photos / Shanna Fisher
styling / Chaine Leyendecker
hair / Hailey Adickes @ Celestine Agency
makeup / Ashley Donovan @ Celestine Agency
location / Courtesy of FD Photo Studio
story / Tiffany Tso
Noël Wells is a breath of fresh air in a smog-filled city. Chatting with her is truly like talking to a peer, not only because she graduated from my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, but because Wells speaks from an earnest, friendly place that lacks pretense or derision. Comedy fans first got to know her as a featured player on Saturday Night Live, then got a closer look when she co-starred in Aziz Ansari’s hit Netflix original, Master of None. Now, the 29-year-old actress and comedian is working on a couple of big projects of her own, which she gives us the scoop on.
Tell me about your upcoming Comedy Central series.
It’s a buddy comedy, but the buddies just so happen to be in a relationship. The characters are based on me and my boyfriend and our friends. Most relationship shows are always about the “will they or won’t they” aspect of people being in love or the struggles of keeping a relationship alive. With this show, there’s none of that. It’s more like if Larry David was dating Larry David. Two people who are extraordinarily frustrated with the world but rarely with each other.
And you’re also working on a film, right?
The movie is a whole other beast! Any tagline I give you will make it sound lame, but yes, it’s about a struggling comedian coming back to her college town. It’s loosely based on some things that happened to me, and it’s very grounded compared to the Comedy Central show. It’s such a different expression of the way I see the world from anything else I’ve done comedically, and it may be the most honest thing I’ll have done yet and definitely the most responsibility I’ve undertaken, so it’s terrifying! But strangely it feels like the least ego-driven thing I’ve done. I don’t really feel like I have much to prove. I just want to make a really good, honest film with the skills that I have acquired so far, and I hope people enjoy it and relate to it.
I know you never set out to have a “YouTube channel,” but you were definitely well-received on the platform. How do you feel like YouTube has helped your career?
I’m always very wary of giving YouTube a ton of credit for my career, because it’s just a platform to drop your content, but then there are two examples where YouTube helped it tremendously. First, when I was at my most broke in LA, a video I posted caught the attention of a guy named Cody Johnston who worked at Cracked. He reached out and hooked me up with motion graphics and editing gigs there, which I did for a couple of years and gave me the freedom to audition for things until I got steadier acting work. Second, a video that I posted to YouTube actually got me my manager. She stumbled across it and then emailed me, and from there I got all my representation. It just took one person seeing one video to get my whole career started in a legitimate way. I would argue that I could have found other ways to make this happen, but YouTube is so accessible that I truly think you’d do yourself a disservice not to use it if you’re creating content.
Being on the cast of Saturday Night Live was your goal as a comedian. What was it like achieving that goal and how did the reality vary from how you always imagined?
When you achieve something that seems impossible, your whole mindset shifts of what you think you’re capable of accomplishing. It was just such an absurd goal, but I never really strayed from it and then it happened. It’s like, fuck. If only I could tell my 8-year-old self I could have been an astronaut after all! Getting hired, I didn’t have a ton of expectations going into the show, but I guess I thought it would be more like a family, more collaborative, and definitely more open-minded. I found SNL to be fairly conservative… It’s very much a boys club, in a rigid, unimaginative type of way. I was cast as the “cute girl” and I was treated like I was dumb and didn’t belong. And I admired so many people there, so to be invited in but then kept on the outside was devastating. It was the loneliest year of my life, and I’m pretty sure I got into comedy because of loneliness. When it ended, I felt very much like a bad breakup. Deep down, I probably saw that SNL wasn’t right for me, but I would have tried to stay with it longer, even if it killed me. But when they dumped me, I really had to get clear about what I wanted and my values and the type of work I wanted to create, and I recognized I’d be able to be much more successful in more meaningful ways without the show looming over me. I’ll have to work much harder and it could take longer, but I plan on being in this creative field for a long time, so I have plenty of time.
How did Master of None fulfill a dream role?
After SNL, I had this fear that no one would value me or what I could bring to the table unless I just did everything myself. With Master of None, Aziz and Alan Yang went out of their way to hire people that would be collaborators, and then actually let us collaborate. So much of Rachel was in my own hands and I got to shape her, and Aziz and I shaped Rachel and Dev’s relationship together, and it’s just immeasurably rewarding to be a part of the creative process like that. I was so insecure going into the show, fearful that I wouldn’t fit in, but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. So much of my self-confidence I have now I attribute to that experience. I just needed an affirmation, I guess, from people I respect, that I was capable and I’m heading in the right direction.
How was working with Aziz? Be real.
It was awful! He just kept taking us to fancy meals and the best restaurants in New York and I was full all the time and drank all these fancy wines I couldn’t pronounce and one time he invited me to a bar and when I got there it was just him, two friends, and Jennifer Lawrence and I was in a t-shirt and it was so awkward and I didn’t know what to do with my arms! Ugh, the worst. But outside of all the weight I gained during the shoot, Aziz was great to work with. He’s incredibly funny and whip smart, and once he lets his guard down, you get to see what a thoughtful and introspective person he is. I really admire his deep curiosity and seemingly endless patience with the world around him, and he has been just so wonderful and supportive from the beginning and I am very grateful he cast me on the show.
You are outspoken about your political beliefs online. How do you feel like politics and comedy overlap for you, and what political message do you aim to send to the world?
You know, most of the reason why I wanted to be on SNL was for the political satire. I used to be much more outspoken politically, when I thought it could make a difference, but this election cycle has been such a drag. Comedy, and laughter, is sort of a spontaneous and somewhat involuntary agreement among people and it can help diffuse the contentious nature of politics, but to get people to laugh together you have to have people wanting to get on the same page. Politics now are more divisive than ever, you can’t even make jokes that people laugh at, it just somehow fuels one side to get way angrier and the other side to feel more righteous. It’s not really equalizing anything. It’s frightening. I don’t know what to do about it.
What is your current focus?
My current focus is actually just myself. That could sound awful, but because I’ve done a lot of good work on myself so far, I don’t care how it sounds to people! I didn’t get a chance to do a lot of self-exploration when I was younger, so now that I’m having a little bit of success in my creative fields of choice, I’m recognizing how a certain portion of myself has been starved for a long long time and I need to get in touch with it. While I do the things I do to pay my rent, I’m focusing a lot on personal development, and I’m trying to be a good friend and most importantly, a good person. I think everything else will flow from there.
You mention wanting to bring people happiness. Is that basically why you had comedic aspirations growing up? Why do you want to make people laugh?
When I intellectualize why I do comedy, my answers feel corny or contrived, but I’ll try anyway. Since I was very young, I’ve always seen the world as a harsh, cruel, sad, rigid and lonely place, and yet, I’ve always known that it doesn’t have to be that way at all. You can alleviate people’s burdens, reality can change, and more importantly, so can people’s perspectives. And sometimes it starts with something as simple as a laugh.