Noël Wells Is Way More Than Just "Cute"

There’s a scene from Mr. Roosevelt, actor and comedian Noël Wells’ directorial debut, that I can't stop thinking about. Emily, played by Wells, is lounging at an Austin swimming spot with her new friend's friends. One guy makes the mistake of saying Emily has "the whole quirky girl vibe going." Emily seethes, and explains why "quirky" is no compliment. If you’ve ever felt shut down by a single adjective, you’ll admire the candor and anger that writhes out of Emily in that moment, almost as if that reaction had been waiting to be unleashed her entire adult life.
With Mr. Roosevelt, Wells has written, starred in, and directed a film full of similarly authentic moments, all centered around a deceptively simple premise: Emily, an aspiring comedian, returns to Austin because she found out her beloved Mr. Roosevelt — the cat she raised with her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune) — is deathly ill. While in Austin, Emily lives with Eric and his new girlfriend, Celeste (Britt Lower), and reckons with her past choices. We spoke to Wells about making her first movie, the “mindfuck” of misogyny, and being a woman in Hollywood the week the Weinstein allegations dropped. First, though, get acquainted with Emily with this exclusive clip from Mr. Roosevelt.
Refinery29: Let’s talk about Emily’s soon-to-be-iconic rant on the word “quirky.” What’s your beef with quirky?
"People literally will be like, ‘I saw your movie! It’s so cute and quirky.’ And I’m like, Wait, what? You’re using the word from the movie that Emily went on a rant about, about how it’s used to diminish people’s accomplishments. It’s become this very ironic thing that keeps happening.
"I made a movie, and it didn’t just happen, and it didn’t happen because I’m cute. It happened because I rallied up a bunch of my creative resources and my intellect, my power, and my artistry, and I put it all together, and I made all these decisions. When someone says, ‘Oh! You’re quirky,’ it’s just not fun. You can call me hard-working. Even if you hated the film and thought it was twee and stupid and cutesy as fuck, you could, at the very least, say, ‘Noël. You are so hard-working.’ That would be more accurate."
Have you always dealt with being called "cute" throughout your career?
"Yesterday I sent out my trailer to people and somebody that I love wrote back, ‘Cute.’ It’s never going to stop. I don’t know what I’ll have to do to get people to see what I’m capable of, except for just keep going. In the scheme of things I could be something worse than cute, but I really do see myself as me. I see most other people as themselves. It’s confusing to me when people don’t have the capacity to see what’s the bigger picture of what a person is. This isn’t even just my fight. It’s all women’s fights. It’s all minorities’ fights. It’s anybody that’s not codified into the culture as being just successful because they exist. We all have this struggle, and at the end of the day it’s more important that I make sure I’m not making easy assumptions about people. That should be where I focus my energy, rather than getting upset about people not recognizing how marvelous I am."
How did you come up with the idea for the script for Mr. Roosevelt?
"The idea of this Emily character came to me when I was in college: a level of irresponsible, self-absorbed, somewhat charming. You’re on her side, and you totally understand why she’s such a hot mess, but fundamentally needs to take some responsibility for herself. I had started writing a script where she went back to Austin, which was my college town, and had done a couple drafts of it. The drafts were biting off more than you could put into a movie, and it felt all over the place.
"The idea of it being centered around Mr. Roosevelt came to me when I was crying on my floor at one point in my career, and really just being like, ‘Why is this so bad? Why is life so hard? Why doesn’t anybody understand me?’ and my cat came and walked up, and looked me down my soul. If he could communicate with me, it would essentially be: ‘Grow the fuck up.’ Lightning struck. That is exactly what the movie is gonna be about. All of those ideas of needing to grow up, but centering it around the death of Mr. Roosevelt."
I assumed Mr. Roosevelt would be a comedy, because you’re primarily a comic actor. The movie has comedic elements, but I don’t know if it’s a comedy. If you had to invent a genre for the movie, what would it be?
"I’m not good at genres. It’s like a scrappy dramedy, but that’s not a genre."
It’s more of a classification.
"It’s a woe-com? Like a “Woe is me” comedy? Yeah, it’s a woe-is-me comedy."
This movie has such a nostalgic bent to it.
"I wanted the movie to feel like Emily is always living in a fantasy of what her life should be like, and then it always gets cut off. Reality always hits and it’s not always what movies are. Those scenes where she’s riding her bike, I wanted the score to feel like a Stephen Spielberg movie, but then it gets cut off when you realize riding your bike in Austin isn’t an easy thing. Or when she starts dancing in the house and starts being really goofy, and she breaks the tchotchke. Life isn’t like what you see in the movies. Life is reality. We have to live in reality. I think the nostalgic thing is because Emily is living in some sort of fictitious version of reality."
Mr. Roosevelt is partly about how the idea of success changes as you get older. Emily’s idea of success hasn’t changed — she still wants to be a comedy star. Eric, her ex-boyfriend’s, has. Has your idea of success changed as you’ve gotten older?
"Yeah, it has. I think what Emily suffers from is trying to be accepted into these already established worlds, and fitting into what that world would expect of her. I feel kind of similarly in that I’m just really excited to do work that makes me happy, and just being excited to create, regardless of the result of what that would be.
"Art has become so result-oriented, so tied up with commerce, that people have become very reductive and afraid to try new things because of how it could fail. Failing now is seen much faster with the internet. It's like a pastime of the internet to shit on things that aren’t doing very well, whereas normally if you did something and it didn’t do very well it would just kind of disappear and you could recover really quickly. I do think we need to create more space for success looking a little differently. Success is doing things because you want to do them, and not the results of it."
What’s one challenge you didn’t expect to encounter when you started off on this project?
"I’ve filmed myself for years, so I have no problem working with myself, editing myself, and knowing exactly what to do, especially with a small crew. I think when the crew got a little bit bigger, and more people asked me more questions, I think I started second guessing myself a lot, which isn’t great as a director. What I learned by the end of the film was that my first instinct is the right instinct, and if it’s not working, then you should open the floor up to questions. But not to let other people’s indecision or other people’s lack of clarity draw me from my clarity. I am the director. I am the one steering the ship. I have to say, ‘No, this is what I see. Let me show you.’ It was just me learning how to trust myself.
"I’m now thinking of directing as a business. This is my business, you either work for me or you don’t. Before I was more, 'Let’s all be friends! Let’s all be family.' I won’t do that again."
What has being a woman in Hollywood been like this week?
"Actually, this week has just felt sort of relieving. This is not just systemic of Hollywood. This is literally our culture. All I know is that my whole life I’ve felt insane, I’ve felt like I can’t be heard. I feel like when things happen to me, nobody believes me or takes me seriously. I feel like I’ve had all of these incredible accomplishments my whole life and I’ve done everything that all these other guys have done, if not above and beyond, and yet I’m still not believed. Finally, maybe people can see it. Women can’t even see that it’s happening to them. This just raises people’s consciousness for them to be aware of the possibility that this is a thing that’s happening to them, or to people that they know. It can only be good. Weird things can come out of it. It might be very tumultuous. We’re going to go through weird growing pains as a culture. But we have to decide whether or not we’re going to work together on this or tear each other apart."
Where can we see you next?
"I’m writing two movies now and I’m just trying to get the energy to do it. Things like this come out, it makes me feel that part of the reason I’m so afraid to write is because it’s been dangerous for me to just be myself. It’s been dangerous in so many ways, subtle and big ways. I do think that’s the role of any artist or creator — to stop being afraid of what they could say about you, to move past the fear of the rejection and start claiming the reality of what you want to see. I don’t exactly know the way you’re going to see me next. I feel like I want to take a break and reorient. But, we’ll see what happens."
It sounds like it’s been hard.
"Misogyny has, in a lot of ways, retreated to mindfucks. Now you’re not allowed to overtly do terrible things to women. But the patterning is all still there. So it’s sort of in this hard-to-pin-down reality that you have to become aware of. You have to get a leap of consciousness and realize what’s happening. It’s a very hard thing to express to people. The only way to do that is keep making work, and keep making things that point to it, until enough people have the capacity to comprehend it."
Did you encounter that kind of misogynistic behavior when you were making this movie?
"Yes. But to be fair, I’ve encountered it my entire life. The movie was the place where I was really starting to understand that I’m not doing anything wrong. My whole life, I was like, 'Maybe if I just worked harder. Or maybe if I’m nicer.' If I did something different, everything else will change. I realized through this process, maybe it’s time for some other people to change."
This interview has been edited for style and length.
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