She poured frozen peas down her back, and a nation laughed. Now she's one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood. Introducing Rebel Wilson

By Josh Rottenberg
May 04, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

Some people catch the acting bug from performing in a school play. Some get it from being in a cereal commercial. Rebel Wilson caught it in the most absurdly literal way imaginable: from a mosquito bite. After graduating from high school, the Sydney, Australia native — whom Bridesmaids fans will recognize as Kristen Wiig’s irritating, tequila-worm-tattooed roommate Brynn — was spending a year in South Africa as a youth ambassador when she contracted a severe case of malaria.

Hovering near death in a Johannesburg hospital, Wilson — who’d been planning to become a lawyer — had a vivid fever dream in which she saw herself standing on a stage accepting an Oscar for acting. In her delirious vision, Wilson delivered not an acceptance speech but an acceptance rap (”Listen up, y’all, I’ve got something to say/It’s about this award that I won today”) — and the audience went wild. ”I don’t know if that idea had always been inside me or what,” Wilson says, picking at a cheese plate at an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. ”But when I got back home, I said I had to become an actor.”

Although a febrile hallucination might not seem like the most sensible basis for a career choice, it’s hard to argue with Wilson’s results. Just two years after arriving in L.A. as a total unknown, the 32-year-old is making a lot of noise in Hollywood. Wilson has no fewer than five films set to come out this year, including the May 18 ensemble comedy What to Expect When You’re Expecting, in which she plays a spacey assistant at a breastfeeding supply store, and the indie comedies Bachelorette, with Kirsten Dunst, and Struck by Lightning, with Chris Colfer. On top of her busy film schedule, Wilson just shot a pilot for a CBS sitcom that she created, wrote, and stars in called Super Fun Night — executive-produced by Conan O’Brien — about three dorky twentysomething roommates trying to turn around their lame social lives. ”Rebel is going to make a big splash,” says Elizabeth Banks, who plays Wilson’s boss in What to Expect and produced another of her upcoming films, the collegiate-singing-group comedy Pitch Perfect. ”She’s like a female Seth Rogen in a way. She came here to conquer.”

On the face of it, Wilson’s rapid ascent seems improbable. As her Bridesmaids costar and close friend Matt Lucas (see sidebar) puts it, breaking into Hollywood is ”hard for any woman who’s not from America and doesn’t look like Angelina Jolie.” But spend a little time with Wilson and you’ll be surprised at how utterly unsurprised she is by her own success — not in an arrogant, entitled way but simply a cheerfully matter-of-fact one. ”My agents say, ‘Rebel, no one moves this quickly,”’ she says. ”But to me it doesn’t feel quick. Sometimes when they tell me I got a movie, I’m just like, ‘Oh, yeah? Cool.’ Because in my mind I already thought it would happen.”

Wilson’s disarming self-assurance instantly won over O’Brien when she appeared on his late-night show last year bearing nunchucks (she’s a martial-arts enthusiast), and after reading her script for Super Fun Night, he signed on. ”Rebel has earned her confidence,” he says. ”She has a very keen knowledge of how she’s funny. She’s not going to be patient with a bunch of TV veterans telling her, ‘No, this is how you’re funny, Rebel.”’ He laughs. ”We’ll break her, though. I’ve got the Welcome Back, Kotter writers coming in.”

Wilson insists she wasn’t a funny kid, which seems remarkable considering how tailor-made her upbringing was for a comedy career. Her parents were competitive dog breeders, and she — along with her younger siblings Liberty, Ryot, and Annachi (”It’s just a theme, not a political statement,” she says of the punk-rock-sounding names) — grew up in a house overrun by beagles. ”We used to drive around in a yellow caravan and sell dog products,” she says. ”It was the most embarrassing thing ever — exactly like the movie Best in Show.”

An academic overachiever who’d go on to graduate from law school, Wilson threw her family for a loop when she announced she wanted to become an actress. ”My mum cried,” Wilson says without any trace of bitterness. ”None of them thought I’d be good. Girls who look sort of normal like me… They just thought, ‘Why would anyone want you in their stuff?”’ Though she initially intended to be a dramatic actress, Wilson quickly discovered that her forte was comedy. Within a few years she’d risen to become a national TV comedy star thanks to the Australian series Pizza, The Wedge, and Bogan Pride. Being an Aussie TV actor doesn’t necessarily put you on Hollywood’s radar, though. In 2010 Wilson moved to L.A. and landed in a grim one-bedroom apartment in a sketchy neighborhood near the beach. After some 30 auditions failed to pan out, she went in to read for the part of a bridesmaid in an R-rated female-centric comedy — and something clicked.

While Melissa McCarthy ended up getting the part, Bridesmaids director Paul Feig was bowled over by Wilson’s audition. ”Rebel’s energy was so funny and odd, we kept thinking, ‘What can we do with her?”’ he remembers. Feig came up with the idea of having Wilson play Lucas’ sister, a role that didn’t exist in the original script. On the set, he says, it was instantly clear she was willing to go to any length for a laugh: ”It was like, ‘Can you show more butt crack?’ ‘Sure!’ She was just going for it.”

Even as she works as a spokeswoman for Jenny Craig (”I’m always trying to lose weight — it’s just I’m not very successful at it,” she says), Wilson has no qualms about taking on roles that highlight her weight. Her character in Pitch Perfect is named Fat Amy, and in Bachelorette she plays a bride-to-be who’s called ”Pig Face” by her own cruel bridesmaids. ”Some actresses who are bigger say, ‘I don’t want to get famous for playing a fat character,”’ Wilson says. ”But the size I am, you can’t just ignore it and try to go for skinny roles.” She shrugs. ”In comedy you have to use what you’ve got.”

It’s the evening before the first table read for Super Fun Night, but if Wilson is nervous she’s hiding it well. Earlier today, she says, she got an email expressing concern about one of the jokes in the script. ”It said, ‘If the dog is pooping, you can’t show things exiting the…”’ She trails off. ”I shut it and hit delete. In Australia you get no notes, but in America all these people want to weigh in. I’m like, ‘Can’t we just do it?”’

If Super Fun Night gets picked up, Wilson will be beamed into millions of living rooms every week, but if it doesn’t, she says, ”I’ll just go back to movies. It’s a win-win.” She recently finished shooting a supporting role in director Michael Bay’s action film Pain and Gain and has her own musical-comedy screenplay in development. She and Lucas — who plan to move into a house in West Hollywood together this summer (the two are just friends, and Wilson is single) — are collaborating on other comedy ideas, including a potential Bridesmaids spin-off movie centering on their characters. ”We already have the story line,” she says. ”I can’t give too much away, but it’s a prequel. I have ideas every minute.”

And as for that fever-induced idea that launched this whole journey, Wilson definitely believes she could wind up on the Oscar stage someday. ”If I win, I’ll have to do a rap, even if it’s for some really serious movie about war or something,” she says. ”That was the prophecy.” She stares into the distance for a moment, turning over this vision in her mind. ”I just hope it’s for something with Meryl Streep.”

Meet the Roommate
London-born Matt Lucas, 38, is well-known abroad for his erstwhile BBC sketch-comedy series Little Britain, in which he and co-star David Walliams lampooned English people from all walks of life. Thanks to his role as Wilson’s brother, Gil, in Bridesmaids, he’s expanding his fan base here as well. ”Now in America I’m that creepy British dude from Bridesmaids,” says the actor, whose upcoming films include the British dramedy The King of Soho, the indie comedy Small Apartments, and the crime thriller Thérèse Raquin. An added Bridesmaids benefit has been his friendship with Wilson, to whom he bears a striking resemblance. ”I now know exactly what I’d look like if I was to change gender,” he jokes.