LOS ANGELES — Kristen Wiig lived the classic Hollywood story after coming to town in her early 20s: No experience, no connections, no work.
She wound up in retail for years before figuring out a path to make her way gradually into show business over the next decade.
"You get this idea that you've figured out your life, and you go for it, so I moved to L.A. and immediately got scared and partially changed my mind," said "Saturday Night Live" cast member Wiig, who has her first big-screen starring role in "Bridesmaids," which she also co-wrote and co-produced.
"Thought, what the hell am I doing? I had no experience, and this city is filled with people who have experience and who are trying and going out there and auditioning and taking classes and doing plays. And I was like, 'I took Acting 101. Hi, L.A.! I'm ready to be discovered!' Which didn't really happen."
Wiig, 37, who grew up in Rochester, N.Y., had fantasized as a teenager about landing on "Saturday Night Live," but she had never done any comedy or acting, other than that basic college course.
After a few years in sales, Wiig discovered the Groundlings, the L.A. improvisational group that has been a training ground for such "SNL" cast members as Will Ferrell, Will Forte, Phil Hartman and Laraine Newman, along with "Bridesmaid" co-stars Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy and Wendi McLendon-Covey, plus Wiig's co-writer, Annie Mumolo.
Wiig sharpened her skills there and began landing small TV roles before joining "Saturday Night Live" in 2005.
"Bridesmaids" director Paul Feig cast Wiig in her first movie role, a tiny part in 2006's "Unaccompanied Minors." A year later, Wiig delivered a scene-stealing role in "Knocked Up," playing a passive-aggressive TV exec alternately slighting and fawning over star Katherine Heigl's character.
"Knocked Up" writer-director Judd Apatow did the same for Wiig as he had for Steve Carell, Jason Segel and other supporting players who had impressed him: He asked her if she wanted to write something in which she could star.
In "Knocked Up," "when we screened the movie, the first sentence out of her mouth would tear down the house. They loved her instantly. My instinct is always to say, 'What else you got?'" said Apatow, a producer on "Bridesmaids."
"The fun for me is helping somebody create their film persona. I really like working with people the first time out of the gate. Once we figure it out and they're 10 movies down the line and they've found their groove, it gets more repetitive. And people still make great movies, but it's really great to try to crack the code of why someone could be a movie star."
Along with "SNL" impersonations that include financial guru Suze Orman and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Wiig has shown that star-power potential in Drew Barrymore's "Whip It," Ricky Gervais' "Ghost Town" and John C. Reilly's "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story."
Wiig also was part of the voice cast for last year's animated hit "How to Train Your Dragon" and follows "Bridesmaids," opening Friday, with the ensemble comedy "Friends With Kids," which features "Bridesmaids" co-stars Jon Hamm, Chris O'Dowd and Rudolph, along with Megan Fox and Adam Scott.
Though Wiig has star billing in "Bridesmaids," she is backed by a strong ensemble, each actor given room to roam as the cast improvised dialogue with Wiig and Mumolo's screenplay as a blueprint.
Wiig plays Annie, a sweet, funny Milwaukee woman whose life is a shambles and keeps getting worse. Deep in debt after her bake shop goes under, Annie has terrible roommates, a terrible job, a terrible car and a terrible man ("Mad Men" star Hamm) as her sometime sex buddy.
The film opens with Wiig and Hamm in the midst of a comical love scene, Annie stooping to heartbreaking little tricks to endear herself to the guy. Wiig made Annie so genuine and lovable that the filmmakers had to soften the scene to make Hamm's character less of a jerk.
"Hamm is kicking her out of bed, and it was written to a very funny, mean scene where he's just saying awful things, and she's trying to stay," said director Feig. "We cut it together, thought it was hilarious, showed it to our comedy insider friends, they thought it was hilarious. But when we showed it to a regular audience at the test screening, they didn't laugh at all.
"It was because they like Kristen so much and relate to her so much that somebody being mean to her was not funny to them."
Annie's life continues to crumble after her best friend (Rudolph) enlists her as maid of honor. Straining to keep it together as bad things pile up, Annie fails miserably as she tries to bring off the perfect wedding while presiding over a group of bridesmaids (McCarthy, McLendon-Covey, Rose Byrne and Ellie Kemper).
"As a writer, you don't want to have the first 20 minutes of the movie being, now what's going to happen?" Wiig said. "We didn't want to set it up too much where it's just one thing after another, so there are moments where you think it's getting better, and then it gets worse.
"And then you're into like the third act, and horrible things are still happening to her, but for some reason, you're laughing. I think it's always fun to play that person that is a little put upon or maybe somebody who doesn't have it all worked out."Comment on this story
One thing Wiig oddly never worked out about herself is that she's an innately funny person. Her initial interest was not comedy but acting, and she hopes to land more dramatic roles down the line.
Yet she was flipping through an old high school yearbook not long ago and was surprised at what classmates had written about her.
"A lot of people wrote that I was funny, and that kind of shocked me a little bit, because I don't really remember thinking about myself that way," said Wiig, who figures maybe it was better she was never consciously aiming to make people laugh.
"Comedy is tough, and sometimes the more you try, the more it doesn't work."