Interview with Noël Wells

Noël Wells

Images and Video by Jan-Willem Dikkers 

"My natural instincts kick in when I'm not

looking over my shoulder and judging everything”

— Noël Wells


Noël Wells
Noël Wells is a comedian, actor, writer and director from San Antonio, Texas. She is known for her roles in Master of None (2015-17) and Saturday Night Live from 2013-14. Wells directed and starred in her film Mr. Roosevelt (2017), which won the Audience Award for Narrative Spotlight at this year’s SXSW. She is set to appear in forthcoming comedy films Happy Anniversary (2017) and Social Animals (2017).

Mr. Roosevelt
Written, directed and starring Noël Wells, Mr. Roosevelt is a dark comedy about a struggling Los Angeles comedian who returns to her hometown of Austin, Texas to find that much has changed, including her ex-boyfriend and the city itself. The film also stars Nick Thune, Britt Lower, Daniella Pineda and Andre Hyland. Mr. Roosevelt won the Audience Award for Narrative Spotlight at this year’s SXSW.

A burgeoning comedian, actor and filmmaker, Noël Wells is best recognized as a former member of Saturday Night Live’s cast and the girlfriend of Aziz Ansari’s character in Season One of his Netflix series Master of None. Wells directed, wrote and stars in Mr. Roosevelt, about a Los Angeles comedian who returns to her hometown of Austin, Texas after learning that someone close to her has fallen ill. The film, which tackles the millennial dilemma of returning to your roots only to find they have vastly changed, is Wells’ debut as a filmmaker, fully realizing what she’s always wanted: to make the whole thing. She talks about her drive as both an actor and filmmaker, the balance between ambition and relationships and her deep affinity for animals.

Where are you from?

San Antonio, Texas.

And when did you become interested in making films?

It was a slow realization over a number of years. I have always thought of stories in terms of moving pictures, and I’ve always liked telling stories. So my mind just works like that.

Who inspired you growing up?

I really liked comedians. Saturday Night Live was very inspiring. I loved Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri, Jim Carrey, Whoopi Goldberg and Holly Hunter. From a young age, my favorite directors were the Coen Brothers. When Fargo came out, I was like, “That’s my favorite movie,” and I wasn’t being cute.

You began your career with acting. How did it all come about?

Acting was a way to get to this point. I really do like performing and am good at channeling characters, but you can also use that skill to write characters. So I used that for writing this script.

I’ve always wanted to make the bigger thing. I never wanted to be an actor in the sense of, “Pick me! Put me in your movie!” I would be like, “I want to act, but I also want to make the movie.”

When did you decide that this is what you wanted to do?

I studied film in college, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Everybody was like, “I’m going to be a director.” But I didn’t seem to have the same skills sets. I didn’t really know a lot about movies, and I had not watched every movie in the Criterion Collection, so I was like “I will never catch up!”

I did a lot of production and learned to do everything behind the scenes, but I was secretly taking classes and moving towards what I wanted to be. I remember standing in front of my class right when I was about to graduate. They had asked us, “What do you want to do after this?” and I said to the class, “I want to do comedy on television.” But I also thought, “And then, I’m going to make movies,” but I didn’t say it out loud. Even though I was working on scripts all the time, I didn’t really make the decision to do the movie until after Saturday Night Live.

“My natural instinct kicks in when I’m not looking over my shoulder and judging everything.”
— Noël Wells

You wrote, directed, and starred in Mr. Roosevelt, which premiered at SXSW and won the Audience Award for Narrative Spotlight. It’s also your debut film. What made you want to make this film?

For one, I knew I could tell the story effectively no matter the budget. I wrote the script knowing that if I had to pay for it all by myself, it would still be a movie people would want to watch. It was what I could do at the time, and I’m really proud of it.

I wanted to tell a story of somebody like me who isn’t quite me and to represent the malaise of being a millennial—not having much direction and feeling like the world let you down—but to capture it in an absurd story instead of being dramatic. I wanted to flip it on its head and make it feel inconsequential. But it’s the biggest thing in this character’s head.

What is your summary of what the film is about?

It’s about a struggling comedienne who had moved to Los Angeles and broken up with her boyfriend. Then she gets a call that somebody she’s close to has fallen ill, and she races back to Austin, Texas. The movie takes place with her staying at her ex-boyfriend’s house with him and his new, amazing girlfriend. She butts heads with him about how he’s changed and how Austin’s changed, and it reflects back on her and her failures.

Was there much you borrowed from your own life in making this film?

It seriously doesn’t have anything to do with my own life, but I think when I walk around—in day-to-day walking, as we do everyday—I’ll hear people say something and be like, “That’d be a funny character.” Or I’ll do something and think, “That’s really ridiculous if somebody would do that.” The movie is a collection of things like that. Taking bits that I’ve experienced, or seen other people experience, or ways I’ve interacted with human beings, and figuring out if there’s a way to put them into the story.

So no, it’s not really me, but a lot of things did happen to me in some version of reality. I just like the authenticity of what would really happen or what people would really say or grounding it in a person that I’ve interacted with before.

What were some issues you hoped to address in the film?

I do think there’s a balance between ambition and your career and friendship and family. At a certain point in my life, I was so focused on succeeding that I really left people behind that had always been there for me and supported me, and I didn’t really think about how that impacted them.

I think a lot of people go through that. It’s that exchange of trying to go from a small pond to a big pond, realizing the big pond is going to eat you up, and by the time you go back to the small pond, everybody’s moved on without you. That was the issue I was exploring, and then also this person moving out of her self-absorption, seeing what she’s done, taking responsibility for it and realizing she can check that balance in the future. She’s not a monster, but maybe from here on out she’ll be a more thoughtful with how she treats people.

“They had asked us, “What do you want to do after this?” and I said to the class, ‘I want to do comedy on television.’ But I also thought, ‘And then, I’m going to make movies,’ but I didn’t say it out loud.”
— Noël Wells

Daniella Pineda
Daniella Pineda is a Mexican-American actress, writer and comedian from Oakland, California currently starring in Noël Wells’ film Mr. Roosevelt. She has also starred in TV series including American Odyssey (2015) and The Detours
(2016-) and will appear in a lead role for the upcoming Jurassic World sequel.

Britt Lower
Britt Lower is an American actress known for her roles in the TV series Man Seeking Woman (2015-17) and Unforgettable (2011-15). She has appeared in films including Sisters (2015), Those People (2015) and Mr. Roosevelt and has a central role in Hulu’s forthcoming comedy series Future Man.

Nick Thune
Nick Thune is an American actor, comedian and musician originally from Seattle. Thune has performed several times on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (2014-) and has appeared in films including Knocked Up (2007), Dave Made a Maze (2017) and Mr. Roosevelt (2017).

Andre Hyland
Actor, writer, filmmaker and artist Andre Hyland has appeared in films including his own The 4th (2016), Mr. Roosevelt (2017) and the upcoming film In A Relationship (2018). Hyland also creates fine art and graffiti, often under the tag name Buddy Lembek, and his work has appeared in galleries including London’s Institute of Contemporary Art and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

The film has a great cast. How did it all come together?

It was mostly friends or people I was a fan of through comedy. Weirdly, all the women in the film are with my manager. That was totally an accident. I’ve known them for a long time, and it just happened.

Daniella Pineda just happened to be the perfect Jen. We auditioned lots of people, and she was there the whole time. I was like, “It can’t be so easy that it’s just Daniela, but it is Daniela.” She’s amazing in the film. Britt is an incredible Celeste, and we share the same manager so it was really sweet that we all came to this moment together. I’ve always been a fan of Nick Thune and his comedy. When I asked him if he would do it, he just got on a plane to did the movie. And Andre Hyland. When I first moved to LA, he had a show called The Jesse Miller Talk Show and he had flyers all over the place. I was like, “Dude, he’s making things the way that I want to make things,” which is just doing it. We had a meeting, and he agreed to be in the film.

All the Austin people I auditioned, and most of the people that are in Austin are actually Austin actors. It was exciting to be able to put them in the film and give them an opportunity because they’re all really funny. There’s a great community there.

Have you thought about doing a series based on where the film left off?

No, but I think you can assume that if I’m ever in a movie that I wrote, it’s another chapter. Even if it’s a totally different genre of film, it’s just another chapter for this person.

Do you have any pets currently?

I do. I have a cat named Mr. Feeney.

Have you had any traumatic pet deaths?

This is really not going to make my case for me saying that the plot has nothing to do with me, but Mr. Feeney got very sick when I left him with my ex-boyfriend when I moved to LA. I thought he was going to die, and I used all my savings to save him. I had a friend who was like, “Why would you do that? It’s just a fucking cat.” So that’s where that line comes from. I remember being hysterical that my friend could be so callous and unsympathetic. I was like, “What do you mean, it’s just a fucking cat?!” I lost my shit. I didn’t talk to this person for months. It was so heartless.

I grew up with tons of animals. I really love animals, and some were my family. When I went to college, my parents put both of my dogs to sleep without talking to me about it, and I think most of the movie is coping with the grief that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I pursued my life, I took them for granted, and I never really got a chance to say goodbye.

I love the images used in the opening credit sequence. Did you take them?

Yes, those are my pictures. About 90% of them were taken while I was in college with my boyfriend that the movie is loosely based on, but isn’t based on my life at all.

I took a film photography class, which actually made me feel like I could be a director. Everything had moved over to digital, and I thought everything I shot looked really terrible. I was like, “I don’t have the inborn talent to do this.” Then one summer while I was doing an internship in York, I took 36 rolls of pictures with a point-and-shoot camera, and I didn’t have money to develop the film. When I came back to Austin, I got the film developed and realized I actually had an eye. My natural instinct kicks in when I’m not looking over my shoulder and judging everything.

Do you still do photography now?

Yeah, kind of like a hobby. I have had film photography featured in some exhibitions. One of the pictures I took was on the front cover of Oxford American. That was just an accident. It’s an ongoing project that doesn’t necessarily have a place, but I like to share them, and I like documenting things. I like documenting my friends, and now that I’m working in film, I document the behind the scenes of projects I’m on or when I do television. I think one day this will be a cool thing to look back on. Right now, I don’t really know what to do with it.

›› Noël Wells: Photographs

“I wanted to tell a story of somebody like me who isn’t quite me and to represent the malaise of being a millennial—not having much direction and feeling like the world let you down—but to capture it in an absurd story instead of being dramatic.”
— Noël Wells

How did your short film “Siri Finds Out Steve Jobs Died” come about?

I’ve been making sketches and shorts since high school. That one is on my IMDb because it went super viral. It literally came out of my friend Matt. Steve Jobs had just died, and Matt was like, “Somebody should do a sketch with Siri finding out Steve Jobs died.” So I wrote it, and he shot it. It went viral because basically we tell Siri that Steve Jobs died, and she essentially becomes suicidal. So we’re all interacting with her like she’s very real because she is, right?

Writing, directing and starring in a film is a pretty unique skillset. Who do you look up to that also does this well?

The only people I’m thinking of that do this are Albert Brooks and Woody Allen. Lena Dunham does it. I never considered this as something people did. It just felt like a thing I had to do. I didn’t think I was pretty enough to just be an actress, so I was like, “If I want to do this, I have to make my own content.” But Albert Brooks is someone I would look up to because he’s very funny, and I like his movies.

Do you have another project to write, direct and star in?

I have two projects in mind. I’m looking forward to writing more ensemble pieces so that I’ll have more time to actually direct, but because I like acting so much, I can’t not act. If I’m making a movie, I might as well put myself in it if it works that way.

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