Noël Wells always seems to be searching for humanity. From her impression-heavy YouTube channel, her stint on SNL, and her role as Rachel on Master of None, Wells’ comedy is equal parts satirical and sympathetic. It’s observational without being insulting. Her latest project, Mr. Roosevelt, a semi-autobiographical movie that she wrote, directed, produced, and starred in, made its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival this year. Wells plays Emily Martin, a struggling comedian in Los Angeles who has to make an emergency trip back to her hometown of Austin, Texas in the wake of a tragedy.
We got the chance to talk to Wells about what it took to bring her vision to the big screen, the limitless snark of the internet, and giving her characters the benefit of the doubt.
As a first-time filmmaker, what was the process in bringing Mr. Roosevelt together?
It took a long time. I had the idea of this character in college and then over the years I’ve been kind of struggling to figure out the best story to take this person on an adventure. I did a draft a couple of years ago that I sent out to my representatives and they were like, “It’s fine, but it’s a little all over the place.” But then once I figured out the central idea of why she’s coming back, which is for Mr. Roosevelt, then all it took was me actually just rewriting the script towards that — which is hard because it’s hard to write for some reason. Then, once I did it and I sent it off, everything moved very, very quickly.
There are lots of movies about relationships and breakups, but this idea of a former couple forced back together for a shared tragedy, and the awkwardness that ensues, didn’t seem like anything that’s been done before. What sparked that idea?
Well, I think the overall character journey for her is somebody who doesn’t know how to connect with people, and doesn’t really know how to let her guard down to be included in those sorts of groups. She’s going off and being ambitious. It’s all about her. So, then her coming back and then having all these things kind of happen. It’s kind of how I think about the world, and what I think is kind of wrong with the world, is that we’re all sort of here with ourselves and it’s hard to hold hands. So, it’s easier when there’s a tragedy. And when bad things sort of happen everybody, they let their guard down and we come together as people, so I think that was the perfect vehicle for her.
There’s a lot of insufferable dialogue in this movie. But I noticed that while I was scoffing at it, I was thinking “Do I sound like this, too?”
Yeah. I hear people talking all the time. I think that whatever that is, it’s what makes me good at doing impressions or just channeling a character. People kind of have a DNA to the way that they talk. The sorts of places they’re coming from and it’s almost like math or music. People are insufferable, but they’re human.
My biggest goal in that movie is I don’t want to shit on people. And Emily, her filtering of people is kind of from a pessimistic or negative point of view, but by the end of the movie it’s like, no, we’re all just people. We’re all insufferable and we’re all kind of talking down to each other.
So this idea of finding humanity in everyone was a conscious effort?
Yes. Yes. Totally. Because I think that there’s this thing. Like, “Isn’t that so dumb people are like that?” And it’s like, yeah it is pretty dumb but don’t you want the people to be better, and if you don’t give people the room to be better or change they’re not going to be able to. And now we’re just creating the division. So I would like the idea of everybody being able to make fun of themselves.
Britt Lower’s character, Celeste, is effectively the foil of the story, but she’s still a developed, three-dimensional person, despite Emily’s assessment of her as a walking Pinterest board. You might roll your eyes at her, but she’s still affected by the situation.
I think we’re all kind of pretty self-involved and that’s just the way that humans are. Some people think the world is against us and when people do things to you they’re an enemy. But they’re also humans with their own sort of play happening. And you’re a supporting character in my life and I’m a supporting character in your life, but I have all those riches to me and you have all of those riches to you. And I think we just tend to forget, especially when we think that the world’s against us and we’re like, “Oh, woe is me. Why doesn’t anybody understand me?” And it’s like, well have you ever tried to understand the other people?
It’s easier to sit back and be cynical and make fun of things. But if nine million people want to see a Fast and Furious movie on opening weekend, then why not?
Why not? By the way, I will say I saw a Fast and Furious movie in the theaters, maybe it was the seventh one, and I had so much fun. Then I was like, why do people make fun of [this]? Why are we so snarky? And I do think [with] the internet, it’s just very easy to be that. It’s just become so toxic, and what are we doing as a culture if we’re all shitting on each other? I’m kind of sick and tired of it. I feel bad. It makes me feel bad. And I think a lot of people feel really bad, and I think we’re in a time where we all don’t want to feel bad anymore.
You put a lot of your own life in this movie. Was that difficult, figuring out what you were going to put up there on the big screen?
I think it was just whatever sort of story you think you go through in your life. Like you said, I had lines of dialogue, and if I hear people saying a certain thing in a certain way I’ll put it in my back pocket, and then if it’s like “Oh that’s a character can I plug it in here.” And I think at the end of the day you just put in the things that service the story. There were a lot more comedic moments in the movie that I wanted to have in. Little lines or little scenes that at the end of the day when you cut it all together it was just slowing down the plot so you have to take that sort of stuff out, but it’s just like a puzzle piece of information that you pick up along your journeys.
Someone said earlier this week that cutting scenes out of a movie was like killing your children.
But here’s the thing: I think it’s not like killing your children. It’s just chloroforming your kids and you take them away into another room for a while and maybe waking them up when they need to come back out.
Like a stasis chamber?
Yeah. Like a hyperbaric chamber. Just put them to sleep for a little bit and maybe in the future, in 2050, they can come out and serve their purpose.
How was it filming in Austin? You touch on the city’s rapidly changing landscape, and its gentrification problem, but in a way that it mirrors the film’s story.
I think there’s this blanket understanding that the change is bad. All of the change is bad. And, I think some of the change is really bad. The sort of change that kind of decimates a culture or pushes out certain economic groups that can’t afford to live here anymore. I think that’s all bad. And I think that then there’s the other part of it where some of it’s in evolution and some of it’s not bad at all. It’s pretty cool, and can culturally can be relevant. So there’s just like, a balancing act to that. Instead of being like, “Oh, fuck this city everything’s different” being like, “Okay, well some of the change is pretty nice and maybe we can sort of support it rather than tearing it all down.”
So, to me, it’s just finding that. It’s like trying to figure out what we’re really upset about. And I think what we’re really upset about is people literally tearing down what people have built up, what people love. It seemed like that echoed in the relationship with Emily’s ex, where you’d gone away for a while and then you come back to this homogenized version of what you remembered.
So you really wanted to draw that parallel?
Yeah. Because to her, the struggle is what it is. Being against the man is what it’s all about, and so when you see somebody who is kind of also like, “Actually, you know what I want? I want stability. I want to have a partner and I want to have children.” You think that they’re selling out, but I hoped that it came out in the end that either one of those is valid and maybe the idea of change isn’t so bad.
It’s like, living in a nice house is fine and being able to decorate your house is a really good thing. You just have to be conscious of how that impacts other people, and if it’s not hurting other people I don’t think it should just be a blanket thing we’re just all against.
There’s this moment where you’re gleefully rolling downhill on your bicycle one moment, then the next you have to get off your bike and push it uphill. How many times did you have to do that?
A lot. That day was just me riding my bike and it was like, we just had to get the right… I had to get it right in the camera frames so you just want to lose momentum, just the right amount. So I had to do it over and over and over and over again. And then there was a point where I was like, “This hill isn’t steep enough. So then let’s just go and try to find another one.” And then it was actually not hard enough but you know, we’ve all had those moments with the hills in this town.
It’s the same with the shared tragedy. On one hand, everyone’s guard is down, like you said, but on the other, everyone’s on edge. Things set you off that wouldn’t have under normal circumstances.
I think that Emily’s trying to figure out what’s funny in the world. I mean, I guess it is the comedy/tragedy sort of thing. Every time she tries to fly or every time she thinks her life is going to go swimmingly something undercuts it, and that’s funny. Being cut down to size is funny. Having your ego checked is funny. The struggle is funny. It doesn’t mean we have to always be struggling, but if you can’t laugh at that sort of stuff then it becomes this tragedy you can never escape. I did think it was really funny that [during the premiere screening] my film got interrupted three times and, imagine if I like, today was like, “How could that happen to me?” I’d be a miserable person!
I don’t know, I think that’s where comedy is, right?
Well, it’s tragedy plus time, as they say.
Yeah. It’s tragedy with… Can you be tragic enough right at the right moment? And for me it is this always trying to get to a point where I’m like a beautiful swan and it’s like, I finally become a swan and then somebody dumps oil on me or something. And so, that’s like that life seems to be. But it’s also kind of entertaining.
Well, now that you’ve got this movie added to your resumé, what are you looking to do next?
I’m about to re-shoot this show that I’ve been developing with Comedy Central. We shot a pilot last year here in Austin. So that’s in the immediate future and then outside of that, you know, I just have tons of ideas and just trying to figure out which one I’m going to dive into next. But then, I’ve also learned that it’s okay to take your time and develop multiple things at once and as you’re trying to solve the problems or like, the questions of how to make things work. I think just more writing and hopefully getting to do more acting with really good, great people that I want to collaborate with.
Do you feel like you can do anything at this point?
Honestly? No. Somebody asked me, they’re like, “I imagined you’d felt like while you’re coming up you wanted to give up, when does that stop?” And I was like, “Yesterday I wanted to give up.” It doesn’t stop.
Well, at least it’s the same for everyone.
Exactly! People think you have it made and you’re like, no I’m still you. We’re all still struggling.