Interview: Trainwreck‘s Vanessa Bayer on Improv and Getting Yelled at by Tilda Swinton
Vanessa Bayer has been a cast member at SNL for the past five years, but just this weekend making her feature film debut. She costars in the much anticipated new Judd Apatow-Amy Schumer comedy, Trainwreck. Bayer plays Nikki, Schumer’s slightly daffy best friend who works alongside her at a men’s magazine and shares Schumer’s distaste for commitment and suffers from a nervous condition of constantly smiling.
We spoke with Bayer in advance of the film about, among other things, the Trainwreck comedy tour, making Amy Schumer laugh, and thrill of working with a power house like Tilda Swinton. [Editor’s note: Lesley also spoke to Swinton about the movie if you missed it!]
Lesley Coffin (TMS): What’s it like to get yelled at in a scene by Tilda Swinton?
Vanessa Bayer: It was so much fun! It was amazing to get to work with her. She’s so funny. But it was kind of intimidating and she plays a pretty scary character, so it was a little frightening shooting those scenes. So it was definitely both a joy and kind of terrifying experience.
TMS: Your character has a problem of uncontrollably smiling when she’s nerve, which enrages Swinton’s character. Is that kind of nervous tick something you’ve ever experienced in your own life?
Bayer: I’m a real smiler in life, and I do think that like my character, I’ll smile when I’m actually nervous and sometimes people read that as me being happy when I’m actually uncomfortable. But I pretty much smile all the time, and it can be a real problem.
TMS: You said in the press notes that your character isn’t stupid, but she is less experienced than Amy. How did you find the line between playing dumb and player her as naive?
Bayer: I think it was most important to play her as real as possible. There are a lot of people like her, and it doesn’t mean you’re dumb, she just isn’t completely self-aware. I wanted to show that she isn’t a dumb idiot, but at times just in her own world and not completely aware of what’s going on around her. Which isn’t that different from how I am a lot of the time.
TMS: Amy has said that she got the giggles a lot when working with you. As a comic, is that kind of thrilling to get someone like Amy to laugh or did you worry about ruining scenes.
Bayer: It was just fun, and I was definitely trying to get Amy to break. And she was trying to make all of us break—it was sort of a goal to make this hilarious person laugh too. And we were making each other laugh so much, we were literally told at certain points “hey, we need to get something to actually put into the movie. Can you settle down?”
TMS: Amy wrote the screenplay and most of your scenes are with her. So did you feel free to go off script?
Bayer: Judd and Amy encouraged us to improvise quite a lot. And the thing that was so great about working with Amy, is that she would improvise on set herself, and she was very generous about wanting us to share screen time. So that put us all at ease. We would maybe do a take on script, but if I ever felt like going off script or trying something, I was free to do that and they were completely supportive of me doing that.
TMS: Had you ever met with Judd about other roles before this film came to you?
Bayer: I auditioned for the role and that was the first time I ever met Amy. So it wasn’t written with me in mind. My character’s based on people Amy knows in her own life, and I was just really flattered to be cast as her friend. I had met Judd before, but never worked with him on anything.
TMS: Being your first time filming a movie, was it helpful having your cast mate Bill Hader around too?
Bayer: It was great to have Bill around. He had been off SNL for a year when we shot the movie, so it was great to hang out with him again. And he was really supportive of me on set. But in terms of the movie itself, it was such a fun experience and everyone was so nice, I feel like it ruined every movie I’ll ever do after this one.
TMS: Being so good at impersonations, do you look for the voice or ticks to anchor fictional characters?
Bayer: A little bit. With this character, I tried to play her a little spacey, while still making sure she felt like she was part of the real world. But I also had a longer time to explore this character than I do when playing a role in a sketch, which was really nice.
TMS: After this, will you seek out films to work on during your time off from SNL?
Bayer: This was such a good experience, I’m definitely hoping to work on more films. It’s nice during hiatus to work on something else. But the season of SNL, although great, can be really tiring. So I try to have a mix of resting and working on other projects.
TMS: How did the Trainwreck comedy tour go? Did you do stand-up?
Bayer: I mostly did stand-up, a bit of character work as well. I started doing stand-up when I was in college and do it off and on whenever I can. But when we were doing the tour, we got an opportunity to really mix it up. Working alongside so many amazing stand-ups, is almost felt like a stand-up workshop for me every night.
TMS: How did you get started in comedy?
Bayer: I was in an all-female musical-comedy sketch group, which I talk about all the time, and I did that all throughout college. And then one summer, I took a stand-up workshop at Gotham Comedy Club, and I started to do improv a little after that. After college I moved to Chicago to pursue comedy and acting. I studied at the IO Theater, Annoyance, and Second City. So that was when I really started pursuing it and got really focused.
TMS: So often, we see comedic actors move into dramatic work; including a number of your SNL costars. Is that a goal of yours?
Bayer: I would love to do that. I feel like most comedians are interested in that because there’s so much emotion, even in comedy, and it would cool to explore the more serious side.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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