For Kristen Wiig, an Uncharted Path From 'SNL' to Movie Stardom

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Female castmembers from Jan Hooks to Rachel Dratch have had a hard time finding big film roles after leaving the show.

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When reports began circulating that Saturday Night Live scene-stealer Kristen Wiig will likely leave the show for Hollywood at the end of the current season, hardly anyone was surprised. Wiig, the thrice-Emmy-nominated mastermind behind the Target Lady, narcissist extraordinaire Penelope, and uncanny impressions of everyone from Paula Deen to Bjork, is coming off a banner year. She scored an Oscar nod for co-writing Bridesmaids, and already has six major films in the pipeline for the next two years, opposite A-listers like Robert DeNiro and Ben Stiller. Just last week, she emerged as a frontrunner, along with It Girls Emma Stone and Emily Blunt, for the female lead in the hotly anticipated The Thin Man remake opposite Johnny Depp.

Need more convincing that this is the perfect time for Wiig to leave? New York's Josh Wolk noticed that the most successful SNL vets from the last two decades left the show sometime between their sixth and eight seasons, a "sweet spot" window Wiig is in now. Will Ferrell, Mike Myers and Dana Carvey all left after seven. Amy Poehler and Phil Hartman put in eight. David Spade and Tina Fey departed after six (on-camera) years. Those who stayed beyond that—Darrell Hammond, Tim Meadows—have struggled. So look out, Hollywood, here comes Wiig, right? To quote my favorite SNL creation of hers, the nerve-addled Judy Grimes, "Just kidding!" Though her Hollywood prospects look promising, a survey of history reveals that success is by no means guaranteed.

Wiig is entering essentially uncharted territory. The Oscar nominee is, understandably, avoiding another television gig and shooting for the (movie) stars. On the surface, this doesn't seem all that unusual: Ferrell, Myers, Carvey, Sandler, after all, have all gone on to hugely lucrative film careers. But they're all men. With the exception of Tina Fey, no former female SNL cast member successfully made the transition to movie star after exiting Studio 8H. But the grosses for Fey's two major post-SNL films, Baby Mama and Date Night, were nowhere near the stratospheric hauls of Ferrell's or Sandler's or Myers' flicks. Plus, Fey more typically associated with her TV work on 30 Rock than with her film roles. The same is true for Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Molly Shannon. In fact, a survey of the post-Saturday Night Live resumes of the show's most talented female alumni reveals that almost all of them struggled to achieve a respectable film career, many struggled to find regular work at all, and those who managed to get steady jobs found them most consistently on television. Wiig's road to movie stardom is rockier than it may seem.

Here is a sampling of some of the films that starred an SNL female alum after they left the show. Cheri Oteri's big splash was opposite Jessica Simpson in 2008's Major Movie Star. Molly Shannon's big star vehicle, Year of the Dog, only made $1.5 million. If not for Coneheads, which is itself based on a SNL sketch, Laraine Newman's big credits would be "Casting Director" in a film called I'm Losing You and "Russian Translator on TV (uncredited)" in The Sum of All Fears. (Though, to her credit, Newman's enjoyed much success, as has Amy Poehler, doing animated voice over work.) Maya Rudolph has been fairly successful; she was a linchpin in the Bridesmaids phenomenon. But Away We Go was both a box office and critical disappointment, and her turn in Grown Ups amounted to rolling her eyes at fart jokes. Co-starring on NBC's underrated darling Up All Night, however, finally earned her the raves that were expected from the talented star—but it took returning to TV for her really to shine.

That's actually the case for most female SNL vets. (Not counting, of course, actresses like Joan Cusack and Janeane Garofalo who had blink-and-miss-it SNL stints). There's Fey, of course, and Poehler receiving critical love letters on Parks and Recreation. Ana Gasteyer is a regular on ABC's Suburgatory while Shannon is the consummate sitcom guest star, popping up on Glee, Will and Grace, Up All Night, and more. Jane Curtin struck gold three times: On Kate and Allie, 3rd Rock From the Sun, and, now, the CBS drama Unforgettable. Her film resume? Forgettable.

But even the small screen isn't always welcoming. Jan Hooks only just recently reappeared, guesting on 30 Rock as Jane Krakowski's mom. In fact, sporadic guest arcs has been the fate of most of these women: Shannon, Oteri, Newman, Nora Dunn, Julia Sweeney, and Rachel Dratch. Dratch is a particularly interesting case study in the uphill battle these stars face. The actress is back in the news again, promoting her new memoir A Girl Walks Into a Bar, which chronicles, among other things, the poor treatment she received in Hollywood after leaving SNL. Tina Fey wrote the part of Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock for Dratch, but was forced to recast with the blonder, prettier Jane Krakowski. Dratch was initially told this was she could play a rotating roster of parts better-suited for her—hideous maids, hideous animal wranglers—but those roles quickly diminished...as did all roles, in general. "Lesbians. Secretaries. Sometimes secretaries who are lesbians... I am solely offered the parts which I like to refer to as 'The Unfuckables,'" she writes. That's not to suggest that Dratch's experience is emblematic of all female SNL vets. But it's exemplary of how some of the most talented comediennes in the country can't catch a break once they leave the halls of 30 Rock.

All this, of course, doesn't mean Wiig's Hollywood career is doomed. Far from it. Sure, her latest film, the well-reviewed Friends With Kids failed to be the breakout "grown up romantic comedy" it was touted as, despite the fact that it reunited much of the Bridesmaids cast—it only mustered $7 million at the box office. But she's already done what no other female SNL alum has managed to do: Top-line a film that grossed over $160 million at the domestic box office. Her docket is packed, and the projects she's choosing are strong and promising. (Personally, I'm most excited for Imogene, which co-stars Annette Bening as Wiig's Jersey-trash mom.) Unlike many of her SNL co-horts, she's not playing second-banana in these films, or harried wife, or comedic relief. She's nabbing female leads in films written by Ben Stiller and co-starring the likes of Bening, DeNiro, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson. Furthermore, she's not pigeon-holing herself as an Apatow player, or another member of Will Ferrell's comedy clique, or a comedic actress in general. She's blurring the line between comedy and drama—as a leading lady in both fields. Just as she's heralded as a trailblazer of sorts for turning a female-driven raunchfest like Bridesmaids into mass-appealing, money-making bonanza, she mayl be the inaugural success story should she parlay her SNL chops into a Will Ferrell/Adam Sandler-like film career. In fact, don't be surprised if the actress surpasses them.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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