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MINNEAPOLIS — It’s shaping up as a big movie Christmas for Kristen Wiig. She’s blitzing theaters with funny, diverse roles in three major films. In two, she’s actually visible.
Wiig plays her most romantic role to date in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Ben Stiller’s adaptation of the classic comic short story by James Thurber. Stiller plays a meek Life magazine photo librarian whose imagination kicks into overdrive when he falls in love with co-worker Wiig.
In “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” Wiig unfurls her trademark tics and gooney-bird line readings as Chani, the station’s off-kilter receptionist. Her amorous scenes with Steve Carell’s weatherman Brick Tamland, the world champion of movie imbeciles, inspire equal amounts of “awwww” and “ick.”
And in Spike Jonze’s futuristic boy-meets-computer fantasy “Her,” Wiig has a standout sequence without even being seen. Before lonely Joaquin Phoenix falls for the warm, friendly voice of his new operating system (Scarlett Johansson), he logs into a phone chat room and has an intimate conversation with a woman who seems to be a kindred spirit. The conversation heats up, and the unseen woman makes a bizarre, hilarious demand involving the tail of a dead cat. The tele-hookup? Listen closely and you’ll recognize Wiig.
Whether she’s the star, as in her blockbuster “Bridesmaids,” or a supporting player, Wiig hits every role with a full-body tackle. In “Anchorman,” her character has a sublimely awkward moment when her bottom, in full-cut granny panties, is mashed flat against a glass office wall. She did the shot without the aid of a body double or a prosthetic posterior.
“That’s me,” she said cheerfully by phone. “I thought, if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it.”
“Mitty,” with Ben Stiller taking the title role as well as directing, treated Wiig with more decorum. Her character is the mainspring of the plot. She inspires her smitten colleague to connect with his inner adventurer.
“His attraction to her, and what little interaction they had, propelled him off to his journey,” she said. She even accompanies him in his visions, serenading him with an acoustic guitar version of David Bowie’s “Major Tom” in a picturesque Icelandic fishing village. That episode was a bit of an imaginative flight for her, she said.
“I know a few chords,” she said, but her guitar gets rather dusty between playings. She took guitar lessons and recorded her song over two days in New York. “Pretending I was a recording artist was kind of a dream,” she said. Since then she’s continued playing and writing music, “which is really fun for me.”
Wiig says swapping “Saturday Night Live’s” crazy-haired troublemaker Gilly and manic one-upper Penelope to play more realistic characters is a welcome change of pace. “This year I’ve been really fortunate to have been in some more dramatic films. I hope I’ll be doing more of it. I really love doing comedy and there are challenges in that that you can imagine. Doing dramatic stuff can be challenging, too. They’re completely different muscles. As an actor I hope to play as many different kinds of people as I can. It’s more interesting and more fun.”
While her work in “Anchorman 2” called on her ability to improvise in the moment, “Mitty,” a longtime passion project for Stiller, was tightly scripted. Shooting in midtown Manhattan and faraway locales meant “the film was so ambitious and our days were really packed that we didn’t really have the time to improvise that much. In Iceland the days were really long, the weather was an issue because it changes so often. It was a really bonding experience for the cast and crew to be in those beautiful places.”
In “Mitty,” Wiig has comedic high points, but not as the butt of a joke. Her character is presented as a legitimate love interest for Stiller’s. He costumes, frames, lights and photographs her appreciatively. She’s more Jennifer Aniston than Target Lady.
She does get slathered with old age makeup for a “Benjamin Button”-themed fantasy vignette in which Walter Mitty physically shrinks as he ages. The original scene contained sequences that didn’t make it into the theatrical cut of the movie. There were other dream episodes that might be included as DVD extras, she said. A superhero-style battle between Stiller and Adam Scott on the streets of New York at one point included Wiig as a cop. Another episode showed her serenading Stiller in the office. “I kind of turned into Rihanna with pink hair and sang ‘Only Girl in the World,’” she said.
Her favorite scene in the movie, though, is one she doesn’t appear in.
“It’s when Ben grabs his coat off the rack and that Arcade Fire song (the rousing “Wake Up”) is playing and he realizes he’s going off on this adventure. The Life magazine motto (“To see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to …”) appears on the background. I think that scene is unbelievable. Those are words to live by.”