Kristen Wiig is shy. No, really.
Obviously, the woman is talented and funny, and one of the best improvisational sketch comedians of her generation. She started with the L.A. comedy group The Groundlings and in 2005 achieved the Holy Grail for comedians by joining the cast of Saturday Night Live. She broke out to an even more rarefied level of success with last year’s film Bridesmaids, which grossed $280 million and earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (to go with her three Emmy nods for her SNL work). She's done voice work in Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon and The Looney Toons Show, and has plenty more work under her belt. She's leaving SNL after the current season, according to a Huffington Post report published as SUCCESS went to press.
Now, you read that and see her work, and you think, The girl’s the classic extrovert, the type A driven to success, a natural master at nailing the punch line and winning an audience.
Well, not quite.
“I never considered myself to be funny,” she told Interview magazine. “Maybe because socially I can be a little bit shy sometimes. I just didn’t think you could be both.”
Entertaining and shy. You can be both. Wiig discovered this as she honed characters she would later play on SNL—such as The Target Lady or Aunt Linda the movie critic. But she also discovered that the characters gave her a freedom she didn’t have on her own. “I enjoy being characters rather than being myself,” she says. “If I had to get up and talk in front of a group of people as myself, I would be terrified.”
That’s an interesting comment, when you consider how many people have debilitating fears of public speaking or even garden-variety shyness in social settings. This anxiety can be crippling in a professional environment, such as a conference or a client meeting. The old saw about picturing everyone in their underwear (not necessarily a pleasant vision, depending on the crowd) only goes so far.
And even if you’re good in a crowd—smooth, witty, confident—it has to hang in the back of your mind: Could I be better?
What if, behind the scenes, we cultivated that character the same way Wiig develops her roles for SNL? Not playacting for clients, but practicing the polished version of yourself you want to put in front of potential associates. For the shy person, you’d eliminate anxiety because you’d know this character, the “public” you, so well that group interaction would become more natural. And if you’re already a social circuit smoothie? You might just influence the weak-minded… like a Jedi.
Still, don’t go overboard. At her SNL audition, Wiig whipped through nine characters in five minutes—hilarious for showbiz, but a little creepy at a cocktail party.