Kristen Wiig: Rolling in the aisle

She came late to acting – and the brilliant performance she gives in the hit film comedy 'Bridesmaids' suggests that this might just have been her best career move

Kristen Wiig was studying for a degree in art at the University of Arizona when she stumbled across her vocation.

She'd just been offered a summer job as a graphic artist at a cosmetic surgery practice, which involved showing prospective patients what they might look like after their procedure. The day before she was due to start, she later recalled, "I remember looking around and thinking, 'I don't want this to be my life.' Then I looked in the mirror and was like, 'OK, if you could do anything, what would it be?'" She settled on acting, packed a bag, and headed for Los Angeles the same day. She had only ever taken one acting class.

While the role of in-house portraitist at the plastic surgeon's office eventually went to someone else, Wiig had to endure a decade of day jobs before she finally made enough as an actress to pay the bills. In LA, she worked at a clothing store, a hot-dog stand and a farmers' market. She answered phones at a law firm, arranged flowers, decorated interiors and even waited tables in the executive dining room at Universal Studios. These days, however, those same executives are buying her lunch. Bridesmaids, Wiig's first film as writer and star, opened in the UK this week, and has already made more than $140m (£88m) for Universal in the US – almost five times its budget.

It was produced by comedy impresario Judd Apatow, whose films are often accused of being interested solely in the male point of view. But Bridesmaids ought to put an end to that. Wiig plays Annie, a thirtysomething whose love life is failing almost as spectacularly as her cupcake business. When her best friend announces her engagement, Annie has to help her prepare for the happiest day of her life, while desperately trying to keep her own from falling apart. And if that doesn't sound like a situation ripe with comic possibility, then imagine six women suffering from simultaneous food poisoning, and trapped in a high-class bridal parlour with just one loo between them.

Wiig's comic chops were never in doubt. Like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler before her, she is an alumna of the long-running US comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live; all three were highly respected TV comedians before they broadened their range on the big screen. SNL was once known as a factory for male comedy stars: John Belushi, Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, Dan Aykroyd. Now its best known performers are female – and Wiig is the veteran of the current cast.

"She had about 30 lives before she showed up at SNL," Jason Sudeikis, one of her SNL co-stars, has said. "She's had a bunch of crazy jobs and crazy haircuts and has lived in about a dozen cities. And there's always a time when she'll say, 'Well, when I was a florist,' or 'When I sold peaches on the street,' or 'When I went to massage school...'. Kristen's a journeyman who can start a sentence from any number of non sequiturs."

This experience is the source of many of Wiig's cast of recurring SNL characters, including Crazy Target Lady, an overenthusiastic employee of America's leading discount retailer; and Aunt Linda, a film critic based on an elderly lady whom Wiig once observed being baffled by a movie on a plane. The names will be unknown to UK audiences, but their appeal to her US fans is their uncanny familiarity. She has also, like Fey, turned her hand to mimicry – imitating, among others, former Senate majority leader Nancy Pelosi. She has twice been nominated for the Outstanding Comedy Actress Award at the Emmys.

She was already 32 when she made her debut on the show in 2005 – middle-aged by showbiz standards. But this, SNL producer Lorne Michaels told The New York Times, was a positive qualification: "She wasn't 20, where you were looking just at potential and it wasn't yet formed... It was all just there."

Wiig was born in August 1973 in Canandaigua, a lakeside town in upstate New York. Her mother was an artist; her father owned a marina. His surname (pronounced "Wig") originates with ancestors from the west coast of Norway. The couple divorced when their daughter was nine, but both still offer her their thoughts on her SNL performances every Sunday. She also remains very close to her elder bother, Erik, who is mentally disabled.

At high school, she claims to have been terrified of public speaking, and moved across the country to the University of Arizona intending to follow her mother's artistic career path. She was drawn into acting only when she took a drama class as part of her course requirements. The teacher encouraged her to continue, and then came that job offer from the cosmetic surgeon. She dropped out of college without telling her parents and, once in LA, ended up as a member of the celebrated Groundlings improvisation troupe (which also launched the careers of Lisa Kudrow and Will Ferrell), graduating to the senior cast in record time.

Perhaps immune to some of the insecurities that afflict those with lifelong ambitions of acting stardom, she is, say her colleagues, enviably well adjusted. "Even though [she] plays a lot of quirky, nervous characters," says Amy Poehler, "she's really like a very solid person, like a real rock. I can depend on her personally." Reports also suggest that she is one of the loudest laughers at SNL table reads, helping to put other performers at ease by reassuring them of their funniness.

Her personal life has not been without hiccups: she was married for four years to the actor Hayes Hargrove, but is now dating fellow writer and actor Brian Petsos. The pair met in high school, aged 15, but fell out of touch. They can be seen performing opposite one another in a handful of comedy skits, filmed in their apartment, for the website FunnyorDie.com.

That said, Wiig's engagement with the internet is minimal. Her one-page website declares merely: "Kristen Wiig is not on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, or any other social networking website." Thus, unlike many celebrities, her personal life is not played out in pithy 140-character witticisms, ill-advised political interventions or the details of what she ate for breakfast. Fey has always mined her own life for comedy in her sitcom 30 Rock and, more recently, in her memoir, Bossypants. Wiig, by contrast, has always created wildly neurotic characters while lacking in any observable neuroses of her own.

Wiig's cinematic roles have mostly been outlandish creations such as extraterrestrial spoof Paul (2011) and the coming-of-age comedy Adventureland (2009). It was after her small but perfectly formed turn as a morally dubious TV executive in Knocked Up (2007) that Apatow, that film's director, encouraged her to complete her own screenplay, with former Groundling Annie Mumolo. Like the best of Apatow's own oeuvre, Bridesmaids mixes immaculately observed moments of comic truth with a generous helping of bodily fluids.

One of Wiig's mentors at Groundlings was Mindy Sterling, familiar to comedy fans as Frau Farbissina in the Austin Powers series. She saw the younger woman's potential immediately. "You don't usually see pretty, funny women; you see goofy, funny women," Sterling explained. "And I think she is a goofy, funny woman, but she's very attractive."

Of course, the non-existence of "pretty, funny women" has always been a myth – Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Katharine Hepburn; the list goes on – and it seems increasingly fanciful today. As well as Fey and Poehler, there are Wiig's Bridesmaids co-stars, including Maya Rudolph and Rose Byrne. Add to them Anna Faris, Sarah Silverman and (Apatow's wife and frequent collaborator) Leslie Mann, and you have merely the beginnings of a lengthy roll call. Wiig has given today's funny women their touchstone movie – not just a high watermark but a game-changer.

A Life In Brief

Born: 22 August 1973, Canandaigua, New York.

Family: Raised by an artist and a lake marina-owner, she has some Norwegian blood in her veins.

Education: Brighton High School in Rochester, New York, and then University of Arizona, where she majored in art and attended acting classes to fulfil a course requirement.

Career: Breakthrough in 2005 when she debuted on Saturday Night Live. Thanks to the show, Wiig made Entertainment Weekly's list of the funniest women in Hollywood. Her film debut was in the 2007 comedy Knocked Up. In 2011, she stars in Bridesmaids, which she also co-wrote.

She says: "All my characters are someone you don't want to talk to at a party. It's always that person who's being too loud, doesn't have any social boundaries or says the wrong thing."

They say: "She has that thing that Phil Hartman and Dan Aykroyd had, absolute precision, but also this lightness that isn't what they had."

Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels

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