From the moment they joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2005, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader set about creating an impressive roster of memorable characters and unforgettable impressions that made both performers an indispensable part of the sketch-com's ensemble right up until their departures, in 2012 and 2013 respectively. And though both have found ample opportunities to continue cracking up audiences in their post-SNL careers, we get to see their dramatic chops with this weekend's release of writer-director Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins.
The family drama stars Wiig and Hader as titular twins Maggie and Milo, reunited in adulthood due to extenuating circumstances and forced to deal with the repercussions of two lifetimes of questionable choices. I had opportunity to chat with Wiig, Hader, and director Johnson last May for the film's San Francisco premiere, and what follows are some of the highlights from the hilarious roundtable discussion, which often dissolved into spontaneous comedy routines from the two stars:
Craig, how did the final cut of the film differ from the original script?
Craig: Well, we actually had a couple versions of it that were even unfinished, where we just hadn't quite figured out the tone yet, where it was all over the place. Like, Milo was a drag queen...(to Bill) I haven't even told you about these versions of it. And it was kind of over the top, and there was a road trip element, and like -
Kristen: - Maggie was a cat.
Bill: But we were still twins.
Craig: They're joking, but it was not too far off from that. And then, [co-writer] Mark [Heyman] and I just kind of said, "What are we doing here?" And then, we kind of said, "What kind of a movie do we want to make?" We started talking about, we wanted to do something that was tonally down-to-Earth, bittersweet, kind of funny, sad, reflected movies that we like.
We were fans of movies by Hal Ashby, and old Milos Forman, and more recently, Alexander Payne's movies, and things that we enjoyed. So, we went back into it, and then that draft was much more similar to how the final movie ended up. And then, the eight years in between was not consistent. There was about two and a half years where the script sat in a drawer, and then dug it out. We did a lot of work just to make it better and better.
Kristen and Bill, you obviously worked together for years, and you have a dynamic you've already established with each other and are used to, but now that you're doing these intense, dramatic scenes, does the dynamic feel different?
Kristen: No, it doesn't.
Bill: No, not really. I mean, you work with each other for so long. Acting is acting. I feel very privileged, and I was very lucky to come up with Kristen at Saturday Night Live, and work together, and you fail together, and you learn from each other. Kristen, anytime that she would do something, we would immediately go out onto the floor to watch it, because she's such a good live performer.
You learn from everybody. So, then you go in and you do something like this, it's a different kind of style of acting, but it's the same thing of, you're thinking about your character. Every night, before shooting, I would go over my script and have some ideas. You show up having done your homework.
Kristen: Yeah, the outcome is different, but you still want to get to the best place, the best outcome. SNL would be like, yes, we would be in crazy wigs and characters and stuff, but we knew the job was like, "Okay, we have to make the sketch funny and make it work," and this was like, "Well, now we're these two people and we have to make this believable and real."
Bill: Yeah. You're just going over your material. It's the same though, kind of like homework. For me, at least. It was like going over the material constantly and just feeling you're confident about it when you show up on the day.
Did you ever feel it a challenge to tonally keep it in check, just because the subject matter can be pretty touchy at times?
Bill: We were all over the place, and the tone of the movie was just really, really a hard tone to achieve. Craig and Jenny, the editor, did an amazing job, I think, because they're very disciplined. Because there was tons of stuff that we did that was really, really funny, and some things that were incredibly bleak and even more hard to watch than that are in the film, and Craig was disciplined enough to say, "This is what's right for the movie."
Craig: Getting the tone right to a movie like this was critical. It was everything. We knew that that was sort of like Marching Order #1, and there's so many things that factor into that. How, where the performances are pitched. How committed do we go? How dark do we go? Music's huge for that, and music's really important to me, so finding the right pieces of music, from the score to the source music, was critical.
And, it's intuitive. It's hard to say when you know you've got it. It's just, there's this feeling like, okay, this is starting to feel right. We screen rough cuts of it for some feedback, to get more of a sense. It has so much of it just trying to be honest, like gut-checking yourself. Are we being honest? Are we being truthful? Am I leaving this in just because it makes me laugh, when it doesn't quite feel like what the characters would do.
Kristen: It's just so interesting that people say it is kind of a different tone, because it doesn't fall into total comedy or total drama, which is so funny, because that's what life is: both. It's just funny that we all watch these stories of people's lives, and it's not just all one thing.
Craig: Movies are ruled by genre, so often, and things go binary and become black and white pretty quickly. Many movies don't. There's a whole tradition of wonderful movies that are similar in tone to this film. I just re-watched the "Ice Storm", the Ang Lee movie, and that's in a similar world. Not to compare myself, that's a great movie.
Bill: (mock newscaster voice) "Craig Johnson compares himself to Ang Lee! What do you think?"
Kristen: "Implies he's better!"
Bill: "Implies he's even better! Ang Lee angry! Response?"
Kristen: "Craig Johnson's body found!"
Bill: "Craig Johnson's body found eaten by a CGI tiger! Source says Ang Lee missing!"
When you were doing the singalong (to Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop us Now"), I was surprised that you ended up doing the whole song. I was like, "I guess they're doing the whole thing," and it was in my head for five days afterwards.
Craig: You're welcome.
Bill: It's still in our heads.
Craig: (to Bill) When you first saw that cut, I remember, it was shortly one person said to me, "You really go punk rock on that Starship scene, huh?" And, I'd like to think we can get away with it, because it wasn't written to be, it was never in my head to be, actually, that song. But, once we found that song, which was a duet, and it became all about Milo trying to get Maggie to sing, it just kind of naturally sort of filled up the time a little bit more, and turned into a little bit more of a showpiece.
On that same subject, having just gone through debate over which was more craptastic: Steve Miller Band or Starship. How did you arrive at that particular...
Kristen: (whispering in mock shock) Craptastic!
Craig: "We Built This City" is often on the top list of worst songs of all time, but it's an era. We're all about the same age. We all know it. We all sing along.
Bill: Yeah, whether you like it or not, that's what they're saying. They're sitting on a big pile of money. "Craptastic pays for all of this!"
Craig: I knew that I wanted a song from the '80s, the mid-'80s, a song that they would've grooved on as little kids, and probably did that routine as little kids. And so I listened to just a ton of different mid-'80s hokey ballads and actually sang them in front of the mirror, and lip-synched them just to see what ones worked, and that was one of the only duets I was doing. And, I remembered it. The love theme from Mannequin. And it had the right amount of uplift, and the back-and-forth, and it was just a no-brainer.
Bill, being that this is your first dramatic leading role, what made Milo stand out to you?
Bill: I always wanted to do something like this, and A.V. Hoffman, the casting director, had seen me in a table read for a drama. Table readings are where the movie might not get made, but they want to hear it read out loud, and I did this table reading. She thought it was really good, and recommended me to Craig, and I read the script and it was the first script I had ever received that was like this.
Everything before that was very much in tone with either SNL kind of stuff or Judd Apatow kind of stuff, those kinds of movies. Which isn't bad, but I like a lot of different types of movies, so it was cool to get, even from that opening scene, reading the opening scene and going, "Wow, I'd love to be able to do something like this and try to pull it off."
Craig had a lot of faith in me, and like I said earlier, it was just great when Kristen was brought on, because I was a little anxious going in and doing this. Having Kristen there, she's such an amazing actor, but also, it's the security of that, in knowing we're working together, it's very effortless. It doesn't feel like the crew's there, or anything. That's what I needed to do my job.
Bill, you and Ty [Burrell] have some really intense scenes in the film. That's really heavy stuff there. How was that dynamic? What was your chemistry like with him?
Bill: Those were the first three days of shooting, was with Ty. And that was great, because he totally set the tone for the movie, and he was so nice, and he just set the tone for me. Having him there, going, "This is really cool what you're doing, man..." that just meant the world to me. Those scenes were some of the toughest scenes, subject-wise. Everything going on with those scenes. Pretty tough.
Craig: Yeah, and it was the first three days. We were all finding our footing. I was finding my footing, but I remember the end of those three days. I was breathing these sighs of relief because things felt right. The tone is right. Ty and Bill just had chemistry. Got along.
Tying back to what we were talking about earlier, with acting is acting, so I don't want to put a label on this, but I was curious what your favorite comedian-turned-dramatic actor roles are.
Kristen: I don't know. I don't like to list favorites when it comes to actors or comedians.
Craig: I like what Adam Sandler does in Punch Drunk Love.
Kristen: Peter Sellers, I would say, is up there.
Craig: Peter Sellers.
Bill: I don't know. I don't really think in those terms either. To me, it's just, I don't know. It is an acting to acting thing, but it's always hard to think of anything.
Kristen: We pick one, and then...
Bill: It's putting you in a box in a weird way. It's going like, not that it's bad to answer that question, it's just, I like people who swerve and can do all those things. An actor I've always liked is Jeff Bridges. Jeff Bridges, you never knew what you were going to get from him.
It can be inspiring, from the audience standpoint, to see someone branch out.
Bill: No, that is true. That's a hundred percent true. I think I always lose sight of that, because you sit at home going, "I can do all these things! I can do anything!" and then you quickly find out on SNL, "Oh, I can't." (laughs) But no, those are the actors I've always liked are those people, or like, lately, I love the stuff that Bryan Cranston did with Breaking Bad, and knowing him from Malcolm in the Middle and seeing Breaking Bad, and you're like, "Wow."
To get the full effect of this conversation, which included too many laugh-out-loud digressions to adequately sum up, give a listen to the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast by downloading here or streaming below. Big thanks to Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and Craig Johnson for their time. The Skeleton Twins is now playing in select cities.