The Australian-born actress, who came to the U.S. after launching a prolific and promising television career in her homeland, had audiences laughing from her very first moment on screen in an American film, playing one of Kristen Wiig’s creepy sibling roommates in last year’s runaway comedy blockbuster. Since then Wilson’s enjoyed a whirlwind romance with Tinseltown, stealing scenes in a string of films opposite A-listers like Reese Witherspoon in “This Means War” and Elizabeth Banks in “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”
Her star continues to rise with a surprisingly straight-faced turn in the otherwise raunchy “Bachelorette,” as well as substantial roles in the much-anticipated “Pitch Perfect” and director Michael Bay’s amped-up dark comedy “Pain and Gain” and a sitcom being developed by no less a comedy authority than Conan O’Brien. NBC caught Wilson in between creating laughs and got a glimpse at her seeming Cinderella-like rise to the top ranks in comedy – even though, no joke, she once fancied herself a Dame Judy Dench type.
American audiences are getting used to seeing you in movies, like, overnight, starting with “Bridesmaids” –
Which is good because I'm so new here!
Did you have a period of beating on Hollywood's door, or did it really happen overnight as it seems from the outside?
Well, what happened is I first came to America and signed with William Morris Endeavor within, like, a couple of days of coming here. Then they send you out on these parades of meetings, because of course nobody knew me even though I was well known in Australia and had done 13 TV series there. It's not like Americans watch Australian TV, and so they had no idea.
I call it a parade, where you just go around to all the studios, all the networks, and they set up all the meetings. Some of it is celebrity lunches with certain people, and people who can give you advice about how it all works in America and producers. It took three months of that and then "Bridesmaids" was the first thing that I got cast in, which of course I'm so grateful for because that was a super hilarious movie. I auditioned for the Melissa McCarthy role and was one of the choices for that role, but I was too young for that anyway – and Melissa was so amazing, of course, and was very good friends with the girls. But because Judd [Apatow] and Paul Feig liked my audition so much they added me into the movie.
Has your writing been a part of the equation, too, talking to Judd and Paul about possible projects?
Yeah. I'd love to do a spin-off with Matt Lucas! We played brother and sister in "Bridesmaids." I have a sitcom that I'm doing for ABC now, that I'm writing and Conan O'Brien is producing with me. I'll see how that goes, and yeah, trying to get into the features that I write myself. But I've been so busy doing the acting roles that I haven't had time to do it, but obviously that's the direction where I want to head in: people like Jonah Hill or Seth Rogen, they got quite famous and then they had their own stuff coming out.
Were you a big comedy connoisseur?
I did remember seeing Judd Apatow movies in the cinema, in Australia, just thinking, 'These people are funny. They know how to deliver a comedy movie.' They just really do, but I wasn't [into comedy] as a kid or anything. The first show I really got into was a show called "Absolutely Fabulous" – Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley. I just remember thinking, 'What is this?' because that in particular was women being really funny.
Before I'd just watched cartoons or the news or weird stuff as a kid, but then when I started being a teenager and I saw some shows I was like 'Ah – that's really cool!' But I also didn't know that I was going to go into comedy. I thought when I was going to be an actress, I was going to be like Dame Judi Dench – like, real serious. And actually, when William Morris presented me to the rest of the agency – at their big, huge staff meetings, they say, 'These are new clients who we've just signed,' and they said, 'Her name is Rebel Wilson. She's going to be the next Dame Judi Dench. We just feel very strongly. She's a very serious actress.'
Then they go, 'We've got a clip here to show you what we mean,' and they showed a clip of one my Australian television shows where I come out singing and it's all sweet and then you realize that I'm in a swimming costume with a pubic hair wig. It just slowly pans out and you see what I'm wearing, and so they thought that they were going to watch some really serious acting thing, then they show it, and so then everyone in the agency knew who I was because they'd been fooled at the big staff meetings.
Were you jealous that the other girls in “Bachelorette” got to do all the crazy stuff that typically goes to you in other projects?
I was thinking, 'How do I get humor out of the character that is really supposed to be the straight man – and needs to be?' There needs to be someone who isn't totally vicious and nasty. When I read that, I was like, 'Could I do that?' because I clearly wasn't an obvious choice. But I read it and I thought, 'I think it'll be a real challenge.' I'm slightly different. And I still try in a few situations to get a few cheeky laughs, but basically I was supposed to be the more grounded straight man.
Did you get much bonding time as an ensemble?
So Kirsten [Dunst] and I had to play best friends and we'd never known each other before the movie, and we had three hours of rehearsal the day before we started shooting. But I was such a big fan of hers, I just had a natural affinity towards her because I just like her as an actress. We were like, 'Is it going to work, because we have to play best friends and we've known each other since we were eight years old?' But I think that we worked really good. I loved doing my scenes with her. We had fun.
Do you have that core group of friends that you've been with since you were a kid?
I went to an all-girls boarding school in Australia, so, yeah: my group of friends in high school are so different to this group, and I was kind of the leader of my group, I guess, or co-leader – maybe I should be a bit modest – and my group of friends at high school, we went to a Christian high school, and so we were all good girls, I would say. The other girls were even more religious, pretty religious. We didn't party. We didn't drink. We didn't smoke or do any drugs. We studied very hard and did very good at school, and that was my group – so the complete opposite, I think, to the girls who are depicted in this movie.
And that back story, I think, may explain why you got into the business you did.
Yeah. I wasn't allowed to see rude movies until I was actually 15. I think in America it's 13 – PG-13 – but in Australia it's 15. Most kids these days still see those movies anyway, but I was not allowed.
What was the first naughty-funny movie that you first fell in love with?
I recently did a movie with Michael Bay and I told him when I went in to meet with him, that movie was "Bad Boys." DVDs had just come out, and so I'm like, 'Okay, I get to see a rude movie now because I'm legally 15!' And I'm looking in the video store, seeing what was there, and I went, 'Ooh, "Bad Boys." That looks really bad.' Then I went and watched that. That was the first one that I remember.
It must've been fun working with Michael Bay, Dwayne Johnson and Mark Wahlberg on “Pain and Gain.” Where do you fit in that movie?
So the three guys who are the gang are Wahlberg, The Rock and Anthony Mackie, and I play Anthony Mackie's girlfriend. The girlfriends of the other two guys are, like, supermodels, and so I play a real-life woman who did go to jail for her small involvement in the crimes. It's just a fascinating true story about the guys – they tortured and murdered people. They were all like this gang that went to the same gym, but really the movie is kind of like a black comedy. It's like a cross between a true crime drama and a black comedy, and it will be just fascinating to see what Michael does with it. It's a departure for him. There's no big action, alien "Transformer" things. It's like a real dramatic, interesting, sometimes darkly funny movie, so I'm fascinated to see what's going to make the cut, because some days we were funny and some days we were there crying. I just don't know what he's going to put in!
Are you surprised at how people are reacting to women being rowdy and raunchy onscreen?
Yeah, because obviously it's not like some new thing that was invented with "Bridesmaids," but "Bridesmaids" I think was the number one R-rated female comedy, the highest grossing that had a female as the lead. So you do notice it because movie studios are looking for similar things now, which means there are more characters for females. A movie that I'm in, "Pitch Perfect," is an ensemble of seven girls. It's really good for someone like me who's a character actress and loves being raunchy and edgy and funny. It's really good, but it's not like a new thing. I think that "Bridesmaids" just brought into everyone's consciousness. But I'm obviously loving it, because that's my specialty.