April 20, 2017
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A Bit Part-er Goes Big: Steven Wiig
by Jay Randy Gordon and Doniphan Blair
Actor, director and much more Steven Wiig at one of his favorite Sausalito haunts, Fort Baker, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. photo: D. Blair
IF YOU WERE HOPING TO HEAR THAT
Steven Wiig is related to SNL-alum, now-movie star Kristen Wiig, or that he was friends with Prince, while coming up as a musician in Minneapolis, you will be disappointed.
On the other hand,
does not disappoint as the everyman of Bay Area film, who has appeared in dozens of locally-shot films, worked on dozens more, and is starting to direct.
In person, Wiig is an incredibly affable chap, with big droopy eyes and a doughy expressive face, which can transform into almost any form of supporting character and a few leading ones, all bolstered by his long resume in the arts.
"He approached the work with an ease that I found to be perfectly in tune with his everyman character,” emailed Mike Colter, who is currently blowing up television (“The Good Wife”, 2010-15, and as Marvel's Luke Cage in both “Jessica Jones”, 2015, and “The Defenders”, 2017). Wiig plays the accountant for an African-American entrepreneur (Colter) in the feature “Black Gold”, which until just three weeks ago was called “America Is Still The Place” (2016), see
“I want more opportunities for this subtle character actor so he can continue to spread his wings," Colter added.
Starting almost out of the blue, Wiig appeared as a ranger in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” (2007, see
) and then as a homophobic store keep in “Milk” (2008, see
), directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Penn, in his Oscar-winning performance as Harvey Milk, the country’s first openly gay politician. Of late, Wiig has graduated to more meaty characters in features like Christopher Coppola's “Sacred Blood” and “Yosemite”, as well as “Black Gold”, all made last year.
Along the way, he has been inhaling filmmaking.
Often mild-mannered, Wiig is also able to leap out and embody other characters or go for personal gold. photo: D. Blair
“The thing that blew me away about Sean [Penn] as a director was how hands on he was,” was an interesting observation Wiig shared with us. “He spent just as much time hauling equipment as sitting in the director's chair. He was also a very nurturing and trusting director. He gave me as many takes as I needed and really let me play with the role. I couldn't have asked for a better virgin experience.”
“I remember my first day on ‘Into the Wild’, [Penn] told me, for one take, to ‘Go Nicholson’—a little over the top,” Wiig elaborated at another meetup, that time over beers at his favorite Sausalito watering hole, Smitty’s Bar. “In hindsight, I could see that it was to manipulate me into opening up another side of myself. He took me down a certain path and then brought me back a little.”
Wiig was recently spotted on the set of "The Etruscan Smile" (2017) and the new Hugh Laurie television show, both of which are being shot around the Bay. And in July, he is bringing it all back home to a project in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, an avant-garde-esque short, “
Waiting For Wiig
”, about a group of friends and potential foes awaiting the return of a prodigal son.
“We'll be shooting in my hometown and at the Vista Theatre that my family helped build and ran since the 1920s,” said Wiig, who is also directing. “It'll be an experiment. We have a very loose script that a friend of mine wrote and there's an element of guerilla-style filmmaking that I have always tried to bring to whatever I am doing.”
After directing during high school and college, Wiig started up again two years ago with the music video “The Bridge” for a tune by singer/songwriter Jerry Hannan, of The Mad Hannans, and shot at Smitty’s Bar. It is part of the rock'n'roll documentary “Guitar Man” based on guitar dealer Michael Indelicato's book of the same name, and featuring interviews with Bob Weir, Sammy Hagar, Johnny Winter, Joe Satriani and more.
Wiig as a homophobic store keeper on the set of 'Milk', 2006. photo: Gus Van Sant
"’Guitar Man’ was my chance to act in a scene with Steve, although he had no lines and I was just singing,” Hannan told us. “He was the bartender and I was the patron. Looking at the video, he was so natural—we laughed because I was more like Charlie Chaplin."
“Steve is just as talented behind the camera as he is in front,” added Indelicato, “Guitar Man”’s star as well as producer, “Steve came up with an amazing set of storyboards,” not surprising, given he’s also a fine artist who teaches drawing. The video will be released in tandem with the film later this year.
In fact, acting and directing are Wiig’s second and third bite at the career-in-the-arts apple, having spend almost two decades with the world-famous, Marin County-based heavy metal band, Metallica. At first he was humping equipment and helping with their fan club but then he graduated to filming concerts and directing behind-the-scene shorts as well as assuming that most difficult of duties: the rock and roll personal assistant.
“Most of the run, I went everywhere the band,” he said. “It was salary pay, but it was also my entire life. I could be here with you right now and my phone would go off and I would have to run.”
“I think Randy [Gordon] once asked me if I had seen ‘Through the Never’?” Metallica’s IMAX concert film (2013). “I said, ‘No, I lived ‘Through the Never!’” That’s hardly an exaggeration given the film includes a story about a young roadie doing a bizarre errand/adventure outside the concert hall in an apocalyptic police-, vigilante- and fan-crazed world.
“I was in a ‘college avoidance’ phase” Wiig reminisced about when he met and joined with Metallica, on break from Northern Michigan University. “I found myself hanging out with them on tour in the Midwest. We hit it off pretty quick. I was just a fan of how they did things—very outside the box."
Metallica's Lars Ulrich (left) and Kirk Hammett and their twenty-something filmmaker and personal handler, Steven Wiig. photo: courtesy S. Wiig
One highlight was when he was whisked on stage to play bass after fellow Michigander, Jason Newsted, missed his flight. A guitarist as well as an accomplished drummer (his mother started him on piano as a kid), he barreled through Metallica's greatest hits at the Beverly Hills’ Playboy Mansion, blowing only ONE tune!
“Makes a pretty good sound bite," said Wiig, laughing, “'Played with Metallica at the Playboy Mansion,' right?” Also helping his performance was that he had just started playing with Newsted in their side project, Papa Wheelie, which recorded an album at The Plant in Sausalito, 2002, and continues, off-and-on, to this day, go
“Metallica set the bar higher than anyone else. They just did everything cooler, in my opinion—a top-notch organization. I learned a lot from them—not only professionally but personally.” Indeed, Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s founder and drummer, is his son's godfather.
“We went through a lot together… all the band breakups, rehab stints, comebacks, births, deaths, divorces, therapy [sessions], reunions, studio sessions, album releases, press tours, family vacations, video shoots, documentaries, countless tours in countless countries, the Hall Of Fame induction… By that time, I was definitely ready to go off and live my OWN life.”
“I vividly remember walking back stage—in New Jersey, in a hallway—and I was like, ‘I think I got just about everything out of this that I could have wanted or needed.’”
On top of which, Metallica provided Wiig’s big screen debut in their warts-and-all-documentary, "Some Kind Of Monster" (2004), playing himself while discussing Ulrich's multi-million dollar art collection, which he helped manage. By then, his friends back in the Bay Area, including a few thespians—Winona Ryder, Robin Wright and Sean Penn, no less—had started pushing him towards a new career, acting.
"One time I faked a police raid and kicked a door in on Winona at the Tosca Café,” recalled Wiig, whose looks translate well to “cop.” After he became acquainted with Penn, who was then married to Robin Wright, “Robin and I usually spent our time at parties in the corner, conversing in fake accents. Sean observed this one time and told me to come over the next day and pick up a script."
Sean Penn and Wiig on set for 'Into the Wild', 2006. photo: courtesy S. Wiig
“I came to know Steve as an actor by accident,” Penn recalled via email. “We’d become drinking pals, and in his storytelling I’d see him transform into some wonderful characters. He was just a natural, so I said, ‘What do you think of going pro?’”
In “Into the Wild", Wiig plays the park ranger who refuses to allow the high-minded and adventurous, if a bit misguided, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) take his kayak down the Colorado River.
“I remember sitting with Sean above his garage as he was telling me about this movie he was going to direct about this kid who fucks it all —society, rich people, privilege—and goes off,” Wiig told us at Smitty’s.
“Meanwhile I was existing in a very privileged, take-what-you-will rock star environment. ‘Oh the restaurant is closed?’ ‘Well, you know, its Metallica—we'll get a seat anyway.’ And I was often the guy who would facilitate that."
"It was fine and fun and dandy and amusing and all those things but [I have] these deep-seated roots in the [Michigan’s] Upper Peninsula, which is very nature driven and the furthest thing from fame and celebrity and rock stars.”
“What I think the ‘Into the Wild’ story did—on many levels—was get me to take a step back and look at what I was doing with my life. Fatherhood is also a good way of implementing that. I think I was feeling a little disgusted by some of the privilege I was witnessing. All this stuff was happening at the same time.”
Inspired by his entry into acting, Wiig joined the Screen Actors Guild and was soon landing union parts. Able to play a slew of stereotypes, he has appeared in blockbusters like "Godzilla" (2014), "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" (2014) and Marvel's "Ant-Man" (2015). Coming this year, he portrays a security officer at a Giants-Dodgers game in the Netflix series "Fuller House" and a customs official in the Bruce Lee biopic, “Birth of the Dragon”.
Steven Wiig reminiscing his twist-turning artistic adventure at his favorite bar, Sausalito's Smitty's Bar. photo: D. Blair
In total, Wiig has done over thirty film and television productions, see his
, or check with
"After joining SAG, I took any opportunity that came my way—acting gigs, short films, student films, extra work, precision driving—just to be on set. It was hands-on film school and I was a sponge," he told us. He even did production on “Top Chef: California” (Season 13, BravoTV) and cue carding for an NFL/Visa commercial.
“I've done some stand-in gigs,” where one plays the actor, so the director and cinematographer can block and light, “recently for Chris Hardwick and before that on the HBO series "Looking” as well as this season's "Murder In The First" [2014-]. I actually stood in for Heather Graham once. I like that gig a lot. The closer access I have to the heart of where the fire is burning, the more satisfied I am.”
“That feeling is not driven by fame or something like that. I've experienced fame and I'm a pretty private person. It is truly about the passion for the craft, so to speak, getting as close to that fire as possible, in whatever capacity available. Even the Metallica stuff for me was about getting close to that fire—to figure it out and see what it really is and, hopefully, not get burned.”
Over the last decade, Wiig has observed some of finest filmmakers working today. Along with Penn and Van Sant, his list now includes Paul Thomas Anderson, Woody Allen, Tim Burton and Danny Boyle.
“The gig that got me to join the [SAG] union was Paul Thomas Anderson's ‘The Master’ ,” Wiig said. “He's always been one of my favorite directors and it really awakened my love for directing. I got to observe him in collaboration with three of that year’s Oscar nominees: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Joaquin Phoenix. I played one of Laura Dern's friends and a fellow follower of Hoffman's [guru] character.”
“I basically sat around this old military house, set in the 1950s, all summer watching these guys work—summer film school immersion! It was an artistically invigorating experience that'll be difficult to beat.”
Wiig working on an ad in Chicago. photo: courtesy S. Wiig
"Immersing myself amongst these artists has been a great way to absorb some wisdom and see how things are done. However, I'm just as interested in working with new or young directors, such as those in Christopher Coppola's directing class at the San Francisco Art Institute. There's a certain freshness to their approach, a mutual feeling of discovery."
Alas, those little gigs might be harder to schedule now that Wiig’s career has careened around yet another corner.
Things really started to roll when he got the accountant role in “Black Gold” (2016), the film where Colter plays Charlie Walker, a real-life African-American trucker and businessman, who got involved with the clean-up of Standard Oil’s disastrous oil spill just outside the Golden Gate Bridge in 1971. Using discrimination as his in, Walker took over the Marin County portion of the cleanup, managing and manipulating stoned-out hippies and white executives alike.
“His ability to be so present in his character allows the story to take center stage and brings the audience deeper into the movie,” "Black Gold" director Patrick Gilles (also “Olive”, 2011) told us in an email. In fact, Wiig was the first principle Gilles cast—over a couple of beers at, you guessed it,
“It's a very subtle science. Less is more. He gets it,” Gilles continued. “Another quality that makes him so valuable on a production is his interest and input on the production itself. He cares about lighting, set design, and continuity.”
Wiig and Mike Colter (3rd and 1st from right) doing a pot smoking scene in 'Black Gold' (2016). photo: Josie Rodriguez
Under the original title "America Is Still The Place", “Black Gold” won multiple awards, notably at the 24th Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, the Harlem International Film Festival and the San Francisco Black Film Festival (all 2015), and it recently screened at the Independent Filmmakers Showcase in Beverly Hills. In October, it will be available to buy on iTunes or rent on Vimeo.
While he continues to go out for that film, Wiig is also doing screenings for his first leading-man turn, the 25-minute, black-and-white “Dead Metaphors,” (2014), see it
. In that, he plays the reclusive, somewhat self-loathing and fully alcoholic writer, Hank Nichols, replete with various film noir and literary overtones. Giving the film his blessings, as well as two songs, was Tom Waits.
“Steven is a true believer in filmmaking as a collaborative art,” “Dead Metaphors” director/writer Patrick J. Ford told us. “We spent hours on the phone discussing the character, and he was invaluable in helping us raise funds. I can't imagine the film without him.” Indeed, “Dead Metaphors” recently took Best Narrative Short at the Soo Film Festival, in Sault Saint Marie, Upper Peninsula Michigan.
“Steve was invaluable in putting together the 2015 festival as one of our board of advisors,” recalled festival president Taylor Brugman. “Being from the Upper Peninsula, he was a perfect fit for the festival.” They also showed “Black Gold” and “both films won the audience choice awards for their category,” according to Brugman.
Before “Black Gold”, Wiig was in “Yosemite” (now available on Netflix,
), directed by Gabrielle Demeestere and starring James Franco, who also executive produced. Based on Franco's short stories, it takes place in Franco's hometown of Palo Alto.
'Yosemite' Director Gabrielle Demeestere (right) with Wiig and Producer Clara Aranovich at the Mill Valley Film Festival, 2016. photo: courtesy S. Wiig
Wiig plays the father of the Franco character Ted (Calum John), who befriends the film’s star, played by Henry Hopper, Dennis's son. Wiig’s character is an insomniac too obsessed with his new toy—dial-up Internet—to pay attention to the fact that his son's cat has disappeared, perhaps into the gullet of a mountain lion.
“I had worked with James on a few other projects,” Wiig recalled. “We met on ‘Milk’ and would see each other on the road—he'd be promoting a film and I'd be on tour with Metallica.”
“I'd heard about this ‘Yosemite’ story and was invited to audition as a loosely-inspired version of his dad. It was a page and a half of some of the best, most concise screenwriting I'd seen in a long time. All the beats were there.” “I had something to draw from: I was a father of a similar-aged child, our cat had just died, etc. Anyway, when I looked up from my imaginary computer and away from my imaginary child, the casting director was wiping tears away from her eyes…” Wiig told us, adding that he figured he had nailed it.
Unfortunately, when he was called back to meet the director and read with some of the child actors, he was wearing a big black boot, having just fractured his fibula while working on "Godzilla". “I promised that I'd be better in time for filming,” he said. "Steven was able to build a very believable relationship with Calum,” director/writer Demeestere told us in an email. “In the limited amount of time of a low-budget shoot, with almost no rehearsal, it was wonderful to watch them start to feel like a real father-and-son pair."
Also in 2015, Steven portrayed Buck Nelson in the vampire thriller “Sacred Blood” by Christopher Coppola. “Steven is one of those actors who stays in the moment, captures the magic and shares it with the audience,” Coppola wrote us in an email (for more on the film see
Far from the malevolent and foggy San Francisco of “Sacred Blood”, Wiig lives in the hills above Sausalito with his wife Patricia and son Magnus. He fell in love with the town in 1995, while working with Metallica at The Record Plant, and with Patricia, whom he met and married in Minnesota, shortly thereafter.
Wiig on the set of 'Dead Metaphors'. photo: courtesy S. Wiig
When not acting in or promoting a film, Wiig teaches drawing and drumming, coaches a Little League team (recently to a regional championship), and is the annual online host for the Sausalito Art Festival. He also just graduated from the Sausalito Citizen's Police Academy.
And his career? “There's no real master plan here,” Wiig allowed, with his trademark quizzical grin. “If anything, my goal is to stay loyal to my hungry curiosity. When I feel satisfied or that I've gotten what I what I was seeking, that's a clue that it's time to find something new… Ultimately, I'm just trying to keep MYSELF entertained!”
Jay Randy Gordon
is The MARINsider, the author of '
' and the founder of
and can be reached
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Jul 06, 2016 - 12:37 PM