Rebel Wilson at the London West Hollywood. (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
As an adolescent, Rebel Wilson thought she was destined for a black-and-white existence as an actuary, computing equations in a cubicle. The young Australian was painfully shy, so much so that she recalls her social anxiety as bordering on being a serious disorder. Then one day, her mother, tired of her daughter's isolated behavior, dragged her to an acting class and slammed the door behind her, leaving the 14-year-old to fend for herself among a group of extroverted strangers.
"It was so embarrassing," Wilson recalled over breakfast recently near her West Hollywood home. "I'm there. My face is red from crying. My mom has left. I'm stuck for the next 90 minutes. The teacher came up and asked me my name, and I said, 'Hi, I'm Rebel,' in an American accent. It was the only way I could deal with this traumatic situation. I became a character instantly. And then I just started making stuff up."
She hasn't stopped since. The bubbly, blond 28-year old (yes, Rebel is her given name) enjoyed a breakout role last year in "Bridesmaids," playing the roommate to Kristen Wiig's character with a wild English accent and a tequila worm tattoo wrapped around her belly. In a sea of size-0 starlets, Wilson has the confidence of a performer twice her age and half her size. And the actress, who also holds a degree from one of Sydney's most prestigious law schools, has parlayed that turn into a run of roles, four movies in about 16 months.
The latest, "Pitch Perfect," which opened to strong numbers in limited release Friday, is a comedy about the competitive world of collegiate a cappella singing. Wilson stars with Anna Kendrick, Anna Camp and Brittany Snow as outcast singers who make good.
Her character, Fat Amy, affords the actress another scene-stealing part that allows her to flip the typical beauty ideal on its head with her over-the-top portrayal of a heavy coed with few body-image issues.
"Pitch Perfect" follows the indie black comedy "Bachelorette" and the far more mainstream "What to Expect When You're Expecting." She is juggling her promotional duties on the film with work on her first television pilot, "Super Fun Night," which she's writing, producing and starring in for Conan O'Brien and ABC.
Wilson's success comes when Hollywood is embracing smart, funny women who don't necessarily match up with the industry's narrow standards of beauty. Melissa McCarthy earned an Oscar nomination for her "Bridesmaids" performance as the outgoing, sexually aggressive Megan, and she took home an Emmy for her TV comedy "Mike & Molly."
"Tiny Furniture" filmmaker Lena Dunham became a 26-year-old cultural sensation with the Brooklyn-set comedy she created, "Girls," in which she stars as a self-involved aspiring writer flummoxed by adulthood. Dunham frequently appears naked on the HBO series.
Although her weight wasn't something Wilson addressed head-on in conversation, she did say that once she began pursuing an acting career in Australia, she noticed her "more glamorous actress-type" friends booking jobs when she was not — even though, Wilson says, "I thought I was killing it on stage."
She went to see an agent for a meeting. "He said, 'Well, you're not going to get a job on 'Home and Away' as a bikini beach babe," she said, referring to the popular Australian soap opera that has launched the career of such Aussie actors as Heath Ledger, Chris Hemsworth and Isla Fisher.
"I was really pissed off," Wilson said. "Don't they see I'm talented? Don't they see that I'm funny and interesting? But of course nobody did."
Wilson took matters into her own hands, writing her first play, "The Westie Monologues," about a group of women living in Sydney that earned her critical acclaim (she produced and starred in it too) and led to a slew of television shows in Australia — ones in which Wilson employed her legal skills in negotiating her own contracts.
Then Hollywood agencies came calling. After Wilson auditioned to play the role in "Bridesmaids" that eventually went to McCarthy, Judd Apatow and "Bridesmaids" director Paul Feig decided to create a part especially for her: the annoying roommate who shares a room with her equally oddball brother (played by Matt Lucas, Wilson's real-life platonic roommate).
"During that period I had come close to getting into a lot of different things, but no one had the guts to cast me," said Wilson. "It's like what happened when I first started out in Australia: No one had the guts to say, 'She's good.'"
Wilson was the first actress cast in the ensemble "Pitch Perfect," for a role she equates to McCarthy's turn in "Bridesmaids" — confident, cocksure and loyal — three characteristics that she wrote on a piece of paper to remind her of the part as she was improvising through the production.
And though her role as Fat Amy wasn't the lead, Wilson proved to be the leader on the set.