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Kristen Wiig's character studies come in handy for 'Hateship Loveship'

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In the new movie "Hateship Loveship," Kristen Wiig's character, an introverted, thirtysomething housekeeper named Johannna practices kissing herself in the mirror. It's a moment of loneliness that Wiig and director Liza Johnson envisioned as a sad beat in the film.

But at a screening last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, Wiig was shocked when audiences laughed at the scene.

"I'm so surprised that comes across as funny," she said in a recent interview at a Los Feliz cafe. "I worried, are people gonna laugh at certain parts of this 'cause they're used to seeing me do things that are comedic? I can't take away from people how they experience that scene or other ones, but I never saw it as funny. I thought, she probably does this all the time... This poor girl, she's kissing herself, that's so sad. And then she just cleans the mirror."

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A quiet, independently financed adaptation of the Alice Munro short story "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage," Wiig's newest film marks her debut as a dramatic actress. After winning over audiences with her oddball "Saturday Night Live" characters, breaking new ground at the box office with the ribald 2011 comedy "Bridesmaids" and appearing in supporting roles that make use of her comic chops in studio films like "Anchorman 2" and "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," the actress is attempting to show movie-goers a different side of herself.

It's a move that comes with some risk for Wiig, 40, who is aware that audiences have affection for her comedic characters, like "SNL's" Dooneese, the sister who often blurted out inappropriate comments during her family's performances on "The Lawrence Welk Show," Annie from "Bridesmaids," whose drunken, pill-fueled outburst on a plane is one of the movie's highlights, or Chani from "Anchorman 2," whose bizarre flirtations won over Steve Carell's idiot weatherman.

"This is probably the most noncomedic thing I've done, so it is a little scary to throw that out there, 'cause you don't know what people will think and it's tricky with marketing these kinds of films," Wiig said. "But you do have to let it go at a certain point and just let it be what it is. People are going to say what they're going to say and that's fine."

Adapted by screenwriter Mark Poirier, "Hateship Loveship" relocates Munro's restrained short story from 1950s rural Ontario to the present-day American Midwest, beginning at the deathbed of Johanna's longtime elderly charge. Johanna's new job is as caretaker for a teenager, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), who is being raised by her grandfather (Nick Nolte) after her father, Ken (Guy Pearce), killed her mother in a drunk driving accident. Irked by Johanna's awkwardness, Sabitha and a friend trick Johanna into believing that Ken is in love with her.

Johanna is a character of few words whose quirky habits seemed to have been forged in her previous life of isolation tending to the old woman. She wears dowdy clothes, eats peaches from a can and channels every uncomfortable emotion into scrubbing a surface spotless. When she realizes she has been tricked and has no place to put her feelings for Ken, Johanna reacts by cleaning his home until it shines.

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As part of her preparation for the role, Wiig watched some videos of people cleaning that Johnson sent her. "It's like porn in a way," Wiig said of the cleaning videos. "It's very satisfying, it's very meditative, you get why people do it, you get why some people obsess about it. It's very gratifying. It's a way to busy your mind... I think with Johanna it was how she learned what was supposed to fill her life."

Johnson has some experience with character pieces; in her 2011 film "The Return," Linda Cardellini plays a reservist who struggles to adapt to home life after returning from a tour of duty in the Middle East.

The director said she felt to carry off Johanna, an actor would need the technique to communicate in small gestures, and the warmth to keep the audience on her side. In Wiig, Johnson said, she also had a leading woman with another tool — the ability to play the kind of characters nobody wants to talk to at a party.

"I felt Kristen could understand this character based on her body of work," said Johnson. "She's known for her comedy, but she's also known for creating characters with some shame and embarrassment. This character is so quiet and so interior that it's helpful to have someone warm playing her, someone who audiences know and who they like."

For Wiig, the trick was to communicate the complexity swirling around in Johanna's head while preserving her taciturn quality. "It was that fine line of trying to make her introverted and kind of quiet, but also not just sitting there and staring at the wall," Wiig said. "You had to see that she was thinking all the time. There's a lot going on in her brain."

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Though she attained her fame as a comic actor, Wiig never set out with that goal, she said. A native of upstate New York, she moved to Los Angeles after studying art at the University of Arizona, and developed her comic skills at L.A.'s Groundlings improv troupe. In real life, Wiig is amiable and quick to laugh, but far more subdued than most of the women she has played (realistically, she would have to be, or she would have been institutionalized by now).

"Before the Groundlings, I never thought about comedy," Wiig said. "It just sort of happened, and then 'SNL' happened. You can't really predict where your life is gonna go at all."

Reviews for "Hateship Loveship" have been mixed. Some critics have praised the empathy of Wiig's portrayal, but others find the film too quiet, and point out the challenge inherent in adapting Munro, a writer whose chief gift is her ability to observe the inner lives of people.

For Wiig, that silence was a big part of the project's appeal.

"I really love movies where there isn't dialogue every five seconds," Wiig said. "Film to me is such a visual medium and I love watching movies where you do sometimes just sit there and look at the scenery, 'cause I don't think we do that much anymore. To me it's a quiet movie and I think that's a good thing... Those are the kind of movies I like."

Three years after the success of "Bridesmaids," Wiig is continuing to forge an unlikely path. She's writing a comedy with her "Bridesmaids" writing partner Annie Mumolo and another, more dramatic script on her own, and she said, she has her eye on directing. As an actor, Wiig will star later this year in the independent "Welcome to Me," in which she plays a woman with borderline personality disorder who wins the lottery, stops taking her medication and buys a talk show.

What Wiig hasn't done is make a "Bridesmaids" sequel, or take another starring role in a big-budget studio comedy.

"Sometimes you just don't want to do something that everyone can't understand why you would turn down," Wiig said. "But it's your life, your career, your name, your face on the poster. You have to make those decisions for yourself. There's nothing I regret saying no to."

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

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