'This Is Where I Belong'
How smarts and gumption took Noël Wells from Esther's to 'SNL'
Four years ago, Noël Wells was winding up her undergraduate career at the University of Texas, Today, the Longhorn alum with degrees in Plan II Honors and Radio-Television-Film is winding up her first season as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, where she's earned laughs and cheers for her impressions of, among others, Zooey Deschanel, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Lena Dunham (the last winning an approving tweet from the subject herself). Wells' path to SNL began in Austin on Sixth Street, where she performed with comedy institution Esther's Follies, so prior to her return for Moontower – where she'll do stand-up for the first time – the Chronicle asked Wells how the Follies helped prepare her for going live on Saturday night.
Austin Chronicle: Talk about your time at Esther's.
Noël Wells: I did it while I was in college. I balanced schoolwork with two rehearsal days during the week and five shows on the weekend. So I basically got used to not having a life for comedy, which prepared me for moving to Los Angeles and being okay with working really hard. The biggest thing about Esther's for me, though, was admitting to myself that this is actually what I wanted to do. 'Cause I went to school for film. I was gonna be a director. But my freshman year I saw like an ad in the paper that [the people at Esther's] were looking for people to audition, so I auditioned. I did some impressions and some characters, then they asked me if I could dance, because they were actually looking for a magician's assistant. I was like, "No, I can't dance." So they told me that they really liked me but that they didn't have a spot for me, but they said that they would in the summer so to come back. So, instead of going home that summer, I rented a room on Craigslist, then on June 1st, I marched up to their offices and I was like, "I'm here! I'm ready for my job!" And I'm a hundred percent certain that they had forgotten who I was, that I had auditioned, but there's this 18-year-old girl who's demanding a job. And the great thing about Esther's is that they really support the community, and I think they like that kind of gumption, so they hired me as an intern, but I basically worked like everybody else, and I spent like two and a half years there. [Laughs] If anything, it showed me that, although I love film and love media, I really wanted to be a performer and do comedy.
AC: How was the jump to L.A.? That can be a tough town to get a foothold in.
NW: I think I played it pretty strategically. When I got my degree, I found that I was really good at editing, so the last two years in school I focused on that and got an internship for a company in Austin where I worked as an editor's assistant. When I moved to L.A., I knew that my part-time job was going to be editing while I looked for acting work. That's basically what happened, so it made that transition pretty easy. The week I got there, I started taking classes [at Upright Citizens Brigade], and fortunately that theatre is very supportive and open to a lot of different comic voices, and you can perform a lot there without having to be at the school for very long, so there was really nothing in my way except myself. I had a lot of stage fright, a lot of insecurities that I had to work to conquer over the next three years. But L.A., I really liked it when I moved there.
AC: How has the year been? This has been a career goal of yours for a while, right?
NW: Yeah, and it's been mostly what I expected and wanted, but I had such a steep learning curve going in that most of this year has just been about me acclimating myself to the process and being humble enough to know that I have a lot to learn.
AC: Biggest adjustment you've had to make?
NW: I'm writing more than I've ever had to write before. In Los Angeles, I did write my own characters, but oftentimes I could formulate them over a long period of time. At SNL, you have exactly three days to come up with something and put it on its feet. So you've got to just put your nose to the grindstone, and there's no time to slack off or be wishy-washy about it. You have to really commit to an idea and hope for the best.
AC: Is there one you can say, "Oh, I was especially proud of that one. It really scored"?
NW: Not yet. There are little victories here and there, but I don't know that there's been anything that's completely scored for me so far. But you're given room to find that.
AC: Is there a sketch that you're especially proud of as a performer?
NW: The one that I feel the most proud of was actually from my first episode. They wrote a Girls video, and I did Lena Dunham, and that was the very first thing that I did on the show. They picked me up on Friday at 5 o'clock in the morning from my apartment and drove me to Brooklyn to shoot it. It was with Tina Fey, my first scene. And at that moment, it was like you were either gonna sink or swim, so I basically had to just go for it. Fortunately, it turned out really great. And it was a good feeling knowing like, "I can do this. This is where I belong. They didn't make a mistake." [Laughs]
AC: So what was your initial interaction with Tina Fey like? Did you have time to really interact, or was it just, "We gotta shoot this, and we've gotta do it fast"?
NW: You never really have a ton of time to interact with people. Some people are more friendly than others, but everybody just has to work so hard, and there's really not a lot of time to chit-chat. She was a great first host, because she's such a great example of an utter professional. She's so funny, she's very independent in a way that I really admire. So even if she wasn't like a den mother, like "Welcome to the show!" to me, I preferred it the other way, where it was like, "All right, kid, let's do this."
Noël Wells appears at Moontower April 23-26: Wednesday & Thursday, April 23-24, 9:30pm, at the Velv Comedy Lounge, 521 E. Sixth; and Friday & Saturday, April 25-26, 8:15pm, at New York, New York, 222 E. Sixth. For more info, visit www.moontowercomedyfestival.com.