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All Noël Wells Really Wanted To Do Was Direct

film

And she did just that with her feature debut ‘Mr. Roosevelt’

In her relatively short career as a performer, Noël Wells has experienced two major career highs, followed by what some might consider setbacks. After joining the cast of Saturday Night Live as a featured performer in 2013, the Texas native was not brought back for a second season. Then, after shining as Aziz Ansari’s love interest on the first season of his acclaimed Netflix comedy Master of None, her character appeared only briefly in the show’s sophomore season. Suddenly, despite achieving the type of visibility most comedic actors could only dream of, Wells found herself without a steady paycheck. But instead of waiting for the next opportunity to come her way, she opted to create her own.

The result is Mr. Roosevelt, Wells’ debut feature as a writer and director which she also stars in. In the scrappy, insightful comedy, Wells plays Emily, a loosely autobiographical character who takes a sabbatical from trying to make it as a comedian in Los Angeles to return home to Austin after hearing that the beloved cat she left behind is terminally ill. Once there, she ends up crashing with her ex-boyfriend and his seemingly perfect girlfriend. Old traumas resurface, and Emily is forced to take stock of her new life and the one she left behind. We spoke to Wells recently about the challenges of making her first movie, the ups and downs of show business, and the difficulties of being a woman in the comedy world.

Do you remember the moment you had the first kernel for what became Mr. Roosevelt?
I knew I wanted to write a movie with a proto version of Emily while I was in college. One of the first scenes I wrote was an opening scene, where she is eagerly interviewing on the phone for a dog walker position she applied to off Craigslist and halfway through the interview, you realize the guy is masturbating on the other line. And yes, this actually happened to me in college.

Was making a movie harder or easier than you had expected?
It’s hard to quantify something like this as being hard or easy. I was certainly ready to make a movie and had the skills, so that wasn’t hard, but I faced challenges I never anticipated. While it definitely took a toll on me physically, it also really did a number on me emotionally and spiritually. But I’ve come out the other end, proud of everything that’s happened and excited to jump into the next project.

Did you always have a feature film in you or was the desire to write and direct and star in your own movie a result of something specific?
I’ve always wanted to be a director, it’s just how my mind has always worked. If I hear music, I see music videos and all the shots and setups to edit it all together. If I interact with a person, I’m seeing a whole scene come to life. I remember when I was a little kid playing with the 25 Legos I had, I thought, If I just had a camera, I could film different setups and make it look like I have way more legos and tell a story. I didn’t get a camera though until I basically got an iPhone. It’s very weird how long it's taken me to get here considering it’s been a background program in my head my entire life.

How did being let go from SNL influence the making of the movie?
I just realized no one was going to hand me the opportunity and I just needed to make it happen. I knew when I was writing the film I was going to make it no matter what, whether it was going to be with a handful of friends or something bigger.

What elements of your own life did you draw on to create Emily? 
A lot of the things that are in the movie have happened to me in some sense, but it’s all fictionalized. I only used things that would serve the arc of the character and the story, and nothing is autobiographical aside from some of the impressions at the beginning actually being impressions I used to audition with.

How close are Emily's mannerisms and cadences to your own? Would your friends and family recognize the person onscreen?
I just asked a really close friend if she thinks I am just being myself as Emily. And she said that, of course, it’s me, just like how Rachel was me in Master of None, but that it’s clearly not me. I’m honestly less grumpy than Emily. I'm much more optimistic. I’m not that combative. But I definitely have meltdowns and I’m weird and self-conscious. And I love my cat.

The movie is populated with actors that most audiences won't recognize. Were you ever going to potentially fill the movie with the recognizable faces of your friends from the comedy world, or was it a matter of casting who was best for the part?
I have personally known a lot of the actors I cast for years, and I knew they could do the parts they got because they have been doing incredible work that whole time, but it’s funny to think other people wouldn’t recognize them. There is so much incredible talent in Hollywood, and it’s crazy to me that we see the same people over and over again in projects. It wasn’t conscious, I just wanted the people that were best for the parts. The only person I knew no one would recognize is my friend Trinh Hunyh, who plays Stacy—she's a girl I went to college with, and I wrote the part for her, but she had never acted before this. She's such a natural though, it's not fair.

The way in which you portray the comedy world which Emily inhabits—where men are creeps—feels very prescient given the current climate. Is that depiction based on your own experiences? 
Yes, I have been around a lot of unconscious men and women my entire life, and this isn't limited to comedy, but it does take a very particular shape in the comedy community. I used to be victimized by it, but now that I feel more confident about myself, I actually feel sad for them. Men think of women as people who just augment their experience. Women’s value isn’t a given. But getting to know some incredible women, and even learning to value myself, it’s a shame that we aren’t celebrated, loved, and cherished as a default. A lot of stupid dudes are really missing out on a much more interesting experience of life. Some men don’t seem to want to value things outside of their existence, their egos, their self-importance. I would like a world and a sea change in men where they start asking, “What can I do for you? How can I make you happy? How can we do this all together?”

Is Instagram jealousy something that you deal with IRL, and do you think it's a very real problem?
I think social media is a terrible problem, and it's making people mentally ill. I’m not a jealous person, but when I see people that seem to “have it all,” I get very very down on myself and beat myself up. I think many people are learning how social media isn’t reality, and how you can’t judge yourself based on what you see, but on the other hand, some of the coolest people I know are still getting hurt by other people’s posts. And not only that, there is so much manipulation that takes place on social media, lots of weird games people play. And let's not even get started about the Russian propaganda machine and how they play right into all the games.

Your character on Master of None was so terrific. Were you disappointed at all that her arc did not continue in Season 2? 
Sure, I was disappointed. Being an actor is a very uncertain thing, and I really loved shooting the show and really felt like I contributed so much. But I also respect that it wasn’t my show and creatively they wanted to take things in another direction. I’ve been a boss on things that go a different way than I originally anticipated and have also disappointed people. Being on both sides of it, I can feel for myself without placing blame on myself or anyone. It’s just how it works. 

How did Austin and Texas as a whole shape you as a person? 
The things I notice I have in common with other Texas filmmakers is this desire to hold onto my independence and do things my way. I think that is just the Texas spirit and the grit that goes into making things. It’s just a level of practicality that serves me.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.