Kristen Wiig might not be as much of a daydreamer as the title character in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” but she’s never been one to put her ambitions on hold.
At 22, she felt so stymied by studying art at the University of Arizona that she quit college without telling her folks and set her sights on a career in comedy.
“When I first wanted to be an actor, I had no experience at all,” she says. “I was living in Arizona and I knew I didn’t want to be living in Arizona. I was, like, ‘What would I do if I could do anything in the world?’
“And I thought, ‘I would move to LA and try and be an actor,’ even though I’d only taken Acting 101.”
In a rush of bravery, Wiig vacated her apartment, packed up her car, and put Phoenix in her rearview mirror.
“I didn’t tell my parents,” she says. “I just moved to LA. It was terrifying and I had no idea what was going happen, but I felt that I needed to do it. It was just something that I had to do. … And then I called my parents, like, a week later.”
Needless to say, Wiig’s move paid off. After learning the ins and outs of improv comedy with the Groundlings, she wound up becoming one of “Saturday Night Live’s” most beloved cast members.
Wiig appeared on seven seasons of the show, playing such memorable characters as the excitable Target Lady, Lawrence Welk singer Dooneese, the irritating one-upper Penelope, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Suze Orman, among others.
In 2011, Wiig and Groundlings collaborator Annie Mumolo wrote “Bridesmaids,” and Wiig insisted that her good pal Melissa McCarthy be given a role in the film. The comedy not only became a huge hit, but it earned Wiig, Mumolo, and McCarthy Oscar nods. McCarthy was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Wiig and Mumolo were nominated for Best Original Screenplay.
Wiig has, so far, shot down offers to turn the movie into a franchise. “I have no intention of making a sequel or a series,” says Wiig, a Canandaigua, New York native who spent part of her childhood in Lancaster, Pa. “I think we can just leave it as it is and move on to other things.”
While Wiig has appeared in the indies “Friends with Kids” opposite Jon Hamm and “Girl Most Likely” with Annette Bening – and lent her voice to “Despicable Me 2” – “Walter Mitty” marks her first starring role in a studio movie since “Bridesmaids.”
Stiller says Wiig was always his choice for the role of Cheryl, Mitty’s co-worker and longtime crush.
“Kristen is someone who is so, so relatable,” says Stiller, who directed and produced the movie. “She’s so real, and so naturally funny, and I also really wanted to see her doing something like this, something that’s not quite the broad, crazy comedy we’re used to.
“Her personality is so likeable and warm, I felt she could instantly give the audience a shorthand as to why she and Mitty might actually belong together.”
It didn’t take long for Stiller to convince Wiig to come aboard. “I read the script and was a fan of [scripter] Steve Conrad’s for a long time,” she says. “I met with Ben and we just talked about the tone of the movie and my character and he even mentioned some of the music he wanted to put in there and other cast members. I was in from moment one.”
Inspired by a 1939 James Thurber short story which was previously the basis for a 1947 film starring Danny Kaye, “Walter Mitty” centers on a Life magazine photo editor (Stiller) who takes regular mental vacations to escape his ho-hum existence. Daydreaming about being a hero and stamping out evil (personified by smarmy boss Adam Scott) help him make it through the day.
But when Walter and Cheryl are in danger of losing their jobs, he has to take real-life action and track down a famous photographer’s (Sean Penn) missing negative. On his journey around the world, Walter relies on visions of Cheryl to help him fight his fears.
“It is Walter’s tenuous connection with Cheryl that becomes the impetus for pushing him out into the world,” explains Stiller.
Wiig enjoyed starring in Mitty’s daydreams. “I loved doing the fantasy sequences,” she says. “In one of Walter’s first fantasies, he runs into a burning building and saves my three-legged dog. I’d never been in a scene like that before – one involving big explosions and fires – and it was really exciting for me as an actor.”
In another sequence, Cheryl bursts into a Bowie tune for Walter’s amusement. “That would be the part of the movie that I felt would be the biggest risk for me, singing that song,” says the actress, 40. “I sang on ‘SNL,’ but it was sort of not singing. This, I’m trying to do a good job. … It was kind of terrifying for me.”
For Stiller, who first encountered Thurber’s short story back in high-school, “Mitty” was the chance to offer up a commentary on a world that’s changing rapidly, thanks to the Internet. Walter, who prides himself on the preservation of 35 mm negatives, feels out of place as Life magazine shifts from print to a dot-com.
“Steve put it in a context of what’s going on in the world today, and generationally, for guys our age,” Stiller says. “We’re all living in a world that’s transformed from analog to digital, or is in the process of doing that, and what gets left behind with that – I thought that was a really important part of the whole story.
“The idea of the permanence of the pictures and the real things, the actual tactile things. Walter is the guy who takes care of the actual physical objects, and he cares about that, and he cares about his co-workers and the process. That was something I think that gave it a context that to me was resonant and worth thinking about today.”
Since “Bridesmaids” became one of the most successful R-rated movies of all time, Wiig has been much in demand. In 2014, she’ll topline a pair of movies. In “The Skeleton Twins,” she and Bill Hader play twins who each cheat death on the same day, and in “Welcome to Me,” she’s a lottery winner who uses her cash to fund her own cable-access program.
“To be able to do this for a living was definitely a dream of mine for a long time,” says the actress. “So I feel like I’m living in a dream.”