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In 2018, “Wonder Woman 1984” writer-director Patty Jenkins took to Twitter to announce Kristen Wiig had been cast as classic villain Cheetah. The choice was divisive, with some longtime D.C. fans concerned that the former “Saturday Night Live” star wouldn’t fulfill their expectations of the character. Wiig, an Oscar and Golden Globe nominee for “Bridesmaids,” was aware of the reaction when she flew to London later that year to begin shooting the superhero sequel.
“There’s always that pressure for anything,” Wiig said, speaking on the set of the film in October 2018. She was between takes of a night scene where her character, Barbara Minerva, is attacked while walking alongside Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin (which, in the film, is a repurposed Hyde Park Serpentine). “I’m just trying to connect with Patty and do what she envisioned and trying not to have all that noise in there. But it’s hard because it’s a big movie and people are very precious [about] their superhero movies and their villains and casting. I’m fully aware of all of that now. I’m trying to do the best I can do.”
While Barbara is an awkward, bookish scientist who lacks self-confidence, her alter ego Cheetah, who slowly evolves over the course of the ’80-set story, is strong, aggressive and something of a dark flipside to Diana Prince/Wonder Woman herself.
“I was super not interested in the version of Cheetah that I knew people assumed a Cheetah movie would be — which is two supermodels fighting with each other," Jenkins said. "I’ve already got the Amazons, and I’ve got Diana — I don’t need more of that kind of thing. I want it to be a character who’s got a flaw that turns her into the villain.”
Wiig had no idea what role she was being courted for when she was first approached about “Wonder Woman 1984,” the followup to Jenkins’ beloved 2017 film, the World War I-set origin story for the superhero played by Gal Gadot. But as a fan of the first film, she was "giddy" at the idea and immediately ready to take the leap.
“It was like ‘Patty Jenkins wants to talk to you about a part in “Wonder Woman,” and they won’t say what it is,’” Wiig recalled, “I interrupted [my agent] and just said, ‘Yes.’ It was very secret. I had to sign NDAs before I could even talk to her on the phone about what the character was.”
Fortunately, Jenkins had conceived her version of Cheetah with Wiig in mind. She wanted to introduce a female character with a similar energy to that of the first film's joyful secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis).
“I wanted somebody who was a good time to be with and someone who you liked very much,” Jenkins said. “And there’s no one I like more than Kristen Wiig. Both Gal and I were superfans of hers. You know she can nail the first part [of the movie] but having watched her work for so long I could also see how unbelievably talented she is as an actress. I had full confidence that she could reach this other end [and transform into the villain]. And what an interesting thing to see someone do.”
Barbara’s evolution is gradual but striking as the character discovers she’s gained special powers — through mysterious means — and begins to explore the full extent of those powers, which leads to her teaming up with Pedro Pascal’s megalomaniacal businessman Max Lord.
Wiig trained extensively ahead of shooting, more so than she’s ever done for a film or TV show, and learned fight choreography. As Barbara inevitably finds herself in sticky situations, and Cheetah ultimately has a showdown with Wonder Woman, Wiig was determined to perform nearly every move unless it was deemed too dangerous for the actors. She spent months working out with a trainer, acquiring her own newfound strength alongside her character.
“That was a very challenging part of the shoot for me, especially in the beginning because I didn’t realize how much I was going to be doing,” Wiig said, reflecting back on the process this month, after it was announced the movie, originally set for release in June, would finally premiere on HBO Max and in theaters on Christmas Day. “It was intense physically. But ultimately that also helped with the way the character found herself. I’m a superhero nerd. I see all the movies, and I know more than I should, and my favorite thing [to watch] is when people become the superhero and they’re discovering their powers. The fact that I got to do that in the movie was really cool.”
Barbara’s costumes, hair and makeup were also key to her evolution into Cheetah. Jenkins attended every costume fitting and was involved in the character's look during each iteration of her transformation. Everything down to the height of the heels and the amount of eyeliner was considered.
“Clothing is so demonstrative of character,” Jenkins said. “You want to make it something that is really familiar to the actor playing them and have them have a relationship with it, versus something being put on them and they have to just walk around in it. With [Barbara] it was finding something super relatable. Kristen and I both laugh because her [oversized] opening outfit is one we can both remember trying to wear .... When you have an average, not-that-tall person it just looks terrible on you. You know who she’s trying to be and how she’s trying to do that hairstyle, but it’s not quite working. And then [the look] is morphing into this cooler thing as she stops caring and starts trying edgier things.”
Wiig recalled she initially felt overwhelmed by the pressure and scope of the film, frequently asking Jenkins questions about her character and scenes. She was nervous about bringing too much of herself into the performance but eventually realized that was part of what she was hired to do.
“I didn’t want to have that initial Barbara be a version of me that you’ve seen before,” Wiig said. “But at the same time, after talking with Patty, I really wanted to embrace that part of it too. It was this balance I had to find in the beginning to make her lighthearted and not overly caricature-y. I didn’t want to make her funny at all in the beginning. I was focusing on making her kind of sad. And then Patty one day was like, ‘Look, you have to embrace this part of her that Diana really loves. Which is that she is funny, and it’s OK to allow a little bit of what maybe the world knows as Kristen to come into this.’ That shifted everything for me. Eventually it made the evolution into the more villainous side more fun for me to play.”
She added, “It’s interesting because the dynamic between Barbara and Diana is that you feel sorry for both of them because they’re so lonely and detached, but they’re complete opposites. Which is what attracts them to each other. Diana sees in Barbara this light and odd sense of humor and unawareness that she finds completely endearing. It was really important for Patty to show that they were friends. That’s where the humor came in.”
For Wiig, who hasn’t worked much through 2020 with the exception of returning to host “Saturday Night Live” last weekend, taking on Cheetah has pushed her to realize she wants more challenges in the future. Her next project is a series version of the "SNL" sketch-turned-movie “MacGruber,” opposite Will Forte, which will air on NBC’s Peacock, but beyond that she’s not sure what's ahead.
“How I felt when ['Wonder Woman'] was over, having done something I’d never done before and was legitimately terrified to do, was, ‘Oh, I do want to challenge myself more, and I want to do more roles that scare me,’” Wiig says. “It just felt really good that I did that. I don’t always want to have superpowers in every movie I do. They don’t have to write that in every script! But the movie opened up a whole different world for me. I’m such a movie fan, and I love all types of film, and I want to get a chance to play all different types of characters. That’s the goal.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.