Noël Wells made an immediate first impression in her Saturday Night Live debut in September.
Standing out from the pack of new cast members — all of whom were teasingly introduced by host Tina Fey in the season-premiere’s monologue — Wells stepped forward in the very next moment, a digital short spoofing HBO’s Girls, with Wells inhabiting the millennial malaise of Lena Dunham’s Hannah.
Wells spoke to The Comic’s Comic this week following a homecoming that also served as a coming-out party for Wells as a stand-up comedian at the Moontower Comedy Festival in Austin. Wells, 27, graduated from UT Austin with a film degree, and started her professional theatrical career as a magician’s assistant at Esther’s Follies. Last weekend, Wells was waxing nostalgic onstage about the experience next door at The Velv and a few doors down at venues along Austin’s Sixth Street.
“I’ve done a lot of drinking and crying,” Wells joked last week, acknowledging onstage that it also was her first real experience performing stand-up. “Just like old times.”
As the SNL season has progressed, Wells has had to endure the similar struggle for airtime that generations of rookie “featured players” have faced before her. Perhaps more so in her case. Wells joined this 39th season alongside five other new cast members (all white men), only to be even more crowded out and overshadowed so far in 2014 by the highly-publicized addition of Sasheer Zamata (another woman to compete for sketch roles) and the promotion of co-head writer Colin Jost to the Weekend Update desk, plus two more writers. Now totaling 17, it’s currently the biggest cast assembled at SNL since 1991-1992 (which numbered 18). The last time the cast expanded this much (16: 2005-2006), Lorne Michaels fired three cast members at season’s end.
As a skilled impersonator, though, Wells shouldn’t have to worry just yet.
Her arsenal of impersonations features a dead-on Emma Stone, which should come in handy this weekend with Andrew Garfield (he of The Amazing Spider-Man film franchise with Stone releasing the second installment in cinemas globally last night) hosting.
Wells also has a keen ear for Holly Hunter and Reba McEntire, which she put on display for the Moontower crowds. “I also like Jennifer Lawrence, which is still basically an Emma Stone impression,” Wells said. “I do impressions of people that I love and adore.” In Austin, she joked about only having one impersonation to add to her Esther’s Follies resume (that was Britney Spears), and how coming back, she got to hear both from her parents — who pitched her plenty of sketch ideas — and how other people will give her compliments that also may be insults. Example: “I’m rooting for you!”
Her best non-celebrity impersonation could be that of a Buffalo Exchange employee, alternately apathetic and dismissive while perusing Wells’ bag of clothing she hoped to sell to pay her bills.
It’s promising enough to become a future SNL sketch. If Wells pitches it, of course.
“I wrote that last year for a one-woman show,” Wells told The Comic’s Comic. “I think I’ve tried talking to people about it, but everything in the show is kind of contingent on the host and what’s going on in the news. You have to find the right time for something, especially if it’s something you really like. You don’t want to burn it at the table (read on Wednesdays) when it’s not the right time.”
As for her expertise at impersonations, she’ll joke onstage that “it’s because I’m uncomfortable being myself”; in real life, it sprouted from song.
“I didn’t really do impressions until right before I graduated from high school,” Wells said. “But I would do singing impressions. I could do Vanessa Carlton, and they would say ‘You sound just like her.’ I would do Britney Spears. I would do Shakira all the time.”
After moving from Austin to Los Angeles, her webseries Hey! The Zooey Deschanel Show garnered the most notice for her burgeoning career. But she feels she’s “definitely moved on” from that. Well, almost (peekaboo).
Impersonations — or, rather, impressions — do remain her strongest suit and calling card. “I feel like I’ve always done voices,” Wells said. “I guess impressions are something that everybody instantly recognizes. It never feels organized to bring up an impression to a group of people. But when you’re singing, it’s easier, a little campier, maybe?”
“When I do impressions to me it’s never as important to get the voice perfect. That would be an impersonation. An impression is to create a character that also lives outside of that person,” she said. “The best ones are not just copying the voice, parroting it. There’s something beyond that.”
Wells got Dunham down right, but says she had SNL veterans to thank for letting her show it off in the season premiere.
“I didn’t write that. Seth Meyers, Chris Kelly, Sarah Schneider did,” Wells said. “It felt great that I could be valuable to the sketch…The first thing I did that got on was the 50 Shades of Grey Auditions (in her second week). That was exciting for me. Not only did I get to do a couple of impersonations but I also got to see other people’s.”
So far this first season, Wells said all of the new cast members are finding their own way on their own, but that the veterans are good in offering advice and support.
“I think Vanessa Bayer has been the most helpful (to me),” Wells said. “She’s always gone out of her way to say what’s going on, say this also happened to me, or this is weird.”
Accepting an offer to join the SNL cast certainly seems like a dive down the rabbit hole, adventuring into the unknown, as Wells and others describe that first season.
“They say, ‘OK, you figure it out!’ Which is awesome. In a weird way, that generates a lot of ideas, but it’s also terrifying. They drop you in the deep end and you learn how to swim,” she said.
So what’s her best swimming stroke? “I’m definitely a doggie paddle. You start with the basics and then you can show off later,” she said.
You can see pre-SNL Wells in a “new” movie, Forev. “That movie, I shot two summers ago with a lot of my friends. They produced it, and I just acted in it. We were all from Austin, we all went to film school together. We wanted to make something and then we did it. They’ve been having a lot of success with it, a lot of film festivals. It’s a sweet movie.”
That sense of wanting to make something and then doing it — that ethos is becoming more the norm. The videos on Wells’ YouTube channel racked up more than 12 million views before SNL hired her last summer. She also performed with the UCB Theatre on a house sketch team and appeared in videos for Funny or Die, CollegeHumor and Cracked.com. When she auditioned for Michaels and company, she did so several times. Plenty of other would-be and wannabe SNL players, however, are uploading character reels onto YouTube, Vimeo and the like, titling them “SNL audition” whether or not Michaels and Broadway Video asked for them.
Wells’s advice for them? “I firmly believe if you’re not figuring yourself out in the system that’s already there, go outside the box and do whatever it takes to make yourself heard. I think it’s really being open to learning. Putting myself out there is always a learning process.”
“I think that’s the thing with YouTube, is people think of it as instant success,” she said. “Think of your work as a career. Be open to growing. I’m very different from even what I did just last year. I think it’s always consistently evolving.”
Here, for that matter, is a silly video of Wells with Hannah Hart, drunkenly offering up singing impressions from two years ago.
Going back to Austin last week, Wells said she could and did see a show back at Esther’s Follies and still know the words. “I knew the songs. I knew all the beats,” she said. “I’m very grateful for all of my opportunities, and it’s interesting to see how they’ve shaped me, and to think of how this will shape me five years from now. It’s spooky and it’s inspiring…
“I think people look at you now and think, ‘Oh, that’s who that person is.’ Nobody has it figured out. I don’t even know. I didn’t know who I was five years ago.”
Just imagine what Wells could be five years from now.
(Top photos of Noël Wells on Tuesday, and earlier last month, via NBCSNL/Instagram).