In an early scene in her new movie, Mr. Roosevelt, Noël Wells’s frustrated comedian, Emily Martin, auditions for a gig with a Holly Hunter impression. The pantomime is meant to be broad and a bit awkward, as Wells’s character is still finding her comedic voice. But Wells captures Hunter’s wildfire, Southern pugnaciousness with an eerie precision. It’s a callback to Wells’s past professional life: On her debut episode of Saturday Night Live, she introduced herself to America via a Lena Dunham impression that zeroed in on the nasally screwball rhythms and blinkered demeanor of the cultural lightning rod.
Wells is a gifted impressionist, skilled at capturing voices and playing off the perceptions of what public figures are like. And if her stint on SNL had gone differently, she might have compiled a celebrity rolodex to rival Bill Hader’s. But it didn’t work out that way. So on a recent afternoon, I ask Wells what she feels is her oddest, most unexpected impersonation.
“I did this whole video. It’s really ridiculous,” she replies. “I can’t do it right now, because I haven’t watched it. ... It’s so stupid …”
She hesitates another moment and then launches into a pitch-perfect Bernie Sanders impression, mimicking the clenched shoulders, old-man-returning-soup staccato delivery, and fist-wagging energy of the Vermont senator. “If I was elected president, every comedian will have their own show!” She shakes her head. “It was like, “‘Ballerinas will not have to dance on their feet!’”
It’s a few days before Thanksgiving, and I’m meeting with Wells to talk about Mr. Roosevelt, which she wrote, starred in, and directed (and shot on 16-millimeter film). The budding multihyphenate has been busy lately. She's working on a few more scripts and writing a set of folk songs (which she describes as “adult nursery rhymes”) with her new band, the Marys, but she’s about to give herself a bit of a break. After she’s wrapped press duties for Mr. Roosevelt, she’s going to prepare a Friendsgiving with her New York pals.
“I think our families and communities are falling apart,” she says. Her family quit holiday celebrations when she was growing up, so Friendsgiving means a lot to her. “This sounds so dramatic, but [in] post-9/11 America—economically and everything—nothing really felt like it mattered. It was a really big bummer, so I’m really happy now that as an adult, I’m finding my communities of people that want to have tradition.”
Noël Wells was born two days before Christmas 1986 in San Antonio, Texas, to a teenage mother. “I moved around a bunch,” she says. “We were poor, but she worked really, really hard. I felt like school was a nice escape for me. I threw all my energy into that.”
Wells remembers her town, Victoria, Texas, as a place where people were disconnected from each other and where many of the people she knew struggled financially and spiritually. “People were very lost. … There wasn’t a lot of community.” She sits for a second and then continues. “My whole life, I’ve just been very sensitive to that level of existence and how to help people get out of that. I’m really interested in how can we make people’s lives less difficult.”
Though she says people had been telling her, “Don’t worry, Noël, one day you can move to Austin,” nearly her entire life, when she attended the University of Texas at Austin on scholarship, she found the experience wasn’t quite what she’d hoped. “I feel like the secret of Austin is that the capital’s there. There’s a lot of money there. It’s still a very segregated city,” Wells says. “I wouldn’t even say it’s as liberal as you would assume it is.” She originally studied pre-law and planned to be a civil rights lawyer “and go into politics and change everything for everybody,” she says. “And I couldn't do it. I was crying all the time. I just don’t have thick skin.”
While, as she puts it, Wells was pretending she was going to become a lawyer, she also studied film and television and busied herself by writing and performing sketches. She bought cameras and filmed herself performing. “It took me a long time to even admit that I wanted to do comedy,” she says. After moving to Los Angeles in 2010, she began making videos for Cracked and CollegeHumor and performing at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, the renowned comedy incubator, while working a series of editing gigs and odd jobs. “When I moved to L.A., my family was very worried. But because I had so many skill sets, I was like, ‘Hey, don’t worry. No matter what, I’m going to make something.’”
After gaining some attention for her videos, she got the opportunity to audition for Saturday Night Live, but didn’t make the initial cut. Two years later, after another shot, she made her debut in the season premiere of the 2013-14 season. The show had recently lost popular cast members Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Fred Armisen, and, in Wells’s opinion, overcompensated by hiring too many new faces; she was one of six new players to debut on the premiere. “It was all stacked up from the beginning,” she says. “It was a year that everybody was like, ‘Oh, this is fucked.’ Everybody that year was miserable.”
On her first episode, she got an early, high-profile spotlight with a Girls parody that showed off her Dunham impersonation and let her play off the evening’s host, Tina Fey. But as the season went on, she rarely got airtime and says her “progressive” ideas were ignored. “When you first start, you don't get paid anything,” she says, adding that she struggled with her bills and was taking sandwiches home from craft services.
Wells remembers 2013 marking a shift in the way people communicate online, as conversations about pop culture became increasingly barbed and hyperbolic. “This is when the toxicity of the internet really took a very strong shape around the show,” she says. “People online are attacking me like I’m …” She looks frustrated for a second, her voice a bit frayed. She regains her composure, injecting some extra warmth into her tone: “Just, the balance is so confusing. It’s like I had gotten to the top of the world. But I was actually kind of struggling.”
Saturday Night Live is not her favorite topic, but Wells strikes me as both professional enough to realize she’ll be answering questions about it for a little while longer and too polite not to give a thoughtful answer. She said she was not surprised when she was not brought back after the season ended.
“Was your first thought afterward ‘Well, fuck. I’m done,’ or ‘I’ll show them?’” I ask.
“It was just more like, ‘Why don’t they see me? What did I do wrong?’” she replies. “I knew that it wasn’t a mistake that I had gotten there. There was no part of me that wanted to show them, or wanted to give up. I was just like, ‘OK, so I was there. I saw what that was like. I don’t have to try doing that anymore. How do I regroup my energy, and what can I do and work on now?’”
“So you didn’t get too down on yourself?” I ask.
“I did,” she replies. “I hope I’m not always filled with self-doubt. I was very, very down on myself, but there’s that part of me that never stops trying.”
Britt Lower and Wells were set up on what Wells calls a “lady date” in Bryant Park by their shared manager shortly before Wells would debut on SNL and a few years before Lower would land a part on the surreal, Lorne Michaels–produced sitcom Man Seeking Woman. “I immediately took a liking to her,” Lower says. “As does the whole world.”
Lower hung out with Wells backstage during her SNL opening night and remembers “a lot of ear-to-ear smiles,” she says. “It’s a pretty high-stress environment, but she seemed to be handling it like such a pro.” She later saw how her friend reacted when it didn’t work out.
“I think, like anything in life, when you don’t get what you thought you wanted, it’s always an opportunity to make the thing that you didn’t think you would be able to make,” Lower says. “Much like a relationship ending, in that break-up period, you discover the most about yourself.”
Wells began working on a show for Comedy Central that she described to The New York Times as “What if Larry David was dating another Larry David?” Two separate pilots were shot, and she recently learned the show wasn’t picked up. She did her best to stay busy and kept rewriting her screenplay. “[I felt like] I have to write this movie because I don’t know what else to do. I don’t want to be some quirky girl in a sitcom,” she recalls, but says that she was frustrated that, like so many other things in her life, it wasn’t coming together the way she wanted it to.
“I was crying over my career in my apartment,” she remembers. “Feeling really sorry for myself, and my cat, Mr. Feeny, came up and sat down in front of me and just stared at me. If you could put his stare into words, it would be ‘grow the fuck up.’ And lightning struck, and the idea came to me about what the movie would be about.” (For the record, yes, she did name Mr. Feeny after the school principal from Boy Meets World: “Just a sort of name you would name your cat when you’re right out of high school.”)
Mr. Roosevelt tells the story of a frustrated (and often frustrating) Los Angeles comedian who returns to Austin, Texas, after the titular cat she once shared with her former boyfriend (the amiable musician-comedian Nick Thune) takes ill. She quickly grows suspicious of her ex’s new partner (played with marvelous comedic restraint by Lower) and resentful of her own inability to get off the ground.
A Harry and Tonto for the gig-economy generation, the movie is an assured and promising debut, one that winningly crossbreeds the walking-and-talking Texas rhythms of Richard Linklater’s and Joe Swanberg’s slice-of-life eye for detail with a Noah Baumbach–derived predilection for wringing laughs and poignancy from unflattering emotional truths. After earning critical raves at South by Southwest earlier this year, Mr. Roosevelt played in limited release in New York and Los Angeles. It will premiere on Netflix later this month.
Wells developed her character, Emily, off and on for a few years as “a composite of the darker parts of me, and some guys that I know,” she says. “I wanted her to feel universal, so I put male and female attributes in her that I recognize in other people.” She knew she wanted to write something she’d star in and direct, but the early versions of the script were scattered.
“I just remembered this the other day. The movie used to open with her applying for a dog walking job on Craigslist,” she adds. “Because it’s something that happened to me: Halfway through the interview, I realized the guy was masturbating on the phone. And I had sent the man my résumé. He had all my information.”
The the script took years to solidify, but the general idea has stayed the same. “It was always starting from the place that millennials are very lost. That we don’t really have a sustainable or tenable economic trajectory,” she says. “Everything’s moving into tech, but I didn’t really think that that’s the way things should be going. There’s no stability. I was definitely sold a bill of goods where it was like, ‘Don’t worry! If you do really well, you’ll get somewhere else.’ It just isn’t the way that it is.”
After years of making short comedic videos for the internet, Mr. Roosevelt is Wells’s first full-length film. “I knew that I knew what I was doing, [but] I got nervous about telling other people to do what I wanted,” she says. “There are two things running in me at all times, [one of] which is where I want to be a boss and I want to rule things. The other flip side is if I do that, I’ll get in trouble. I’ll be difficult. I’m a bitch. The way that people react is insane when you push back on them as a woman. I imagine people just hear their mom yelling at them.”
“Were there people on set that just couldn’t accept taking direction from a woman?” I ask.
“No, it’s never that. It’s all much more subtle. I’m also very sensitive, too,” she replies. “If somebody reacts a certain way, it also affects me. Just as a balancing act of, like, ‘I don’t want to hurt that person. I don’t want to upset them,’” she says. “It was kind of playing psychologist. What’s the right way to say this to this person to get the reaction that I need out of them?”
After acknowledging that Mr. Roosevelt was the first time Thune worked with a female director (“It’s so dumb that that’s even a thing to say”), he remarks, “Any indie movie where the budget is so low, people start slacking. She never slacked. Never was there a moment where I thought, ‘Wow, Noël is really taking it easy,’” he says. Thune notes that he found the set—which included a female director of photography and several other women in positions of authority—to be refreshing: “[Wells] would have me come over to where she was staying, sometimes at 10 or 11 p.m., because she works all day, and we would rehearse scenes at her place at night. It showed me that she was aware of how crucial every moment was in the filming process.”
As Wells began working on the version of the script that would become Mr. Roosevelt, she got a call to audition for Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Netflix dramedy, Master of None. Along with Insecure, Better Things, Atlanta, and others, the acclaimed series is one of a number of shows that saw a wave of young creators—many people of color and/or women—telling multidimensional stories about individuals who rarely got to be the central focus of a television show. “I think that’s probably why I responded to the script so much,” she says. “Like, ‘Thank you, somebody’s doing something that I want to do.’”
In the first season, Wells played Ansari’s love interest, a character who was just as complicated and filled with foibles and contradictions as the male lead, and who stood on her own beyond just being “the girlfriend.” The end result was one of the most charming rom-com pairings of the past several years.
“I went into the room and just improvised with Aziz,” she says of her second meeting with him. “We got along so well. I don’t know, it was a turning point. This was my first time working with somebody that gets me, and wants me to do well. That was the whole season for me.”
Her first meeting with Ansari and Yang, in her opinion, didn’t go nearly as well.
“I just talked the whole time. I told them how I had been kidnapped when I was a kid by my dad, and all these terrible things that had happened to me,” she says, laughing. “Then I left the meeting, and I was like, ‘Why did I just like tell them all those crazy things?’ And then I didn’t hear from them as they were making the show.”
Wells declined to go into detail about her childhood kidnapping, other than to say, “This is why I think I’m comedic. Because a lot of weird things have happened to me. You kind of just have to be like, ‘Yeah, I was kidnapped,’” she says while laughing. “I feel like I just have a really good insight into human psychology. I think that there’s a reason why I’m always trying to keep the peace.”
She laughs a bit more, and then we start chitchatting about our cats. We then say our goodbyes, and she’s off to do what she can to maintain community as best as possible with the people who see her, off to laugh through it and try to keep the peace.
Michael Tedder has written for Esquire, Variety, Stereogum, and The Daily Beast.