If you were to pick a potential movie star from Saturday Night Live’s current roster, Kyle Mooney probably wouldn’t top your list. While his signature brand of understated weirdness has served him well in the realm of SNL’s digital shorts and as a supporting player in shows like Hello Ladies and movies like Zoolander 2, it doesn’t exactly scream “I’m the Next Will Ferrell.” But the Sundance premiere of his new movie Brigsby Bear told a very different story.
Audiences were awestruck by this strange and big-hearted ode to the all-encompassing power of creativity, while Mooney’s performance, as a wide-eyed man-child with a deep fandom for a kid’s show about a giant bear, turned heads. If that’s not a tagline that strikes you as must-see, there’s a very specific reason for that. Brigsby Bear—which also stars Mark Hamill, Claire Danes, Greg Kinnear and Andy Samberg—takes a drastic turn less than midway through the film, and it’s for your benefit that we’ll say as little as possible about exactly what that entails.
What we will say is this. With Brigsby Bear—which he made with his lifelong friends Kevin Costello and Dave McCary (both of whom are writers on SNL)—Mooney has revealed himself to be much more than the show’s resident oddball. Here he is on working with Luke Skywalker, making a movie with his best buddies, and what it’s like being on SNL in the age of Trump.
You wrote the script during your off hours from Saturday Night Live. What kind of mood are you when you suddenly say to yourself, ‘Okay it’s time to sit down with Brigsby Bear again’?
When the show’s on we’ll have two weeks in a row of show and then we’ll have like a week off, so I usually need a day to decompress. I would meet up with Kevin who co-wrote the movie with me and we’d just be like, let’s do this. It was fun riffing in the character during the writing process. I felt like if we want to get this thing made, I have to spend the time writing it.
Once you wrapped and locked picture, were you able to say to yourself that you created something wholly unique and special, or are you inherently your own worst critic?
In anything I do, I’ll always be nervous. When we wrapped the filming the feeling I had was ‘I hope we got it. I hope we got what we were aiming to get.’ I did like the script that we wrote and I wanted to do it justice. And then when we finally cut it together, I felt at least fine about everything. I didn’t know how other people would respond but I felt like ‘Oh I enjoy this.’
Did you feel relief after the first Sundance screening?
I would say relief is pretty accurate. What’s most interesting about the whole process is how surprised people are by how sweet the movie is. So that was a fun thing, that people weren’t expecting to walk out of it feeling a certain way.
Did you know that you were make a tearjerker?
Dave, our director, who I’ve known since I was ten, as a filmmaker he’s always wanted to move people in some way, so I think anytime he hears that somebody had that reaction he’s stoked. It’s wonderful because I come from a comedy background, so I didn’t know if we would have that ability to move people.
When you got SNL, was one of the first things that went through your head, ‘Oh maybe now I can finally make Brigsby Bear!’?
When I got SNL my main thought was ‘How am I going to survive this?’ Making a movie was somewhat secondary. But just being on that show in the first season opened doors to meetings with executives that I’d never had before. I certainly figured out that now that I’m an actor on a TV show we’re going to have a much better chance of getting this made.
Do you often think of your career in that kind of strategic way?
Yeah, it’s difficult not to. I want the movie to do well and I certainly want to make more movies after this one, but I try not think about that stuff too much. If this movie was a total failure I think I would have been okay with it because we had such a fun time making it.
You came up making short movies with your friends. Did making Brigsby Bear feel similar to those early days, just on a much larger scale?
Dave also directs stuff at SNL so we’re around each other a lot. We have this shorthand when we work together. Because we’ve known eachother for so long, we probably know eachother better than anybody else does. This was an extension of making our short videos but different because there’s a budget attached and a high profile cast, but when we were on set it wasn’t that far from what we’ve been doing for over a decade.
Does having your friends around make it easier to do something as intimidating as making a feature?
Yeah, absolutely. Because he knows me so well he knows what I’m capable of. He’s seen me perform in so many different things and can pull specific things out, like ‘Oh this is not something far from what Kyle did in this specific video, let’s try and get that performance out of him.’
Was it hard not to geek out on that first day of filming opposite Mark Hamill?
At first you want to keep it as professional as possible and feel the person out. Mark was there to work and I didn’t want to bother him. It’s also a tough thing because what are the odds that I’m going to ask him something he’s never heard before. But I think on the last day I finally worked up the courage to get some Star Wars comic books signed for my niece and nephew and started asking him some questions. At one point Kevin asked him if he could tell us anything about the next movie and he said, “I can spoil the movie for you in five words.”
The movie is something of an ode to the idea of fandom. Was casting Mark Hamill a way to make a conscious connection to that?
It was a hard role to cast. When we wrote it we had no idea who it was going to be. We knew we didn’t want an obvious choice. Not only is the character an eccentric genius, but there’s an element of voice acting that’s required and that was difficult to find. And then after the fact we realized that having Mark adds a second layer because he’s the poster boy of fandom and obsession.
It’s also about the democratization of filmmaking and how easy it’s become to just pick up a camera and make movies. Is it meant to be a metaphor for the birth of your sketch group Good Neighbor?
I don’t know if when I started writing the movie that that was a message I felt necessary to convey but it’s difficult not to see the parallel. It’s something I certainly now take away from it because the movie is about a character who makes a movie with his friends and I make movies with my friends.
How did you hook up with Lonely Island?
They were always aware of our internet videos and they’ve always been kind and encouraging and were definitely helpful in terms of us getting on SNL. In terms of the movie, they were really active in post-production so it was cool for us because they were heroes of ours and set the guideline for internet video stuff, so to have them producing our first movie definitely feels full circle.
SNL has always been heavy on political satire but obviously this last season went into overdrive. Are you kind of bummed that Trump’s antics have become such a huge part of the show and presumably will be going forward?
It can be tough not having a ton of space left on the show to do weirder stuff. But I can’t say that I’m super bummed because it’s good for the show and it’s obviously important to people. I feel like it would be selfish of me to take away from the show because it has eyes on it so that’s positive.