is Mr. Feeney, and when I moved to LA I left him with my ex-boyfriend. And I fully planned to go back to Austin and bring him home with me. But he got sick while I was away and used all my savings to save him. And when my friend found out I did that, she said: "but he's just a f**king cat" which is where that line comes from.
Lesley Coffin: I also have a cat, she's both sweet and very annoying.
Noel Wells: In other words, a cat.
Lesley Coffin: Exactly. And it's funny that in the lexicon of movies, dogs and cats exist in very different places. People need warnings when a dog dies in a movie, but we've all seen a cat dying treated like a punchline.
Noel Wells: Cats are very divisive pets. I always tell people my cat is very dog-like. But he's one of my best friends. When I was in college I went through a break-up and found myself constantly crying and depressed. And he was there to cheer me up and comfort me. He would just sit next to me, not bug me or need anything, but was just that presence I needed. That meant a lot to me.
Lesley Coffin: And they are great pets for people in their 20s and 30s because they are low-key little roommates but provide company.
Noel Wells: I think that's the reason so many people take them for granted. My character in the movie took her cat for granted and has to come to terms with that fact. The same way she took her relationship for granted.
Lesley Coffin: How long did you live in Austin?
Noel Wells: I went to college in Austin for five years.
Lesley Coffin: I've been there once and the comedy scene is big now. Was it like that when you were in school?
Noel Wells: It was on the rise and I did a little bit while I lived there. My background is in improv and I think Austin is a big stand-up town. The comedy festivals seemed to be just starting as I was leaving.
Lesley Coffin: What motivated your move to LA?
Noel Wells: Just before I graduated I took a production class and the professor had us stand at the front of the room and say what we planned to do. And I said, "I'm going to move to LA and try comedy." I hadn't been trying to do comedy at the time, I had never admitted that to myself until I said it.
Lesley Coffin: Were you in film or theater classes?
Noel Wells: I took film classes. And I had a liberal arts major as well because I thought I might want to become a civil rights lawyer. But I realized I was just too sensitive to do that. I would have been too emotionally invested to get anything done. It would have hurt too much, and I realized my skin wasn't thick enough. But at the same time, I took classes in motion graphics and editing. I ended up getting a really well-rounded education because I never decided what I wanted to do.
Lesley Coffin: And you have the scenes of your "day job" as an editor, and I'm just thinking, editing isn't a day job, it's a career.
Noel Wells: It was my day job. I had a job in an apartment with a bunch of people on laptops in Sherman Oaks, editing videos for a pharmaceutical company. And that was soul crushing. There were some people who felt they were doing something good, and pharmaceutical companies can do good. But a lot of them are selling and marketing drugs people don't need. But even worse, I was driving 40 minutes to go to an apartment to do a job I could do faster at my house. I thought it was really messed up, and I got fired. I hated that aspect of gig culture. You're paid by the hour so you start to draw out your hours because if you do something too fast, you won't have a job. And I started to go way slower than I needed to. I just should have been paid for the job and I would have been way happier.
Lesley Coffin: It was nice to see Doug Benson in the movie at your boss. He's a really funny stand-up but I haven't seen him act in a lot of things.
Noel Wells: He told me when he's hired to act people are usually hiring him to play himself, so I think he was happy to get to play a character.
Lesley Coffin: How did you bring on board some of the comedians in the film? You can tell that they are all naturally funny, but they are all playing written characters.
Noel Wells: Right away, I knew I wanted my movie to be funny, and not just my character but all the characters. I held auditions for some of the parts, and I found that it was a case where you could tell, hearing their delivery, if they understood the comedy. Someone like Armen, I'm a big fan of his because he's such a strong actor. He's very funny, but he can do anything. I'd wanted to work with Doug for years. I think Nick Thune is so charming and likable, which is what I wanted for that character. You want him to feel at first like he's been washed out by Celeste, but then notice that he still has that spark when hanging out with Emily.
Lesley Coffin: He was a perfect choice to play that likable, guy that got away character. He's so tall that he towers over you and has that old-fashioned Tom Hanks quality. And then you give him that killer scene where he says, his success might not be about his career, it might be about having a family. And it just hits Emily like a nail.
Noel Wells: Emily represents a person who let her ambitions take her somewhere else, and doing that she had to abandon the family and community and relationships she had. And that part of her that feels bad for doing that is the part that's obsessed with his creative endeavors. But there's so much value put on getting to the top that our souls are crushed. People who are only concerned with getting to the very top are probably very selfish people.
Lesley Coffin: It's how we got the '80s.
Noel Wells: Exactly! And look at the fallout! Parents raised their kids in that, and now those kids are grown up. I just think there has to be a balancing act, one I'd like in my own life. And I think saying I want to have a family, I want to be part of a community, is admirable. Eric is an admirable character for knowing that about himself. We shouldn't be valuing people so much on their external success.
Lesley Coffin: And the definition of successful isn't finite. His success may have nothing to do with the job he has or how successful he is in his artistic pursuits. Emily could call herself successful for being out there on her own, pursuing this dream.
Noel Well: I don't know what would make Emily feel successful. That's where she's most like me. I don't know what my goals are, I don't know what would make me happy. I know I want to tell stories. I want to keep making things, but I don't get fame. I just want to be accepted.
Lesley Coffin: Do you feel like there was a time when directing became a goal?
Noel Wells: I'd been working on the script before SNL, but it took a long to feel I had the confidence finish it. And then I got to the point when I felt I needed to finish it and get it made. My ex-boyfriend used to say, "What would it take to make you happy?" And I said, "If I got a chance to direct" or "if I got a chance to make my movie." And that didn't work either. So now I'm working on what can make me happy from the inside. Not the external stuff about how much I'm working. How to exist as a human being without being miserable all the time? Although that might not be a question everyone asks themselves.
Lesley Coffin: I think that's pretty universal. The desire to find happiness is pushing people to keep working, but there needs to be a point when you just be happy for a while. Appreciate things and recharge.
Noel Wells: I guess I don't believe that. Chasing happiness is a way to escape your misery, but not obtain it. I feel like you need to confront it.
Lesley Coffin: And yet, so many artists talk about their misery as inspiration.
Noel Wells: People keep telling me that. People say you feel so much. But now I recognize that the amount I feel day-to-day isn't normal. I agree with people that it gives me insight, but there are days when I'd like not to feel so much. But I should say, when I'm really happy, I feel an extreme sense of happiness. I would love to feel a sense of balance.
Lesley Coffin: I'm surprised you were working on the script for that long. Was Emily a reflection of you at any point in your life?
Noel Wells: She isn't me, she's a made up character. I drew from my own life, but I can honestly say, I did that with all the characters. Celeste comes from a part of my life, I've been the new girlfriend in someone's life. As for Emily, I was probably most like Emily at 25, but she's dirtier and way less responsible. She's not me, but at times I wish I could be like Emily. I wish I could have meltdowns like Emily.
Lesley Coffin: You throwing a fit looked very cathartic.
Noel Wells: They were, you get to do this thing you've always wanted to do on camera and suffer no repercussions.
Lesley Coffin: Did you work on the script with anyone or ask for notes?
Noel Well: My writing partner and ex-boyfriend Flint Wainess was there the entire process. And he's probably the only person I'd trust to give me notes without trying to imprint his voice on it. And I read his stuff too.
Lesley Coffin: Regarding the issue of voice, there are kind of two types of voice. Your voice as the writer-director isn't the voice of the characters. And Emily might have more of your voice but you also had to write characters that all sounded unique. When writing the other characters did you have people in mind to create their rhythms?
Noel Well: I had the characters in mind first. I realized after SNL that I didn't want to do impressions. I did impressions to get on SNL. But I realized that I do have a skill set, and when I strip away the idea that I'm embarrassed to perform the characters, I realized that I can get in tune with someone's voices and write them consistently.
Lesley Coffin: Being someone who works on her own projects and others, do you ever have apprehension about interpreting a character someone else created?
Noel Wells: Recently, I have felt that way. On Master of None, that was a very collaborative experience and I rewrote a lot of my own dialogue. I'm starting to recognize that now that I've written my own movie. And in the future, I'm probably not going to take a job where someone says "Hey, come improvise a whole movie." That happens a lot on indie comedy films, and now I'm like "Well, I could just be writing if I'm going to improvise all my dialogue." It's a balancing act though because I want to collaborate and take acting jobs.
Lesley Coffin: I know some of those improv movies you're talking about. And that's even more common in the digital world now. Did making the movie on film discourage improv on this film?
Noel Wells: I would have never wanted the improv style, but I think using film kept everyone on their toes. However, some of the funniest moments in the movie were organic moments of improv. There is the scene of Emily and Art in the truck, when he pulls out the gun and say "What? It's not going to bite you" and I said, "No, it's going to shoot me." That was a moment we improvised, but I don't even remember us doing it until we were editing. The organic moments that came to actors and fit their characters were some of the best lines. But I never said "now keep riffing" which is when some of those movies can go off the rails.
Lesley Coffin: Before we wrap up I wanted to ask about the sex scenes you had to direct yourself in. I love the fact that you're so turned on when Armen and Andre say, "You're funny."
Noel Well: I think that comes from how hard she's trying to break into comedy, but no one seems to get her. So when a guy says you're funny, it's the line she's been waiting to hear and it just turns her on. As for directing the sex scene, I was fortunate to have Andre in that scene because he was just as giggly. And I literally had to say, you have a couple of goals. Get my shorts off, bit my butt, and when we're done, say "that's it." I guess it was kind of improvised, and we were laughing the entire time. I had to keep hiding my face.
Lesley Coffin: Thank goodness you were filming in a dark room. What was the bra called?
Noel Well: Bralette. That was another improvised line. He was just making things up. It was great.
© Lesley Coffin (11/30/17) FF2 Media
Check out Elyse Thaler's review of Mr. Roosevelt here!