'We knew we were walking a fine line," says Kristen Wiig about the balancing act that she, director Shira Piven, and screenwriter Eliot Laurence had to pull off in Welcome to Me.
"There are these very dark moments and these funny ones - and we wanted the dark ones to seem real and we wanted people to laugh at the funny ones. And it's nerve-racking when you're shooting it, because you never know what you're getting."
Wiig can relax. What she, Piven, and Laurence got is at once brilliantly comic and more than a little disturbing - exactly what they were going for.
In Welcome to Me, Wiig is Alice Klieg, a woman with borderline personality disorder who wins the Mega-Millions lottery and decides to use her windfall to bankroll a TV talk show - with her as the star.
Opening Friday at the PFS at the Roxy, Welcome to Me is a study in the culture of narcissism, the lure of the media, and our collective voyeurism - such as slowing down to check out the really ugly crash on the interstate. Only that ugly crash is happening before our eyes on TV, week in and week out, on the infomercial channel where Alice not only relates but reenacts the traumas of her life.
"Yup, it's kind of the world we live in," says Wiig, on the phone from New York the other day. At the same time, the star of Bridesmaids and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a veteran of seven seasons of Saturday Night Live, says there was something "uncommon and rare" about the character in Welcome to Me.
"She's someone you maybe feel sorry for, who is dealing with this illness, and at the same time she's a really funny, odd person who surprises you with her strength, her intelligence," Wiig observes. "We don't really know how to feel about her, which is why you want to watch. You want to just figure out, 'Do I like this person? Is she sad? Is she selfish? Is she a narcissist? Who is she?'
"And she's all of those things. That's the reason I found her so interesting."
Wiig, 41, spent much of her childhood - from age 3 to 13 - in Lancaster, Amish country just west of Philadelphia. She still has many relatives in the area. "So many memories," she offers. "It was a great place to grow up!"
Since her breakout performance in 2011's huge female-bonding comedy Bridesmaids, which she co-scripted and co-produced, Wiig has gravitated to roles such as Welcome to Me's Alice - women who are fragile, wounded, operating in a space and time not necessarily in sync with the folks around them.
In 2013's Hateship, Loveship, adapted from an Alice Munro short story, Wiig plays a housekeeper and caregiver who becomes involved with the estranged father (Guy Pearce) of the young teen (Hailee Steinfeld) in her charge. Wiig's character has a hold on reality that's tenuous, but her spirit is strong.
In last year's The Skeleton Twins, Wiig and Bill Hader are siblings with a suicidal bent who come together, after years apart, in the town where they grew up. Wiig's Maggie is married (to Luke Wilson) but having an affair with her swim coach. Her husband is eager to have children; Maggie is secretly popping contraceptives.
In Welcome to Me, Alice goes off her meds and hires a TV production team (brothers played by Wes Bentley and James Marsden, a director played by Joan Cusack, and Jennifer Jason Leigh offering cutting control-room commentary).
Alice insists that she makes her entrance at the start of every show riding in a big swan.
"If there's a story that's got twists and turns and makes you think, there are going to be characters in there that are complex," Wiig says. "And I'm drawn to stories like that first."
For Piven, making an artful and accomplished sophomore effort (her feature debut was 2011's Fully Loaded), Wiig was the first and only candidate to portray Alice.
"I don't like to give away the movie," Piven says, "but I think that in the really darker moments, where Alice is unraveling, Kristen went to depths that we were all blown away by. I wouldn't say that we were surprised - because that implies that we didn't think she could do it, and that was never the case. Kristen showed a kind of affinity for the role straight-away that made me know that she could do it.
"But when she actually did go there, it was gorgeous. We were kind of crying and laughing at the same time."
Wiig came up through the L.A. improv group the Groundlings, whose alums include Will Ferrell, Will Forte, and her Bridesmaids bud, Melissa McCarthy.
"That was really where I discovered what I wanted to do for a living," Wiig says. "Before that, I considered myself a little shy - not socially, but from a performance standpoint. I was always terrified to get up in front of the class, or have to speak in front of a group. And actually" - she laughs - "that part is still true.
"But I can't even describe how much being in the Groundlings changed my life. It taught me everything. It taught me about being in front of people, being onstage, how to write, how to work in a group, be collaborative, be a generous improviser . . . how to put on a show and how to produce and how to direct. . . .
"I owe so much to that place."
Wiig has a bunch of projects in the pipeline. In The Diary of a Teenage Girl, well-received at Sundance in January, she plays a woman whose boyfriend is cheating on her - with her daughter. In Nasty Baby, Wiig is a friend to a gay couple looking to have a child. It, too, premiered at Sundance.
In Masterminds, slated for August release, she joins Zach Galifianakis and Owen Wilson in an armored-car heist comedy. Wiig has a supporting role in Ben Stiller's Zoolander 2. She's one of the four principles (the others are McCarthy, Leslie Jones, and Kate McKinnon) in a distaff reboot of the Ghostbusters franchise, which starts shooting this summer.
And she's in The Martian, Ridley Scott's space drama, due at Thanksgiving.
"No, I'm not an astronaut," Wiig reports. "I'm kind of a publicist. For NASA."
Steady work, good work, but it's hard to imagine that any of these titles will be as memorable - and memorably strange - as Alice in Welcome to Me.
"Alice is in her own world," Wiig says, "and she's kind of living her dream, and she's happy. She definitely has this disorder, which is really difficult for the people around her. . . . But just because she has this disorder doesn't mean that she can't do things that are sometimes funny."