I am in the Chateau Marmont hotel in West Hollywood, steeling myself for Rebel Wilson’s arrival.
Wilson likes a dramatic entrance. A few days before we meet, the Australian actor-comedian rocked up on stage at the MTV movie awards to introduce a clip from her new film dressed as a Victoria’s Secret angel, in wings and leather, the word “THINK” emblazoned across her backside. Then she took the mic and riffed on the similarity between her genitals and a burrito.
Today, Wilson is considerably more understated. She sidles up to my table and offers a limp hand with a hesitant giggle. She giggles a lot, in fact, but tells me early on that she has “a very strong non-comedic side. I don’t want to be bouncing off the walls all the time.”
Wearing an electric blue knee-length dress, in full hair and make-up from a photo shoot, she speaks so softly it can be hard to detect her Australian accent. Her voice is meek and girly but it would be a mistake to underestimate her. As Jason Moore, who directed her in Pitch Perfect, has noted: “Rebel is able to quietly say very bold things.”
Evidently. “I say [expletive] a lot here, just to wake people up a bit,” she throws in, casually. “Americans are so serious in meetings. Everyone says: ‘Oh, that actor is so great! Oh, we love him!’ And I’ll say: ‘I don’t. He’s a [expletive].’ And they know it’s the truth.”
All this is delivered so deadpan, you’re not sure whether she’s joking or not. This morning, Wilson says, she did a “pool work-out” with her flatmate, comedian Matt Lucas . She scans the menu for “scones and cream” with a resigned look. There is kale, kale and more kale. “I once promised myself I would never eat it,” she says. “Now I do, all the time.”
She moved to Hollywood in 2010, as part of her strategy to break America: she had worked for some time as a comedian on Australian television, writing and starring in her own series, performing on the stand-up circuit. Five years on, she is still acclimatising. “They’re all insane here. It draws in all the crazy people.” She casts a quick glance at a nearby table of goateed film executives. “Some are creative. Some are just [expletive] up.” All this is said in the same sweet tone.
With her off-kilter, poker-faced humour, Wilson has stolen pretty much every film she has appeared in since her breakout role in Bridesmaids four years ago, playing Lucas’s lookalike sister. (When she narrowly lost out on landing Melissa McCarthy’s part, the producers created a small role especially for her.) Wilson had just four short scenes, yet within a week of Bridesmaids’ release, she had been signed to five new films. She was cast in the 2012 musical comedy Pitch Perfect, which followed the adventures of fictional a cappella group the Barden Bellas. Wilson was to be the sixth lead, but her improvisation of Fat Amy, an all-singing, all-dancing Mrs Malaprop with Teflon confidence, who uses the words “hot” and “fat” interchangeably, made her the film’s undisputed star.
On top of the film roles, there has been a series of outre awards ceremony stunts. Wilson won best breakthrough performance at the MTV movie awards in 2013, and presented them the following year, crash-landing on stage as a female Iron Man, complete with pink thong. Picking up the best film actress gong at the 2013 Glamour awards , she poked fun at Hollywood acceptance speeches, calling her mum “a b****”; at another ceremony, she mused: “It’s funny that there’s a band called One Direction, because that’s the name I call my a******e.” (This was at the Teen Choice awards. The group were present.)
For the Pitch Perfect sequel , Wilson has been given her own romantic storyline, a rarity for an actor who is a UK size 16. She is unapologetic about her size (New York magazine recently declared hers a “post-fat state of mind”), and it hasn’t stopped her making magazine covers around the world. But not everyone in the fashion industry knows what to do with her. “A French magazine Photoshopped me so I was no longer fat,” she says, clearly amused. “They merged my head with an image from another shoot.”
She does all her own stunts, because no one has found a female body double big enough. “On a recent movie, the woman who was in charge of physical and facial effects said: ‘Is there anything about yourself you don’t like? Because I’m the one that can fix that.’ I was like, ‘Oh no, thanks. I don’t need to.’ A lot of actresses here have [digital correcting] written into their contracts. It’s pretty obvious which ones... I mean, Sandra Bullock. Did you see Gravity?” Can I quote you on that? “Yeah. I’ve never even met Sandra Bullock.”
Wilson can be contradictory. She cringes when I say she is pretty, something Fat Amy would never do, and admits that though she is self-assured when it comes to her comic talents, she is “less confident in areas where you can’t use your intelligence, and it’s just about looks, on the red carpet”.
“I’ll eat healthily for a week, and then go, nah. I don’t think my emotional eating is ever going to change.”
In the US, she is often mistaken for Matt Lucas’s real-life sibling. The friends moved in together in 2012, after Bridesmaids. “People think Matt and I are the same person,” she says. “Or they think I’m Jonah Hill in drag.”
David Letterman mistook her for Lucas’s Little Britain character Vicky Pollard when she appeared on his show last year. She went with it, and recently played Pollard in a cameo on Lucas’s BBC2 show, Pompidou.
As a child, Wilson was a fan of Little Britain (as well as Absolutely Fabulous: Jennifer Saunders is her comedy role model), but her political incorrectness surpasses even that of David Walliams and Lucas. “In America, you really can’t say the N-word. I learned that very quickly. I did some stand-up when I first got to LA. I used that word. It didn’t go down well.”
Her improvised jokes often get censored, too; she keeps a folder on set in which she writes them down, keeping tabs on what gets cut. “In Pitch Perfect 2, when I disgrace the Bellas, I said: ‘Well, it’s not like my vagina queefed the N-word.’ They all laughed and then gasped. It never went in.”
She likens the reclaiming of racist terms to her own reappropriation of the word “fat”.
At the University of New South Wales, where she studied law and arts, she took a module on comedy and power. On one of her first sketch shows on Australian TV, she created Fat Mandi who, like her character in Pitch Perfect, owns the F-word so that the other “twig b****** don’t say it behind my back”.
“If you reclaim a pejorative word, it can no longer be offensive to you. There is power in that.”
Isn’t there a fine line between self-empowering fat gags and jokes that merely reinforce stereotypes? “I don’t just improvise jokes about my size,” she says. “I do a whole range of gags and the director decides what goes in the edit.”
She thinks Pitch Perfect 2 hits the right note because of its female director, Elizabeth Banks (who produced the first film and stars in both). “Male directors tend to put in more fat jokes, because they think that’s popular.”
Wilson talks passionately about the importance of female writers, such as Kay Cannon, who wrote both Pitch Perfect films, and the “real breakthrough moment for female-driven comedy that happened with Bridesmaids”.
That film, written by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, proved a surprisingly lucrative hit, taking $288 million (Dh1 billion) at the box office. “I think Bridesmaids has changed things socially and culturally. Before, it was really difficult for women to do scatological humour without seeming gross.”
Similarly, Fat Amy has been a trailblazer for non-size-zero comedians.
“When I first started, I never felt that you could look good, because there’s this notion that men can’t laugh at women who are pretty — they find it too threatening. So at first I wanted to play Fat Amy as a complete feral. I thought if I had my hair and make-up done, it would make me less funny. I was wrong.”
Wilson says there are now “a lot more female-written, female-driven scripts” in which “women are allowed to be funny, have their own power. Black actors in Hollywood have struggled because the majority of scripts were not for them. It’s been like that for women [comedians]. It’s been a boys’ club in comedy up until now.”
Who’s in the gang? “Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Sacha Baron Cohen... I’ve worked with them all. They are all so talented. I like to compete with them, riff off them. Meanwhile, my brain is saying: ‘I wish they’d given me some more jokes.’” She says every male-driven comedy she’s appeared in “has been a pretty [expletive] role. In Night At The Museum 3, with Ben Stiller, I was only given a couple of lines. If you are in guys’ comedies it’s not like you are ever going to just get handed some jokes and a brilliant role.”
And so she is left to improvise on the day, “to turn it into something to impress them. But then they control how much of your stuff is allowed in the edit. You can’t overshadow the male leads. You can’t be too good.”
Does she challenge her male colleagues directly? “I’ve got into fights with some dudes — male executives, creators.” What about? “What they think is funny — schoolyard humour, like: ‘Aha, laugh at the funny fat girl.’ Fair enough; one joke. But 10 disgusting jokes in a row? Enough is enough. And I’ll hit back with some Jewish jokes, or something about their physical appearance. They don’t like it so much, but you’ve just got to be smarter than them.”
Then she adds: “But it’s not about us and them. Once you’ve had a certain amount of success, they want to work with you.”
She is, in fact, a good friend of one of the boys’ club: Baron Cohen, who went to school with Matt Lucas, and his wife Isla Fisher, a fellow Australian. The four of them often have dinner together, and Wilson stars in Baron Cohen’s forthcoming film, Grimsby. Wilson says she and Lucas are both quite homey: they like to watch House Of Cards in their dressing gowns. They sometimes go out to “parties at A-listers’ houses. You see a lot of things going on. Drugs and stuff. But I don’t do drugs. I don’t really drink. I don’t have any vices,” she says. “I think that’s why I eat a bit too much.”
Most of the time, Wilson and Lucas make their own fun. “We’ve had a big fight with the neighbours, because we were singing show tunes in the hot tub late one night. We got an anonymous letter, which I read out on TV, and then they egged our house. We were only singing Annie.” She chuckles. They have hired Lady Gaga’s former housekeeper.
“Did we think that was a cool thing? Yes. Do we constantly ask her things about Gaga? Yes. But she doesn’t say.”
Do they do impressions of each other? “I don’t think Matt can do me. Sometimes he does this Indian character that cracks me up... It could be deemed racist.” When she was a teenager, Wilson had a doll of Lucas. Now she has a real one to play with.
Dog eat dog
Born in the suburbs of west Sydney, Wilson had a childhood defined by dogs. Lots of dogs. Her great-grandmother founded an Australian beagle club and her mother and father were breeders. The family were, she says, bona fide bogans (the Australian equivalent of “chav”). And they were all a little overweight. (Wilson says she recently did a DNA test: “And I have the gene for gaining weight very easily.”) The Wilsons owned a house in what she calls the “ghetto”, but spent long periods of time in a yellow caravan full of canines, with Pet Cetera Etc painted on the side, driving around the country to dog shows. Her mother sold pet products and judged competitions. Rebel is her real name. At 29, she is the eldest of four siblings: two sisters, Liberty, who works for an airline, and Annachi, a nurse, and brother Ryot, who is a professional poker player. She says the kooky names are a red herring: her mum is “very conservative” and simply took the same approach to naming her brood as she did to a litter of puppies - she always chose a theme. Rebel set the tone: her parents named her after a girl who sang at their wedding. She is allergic to dogs. “I found out a year ago. I don’t know if it’s because they used to get all the attention and I had a complex about that. It was always about the dogs winning a show.” Did she compete for attention? “No, it just meant I will never, ever want a dog. I don’t even like people who are too obsessed with their animals.” Her parents were always busy with the dogs, which made her “very responsible, very organised”. They separated when she was 15. When I ask about her father, Wilson is vague. “I think some of my darkness comes from my dad.” There’s a long silence. “There is definitely convict history on that side of the family, a lot of dodginess. But with the darkness can also come entrepreneurialism, genius traits.” Her father died of a heart attack in 2013, two weeks into the production of Wilson’s ABC series Super Fun Night. She took just a week off to go home. Did she take any time to seek grief counselling? “Australians aren’t really of that mentality. We just get on with it.”
Wilson attended the private Tara Anglican school for girls in Sydney. In the family, there are various hypotheses as to how her “ghetto” family paid the fees: one is that her grandmother, partial to a flutter on the horses, won big one day. However it came about, Wilson thrived at the school. From an early age she had “weird mathematical abilities” and took part in the Australian junior maths olympiad. “Matt always says, ‘You’re a bit on the spectrum, Rebel.’ I was definitely really different from the other kids. I was borderline social-disorder shy. I was a total Nigel-No-Mates.”
She spent all her time in the library, until one day, aged 14, she read a psychological study. “It suggested that if you don’t develop your personality by the age of 15, it will never develop. I thought: I’m always going to have this sad, pathetic life.” So she made a conscious decision to become the most popular girl in the school, by observing and mimicking some of the cool girls, learning “some of the traits that extroverts have”. She became class joker, captain of the basketball team (a feat, at 5ft 3in) and, although she missed the head girl top spot, she was deputy. “It was all very calculated.” But she was “always very confident in my intellectual abilities”. It helped that her school had a strong feminist stance: her headmistress once campaigned to change all the hes in the Bible to shes. “That’s why I’m so girl-power now — it was built into my education. We didn’t hide our intelligence like some girls do in co-ed schools.” It was Wilson’s teenage ambition to become the first female president of a newly independent republic of Australia.
Malaria and the stage
After school, she went to Zimbabwe for a year as a young Rotary ambassador for Australia, travelling around making motivational speeches. She tells me she also got caught in a shootout; climbed into a cage with a leopard for a dare; and caught a severe strain of malaria in Mozambique. She delivers all this without drama, apparently unaware that the whole period sounds like a plotline for The Hangover 4. After contracting malaria, she spent two weeks in intensive care in Johannesburg. Here, as Wilson tells it, she had a near-death experience: a vision of herself winning an Oscar and rapping her acceptance speech. (It went something like: “Hustle up y’all, I’ve got something to show you. It’s about this Oscar, I’ve got something to say.”) She dropped her presidential ambitions and decided to become an actress. All based on one hallucination? “I watched a lot of Oprah. She says if you get a whisper of something, believe it the first time.” She went to university and attended the Australian Theatre for Young People at night. At first she took the thespian route, doing Marlowe and Shakespeare, but, she tells me, she always seemed to get a laugh during her most tragic scenes. So she changed direction.
In LA, Wilson was signed almost immediately by the William Morris agency. Not being a cookie-cutter glamazon helped her “stand out, be distinctive. They said: ‘There’s no one that looks like you on our books.’ And I wrote my own material.”
Lucas’s theory, he tells me, is that cinema audiences have become weary of a certain type of bland young actress: “People have reacted positively to her because she’s a breath of fresh air. And no one is competing with her. No one feels threatened by her. She’s carved out her own space.”
There have been teething problems, all the same. Super Fun Night, Wilson’s “anti-Sex And The City” series about three unintentionally celibate, socially inept twentysomethings, ran for just one season last year. Audiences warmed less to Wilson’s awkward, insecure lawyer than they had to the self-assured Fat Amy. “People were confused by me not playing a confident, sassy character,” she says. (The real Wilson is “somewhere between the two”.)
She battled with the Super Fun Night executives, who would not cast the actors she wanted, because “they weren’t glamorous, when the whole point was a comedy show with real-looking girls”; she also says she was routinely censored. Unlike Lena Dunham’s Girls, it was a show without any sex.
Would she agree with the widely-voiced opinion that Dunham is the voice, a voice, of her generation? Wilson is borderline diplomatic: “Her sensibility is not mine. She grew up in the New York arts scene, with very affluent, artistic parents. I grew up in the suburbs of Sydney. I was a normal person.”
Both actors have broken taboos with their physical exhibitionism: until recently, it was rare to see the flesh of real women on US television. Does she think there would be vitriol if she lost a lot of weight? She considers this. “I don’t think I could ever go skinny. I just don’t think, physiologically, that is going to happen. I do eat healthily for a week and then I go, nah, they have these beautiful ice-cream sandwiches. I don’t think my emotional eating is ever going to change.” (She was contractually obliged to stay the same weight for both Pitch Perfect roles.)
Wilson recently played Jennifer Lawrence’s twin sister in a parody for MTV’s web spoof True Life: My Sister’s Famous; in it, she wore the actress’s Oscar night dress as a scarf. She and Lawrence are now good friends. “We are both really candid, which I think is a good thing, but the problem is, not many people are like that in this town. But I wouldn’t want to be in her position. She’s had so much pressure, a lot of scandals.”
Lawrence’s iCloud account was among those hacked last year, and nude pictures of her were posted online.
Wilson recently bought a house in the same street as Lawrence’s. She has installed a cinema and a hot tub. “But I’m still a bogan through and through.” She laughs. “I get really excited about freeloading — getting free headphones at the MTV awards, taking leftover brownies from a shoot.” She loves the fact she often gets flown to presenting gigs in a private jet. The first time, she remembers, was to introduce Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus at an event in Las Vegas. (Her verdict: “I think Miley’s craziness is just an act. Now Britney, she is a little more complicated...”)
She has also been playing “real-life Monopoly”, “accumulating other mansions in America and back in Australia”. Why is she moving out of Lucas’s house? I wonder if he is cramping her bachelorette style (Wilson is single). “I would say that the only men that come around the house are gay. Matt’s friends. So there aren’t that many opportunities.” She laughs.
A psychic once told her that she would meet her soulmate at 60, which “f***** me off”. She has had boyfriends, but never been in love. There may be a fundamental problem, she says: “Girls are attracted to funny guys all the time, but in my experience it doesn’t seem to work the other way round. They find it intimidating. It’s something to do with that power thing. But at least I’m not bland.”
A prime example, she says, is her Pitch Perfect 2 love interest, played by Adam Devine. “I have such great chemistry with him in the movie, but he would never, ever consider dating a girl like me in real life. He’s dating Kelley [Jakle], of the Bellas. She’s super pretty. She doesn’t really speak [in the film]. I don’t understand it,” she says, looking a little crestfallen.
But there are higher priorities in her life than sex right now. “I want to win an Oscar,” she reminds me. She has just returned from a writers’ retreat, and pitched a live-action film to Disney. She has roles in a number of forthcoming comedies, including a remake of the 1980 film Private Benjamin (with Wilson in Goldie Hawn’s shoes), and Grimsby with Sacha Baron Cohen, in which she plays his partner, a football fan. Even so, she is convinced her Oscar-winning performance will have to be a serious one. “I need to go super-dramatic, or people are just going to get confused,” she says. “I’ve got to be extreme — a murderer. I can’t do in-between.”
Pitch Perfect 2 is out in the UAE on Thursday.