Paula Pell recently turned 56. Despite her years in the entertainment business, as comedian, actor, and writer, she’s never played a character with a love interest — until now.
Pell is one of several very funny women in the new movie Wine Country, directed by fellow Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler, and arriving on Netflix today.
The movie sees a group of friends head up to northern California, the wine country of the state, to celebrate one of their friend’s (Rachel Dratch) 50th birthday. While tasting a variety of wines, tensions arise, truths are revealed, and the women realize how strong their friendship really is, all while delivering big laughs, of course.
Pell recently sat down with Gay Star News to discuss the film, how it felt working with her real-life friends, and Poehler as a first-time feature director.
It’s not a ‘gay thing’
‘I’ve done more writing than performing. I’ve acted, I did theater and went to school for theater, but I’ve never played any part that had a love interest,’ Pell reveals at the start of the interview.
In the movie, Pell’s character, Val, strikes up a flirtation with a young waitress, Jade, (Maya Erskine), at a restaurant. Numbers are exchanged, Jade invites Val to her art gallery show, and it all happens naturally within the plot of the movie, which is something Pell loved about the role.
‘I’m the oldest person in the movie, and I’m gay, and I’m the only one with a romantic thing going on,’ she says gleefully.
‘I love how natural it is in the movie and it’s not pointed out as a “gay thing.” It was fun playing that as a lady of a certain age.’
It’s praise Pell has for the movie in general, which she describes as ‘natural’ and ‘grounded’.
‘Sometimes you watch things and go, “No one would ever say that.” But we never went there. The subject matter is so uniquely and beautifully handled.’
Loving confident women
One of the funniest scenes of the movies takes place at the art gallery. Accepting Jade’s invitation, Val and her friends go to the installation and discover its… interesting theme. What follows is a laugh-out-loud exchange between the older women and millennials gathered at the gallery.
Pell, however, reassures me she has nothing against millennials. In fact, she rather admires them.
‘My nieces are millennials,’ she explains. ‘I think there are incredible things that I am envious of and love and celebrate about the younger generations.’
She specifically mentions their confidence.
‘I love the confidence, because I think we need it, especially women and marginalized communities. I love seeing that confident in younger people because I’m comforted by that.’
It’s not simply confidence in younger women she admires, however, but in her peers as well.
Wine Country is Poehler’s feature film directorial debut. While she previously directed episodes of Parks and Recreation, which she also starred in, but this was a step up, and Pell confirms she handled it with aplomb.
‘She was so confident, prepared, creative,’ Pell describes. ‘She ran things like a clock and with a lot of joy. When you have someone who’s not prepared, it rubs off on everyone and it makes them anxious. But every day, Amy was there, calmly prepared for what she had to do and doing it beautifully.
‘It seemed effortless but I know it wasn’t. I really admire her.’
Time for white men to step down
Pell comes from the comedy and entertainment worlds, which have been rocked by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements in recent years. She’s grateful for them and thinks there’s only one logical way forward.
‘Everything has to do with who’s running the ship. If only older white men are running the ship – nothing against them, there are many older white men I love and adore – they hire people that are like them. When they hire diverse voices, it’s like, “See, I’m doing a diverse thing,” and holding it up as a point in their favor,’ she says.
‘But now women are directing, queer people are producing, people of color are telling their stories. It’s no longer white men telling a young black woman’s story and thank goodness.’
She believes people can tell all sorts of stories, but adds ‘the most beautiful and true thing in art is when people are able to tell their own stories’.
Pell shares a personal experience with GSN about this.
‘I once did a show that never went anywhere about two sisters growing up fat,’ she begins. ‘There was a moment I’ll never forget where somebody said to me about casting a thin actor: “Could you pad them?”
‘It was such an incredibly ignorant thing to say. It made me see how clueless people were at the time about telling that story. Now we have things like Shrill and I was like open-mouth crying.’
These diverse voices are crucial, Pell says: ‘You need to have somebody in the mix who’s lived that and knows that. It’s gonna make it better.’
Wine Country is now streaming on Netflix.