Noël Wells on “Mr. Roosevelt”

Blurring Life and Art

Nov 17, 2017 Issue #62 - Julien Baker
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As if it isn't impressive enough to be a Saturday Night Live alum, or steal scenes from star comic Aziz Ansari as the main love interest in season one of his series Master of None, Noël Wells is now marking grander milestones. With the new film Mr. Roosevelt, the 30-year-old artsy San Antonian has instantly become a triple threat: Leading lady. Screenwriter. Director.

Not that she's letting any of it go to her head. During a phone interview about the film (in which Wells plays Emily, an aspiring actress returning from a stint of trying to make it big in Los Angeles to Austin, Texas, in order to meet up with her ex for the funeral of their cat) Wells describes writing, starring in, and directing it as merely "putting another brick in the wall. And maybe one day I'll have a house." Part of that humility comes from the sheer scale of the project. Sure, this distinctive film earns big laughs, and it was a huge challenge to write, direct, and star in.

That said, Wells describes it as a "pretty scrappy" little movie. "I wrote it so, whatever the budget might end up being, I'd be able to pull it off. Hopefully as I continue to grow the movies will continue to get bigger. But I also love this film. It feels very complete. A lot of indie films can feel very slight."

So what indie movie tropes did Wells hope to avoid? "Many comedies can feel cartoony," she says, adding that while her character "sometimes feels like a cartoony person, I never wanted her actions to come out of left field."

Prime example: a quiet but integral scene midway through the film when Emily parties lakeside with a band of bohemian Austinonians that she recently befriended. Before long, she butts heads with one of them for calling her quirky and being "condescending."

"Emily is similar to me, but more impish and combative," Wells says. "And what I love about that scene is she gets on her soapbox, then he razzes her. And instead of her getting upset, the comedy of it works for her."

Wells wanted authentic, offbeat moments like that to abound in the film. And while much of that authenticity stems from her obvious talent as a writer, it also owes a debt to her real life experiences. Like Emily, Wells made a name for herself with sketch comedy clips that went viral on YouTube, went to film school in Austin, and has a musician ex-boyfriend. She's had real life struggles, like being let go from SNL after one season, but Emily would certainly envy Noël's successes. Wells' relationship with that ex is also far more functional than her onscreen counterpartin fact they're writing folk songs together and plan to go on tour soon.

"I wanted this person to be relatable," Wells says, calling Emily "a composite of me and a lot of different people I know." Fans have felt the same way, with three different audience members approaching Wells after screenings to discuss how much Emily's struggles mirrored theirs.

Of that, Wells is deeply proud and moved, saying: "It's good to tap into what people are experiencing.... I don't like people feeling bad about themselves and not feeling that they can change, so if people can relate to this movie on that level, it makes me very happy."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Fall 2017 Issue (October/November 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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