Noël Wells reminds us what it takes to accomplish creative dreams
Noël Wells made a movie. She wrote it, starred in it, directed it, and it’s good. Like, really good. The film is called Mr. Roosevelt (which happens to be the name of her character’s cat), and it was the movie I enjoyed most at SXSW — where it won an audience award and the Best Texan Film award (beating out a movie by big-shot director Terrence Malick). It also won the Grand Jury Prize at the Dallas International Film Festival. Point being, Noël’s debut was a success.
Maybe you’re a fan of Noël’s, maybe you loved her as Rachel on Master of None, maybe you’re thinking “why should I care about this Noël Wells? What does she have to do with me?” The reason you should care, the reason it relates, is because sitting across from Noël in Austin Texas, I was reminded that success doesn’t arrive on anyone’s doorstep fully-formed. I was reminded of all the work it takes to get to a place in your professional life where you’re being interviewed for an article, and that the woman I had seen on stage the day before, at her movie’s world premiere, had likely spent hours and days and months sitting alone, doing the work necessary to bring her creative vision to life.
I was further reminded that, barring the stupid-lucky or silver-spooned, this is true of anyone who has any modicum of success. Easy as it can be to forget, hours must be spent writing at computers; or practicing lines into mirrors; or sketching; or making the same recipe over and over, until we finally have something we are prepared to show the world. Talking to Noël, I was reminded that all of us are capable of putting in the work, and that success, in many cases, is really just about not giving into fear or doubt or self-loathing. Her hutzpah inspired me, and I bet it will inspire you.
“Humans are very creative,” she says to me, and for some reason the way Noël says it makes me hear how true it really is. “I’ve always wanted to make movies, but I didn’t want to admit it,” she says. “I didn’t think I deserved to, I didn’t think I was talented enough, or I just never imagined how it would ever be possible.” Did you hear that? Those feelings of doubt you have right now about whatever endeavor you want to pursue — yeah, they’re normal. “But over a period of time you slowly get all the skill sets to be able to do it,” she adds. Meaning that if you too keep chipping away at whatever ice sculpture you’re trying to make, it will come into relief.
“I beat myself up for years,” she says of the process she went through to write Mr. Roosevelt. “The frustration was: I’m not getting up every day and writing this.” We completely relate.
Like many great ideas, Noël’s took years to actualize. The film’s main character, Emily, is a struggling actress who returns home from L.A. to Austin after the cat she shared with her ex-boyfriend dies. She ends up staying with her ex and his new-girlfriend: Calamity and growth ensue.
“I had an idea of her when I was in college,” Noël says of Emily. “I wrote scenes for something very similar where she was coming back home. It used to be that she was staying with her sister, and her sister was pregnant, and she was staying in the baby nursery.” The story evolved over time, and so did the project — Noël kept kicking at the door until it opened, though. A worthy lesson for anyone who has a notebook full of half-finished stories.
Noël also speaks of the very relatable situation of being pigeon-holed when you’re still figuring out who and what you want to be. Just as our projects aren’t born as finished products, neither are our skills and creative identities. “When I was first starting out, I didn’t necessarily have the skills to suddenly go make movies, but I knew that’s where I wanted to go,” she says. “It’s really hard to explain that to people when they see you posting videos online, and they’re like, ‘oh you’re a YouTuber’ and I’m like, ‘no, I mean, I have videos online.’ Or, ‘oh you do voices!’ And I’m like, ‘well, that’s something I did in a particular moment.’” Amen.
“The lesson that I’ve learned,” she says, “is that you can’t control how people perceive you. All you can do is keep showing people what you can do and eventually with a body of work they’ll come to understand that there’s more to you.”
Now, I want you to put yourself in Noël’s shoes for a minute. You are 27 years old, and you are cast on Saturday Night Live. This is your dream, and it’s coming true. You do a season, people love your impressions, and then you get let go without much of an explanation. What do you do? Pull up the covers? Quit the biz? Here’s what Noël did.
“There was a point after SNL where I didn’t really know what was happening with my life and my career. So I was like ‘well, then just get up and do the thing you’ve always wanted to do.’” If that’s not career advice for handling setbacks then I don’t know what is. “I was like, it might take 10 years but I’m in it, I’m in it for the long run,” she says of buckling down on her film idea.
“There was a point where I had to stop being so self-pitying and get down and do the work.
“I used to yell at myself a lot, but yelling at people, even yourself, doesn’t really work,” she says. “It was the times where I was like ‘ok just do a little bit at a time, it’s ok, just get up’ that it started all coming together.”
Getting to the big-screen wasn’t seamless for Noël, which is a reality of professional success that we often forget. Noël didn’t decide to be an actress and then suddenly find herself on Master of None; she didn’t think “oh I’d like to write a movie” and then mentally unearth the Mr. Roosevelt script fully formed. “I’ve learned through the process is that if you actually just chill out and calm down, things start coming to you, and if you’re very patiently piecing it all together then it’s not that big of a struggle,” she says.
We all have dreams. We all have goals. We all have secret projects that we fantasize about completing, or aspirations that seem so far-fetched we don’t even like to say them out loud. Talking to Noël reminded me how important it is to pursue those. “It’s really just following your impulse of what you want to do, even if you’re not good at it yet, it’s just doing it and not beating yourself up that you’re not perfect when you’re doing it,” she says. And as I think back to her introducing her film to a packed house, I know she’s right.