Talking The Skeleton Twins with Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and Craig Johnson

Comedy Features Kristen Wiig

With increasing regularity, Saturday Night Live alums have been opting to take breaks from making us laugh so that they can dish out some dramatic acting realness. Will Ferrell wowed us in Stranger Than Fiction and Adam Sandler acted with a capital “A” in Punch Drunk Love. Bill Murray earned an Oscar nod for his role in Lost in Translation and Eddie Murphy even received a nomination for his role in Dreamgirls. Most recently, Will Forte left a significant impression in last year’s Oscar bait movie, Nebraska. You can now add two more SNL alums to that list: Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.

In the The Skeletons Twins, Hader and Wiig play Milo and Maggie, estranged twins who are unexpectedly reunited after the both of them have hit rock bottom. Milo is a careless and carefree gay man who has a scandalous past that includes having a relationship with his teacher in high school (Ty Burell). Maggie is dissatisfied with her marriage, but acts like everything is perfectly fine with her overly optimistic husband (Luke Wilson). At the same time, she seeks sexual satisfaction elsewhere. As they try to reacquaint and salvage their relationship, they laugh, cry, laugh, fight, laugh, cry some more, laugh, fight some more, and ultimately end everything in a rousing lip sync performance of a hit song from the seminal ‘80s cinematic masterpiece, Mannequin.

Directed by Craig Johnson, the movie is a heartwarming and heartbreaking take on the brother-sister dynamic—an often overlooked relationship in Hollywood. As Milo and Maggie, Hader and Wiig put on incredible performances that mix drama and comedy so well that it makes you forget you’re watching Stefon and the Target Lady. We had the chance to talk to Hader, Wiig and Johnson about the movie, their favorite brother-sister films (there seem to be only two out there), crying audiences members and listening to depressing music to cure your sadness.

Paste: Where did the idea for this film come from?
Craig Johnson: I co-wrote the script with Mark Heyman about eight years ago when we were still grad students in film school. We just sat down and we actually started having a conversation about the movie we wanted to make. We merely wanted it to be as funny and sad, and a little bitter sweet. Film makers like Hal Ashby, Milos Forman and Noah Baumbach were inspiring us at the time, so we just kicked around what we wanted to make. Mark actually went to high school with someone who was involved in a student-teacher relationship and we thought that was interesting fertile ground for a movie—now that’s more of a backstory in the movie. But that’s where we started building the brother and sister relationship. I became more interested in the brother and sister relationship as we kept writing, Mark was too. It sprung from there and it became, as we described it, like a non-romantic love between a brother and sister.

Paste: Kristen and Bill, what attracted you to the role?
Kristen Wiig: It was a really good script—you don’t read scripts that you really, really connect with. You just don’t.
Bill Hader: I do a lot of comedies and I got sent the script in 2010—I was still at SNL at the time. It took a really long time to make this. I think it was two years of every other month Craig sending me Skeleton Twins status reports. With some scripts you read 30 pages, do something else and then read another 30 pages later. I remember reading this script in my office at SNL and I just read the whole thing all the way through. I thought, “Wow, this is such a cool thing!”

Paste: Do all of you have siblings? How did you those relationships to inform the making of the movie?
Johnson: I have a sister who I’m really close to. We’re very, very different people and we can have a bizarre, offbeat sense of humor. I think we’ve personally dealt with the dark times in our own lives with that sense of humor and so that’s really infused in the script. And that’s what I think is the theme of the movie: finding the light in the darkness.
Wiig: I think I took it more from Maggie’s perspective and the fact that Bill and I have a very brother-sister relationship anyway. I just worked from that. Because we know each other so well, the fun scenes were more fun to shoot and the hard scenes were harder to shoot. Whether it’s a sibling, a good friend, a partner, or any close relationship, you’ve been through ups and downs-so I drew from all of that.
Hader: Yeah, I agree with all of that.
Johnson: It’s like somebody that knows you so well that they know how to push your buttons and nobody can make you angrier but then also nobody can make you happier.

Paste: I was going to ask, What’s your favorite brother-sister movie, but now that I think of it, there aren’t that many. I mean, there is The Savages.
Wiig: There aren’t many movies about the brother and sister relationship which is such an important, relevant thing.
Johnson: I’m surprised there aren’t more.
Hader: You Can Count on Me is a great one.
Wiig: I feel like there’s a sense that Hollywood feels that romance is the biggest draw—this is just a personal opinion. I think a lot of times, love is such a big part of our life that as a writer you tend to write what you know—and people just write about love and relationships a lot. It’s just not a very popular thing, I think.
Johnson: Maybe it just feels it’s too normal. It’s just such a given part of our lives that if you get to make a movie it’s got to be about something a little more “exciting.” Bill brought up You Can Count on Me which is tonally also very true to real life and it’s just a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful movie, and so if I truly do have a favorite brother and sister movie, it’d be probably that.

Paste: I have a sister and a lot of the scenes felt familiar to me—some of it hit very close to home.
Hader: Yeah, we get that a lot actually. We did this screening at Salt Lake City and I was standing in the lobby before the movie ended and this woman came out while the credits were running. She was crying and she came up to me and said, “This movie reminds me of a situation I have with my sister” and she was really, really emotional. It was just incredibly sweet and it was interesting. That’s the thing, you go in making these things not thinking of an endgame. It’s always a nice surprise when, A) how funny people thought it was and B) how much it resonates with people.
Johnson: You never know if these movies are going to get out to the world honestly. I mean, you don’t have distribution deals. We do now, but we didn’t before. You never know if these are just going to be like a Frisbee you’re chucking off a cliff into the ocean.

Paste: How was it like watching it for the first time with a full audience?
Johnson: It was electrifying because I knew I was feeling confident about the emotion and the drama but I wasn’t sure how funny it was. I knew I wanted it to be funny and there was just explosive laughter in the first screening and applauses. People were calling it a “crowd-pleaser.” I remember thinking, “Wow, a movie about depressing twins is a crowd-pleaser!” [laughs].
Hader: I wasn’t in the screening, but my wife was texting me saying, “Oh my gosh it’s playing really well!” and then 10 minutes later she’d say “Man, they’re laughing really hard and then she texted, “The lip sync sequence just got three applause breaks!”

Paste: The lip syncing scene with you and Kristen is probably one of the best scenes. Did you always intend to have Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” in the movie or were there other songs you were considering?
Johnson: The original song I wrote into the script was “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips. During that time, my producer came back from South by Southwest and said, “I just saw the premiere of this movie called Bridesmaids and there is a huge sequence with “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips. There’s no way we can top it. We’re going to have to change it.” So I just listened to a whole bunch of other ballads from the mid ‘80s. I wanted it to be a song from when they were kids and I was so happy to remind myself of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” because it’s a duet and that ended up adding drama to the scene. The scene suddenly became all about Bill trying to get Kristen to sing the Grace Slick part and pull her out of a funk. So what began as a two sentence description of Bill trying to cheer Kristen up turned into a a show piece.

Paste: Going with that, is there a song you play to help you get happy and inspired when you’re down and out?
Wiig: God, I’m the opposite. When I’m down I listen to sad music. I get it out of my system and then I’m okay.
Johnson: I think I’m like Kristen. You kind of lean into it a bit and play the emotional stuff. I go full Sigur Rós. [laughs]

The Skeleton Twins opens in theaters September 12.

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