It’s common practice for interviews with actors or filmmakers to begin with some sort of declarative statement about the person being interviewed; a digestible one-liner to sum up the subject in a clear and concise way, such as “John Q. Director is a triple threat” or “Suzy S. Actor won’t take no for an answer.” It’s a cliché way to begin a piece of writing (as is poking fun at said cliché like this writer is doing right now for that matter), but in this case a declarative, no bullshit intro seems in order.
Noël Wells is an actor, screenwriter, and director and her first feature film, Mr. Roosevelt, is very good and incredibly funny.
After an all-too-brief stint on Saturday Night Live and a starring role in the first season of Netflix’s acclaimed Master of None, the multihyphenate Wells’ latest project is Mr. Roosevelt, a semi-biographical comedy she wrote, directed, and stars in. Wells plays Emily, an actor/comedian who leaves her boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune) and cat (Mr. Roosevelt) behind in Austin to pursue a career in Los Angeles. But when the titular feline falls ill, Emily soon finds herself back in Texas with Eric and his new girlfriend Celeste (Britt Lower), a super put-together “Pinterest board come to life,” with no meaningful connections left in Austin and zero plan for how she’s going to get back to LA. The film, which won the SXSW Audience Award at the Austin-based festival earlier this year, arrives in New York and Los Angeles cinemas this month.
We recently had a chance to speak with Wells about her feature directorial debut, self-reflective millennials, the meaning of cats, shooting on film, and, of course, what’s on her Dork Shelf.
Now I don’t want to start the interview off on a sad note, but I actually just had to put my own cat down last week, so your movie got pretty real, pretty fast for me. “Oh, that’s what this is going to be about?!”
Noël Wells: Oh no!
The movie is not really about that, but let’s talk about the titular cat, Mr. Roosevelt, and your film. What was the genesis of the script and how did the cat come into play?
Noël: The genesis of the script started with Emily. I had written a lot of things for her since I was in college. I was always imagining this sort of self-absorbed, self-pitying millennial type who just kind of has to get over herself to grow and become an adult. I’d written a script but it was a couple of years worth of ideas, so it was a little all over the place. But the idea of Mr. Roosevelt came when my cat Mr. Feeny sort of came and stared me down one day when I was crying in my apartment and feeling really sorry for myself. [laughs]
I’d had a very similar thing happen to me with Mr. Feeny where I had moved to LA and left him with my ex-boyfriend – fully expecting to bring him to LA with me when I was settled. He got sick, I went back, and we thought he was going to die, but he didn’t die! I used all my savings to save him, and had a friend at the time who I explained that I was using all my money to get this surgery that my cat needed and they were like “It’s just a fucking cat!” [laughs] So a lot of the movie is loosely based on things that happened. Obviously it’s completely fictionalized, but that’s where the idea came from.
I’m a huge animal lover, but for people who don’t understand that it can seem like a silly thing. I think most people’s problems, if you’re not experiencing them, you can think that they’re silly and ridiculous. So I thought that was a perfect proxy for this person’s problems.
So tell me about your character Emily Martin – you created her and you play her. She’s got some problems in this movie, but one of the things I really liked about the film is that while Emily is this very “millennial” character – she’s working these odd gigs, she’s a bit self-centered, self-pitying, and so on – you really see her actually grow as a person. There’s an element of self-reflection that you get to witness as a viewer – you see her listening and processing and experiencing things in a way that seems to be missing from a lot of films about this generation. Was that something that was important for you to make a part of this?
Noël: Yeah! Totally. I don’t really understand our culture where people think you are who you are. If you are the way you are right now is that the way you’re going to be in 10 to 15 years? I think the exciting thing about being a human is that you can have experiences that then inform your perception of reality. We all have to give each other the space to grow and to change and to evolve. You can be pretty awful at a certain time in your life, and then get a dose of reality, and become a totally different person. I think that’s exciting. I like seeing that happen in people and for people, and I like seeing movies where people go through that. I like transformations! Even if in [Mr. Roosevelt] it’s a very subtle transformation with Emily, she understands a little bit more that she’s not the centre of the universe and I think that’s really important.
So I want to talk a little bit about your cast and how you found them. I do love that you begin the film with sort of an encapsulation of how brutal the audition process can be. I’m sure you’ve been there yourself many times, but did you put your actors through that too?
Noël: [laughs] A couple! Most of the main cast I offered the parts to them because I had seen them before or loosely knew them through their work. So I felt confident that they could do the parts. But yeah, I held auditions for other parts in the film. I feel like because I’ve been on the other side of it I hope that auditioning for me is not the worst thing ever. I’m a terrible auditioner and I know what it’s like to get in my head and not be able to do the things I’m good at because I’m nervous. So I hope I created a space where people feel okay, where they know they can mess up, and they can get another shot. I’m not judging them, I just want the best for them.
So let’s talk about Emily’s relationship with the characters of Eric and Celeste – Nick Thune and Britt Lower. It’s, shall we say, very complicated. As a viewer I found myself feeling like the cat, sort of stuck in the middle and being forced to take sides. Well, they’ve got a point here or no, Emily is right about this one and so on. Could you talk a little bit about that relationship and what made Nick and Britt right for those roles?
Noël: Emily sort of sees the world in a hyperbolic way. So for her these people are sort of acting a little over the top. What was so great about Nick and Britt is that they both come from a comedy background. What I love about Britt though is that she’s never playing things to be funny, which I feel like a lot of times comedians trying to do. To me what’s funnier is when people are not trying to get laughs but just be in a funny situation. So she was able to walk that line in a really good way, but we were also able to fine tune that through editing – going back and forth between Emily and Celeste’s point of views.
And the favourite thing about Nick is that he’s just such an affable and lovable guy, but through the movie we sort of get the sense that his character has been anaesthetized. Celeste has sort of made him a house husband and he’s sort of lost his spark. It was really cool to see Nick play a person who’s sort of been stripped down and is sort of just along for the ride with his girlfriend. But then Nick is talented enough that towards the end you see his charisma kind of come back when he plays the guitar. Then he gets in a fight with her at the end and you realize that he has way more teeth than Emily was perceiving. She thinks he’s been watered down, but if anything he’s just grown up, matured, and calmed down.
There’s one scene in the film where a party full of people are watching Emily’s video work on screen and she’s just cringing – plus people don’t even seem to get why she’s reacting that way! Is this anything like your own relationship to your work? Have you been in that situation before?
Noël: [laughs] Um… yeah! Most of the things I do I feel like nobody quite understands. I’m always cringing at my own work, the things I’ve done, or the things I’ve failed to do in my work. Yes, that is me all the time! [laughs] The video in the film is based on a video I made with my friend Molly Green when I first moved to LA. We were doing these comedy art videos – let’s just film something and put it on YouTube just to do something. We were like, if we’re feeling bad about ourselves we might as well be creative. The fourth one of those videos is me pouring food on my head in the shower while lipsyncing to Britney Spears’ “Toxic”.
When we posted it we thought it would be so funny that hundreds of guys will think it’s a video of a girl in the shower, then they’ll click and they’ll see that it’s something else. We’ll have totally tricked them and the joke will be on them! But by the next day the video had over a million views…
Oh my god!
Noël: It was so terrifying. Everyone projected on it what I was trying to do. I had just moved out to LA and people thought that was me trying to get famous or get a viral video, but it just kind of accidentally happened. Me and Molly thought it was funny and left it up, but for years people would bring it up to me like that was the thing that I wanted to be known for.
Have you enjoyed seeing Mr. Roosevelt with audiences and at festivals? Or is it just as nerve wracking for you as it is for Emily at the party?
Noël: It’s been actually very enjoyable to watch with audiences! I really enjoy it. The worst part is if I see or read something online where someone feels the need to share something angry or mean about it. If you’re there seeing it with an audience more people are genuinely enjoying it than not. That feels more like reality, whereas I think sometimes the internet is just an echo chamber of extremes. You only see the negatives online or the people who hate the film, but if you watch it with people they like it! I appreciate being at a festival and getting to interact with people who are having a direct reaction to the film.
You’re originally from Texas and you’ve spent a lot of time in Austin as well. Between this film and Infinity Baby, why do you find yourself being drawn back to Texas as a creator and performer lately – or is it just a coincidence?
Noël: I think it was just a coincidence. I actually shot my scenes in Infinity Baby on a day off from shooting my own movie. [laughs] That is the most insane thing I could have possibly done because I was shooting nights on my film and then rolled into the Infinity Baby set. They originally had it slated for two days and I was like “You have me for six hours.” And they did it! [laughs] It just so happens that the timing lined up when I was shooting my film in Texas.
Indie filmmakers or creators in Texas do tend to find each other because we’ve worked together, we’ve performed with each other, and we trust each other. I’ll probably shoot my next movie in another location just to explore another place, but I’m sure I’ll go back to Austin.
This wouldn’t have even been a question 15 years ago, but I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your decision to shoot the movie on film. It looks fantastic, but I imagine shooting that way brought along a whole host of problems that you simply wouldn’t have to deal if you shot digitally. What was the impetus there and what sort of challenges did it pose?
Noël: I decided to shoot on film because when I was a radio, TV, film major in college everything was moving over to digital. I thought everything I was shooting looked terrible and felt like “Oh, I can’t be a director.” But then one summer I got a 35mm point and shoot camera, took pictures all summer, but couldn’t afford to get any of it developed. When I did start working again and could afford to get it developed it was like “Oh, this is what I always imagined my pictures or my movies would look like!” It’s a combination of the medium – tonally the medium just does so much more than digitally does immediately. It’s a familiar feeling, but also I was able to develop my eye because I wasn’t looking over my shoulder and judging everything I was doing as I was doing it.
So when it came time to shoot the movie, I was so familiar with film that I knew I would have a stronger grip on the way it would look if we shot the film on film. I would have a stronger grip on the look than if we shot digitally, which I didn’t have as much experience with. If we’d shot digitally I would have been really relying heavily on my cinematographer to do things that I didn’t know how to do. The decision was that – that I’m very familiar with film – but the other side of it is that a lot of indie films these days are shot with the same digital cameras. At a certain budget level they all kind of have a look. I wanted this film to have its own character. It’s a scrappy film. I wanted it to be handheld, and I really just knew exactly what it was going to look like. So that impacted our decision, and part of the reason our company Beachside decided to fund the film is because they had seen all my film photography and they trusted that I knew what I could do with it.
Well, it worked out wonderfully! It’s a really great looking movie!
Noël: Thank you! I really love the way it looks too and it’s really exciting that we got to do it. [laughs]
So my last question – the name of the site is DorkShelf.com – and that refers to the shelf or the place in your home where you maybe have something special, an object or objects that mean something to you. It can be a keepsake or a collectible, a favourite book, anything. Do you have a shelf or space like that in your home and if so, what’s on it?
Noël: Well, let me go look at it! [laughs] I do and it’s mostly photographs – polaroid pictures. I have buttons, I have a bunch of vintage Teddy Roosevelt buttons that my friend got me after the premiere of the movie. I have a button that I bought in Santa Fe, a pin that my friend designed for my 30th birthday party, this little ghost. I have a button that says “I Heart My Cat”. And a bunch of rolls of film and some books that I like to look at. Farside books and Calvin & Hobbes. So that’s on my Dork Shelf!
Noël, thank you for your time. Congratulations again on the film!
Noël: Thank you!
Mr. Roosevelt opens in Los Angeles on November 17th and in New York on November 22nd.