Noël Wells spent one-season on Saturday Night Live before she landed opposite Aziz Ansari on Master of None, where she played Rachel.
If that's not enough, earlier this year at SXSW Wells made her directorial debut in Mr. Roosevelt, a coming-of-age comedy that Wells wrote, directed, and stared in. The movie follows a young comedian Emily, played by Wells, who has gone "viral" with a spaghetti vid. But going viral isn't all it's cracked up to be, and when the titular character (spoiler: her cat) falls ill, Emily treks it back to her hometown of Austin where she must face the life she left behind. Namely, her ex-boyfriend and his Pinterest-perfect new girlfriend, who has gallery-walled the living room space and has the pair off coffee.
What follows is a frank misfortune of events (plus some smack talking on LA Mexican food) that leaves Emily wondering WTF happened to her life? We caught up with the quad-threat to real talk airbrushed armpits and why "Hollywood is just a bunch of weirdos trying to find their way."
Important question first: Why name the cat Teddy Roosevelt?
I wanted the cat to have a sort of timeless iconic name, the sort of name a younger person would think to name an animal, but also one that could sound like an actual important person so audiences who haven’t read the synopsis could have the potential of being surprised about who Mr. Roosevelt is. Originally I named him Mr. Rogers, which felt very much like “childhood” and burying the past, but my producers were working on a Fred Rogers movie already and so we had to change the name. After a couple of ideas, Teddy Roosevelt felt like it matched a big, orange cat and had the gravitas of something bigger. Since then we have had a lot of weird Teddy Roosevelt coincidences surrounding the film, so it feels meant to be.
Second: Do you really think LA has bad tacos?
Well I think my real battle is the big burrito/taco standoff. Tacos beat burritos, hands down. As far as LA tacos vs. Austin tacos, I like smaller taco trucks in LA, but I think generally I prefer Mexican food in Texas. It’s just more flavorful! Please don’t hate me!
Now...Working with Aziz you said that you felt the two characters were “on equal footing.” Why, besides the obvious, was this important to you?
I just am not interested in being an actress or creative that doesn’t have some say in what’s happening. I like collaborating, I want to be engaged. I have too many things inside me and I need places to put them. When I don’t, I get really depressed and despondent.
Do you feel like you’ve been able to be your authentic self in Hollywood?
I’m sure we all cave to some pressure to be like “something” else in order to fit in, and as much as I think I’m always being true to who I am, I see many ways I chase after the wrong things or people in this town. That being said, Hollywood is just a bunch of weirdos trying to find their way, and because of that, I’ve been able to find my true self more and more and it’s even welcomed. The most awkward things for me are glamorous events. I’m not great on red carpets or photo shoots, but I’m learning how to have fun with image where before I would think I was a liar or faking if I dressed up. I think I’m realizing I’ve been in the glamour closet and I actually like being fabulous. Time will tell.
You’ve been promoting your directorial debut, Mr. Roosevelt, which, you also wrote and star in. More women are taking their careers into their own hands. Why was this an essential part of your journey?
I am always thinking about things to make and write and create, it’s always in my head and I go crazy if I’m not making something. This just felt like a natural progression of that journey. I think now it stands as proof to myself and other people that I have the capacity to do much bigger things.
Speaking of your journey, in the movie your character, Emily, works an editing job while pursuing her dream, what are some of the odder jobs you’ve taken while hustling your dream?
Oh boy. I’ve been working since I was 15, oftentimes having 2-3 jobs at a time so I’ve had many an odd job. A few that come to mind: I was a manager of an ice cream store, I created Wikipedia pages for businesses, I wrote and photographed how-to articles for listicle websites along the lines of “How to make a smoothie” or “How to give yourself a pedicure”...and I used to make my own clothes and sell them on eBay.
Mr. Roosevelt addresses the aimlessness that so many young women feel. What’s your advice to them?
We are in uncharted times economically as so many careers shift into tech and so much is being outsourced. I think my advice is really about healing and community. We’ve become so fractured as a culture, the only way to sustain ourselves is to come back together, and if you take care of yourself and get better, you’re going to be able to help other people too. This gives you a sense of purpose, and you get better, so it’s a win-win.
There’s a brief moment in the film when Emily looks at her diploma that’s been left in a box in a shed-- and there’s this universal feeling of 'oh, right, this thing. What IS this THING?' And she puts it back. Have you had similar moments?
Yeah. My favorite part about college was that I picked up a lot of useful skills in production classes, but I think in many ways, it seemed like a developmental delay. A diploma doesn’t really mean anything, really. After college I sort of realized I was trying way too hard to succeed in a system, and that success wasn’t really making me happy. I missed out on other real-world experiences I should have been having. But it’s different for everyone!
This also might seem rather minute, but when the she meets up with the crew at the swim hole, no one has perfectly shaved armpits. And it felt like another fresh breath of relief. Let’s not airbrush armpits! Let’s not airbrush life. There’s obviously some poking at Pinterest-life throughout the movie. “Pecans from another state,” meltdown in mind here. Would love hear your thoughts on this.
My big thing in life, is I’m just not interested in manufacturing or falsifying anything. Beauty is all around us in many shapes or sizes, and in many ways it’s all perception. We get to say what is beautiful. So for me, confidence is beautiful. Love is beautiful. Genuine self-expression is beautiful. So images can be beautiful, but often times, beauty gets distorted, and then the essence of what is beautiful is twisted, and it confuses people and makes them feel bad about themselves. I grew up hating everything about myself because of these distortions, and this has been my personal journey as a woman, to just learn to love myself. And part of that has been by seeing through these distortions, and also recognizing other people who are distorting things are also confused. So Emily’s critique of these perfect women is also problematic, if that makes sense. She’s not seeing them for who they really are, which are hurting women just like her.
Accepting that everything changes is part of growing up. Do you remember a point like that in your life?
This is going to sound dumb, but just making this movie is a major lesson in everything changing. You have something very set in your head about how it’s going to go, you have all these plans and goals about what it will be and look like and what it will do for you, and by the end, if you held onto that image, you wouldn’t have made any progress and you would be in despair because it absolutely is not anything like what you wanted. But that’s okay, it’s been an insane ride and I honestly know I’m better off for it being so difficult and challenging.
Female friendships are super important in the movie. How did you find support while making the movie?
The female actors on the shoot were all really incredible, and they kept me going, and my cinematographer Dagmar Weaver-Madsen was my rock through the shoot. She totally understood the spirit of the film from the beginning, and is also incredibly perceptive about the pressures and roadblocks that women face day-to- day on set. Anytime I would get discouraged, she was there pumping me up and supporting me unconditionally.
Do you feel supported by Hollywood?
Hollywood isn’t really one thing or one entity. I will say I have found my people in the city of Los Angeles, and I’m working to find my creative partners as well. Like anything in life, it’s a journey trying to find where you fit in.
Do you feel stronger doing something on your own?
I’ve always been one to do things on my own, but this has shown to me you really could take everything away from me, put me on a desert island with nothing but some stick and some sand, and I’d still figure out a way to put on a show. But also, I don’t WANT to be on an island alone, I’m really sick and tired of doing everything alone. I want to make things with people.
What type of roles are you most interested in?
I like looking at people’s darkness, the thing that makes someone tick, and also the things that make them lovable even if they’re outwardly being bad or insufferable.
We recently talked to Zoe Lister-Jones who employed an all-female crew, which we found incredibly inspiring. Who have you recently been inspired by?
I’m really impressed with a lot of my female friends as of lately. After Trump was elected, it’s been a year where everyone is looking inside and at themselves and figuring out what they can do to change themselves so they can be of service to the world. I have friends who are hosting salons at their homes, organizing writer’s groups, spear-heading political fundraisers, getting us together to volunteer across Los Angeles, and creating content like I’ve never seen before. No woman I know is content with despairing for too long, we’re all figuring out how to come together.
Given the recent exposure of sexual assault stories in Hollywood, what would you like to see change in the industry?
I just think I’m exasperated by the abuse on all levels. I am here to make art, and I wish more people were into the creation process rather than the fame or money or accolades. That may not change, so I think just rooting out abuse in all forms is what I’d like to see. Outside of sexual harassment, there are a lot of bad bosses yelling and screaming and abusing their employees, and there are people who commit a lot of creative “crimes” to get ahead. I wish more people would operate from a place of integrity and accountability.
Have you experienced situations that have made you uncomfortable and how did you handle it?
All the time. I’ve never gotten it quite right. I’d say about 50 percent of the time I stand up for myself in violating situations, and 100% of those times it initially appeared to backfire on me. But as time is playing itself out, I see now that defending myself or leaving a bad sexual situation or standing up to bullies was the right thing to do, and that will hopefully empower me to do that always. It’s better to be ejected from toxic environments than to stay and be eaten alive.
What’s coming up next?
A lot of writing, a lot of percolating. Hopefully more directing and acting.
Top photo credit: Beachside