By Lanford Beard
Updated May 25, 2012 at 06:48 PM EDT


  • Movie

Kristen Wiig made her final regular appearance on Saturday Night Live last week with a moving send-off that was grander and more heartfelt than the sketch show has given a cast member in quite some time. With half a dozen film projects in the works, Wiig is poised to launch into a long, successful career on the A-list. But then again so was David Spade, Jimmy Fallon, and Tina Fey. While those SNL vets have all flourished in television, Wiig has made no move toward the small screen, and it’s harder to become a bankable star on the level of Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, and Eddie Murphy. Can Wiig leverage her Bridesmaids success to become SNL‘s first major female breakout film star? And, if so, where would she fit in the industry? EW reached out to some authorities on the show’s history to determine Wiig’s chances for headliner success.

“It’s a weird thing, having that SNL brand attached to you when you move from the show to movies,” acknowledges Nick Marx, a Media and Cultural Studies Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. “That assumption is there that successful stars of SNL will eventually leave the show and go on into movies. It’s really a decidedly mixed bag as far as whether it’s an advantage or not when you begin a movie career.” So will she go the route of Ferrell or the way of Chris Kattan?

One major factor working against Wiig is her own offbeat sensibility when it comes to character creation. “Some of the stuff she did on Saturday Night Live was like Dada,” says Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “What she was really known on Saturday Night Live for was that incredibly trippy, you’ve-got-to-be-high-to-understand characters… always these borderline offensive portrayals of people with really peculiar social tics.” He adds, “The idea of doing a movie about Gilly sounds about as likely for big success as the idea of doing Pat, which they did” — and it bombed.

John Wareham, an SNL aficionado who writes for the Los Angeles Daily News, agrees: “A lot of her characters from the show and from Groundlings were weird. … If she goes too weird, she may pigeonhole herself.” Thompson notes, “When you think of the famous failures… the things that we remember and roll our eyes, they’ve been based on the characters from Saturday Night Live. Remember Night at the Roxbury? I don’t believe that’s on AFI’s list of the greatest films ever made.”

Continues Thompson, “Feature length movies and sketch comedy are two completely different aesthetics, and one has to be careful to be aware of that.” Marx thinks Wiig has made an important step toward foregoing the Corky Romano-, MacGruber-, and Superstar-style flops by “putting some distance, with Bridesmaids, between her own comedic persona and the ones that she developed on Saturday Night Live.”

This conscious distancing is a step above and beyond what many of her male counterparts have had to take to stay fresh. The characters Ferrell and Sandler have made millions on, while not direct SNL correlates, have been predicated upon the same shtick they brought to the show — Ferrell with his teetering-on-the-edge suburban dad, Sandler with his dopey-but-lovable manboy, Myers’ thousand accents, and Murphy’s street-inflected tweaks on Americana. (Also worth nothing, Murphy and Myers’ more recent box office success has rested solely on family friendly fare, which doesn’t seem a good fit for the woman who brought us Bridesmaids — though she’s trying with voice roles in the sequels to Despicable Me and How To Train Your Dragon.)

Wiig, on the other hand, has developed a cache of characters who “are good for Saturday night after midnight in seven-minute sketches” and very little more, as Thompson puts it. Like Mindy Elise Grayson, could Wiig’s greatest stumbling block moving forward be herself?

NEXT: Shattering the celluloid ceiling?

To succeed based on her own popular persona — or, indeed to succeed at all — would indeed put Wiig in a class of her own. “I struggle to think of ‘Kristen Wiig could be the next,’ you know, fill-in-the-blank-here for a former [female] SNL cast member,” says Marx. “That show has been sort of a man’s world, and the film stars that come from SNL have been men.”

Though charter cast member Gilda Radner might have succeed, she passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 42. In more recent memory, Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph have carved out solid careers for themselves with TV roles and small parts in film, but notes Marx, “We still tend to have that hierarchy of taste: Movies are the top shelf, TV is still second tier behind it — even though a lot of performers are going back and forth between them. It should be pretty unique if Wiig can sustain the success that she’s had with Bridesmaids.”

The SNL performers who have really succeed, says Thompson, “have been auteurs” in the vein of Sandler and Ferrell, who create, produce, and star in their own material. Agrees Marx, “Having a hand in more aspects of media creation other than just being on screen is really important.” After proving herself as a triple threat with Bridesmaids, Wiig is certainly taking control of her own destiny.

If she runs aground at any point, though, she also has friends in high places to put her back in the right direction. “With [SNL creator] Lorne [Michaels] and Judd Apatow on her side, I think they’ll help steer her,” says Wareham. Adds Marx, “Someone like Lorne Michaels, who doesn’t just have interest in SNL anymore, will be able to have her in his other productions. He supports her beyond the show.” And that will be critical, says Thompson, “She definitely needs a push. Everybody needs a push. She’s by no means a guaranteed commodity. You can’t even say that about the biggest stars these days.” Murphy and Myers can certainly attest to that.

But Michaels wasn’t the only one dancing with Wiig on Saturday’s broadcast. All her current castmates took her for a twirl, and alums including Poehler, Kattan, Steve Martin returned to bid her farewell. “I don’t doubt that it was an indication of the complete loyalty and support on the part of her friends and castmates, that they were behind her and honoring her,” says Marx. “I’m sure there have been a number of cast members over the years whose fellow castmates didn’t feel like giving them that sort of send-off, and it’s no accident we didn’t see something like that for David Spade.”

SNL is just one facet of Wiig’s comedy community. She has a stable of collaborators, from Bridesmaids co-writer Annie Mumolo to Mad Men star Jon Hamm, a treasure trove of Groundlings grads, and the entire Apatow empire at her disposal. “The Kristen Wiig brand isn’t just her,” says Thompson, “but this whole attitude. There have been many people who have thrived by putting themselves in a package.”

NEXT: What’s up next for Wiig

Wiig’s circle will expand greatly as she has lined up projects going into 2014. She has films in production with Sean Penn, Robert De Niro, Ben Stiller, Annette Bening, and Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, who is making his feature film debut. Up next is Imogene, a dark dramedy about a woman who finds herself in the care of her gambling addict mother after faking her own suicide to get an ex-boyfriend back. From her middle-of-the-road heroine in Bridesmaids to her zany SNL characters, this role is a “definite departure,” says Wareham, who cautions that it could be “a dangerous slope to go against type right away.”

Thompson sees it differently. “When you break loose of something that everybody knows you for, one of the thing you want to do is eliminate the gravitational force of those roles,” he says. “Oftentimes that can’t be done. Henry Winkler could never shake The Fonz, for example. So it’s probably a good idea to be in a completely different role.”

“The fact that Bridesmaids was such a huge success… she can coast on that for a little while,” says Thompson. Adds Marx, “I doubt her success or failure will be defined by her next two or three movies.” Thompson ventures that she could even benefit from a movie with middling box office that earns her some artistic buzz, à la Reese Witherspoon in Election.

Where Wiig has the advantage on her closest female counterparts in Hollywood (Witherspoon, Angelina Jolie, and Jennifer Aniston) is her authorship. “She’s not just a performer, she’s a writer, too,” notes Marx. “That will definitely help her get future projects going and help keep her relevant for a much longer time.” For better or worse, no one has blazed a trail for Kristen Wiig to follow. Then again, for the SNL MVP defined by an irrepressible quirk and individuality, it seems only appropriate.

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