Showrunner: 'Palm Royale' revels in 'aggressive originality.' Kristen Wiig fully agrees (2024)

Kristen Wiig, Carol Burnett, Allison Janney, Laura Dern. These are just a few of the powerhouse names at the core of Apple TV+’s wiggy comedy series “Palm Royale.” “These things do become a bit of an avalanche where people want to go to the party,” showrunner Abe Sylvia says with a laugh. “Once we had Kristen Wiig and Laura Dern at the top of our call sheet, it gets attention right away.”

The show is based on the novel “Mr. & Mrs. American Pie” by Juliet McDaniel, about a social climber in midcentury Palm Springs. Sylvia reimagined the story in Palm Beach, Fla., and broadened the material to accommodate enough dramatic possibilities for an open-ended series. Laura Dern and Jayme Lemons’ Jaywalker Pictures developed it as a vehicle for Dern. But due to other commitments, Dern took the supporting role of political activist heiress Linda Shaw.

Instead, Wiig takes center stage as Maxine Simmons, an ambitious social climber in the rarefied Palm Beach society. Membership at the Palm Royale is de rigueur, and once inside, Maxine claws her way to the top of society while hiding her secret poverty. It’s a problem that will solve itself, she assumes, when her catatonic aunt-in-law, former society dame Norma Dellacorte (Burnett), finally kicks the bucket.

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“The thought of Carol, in the beginning, was a little intimidating for me because she inspired me so much,” recalls Wiig about working with the impressively spry 90-year-old comic legend. “With her show, I was introduced to sketch comedy. And as a woman having her own show at that time, she’s just a legend. But as soon as you meet her, she’s so warm and makes everyone feel comfortable. Being on set and doing a scene with Carol Burnett, I kind of never got used to that.”

At the Palm Royale, everyone hates everyone, but everyone needs allies. Maxine’s allies are a gay pool boy (Ricky Martin), her (philandering) airline pilot husband (Josh Lucas) and his aunt, who at one point pushes her off a yacht in the middle of the ocean. But not before Maxine sings a song to a beached whale, calling it back into the sea. The whale pays a visit to thank her but cannot rescue her. That job is left to a nearby astronaut because, y’know, Apollo 11. But will the astronaut accept her invitation to the social event of the season? Indeed, he will. Not only that, but he’ll bring President Nixon with him.

Such is the logic of a show determined not to be predictable. “What people are craving is aggressive originality right now, something that doesn’t look and feel like something we’ve seen before,” Sylvia says. “As a gay filmmaker, queer cinema is often a pastiche. We recycle pop culture through our personal lens, and it comes out and makes this new thing. You don’t see a lot of it in American cinema. The show is sort of Almodóvar-ian. It’s melodrama, then it’s comedy, then it’s a drama and then it’s a thriller, then it’s soap.”

Showrunner: 'Palm Royale' revels in 'aggressive originality.' Kristen Wiig fully agrees (2)

Working with Carol Burnett was “a little intimidating for me because she inspired me so much,” recalls Kristen Wiig, here with “Palm Royale” co-star Ricky Martin.

(Beth Dubber / Apple TV+)

Amid all the toxic posturing around the pool at the Palm Royale, the turbulence of the era barely registers. An inspiration for the look of the show was Slim Aarons’ midcentury Palm Springs photos of what he called “beautiful people doing beautiful things in beautiful places.”

“This idea that all of these people in society are keeping the real world at bay,” Sylvia says. “You have no idea, looking at these photographs, that the Vietnam War is raging and cities are burning because of civil rights riots and the quest for equality. And these people are just looking gorgeous, like, ‘What world out there?’”

So why would audiences care about a liar and cheater desperate to gain acceptance among horrible elitists at an exclusive club? Maxine is an underdog and a disruptor in the tradition of the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin and, like the latter, does it with utter sincerity.

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“She believes in herself and she’s never embarrassed,” says Wiig, who was drawn to the show’s mix of absurdist comedy and emotional drama. “If that person is being sunny and positive, I think the fact that she is ultimately wanting this so badly from her heart, and she’s so energetic, there’s something infectious about that.”

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Highlighting her dramatic chops against broad comedy, “Palm Royale’s” tricky tone allowed Wiig to take big swings, something she did co-writing and starring in “Bridesmaids,” and something she does in life. While attending the University of Arizona, where she went to become an art teacher, she dropped out after one acting class and headed to L.A. to become an actor.

“I was a little lost, as most of us are in your 20s, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. There was something sort of pulling me that I couldn’t ignore,” she says of a gamble that paid off after she joined the Groundlings, where she honed her improv skills in the 1990s. Eventually, she joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” from 2005-12. Since leaving the show, she has often been back to host, joining the Five-Timers Club last month with Paul Rudd, Martin Short, Jon Hamm, Matt Damon, Will Forte, Fred Armisen and Ryan Gosling on hand to honor her.

“It was honestly a very special night for me. I won’t ever forget it. It was one of the best weeks of my life. It was also just so fun. I love going back. You’re bonded for life after that show. I even feel a bond with the cast I just spent that week with,” Wiig says. “It was my dream to be on the show. You’re in New York, you have the greatest job in the world. With my group, you’re basically living at 30 Rock. So those people are my family forever. It was very difficult to leave. I just knew it was time, and it was one of those things. I just took a leap. And I always knew I could come back.”

But right now she’s not looking back. She and Sylvia are looking forward to Season 2 of “Palm Royale.” “I will direct at some point in my life. I don’t know what it’s going to be; we’ve talked about the show. I just have to find the right thing. It’s definitely something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Wiig says. “I do like doing it all.”

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Showrunner: 'Palm Royale' revels in 'aggressive originality.' Kristen Wiig fully agrees (2024)
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