‘The Skeleton Twins’

How Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig Invented the ‘Suicide Comedy'

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are hilarious as brother and sister in The Skeleton Twins. They’ve also never been so dark, nuanced, or dramatic.

Roadside Attractions

When you hear that Saturday Night Live veterans Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are starring in a movie together, your comedy dreams run wild. “Stefon meets the Target Lady on the big screen!” you fantasize, while bracing yourself to laugh so much your stomach will hurt. What you don’t expect is for the film they make to cover suicide, infidelity, and broken relationships.

You expect your funny bone to tingle, but you don’t exactly expect your heartstrings to be pulled.

But as The Skeleton Twins proves, thwarted expectations can be the best thing for a movie. And, of course, this is still Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. You’re still going to laugh at The Skeleton Twins. You’re going to laugh a lot—nearly as much as you might cry.

It’s a tricky balance to nail, and it’s struck perfectly in The Skeleton Twins, which is directed by Craig Johnson and co-written by Johnson and Mark Heyman, and hits theaters today. It stars Hader and Wiig as estranged twins Milo and Maggie, who reunite for the first time in a decade when both narrowly escape suicides that were attempted at the same time—that twin connection!—and find themselves living under the same roof and confronting the metaphorical skeletons in their closets: the unresolved issues they have with each other and in their love lives.

In the time-tested indie fashion, it’s difficult to categorize The Skeleton Twins. It’s a family drama, certainly, and there are heartbreaking discoveries and unsettling confrontations between Milo and Maggie as their relationship mends. It’s a hilarious film, too, but with laughs mined from far more nuanced and human roots than, say, on a sketch that airs “Live from New York…”

It’s also a romance, of sorts, between a brother and sister. “It’s the coming together of these two people that should’ve probably been together this whole time, and getting close to someone you haven’t seen in so long and really finding out what you loved about them once again,” Wiig says. “There really is an element of falling in love with each other.”

Beyond both of those things, however, it’s a showcase for two very unexpected performances from two very funny people.

“The first thing I said, I swear to God, was ‘Bill’s so good in this movie,’” Wiig tells me when I ask what her first reaction was after seeing the film for the first time. |“I’m not just saying it because Kristen did, but I turned to my wife and said, ‘How good is Wiig?’” Hader tells me when I ask him the same thing.

And they’re not alone in their assessments.

Much in the eye-opening manner that followed Wiig’s revelatory performance in Bridesmaids several years ago, unveiling the comedian as an actress (a coronation on full display with her heartbreaking work here), there’s been a spate of accolades surrounding Hader’s performance as Milo in The Skeleton Twins, a much darker and dramatic turn than he’s ever been given before. Milo is gay and sardonic and sassy and really, really funny, but he’s not a gay caricature, by any means. Stefon he is not. “Bill needs a lot of credit for that,” Wiig is quick to say. “It’s not easy to do.”

If The Skeleton Twins seems like it’s Bill Hader’s Big Moment, that might be owed to the fact that he’s been pursuing the project for over two years. He first landed on Johnson’s radar after participating in a table read for a drama (that was never made) with Kate Winslet and Bradley Cooper. Startled by the unexpected range he showed in the reading, the casting director who organized it, Avy Kaufman, urged Johnson to cast him as Milo.

Again in the time-tested indie fashion, it took two years to get funding off the ground for the film. “Every two months I would get an email,” Hader says. “‘Skeleton Twins update: still don’t have the money!’” Then Johnson surfaced the idea of Wiig as Maggie. “She called me and said, ‘I’d love to do it, but only if you’ll have me. Only if you’re cool with me playing your sister,’” Hader remembers. “Next day, we had the money. It was like, ‘Bam! Kristen Wiig will be in the movie! Cha-ching!’ So, thanks, Kristen.”

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And as is always the case when actors’ comedy reputations precede them, people are obsessing about the fact that is a rare dramatic turn from Hader—and the best example of Wiig’s range we’ve seen since Bridesmaids, to boot. “Turns out typecasting is a real thing,” Hader laughs, responding to that reaction.

While both admit that it’s flattering that people are impressed that they’re capable of more than just making people laugh, they agree that the fixation on a dramatic turn from a comedic actor can be a strange thing to navigate. “It’s a weird thing you can’t control,” Wiig says. “SNL was a great training ground in that way, not just for being actors and writers, but also for dealing with that kind of thing,” Hader agrees.

“That’s why Bill and I don’t read stuff and don’t want to know what people are saying,” Wiig says.

“Well, I have a Google alert on you, Kristen.”

“Oh, you do? Anything I should know?”

“Oh, boy. When we get out of here I have a lot to tell you.”

These guys.

How dramatic are we really talking about, though? Well, for one, this film’s main characters do grapple with—literally—finding a reason to live. So…that’s serious. And that leads to a handful of blow-out, brutally honest, hard-to-watch fights between Maggie and Milo. There’s one particularly awful argument near the end.

“That was so difficult because as much as I was playing a character and Bill was playing character, it’s really hard to do a scene when you’re really upset and have to say something horrible to someone I know really is Bill,” Wiig says. “Kristen actually started crying after that scene,” Hader says. “We had to cut right after.”

After the film screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year, there was a post-screening Q&A in which Hader was singled out immediately for his dramatic performance, and the whole audience erupted in applause. “My wife started crying,” Hader remembers. “It was very moving.”

But things aren’t all serious.

Again, these are two of the funniest people in show business. Twice in our conversations, which spanned two days this past week, the actors started joking about tripping on acid. Both times, they kept referring to me as a frog. “We’re still on acid,” Hader informs me when our second conversation begins. “That’s good, this should be fun then!” I, the aforementioned frog, reply. “For you,” Wiig scoffs. “My phone looks like a giant ham!”

At one point, Hader and Wiig riff about every single thing they ate that day, and Wiig cracks that they shot an alternate ending to The Skeleton Twins where she and Hader drove a car away into the sky, waving back to the camera as they drive-fly. “We redid Grease,” she quips. “The car exploded.”

And in the film, too, some of the most memorable scenes were the ones that were epically laugh-out-loud funny. In an attempt to rouse an emotionally depleted Maggie, Milo riotously lipsyncs along to Starship’s ’80s power ballad “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” jazz-handing, passionately mouthing, and shimmying until Maggie eventually joins in. There’s also a sequence where Maggie and Milo bond in Maggie’s office, where she works as a dental hygienists, breathing in laughing gas while, fittingly, trying to make each other laugh.

But not too hard.

“There was some hilarious stuff they did that we actually cut out, which you’re usually not supposed to do because it’s good to have funny stuff in a movie,” Johnson says, attempting to evoke a quote about tonal balancing from Ang Lee before Wiig cuts in jokingly: “Here he goes with the Ang Lee…” But Hader concurs. “We did a lot of shit that didn’t end up in the movie that was too funny,” he says. “You’d be like, ‘Oh these people should be on SNL or something…’”

To that regard, Hader’s most challenging scene was shot immediately after he and Wiig had joyously and riotously danced their hearts out all morning filing the lipsycning sequence. Once again in the time-tested indie fashion, this was a sprint of a shoot, with no time to dwell on a scene or bask in a good mood. Hader was told just after mouthing his final Starship note that he’d have to turn around and film a crucial monologue in which Milo worries whether he peaked in high school, and if that’s what is causing his depression.

“I was like, ‘We’re shooting that now!?’” Hader says. “I had so much anxiety about it because I wanted to get it right. So I went and walked around the block a little bit.”

“We were sweating and laughing and like, ‘That was so great!’” Wiig remembers. “And then,” Hader says, “it’s like: OK. You were just on top of a building. You’re drunk. You’ve just been arrested and you realized your life is shit. Go!

The pendulum swing between moods and tone, however, became a staple of the shoot. And Hader and Wiig’s agility traversing between them provides the bones that make The Skeleton Twins really work. Our concluding exchange couldn’t summarize this more.

“So at the end of the day you would get back to the car and drive home and collapse,” Hader says about the emotionally draining shoot.

“And then I would get on my horse and be like, ugh, why didn’t I take a car here?” Wiig adds. They go on:

“Yes, Kristen likes to take horses. She’s really green,” Hader says.

“And Bill would always drive by me really fast and honk. ‘I’m going to get home before you!’ You would.”

“And I would cut down a bunch of trees on the way home, just to be a dick.”

“He would always be throwing litter out the window and I would have to pick it up.”

“And I’d be like, ‘I’m giving money to BP! Fuck you and your horse!’”

In other words, this is a serious movie with excellent, serious performances from its stars. But it’s the special secret of these actors is that nothing should be taken that seriously.