DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A new movie, "Hateship, Loveship," stars "Saturday Night Live" alum Kristen Wiig in a performance that is a far cry from her outrageous characters on the legendary comedy show. Yes, there's no Target Lady here. Liza Johnson directs a quiet, dramatic Kristen Wiig in this adaptation of an Alice Munro short story.
Wiig plays Johanna, a caretaker in Iowa who's assigned to help a grandfather - played by Nick Nolte - look after his 14-year-old granddaughter, Sabitha. The ensemble cast also includes Guy Pearce. He plays Ken, Sabitha's father, a largely absent dad and a kind of recovering drug addict. Her first day on the job, Johanna finds him going through the medicine cabinet.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HATESHIP, LOVESHIP")
KRISTEN WIIG: (As Johanna) Oh.
GUY PEARCE: (As Ken) Oh, God. You scared the hell out of me.
WIIG: (As Johanna) Sorry. Just looking for some pears.
PEARCE: (As Ken) Well, they're not in here.
WIIG: (As Johanna) Those are Mr. McCauley's.
PEARCE: (As Ken) Yeah. Hey, um, don't tell Sabitha I've got a headache. She'll just worry about me, OK? Thanks, gorgeous.
GREENE: Ken departs for Chicago but leaves Johanna a thank you note for watching his daughter. Struck by this small act of kindness, Johanna writes him back. And their letters turn into emails, and a long-distance romance blossoms. What Johanna doesn't realize is that she's not really writing to Ken at all. Her letters were intercepted by Sabitha and a friend, and the girls have been pretending to write back as Ken, all along.
When I sat down with Liza Johnson and Kristen Wiig to talk about the new film, Wiig explained what drew her to Johanna.
WIIG: I've never read a character like her before and certainly have never had the opportunity to play anything like that. And she's always been there for other people and because of that has never really fulfilled any desires - or even thought about what her desires may be. And I think everything just gets triggered when she goes and lives with - Nick Nolte hires her to take care of his granddaughter.
GREENE: Liza Johnson, I read that you thought Kristen Wiig might be interested in this role because of a character she played on "Saturday Night Live," a singing sister on "The Lawrence Welk Show" with tiny, baby hands. She's kind of the oddball of the bunch, and I wanted to play a little clip of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (As characters) (Singing) We love you. We love you...
WIIG: (As Dooneesa) (Singing) I had a worm in my hair and I slept on the worm, and then I found it in my soup, and then I sat down on a hot piece of tin. Then my shirt inched up...
GREENE: Uh - OK, Liza.
GREENE: What's the connection here, and what made you think that there was your actress to play Johanna?
LIZA JOHNSON: Well, I do love that character, and I love a lot of Kristen's characters. And, I mean, they're commonly, in comedy, referred to as awkward.
JOHNSON: And when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, Margaret Atwood wrote of her that she feels like Munro's characters are all grounded in responding to shame and embarrassment. And Kristen's comedy characters are very soulful, and they really mean something to me and, I think, to a lot of people. In a way, underneath the awkwardness is a real core of soulful emotions that include shame and embarrassment.
GREENE: Well, she goes to Chicago to find Ken, and finds a drugged-out man living in a ramshackle roadside motel. And Johanna realizes that she's been the butt of a cruel joke; that, you know, he was never actually getting her emails. And her reaction is to start cleaning his stove and scrubbing his floor.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HATESHIP, LOVESHIP")
(SOUNDBITE OF SCRUBBING)
PEARCE: (As Ken) What are you doing?
WIIG: (As Johanna) Cleaning the floor. Getting some Wax Buster. You really don't have a computer?
PEARCE: (As Ken) No. I want to get one.
WIIG: I think this is probably the most emotion she's felt in probably a really long time, and that's the way that she knows how to express it - or not express it. I think it's an automatic reaction for her to - as soon as she feels pain, to just start cleaning.
GREENE: Well, Liza, making this movie, I mean, I don't want to give too much away but Johanna not just scrubs this man's floor. She lets a man get away with a lot. Are you worried about the example that that sets when people think about gender roles, as they're watching this?
JOHNSON: I know what you mean, but I hope she just comes across as a very specific character. And I think if you walk into the life of a person with addiction issues and decide that you can fix them by caring for them, you are wildly mistaken. That's just certainly not the case. But I think, in the specifics of this story, if you get to a place in your life where you're ready to accept some care, keeping better company can actually help you get better.
GREENE: Well, let me ask you both. There is so much restraint; and so much of the power of Johanna's character seems to be the times that she's not speaking, and you're watching her very subtle smiles and emotional reactions. Some of the criticism of the film has suggested there was too much restraint. There weren't moments of fireworks, big emotional release. I mean, was that a deliberate decision?
WIIG: I love watching films where you're not told how to feel, or you can kind of imagine what a character is thinking. And Johanna doesn't speak that much, but you kind of still know what she's saying without her really saying it. And there's nothing wrong with having silence in film. I, personally, really like that.
JOHNSON: I think it's also an effort to honor the source material. I think Alice Munro is always writing these sort of taciturn Midwestern characters where there are sort of still waters that are running deep. And I just don't think that there is an Alice Munro melodrama. But what I love about her work is that she lets the big feelings of everyday life be expressed in a restrained way that I think lets you feel them differently than if they're really in your face.
GREENE: And let me ask you, Kristen, and then I want to hear from you too, Liza. What do you hope people take away from this movie?
WIIG: I mean, this is going to sound so cheesy, but I'm going to say it anyway. (Laughter)
GREENE: Go for it.
WIIG: The fact that Johanna just in some ways had this one-track mind to just do this thing, and she didn't even think about it. She just packed her bags and went after this guy, all because she loved someone. I think that's a really beautiful message.
JOHNSON: You know, the original story is set in the '40s, and the movie is set in the present, and it did actually start to feel really contemporary, in the sense that Johanna suffers from this trick and she falls in love with a fake person, or an idea of a person.
And sometimes for me now, when I watch the movie, I feel like - that that's how love really is; you know, that you fall in love with an idealized version of someone, and then the meat of the story is, you have to figure out whether you can really accept them once you find out who they really are.
WIIG: I like your answers so much better.
WIIG: Can you just - when you edit this, can you just say you're asking Kristen and then just play Liza's answer, and then say, thank you, Kristen. That was Kristen.
GREENE: We'll consider that.
WIIG: I'm just kidding.
GREENE: Liza Johnson, Kristen Wiig, this has been a real pleasure. Thanks for coming in and talking about the movie. We appreciate it.
WIIG: Thank you so much.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Director Liza Johnson, actress Kristen Wiig; their movie, "Hateship, Loveship" is out today.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.