SNL alum Noël Wells' Mr. Roosevelt
Indie comedy digs deep into Austin social mores
A decade ago, Noël Wells was the wunderkind of the Austin improv and comedy scene, starring at Esther's Follies while still an undergraduate at the University of Texas. She left us in 2010 for bigger stages, eventually including a season on Saturday Night Live and a recurring role as Aziz Ansari's girlfriend on Master of None. But through the ups and downs of a big-time screen acting career on both coasts, Wells never entirely let go of her connection to her old hometown.
"There's just so much there from my past that I'm still trying to unpack," Wells says of Austin, the setting of her new film Mr. Roosevelt, which she also wrote and directed. "It's like a character in my head all the time."
Another character that Wells has carried with her for years is Emily Martin, the protagonist of Mr. Roosevelt. "I think of her as a composite of every woe-is-me millennial, who isn't bad, but definitely needs a big kick in the ass," Wells says. She first wrote the character in a UT screenwriting workshop, and she's been figuring out how to make a movie about her ever since. Since oversensitive millennials and the city lovingly known as the Velvet Rut seem to have a natural attraction to each other, setting the film in Austin was a no-brainer. Still, Wells herself needed a bit of a kick to make the film finally come together.
"I've always wanted to make a movie. That's always been my goal," she says. "I moved to Los Angeles because I wanted to get on SNL. I thought once I established myself there comedically, then they would let you make movies." But when SNL didn't renew Wells' contract in 2014, she became temporarily mired in self-doubt. "I had a lot of dark moments. I'd cry all the time. I felt like I had no idea where I was going to fit into the world artistically."
One day, Wells was sitting on her apartment floor weeping when she noticed her cat staring at her pityingly. Suddenly, she had a revelation for how to make the Austin-set movie idea work. "I thought, I guess I should go to plan B, which was always actually plan A, and start just making a movie," she says. "Like, why am I relying on this system to give me permission to do the thing I actually ultimately wanted to do?"
Mr. Roosevelt is a film not about the Austin that Wells left in 2010, but about the new one she's discovered on more recent visits. When Emily returns home to attend a funeral, she notices a skyline full of cranes. Her ex-boyfriend has put in hardwood floors in his Eastside bungalow, and his guitar is in storage while he studies to become a Realtor. Worst of all, he's dating a girl who won't stop talking about gluten.
Wells' satire of new-Austin values is unsparing, but she saves the harshest criticism for Emily, her semi-autobiographical train wreck of a protagonist. "The ultimate thing that I wanted to bring out in the movie was that a lot of people are somewhere in the middle," Wells says. "We villainize anybody who doesn't understand our struggle, but everyone's just trying to figure it out. Emily is that person who doesn't quite understand it yet and thinks that 'those people' are the enemy, when the enemy's actually something a little bit bigger."
The result is a warmhearted tribute to Austin old and new – and an impressively assured first feature full of faces and locations that SXSW audiences will be sure to recognize. Wells is thrilled to be debuting the film for a hometown crowd. As much as she might poke fun at Austin onscreen, she says, she still thinks of it as an artistic home.
"It's a city that's down to enjoy stuff," she says. "Not all places are. That's why I keep coming back and making things here."
NARRATIVE SPOTLIGHTSunday, March 12, 2:15pm, Paramount
Tuesday, March 14, 4:15pm, Rollins Theatre
Buzz Screening: Wednesday, March 15, 3pm, Paramount Wednesday, March 15, 9:30pm, Rollins Theatre