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San Antonio Native Noël Wells Wins 'Lone Star' Award At SXSW

Courtesy photo
Noël Wells, as Emily Martin, in "Mr. Roosevelt." The film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival on March 12."

A San Antonio native won one of the top prizes at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival. Noël Wells, known for her work on "Saturday Night Live" and Netflix's "Master of None," premiered her debut as a director, "Mr. Roosevelt." The film is a comedic love letter to Austin, and won the Louis Black Lone Star Award at the festival on Tuesday night.

Wells spent her elementary school years in San Antonio, but starting in middle school, she moved to Victoria, where life was... okay.

“I remember when I was growing up, everybody would be like--because I think they knew how hard I was having it--they were like, 'don’t worry, one day you can go to Austin!' They had already planned it for me.”

Wells went to the University of Texas, and found later success on "Saturday Night Live" and the Netflix series "Master of None." Her debut feature as a director, “Mr. Roosevelt,” is about a young woman in her twenties, maybe a little bit like Wells, returning to Austin--and her ex—upon the death of their beloved cat, the titular Mr. Roosevelt. What she finds is that things have changed. Her boyfriend has moved on, her favorite coffee shop closed, and she no longer seems to fit in. I asked her about the changing landscape of the city.

Credit Nathan Cone / TPR
Noël Wells at the SXSW Film Festival.

“You know, I can’t particularly speak to it because I don’t live here anymore, but all I’ll say is the whole landscape of cool places has changed," she says thoughtfully. "It’s also happening in New York... it happens in Los Angeles... it’s the gentrification of culture.”

In the movie, Wells, as Emily, finds herself out of place and seemingly unloved, despite racking up tens of thousands of YouTube hits for her comedy videos, one of which involves Wells in a bathtub full of spaghetti and gallons of pasta sauce. "Mr. Roosevelt’s" comedy is occasionally slapstick like that, but most of the time it’s based in our shared neuroses, about the pressures to live up to the expectations of others.

Wells shakes her head a little. "I don’t know if it’s American culture, or if it’s just me being a human, but I feel like my whole existence has been people [asking] ‘why are you doing that?’ And I genuinely have no idea. I want to fit in, but this is really weird."

Emily goes through a lot in the film. There's casual sex, raucous parties, acting out, the spaghetti bath I mentioned earlier, you name it. I asked Noël Wells if—since she’s the one writing, directing, and starring in the film, a movie she said was kind of drawn on her life, maybe just a little bit—does she ever worry about people mistaking her for this character?

"I haven’t really worried about it," she says, "because I think if you meet me, you’ll see that I’m not that person, but it’s just inevitable. I’m whatever they think of me on 'SNL,' I’m on 'Master of None,' I’m whatever version of that. I think the more work I do, the more I assume people start understanding that you know, I’m not a character, I’m who I am. But yeah, my production designer told me after the movie wrapped, while we were shooting it he was like, ‘oh my god, this girl must be so crazy,’ thinking that I was this character. But then once he got to know me, it’s just so funny that we were like, ‘man, [Emily is] bonkers.’"

"Mr. Roosevelt" premiered last Sunday at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin. Two days later, it won the Louis Black Lone Star Award, given to the best feature film to spotlight Texas. Wells says she hasn’t ruled out future projects in the Lone Star State, because she’s able to keep things low key here as opposed to Los Angeles. Meantime, for "Mr. Roosevelt," she says: 

"I just really hope people enjoy it, that’s the goal."

It seems many are doing just that already.

Listen to an extended interview with Noël Wells in the audio link below, and watch a scene from the film.

Full-length interview with Noel Wells.