Paula Pell is being hailed as the breakout star of Netflix’s new original movie, Wine Country, but if you’ve watched Saturday Night Live in the past 20 years, then you’re probably already familiar with Pell’s work as a writer on the NBC series from 1995 to 2016. She’s also had roles in everything from 30 Rock to Parks and Recreation to Pixar’s Inside Out.
NewNowNext spoke with Pell about her big year, what it’s like filming a movie with her closest friends, and the time she gave them all high-end vibrators.
So, I’m going to start with the most pressing question: Is Hudson Valley Ballers ever coming back?
From your mouth to God’s ears! [Laughs] You know, that was created with my two best friends. And I am always, always thinking about Hudson Valley Ballers. I love it so much. It makes me so happy that you watch it. It’s really truly one of the joys of my life, that I got to do that.
It’s so funny and ridiculous. It always puts me in a good mood.
I’m selling my house up there, but we could still go back there and shoot it.
You were fantastic in the Documentary Now! “Co-Op” episode. Were you already a fan of Company?
When I was growing up my mom did a regional theater production of Company, as the Elaine Stritch role. So she sang “The Ladies Who Lunch.” I’ve always known that musical backwards and forwards. I sang it constantly. And then I saw the documentary, and it was amazing. And years later, John [Mulaney] emailed me, and said, “Hey, we want you to be the Elaine Stritch part in this.” And I just about passed out. I couldn’t type fast enough to say, “Please, yes! Please, did I give this answer to you fast enough?!”
I’m such a theater nerd, so to go back to a musical theater project—and learn something so quick. We shot that in two days in Portland. And we had to learn all those songs, and we got so invested in it that we almost forgot it was supposed to be a comedy. I was so wanting to nail my harmonies and do everything right. I just wanted to be in that world again—to be a theater geek, you know? ’Cause that’s what I am anyway. Between [Documentary Now!] and Wine Country, this year has been a year of extreme joy. I’m pinching myself. I’m of course waiting for the shoe to fall. I’m telling my therapist that, you know, something terrible is about to happen. This is all too good!
How did you get involved with Wine Country? You were obviously friends with the SNL ladies…
I was on the real trip! Those girls are my sisters. I was there first at SNL, and then they all trickled in over the years. They all became my, as we saying the other day, my tribe of familiars. And I was part of that group that went on the real trip to wine country. By the end of that trip, so many funny things had happened. And we had laughed so much and bonded so much that we just—Emily Spivey, one of the co-writers, was also on the trip. She and Amy [Poehler] were talking at the end and said, like, “This needs to be a movie.” The main thing, Amy was saying, was scheduling. It seemed impossible. We all knew we wanted to do it, ’cause any excuse for us to all hang out and get paid would be a bonus, but the main thing was for us to do a project together. The fact that we pulled it off, and that Netflix said “yes,” is just—still [amazing]. We’re doing press this week, and we’re in wine country for [the movie], and we’re all like, “Oh, my god, I can’t believe this is happening.”
Was the movie pretty true to what actually happened?
It’s true to the whole vibe of us together—laughing, giving each other shit. Crying together, all those things are true. The only thing that was heightened were the fights. The big, screaming fights and storm-offs are heightened movie stuff to take you on a journey. If we’d have stayed another week, we might’ve gotten there, but it was—I absolutely, 100% went to the Hustler store the night before I left and bought everyone very high-end vibrators, and the girl who worked there gave me her employee discount because she felt so bad. It was so expensive. And I absolutely made a beard out of paper towel with a mouth hole in it, and taped it to my face and was Dildo Claus. At the perfect buzz of our evening, I kind of became this persona and handed it out to all of my well-behaved children who’d been good girls. [Laughs] And I gave them all batteries. I can’t believe I got through TSA! And then people were joking, ’cause it was like 7 at night. And everyone was like, “Okay, I’m gonna go to bed! Goodnight!”
What was your favorite scene to shoot?
Oh god, there were so many fun scenes. The art scene was especially fun because my fiancée was in it—she played one of the asshole millennials. It was just… I love the very end. I love us being in a gaggle. There were just too many to pick out one specific [scene]. You know, it was long days, and we were still shooting a movie. It was still work. But because we love each other so much, and we were so excited to be making something together, it really was a gift.
In an old interview with AfterEllen, you were saying that you had a number of scripts you wanted to write that featured lesbian characters. Are there any projects you’re working on with queer characters?
I have a movie script that’s floating around that’s got some gay women in it. I feel very strongly in, like, constantly always reflecting my perspective. Obviously, when you do a big studio movie—like when I did Sisters—we had lesbian storylines that ended up sort of, along with many other storylines, chiseled out because of time. Sometimes, you lose things in the process, and one of those things was the Kate McKinnon character. She was a funny character in it, but she was [originally] gay. Sometimes in movies, things that are special to the writer get chiseled down to barely anything. I feel like now, people are more apt to tell [queer-inclusive] stories that it’s no big deal. It doesn’t feel like anything that studios or producers have to worry about. It doesn’t feel like the atmosphere now because almost every show you can think of has some sort of plot line of queer people living normal lives. One thing I loved about Wine Country is how it’s so reflective of the time now. It’s never like, “Oh, maybe we’ll find you a gay person to hook up with.” It’s not written by someone who was, like, putting a flashlight or a laser beam on [my character]—it’s not, like, the “G-story,” or “gay story.” It’s kind of fun that it’s not called out in a big way because that gets kind of tiring.
If there were a sequel to Wine Country, where would you want to see the group of women go next?
Oh. god. We’ve talked about how we’d love to do a beach movie—like, Hawaii, the beaches, or the tropics of some sort. Or even like some big, beautiful mountainous area. The physical background in a movie is so fun, not even to just shoot there or be there, but when we were talking about this movie, being in actual wine country captured how we felt in that actual trip. We could not believe that we preserved and created a chunk of time that nobody could take away or usurp, and we could just sit there for that many days together. When friends go somewhere beautiful together, it just forces them to stop and just, like, appreciate your fucking life! [Laughs] And appreciate each other. Because this is a gift.
Wine Country debuts May 10 on Netflix.