After months making the rounds at film festivals, Noël Wells’ Mr. Roosevelt is finally seeing its theatrical release this weekend. In addition to writing and directing the film, Wells also stars as Emily Martin, a struggling actress based in Los Angeles who has to make a last-minute trip to her home in Austin, Texas after getting word of her ailing cat. Once there, she ends having to stay with her ex-boyfriend, Eric (Nick Thune) and his new girlfriend, Celeste (Britt Lower).
I got the chance to talk to Wells the day after her film’s world premiere at SXSW earlier this year, where it won the 2017 Audience Award. We followed up on our conversation earlier this month to talk about how her the film has changed her perception of being an actress, her recent musical endeavors, and the realization that her film was finally going to hit theaters.
The last time we talked, Mr. Roosevelt had just premiered at SXSW. Since then, it’s taken the festival circuit by storm. How’s the reaction been overall?
The reaction’s been very positive, which is always a relief. My favorite thing about the movie, and what I’m most proud of, is that audiences of a lot of demographics really enjoy it. That’s been really cool to see. I think when I was in Austin people were like “Well yeah, of course it’s doing well in Austin, it’s an Austin film.” But, I was like, “Yeah, but it also does well in Germany.” So that’s been pretty cool, and I really enjoy…Like I’ve taken it to festivals with older audiences, and it even works with them even though I think it’s being categorized as a millennial-type film, I think it still plays on the level that it’s just been a movie that anybody can kinda jump in to.
I was curious about that, because as a longtime Austin resident, there’s a kind of built-in appeal, because it is in some ways a bit of a love letter to the city. But it’s a much larger story about growing up and accepting changes that come into your life, whether you’re ready for them or not.
I think that was always my goal. I just wanted to tell a good story that people could relate to and I tried to just keep it as human as possible with the reality that I know to keep it authentic. So I’m glad that you think that.
Since I wasn’t able to ask you this last March, what was it that inspired the dead cat to be the catalyst for the story?
I had the idea for the character, Emily, the sort of self-absorbed millennial-type who doesn’t really have her shit together. I had that when I was in college, and we wrote a few scenes for a movie when I was in my screenwriting class, and then over the years sort of worked on a script and by the time I got finally a draft of a movie finished, it just had so many different ideas in it. Because it was several years of those ideas coming, so it was just like a very clumpy all over the place script, and when I sent it around that’s what everybody was like “Yeah this is really funny, but it’s kind of all over the place.”
So the idea for the cat scene with Mr. Roosevelt [came when] I was having a career low, a moment where I was getting on the ground in my hallway just crying uncontrollably. Basically having a very Emily Martin-type moment, and my cat came and just sat in front of me and just stared me down, like just to make me like, “Grow the fuck up.” That’s the best way I could describe the look in his face, was he just squared off at me, looked me into my eyes, was just like “Grow up.” And then in that moment I knew exactly what the movie was going to be about.
We talked in March about your ear for dialogue, and it struck me all over again when I re-watched the film earlier this week. Do you just constantly observe and listen to what’s going on around you?
I think since the last time you asked me this question, I feel like I understand it a little bit better. So the best I can describe it is, there’s like music to the way that we communicate, and we get the rhythms and patterns and we sort of fall into a repetition of thought, and I think I can diagnose peoples’ instruments if that makes…
God this sounds so dumb. Feel free to write all that. We just get into these little patterns and I can hear them, and I will note them [and] they’ll kind of get stuck in my head and then sometimes I can even take one line that somebody says and sort of extrapolate out the ways that they would talk about something else. And I think that’s how we write, that’s how I started writing characters. I did impressions and characters on SNL and I realized that I was so good at writing characters for myself and like extrapolating out these voices that I should just write that way for all the characters. So even if it’s for a guy, channeling in on the way that he talks, and then making that consistent through the life of the character. Since I’ve kind of clued in on that, it’s become much easier to write other people.
Did the musicality play into any sort of real-life inspiration for that scene where you and your ex-boyfriend, Eric, resurrect their old tradition of singing their fights to one-another?
Yeah, yeah, yeah interesting. You know, since the last time we talked, I’ve also started like playing music. I was a very musical kid and I started [thinking] there’s a musical sort of element to comedy as well, and I think it’s just becoming clearer and clearer. But me and my ex, we never did that, we never did the whole like singing out our fights. I can find a video of us like maybe three months ago, where I was filming him, and I was just like made up a song and I sang it to him, and it rhymed, and I don’t know it was really weird and I had no consciousness that I could do that. And so I was like “When did I do this and how did I come up with that? It’s so creepy.” I don’t really know if that answered your question but there’s definitely some, like a level of like “Oh, I recognize this as a skill that I have.”
Has bringing music back into the fold helped inspire your writing, and vice versa?
Yes. And I think it just comes down to so much of that is also storytelling and the rhythm of a story, and you know music is a story. I guess humans are storytellers, or so they say, and because I’ve dabbled in a lot of different mediums and when I’m trying to figure out what’s connecting all of them, it is a story, and so whatever your version of telling a story is your music.
So even if you’re not being musical, necessarily like with a melody, there’s still like a rhythm and a tempo and the way that you finish things or the way rise up action or intensity. So, I think it all plays into itself. I switched over to doing music while I was sort of in a rut, and then it just became like another outlet for an expression, so once that sort of passes I imagine that’ll it’ll fall back into a movie and I’ll have a better understanding of how to tell a good story.
On the subject of branching out, you just did a part in The Incredible Jessica James, and wrapped a project with Ben Schwartz — both of them on Netflix. How has the experience of writing and directing yourself affected your ability to shape characters as an actor in someone else’s project?
I think all of it is collaborative, and so I just learn how to work with people more. I’ve learned how to express myself a little bit more, and not every project where I’m coming in as an actor is going to want or need a lot of my input. But I can always consider all the moving parts as they’re going along and put it on myself to bring something if I feel like it would help the character or contribute to the film in a way that maybe other people haven’t thought of yet.
I just like working, I like working people, and I really like collaborating, so all of it’s just an experience, and in the end it’s like also for me, selfishly, I get to learn things.
Is there ever a certain amount of relief in knowing that that you’re not taking on so many roles like you did with Mr. Roosevelt?
Sometimes, and then sometimes there’s an itch in me where I want to tell, I want to do stuff. But I don’t know, there’s definitely, I enjoy taking a backseat and letting other people deal with all the nitty gritty, but then if I’m out too long, I’m like, “Can I drive?”
Now that your film has been showcased in so many festivals, what’s it like knowing that it’s about to released in theaters?
There was a part of me when it was going to be in theaters where I was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” I was kind of being like too cool for school just trying not to get too excited. And then when it was published that it was getting a theatrical release, I cried. I was like “Oh my god, I can’t believe this happened.” As un-excitable as I tried to be, there’s so many ups and downs, I gave in to myself, I was like, “Oh my god, this is amazing!” It really is, was really crazy, it’s just really cool.
And I think because people have been making movies for such a long time we’re just like, “Oh yeah, people can do that,” but it’s really hard. And it’s even harder to find an audience, so I’m just excited to get the opportunity to try.
Mr. Roosevelt hits theaters today. For those in Austin, you can catch a Q&A with Wells after a screening tonight at the Alamo Drafthouse. You can also join her tomorrow night, October 28, at Alamo Drafthouse San Antonio.