Rebel Wilson on winning battles, producing films and dating in Hollywood

Photographed by Nicole Bentley, styled by Kate Darvill, Vogue Australia, June 2018.

Rebel Wilson is the definition of a modern woman: switched-on, unafraid and empowered by her education and self-worth. She is also comedy dynamite. Here, read the interview from her first-ever Vogue cover.

“A rebel is a person who stands up for their own personal opinions despite what anyone else says. A true rebel stands up for what they believe is right, not against what’s right … It’s all about being an individual and refusing to follow a crowd that forces you to think the same way they do even if it means becoming an outcast to society. True rebels know who they are and do not compromise their individuality or personal opinion for anyone. They’re straightforward and honest and they will sure as hell tell it like it is.”

So reads the Urban Dictionary’s definition of ‘rebel’, one that kind of nails Rebel Wilson.

We are having lunch together at the Park Hyatt Sydney, two days after she has been at Melbourne’s Court of Appeal to hear Bauer Media’s appeal against the ruling of Supreme Court judge Justice John Dixon, who awarded her a record sum of $4.5 million in damages against Bauer for defamation. Whatever is decided (at the time of writing, the next court date had not yet been set), the victory is already hers – the decision is unchallenged: she has won the biggest ever defamation case in Australian history.

“With over 40 of the questions that went to the jury, we won on every single question, which is a comprehensive victory,” Wilson says. When the amount is eventually settled she will be able to name which children’s and hospital charities and non-profit organisations will benefit from the damages. There is a possibility, however, that the case may go to the High Court after the appeal. “I guess because Bauer Media is a company the strategy has been bullying throughout,” Wilson says, adding: “I took on a huge media organisation owned by German billionaires who are extremely aggressive and try to bully and intimidate anyone who legally challenges them. I had a great case and Bauer’s conduct was so disgusting. There was so much more evidence that we couldn’t even put in the trial, as the trial was already so long. The company has behaved disgracefully and so I thought I had to take them to task. I did, and won on every single issue. I guess in that way I can put it behind me, and at least anybody who did believe the articles knows now that it was all made up and that Bauer knew it was false and printed it anyway.”

It has been a stressful period for Wilson: the lies, the loss of her livelihood for the past few years, and having to endure 19 sitting court days. Her law degree helped, but for anyone it would be exhausting. Yet she will not be worn down, even though she doesn’t feel like it’s over.

She has been keeping busy lately, with five movies in development, some of which she will co-star in, and with writing scripts. And through it all she still manages to stay upbeat for almost everyone – the fans, the autographs, the selfies … she is the funny lady, after all – Fat Amy, so very ‘pitch perfect’. And, of course, she could break into song at any moment, but she won’t because that is what she does for a job, not what she does in real life.

In person, Wilson is focused and thoughtful. “I was unique and I was ambitious at acting school,” she says, referring to the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP), which she attended at the same time as she studied for her arts/law degree at the University of New South Wales.

And nothing has changed.

Over lunch we drink water and order barramundi, chicken, steamed vegetables and chicken-salt fries with paprika. Wilson talks more than she eats and her food is left cold. She has the best smile and great skin (she uses Dermalogica and loves SK-II).

Photographed by Nicole Bentley, styled by Kate Darvill, Vogue Australia, June 2018.

Photographed by Nicole Bentley, styled by Kate Darvill, Vogue Australia, June 2018.

“Why do I have to be so brilliant at every single thing I do?” – Fat Amy, Pitch Perfect 3.

She says she is proud to be on the cover of Vogue Australia for the first time and, of course, worked it on the day we photographed her in an LA studio. The trick to modelling, she says with a sly smile, is imagining you are a Victoria’s Secret model. “Be that woman and own it.” And she did. (Watch her hilarious video on the set of our shoot here.)

She is an inspiration for standing up for what you believe in, is all ‘girl power’ and believes in human rights and women’s rights. She has sponsored many children at the School of St Jude’s in Tanzania and her first sponsored student recently graduated. “She got a scholarship,” Wilson says proudly, although she was ready to pay for her tuition.

The actress loved school and still has a strong group of friends from Tara Anglican School for Girls in western Sydney, with whom she celebrated a 20-year reunion in LA last year. As a student she was very academic, achieving 99.3 in her Higher School Certificate. She was also good at maths. Jokes, she says, are about maths and patterns. “So, like red, red, black – three is the quickest way to get a joke – you learn that at comedy school,” she explains. “You set up an expectation and subvert it; it’s a good way to get a laugh. It’s mathematical, that’s why that’s funny.”

Her next comedy, The Hustle, is about two con women, loosely based on the 1988 film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, starring Wilson in the role played by Steve Martin, and Anne Hathaway in Michael Caine’s former role. “This is not just a remake of a remake of an original – that was with Marlon Brando, and was a book,” Wilson clarifies.

On set, the two stars spent a lot of time laughing and singing. “Annie was in an acapella group in college and so for some reason we obviously got talking about that. She is very pro-female comedy.”

The Hustle is co-produced by Wilson’s production company Camp Sugar, and will be followed by its second offering, Isn’t It Romantic, a romantic comedy starring Priyanka Chopra and Liam Hemsworth, set to open on Valentine’s Day, 2019.

Producing suits Wilson. “It’s the first time my name will come up with ‘produced by’, which is very cool,” she says proudly of The Hustle. Camp Sugar gives Wilson the freedom to develop her own scripts with her team before selling them to the studios. “They supply the money to make the film, as commercial comedies cost on average US$35 million to make,” she explains. “They take over a lot of the responsibilities and I get to see it through creatively. I like to say I’m the guardian of the comedy – I have very strong views about the jokes in the film.”

At the end of shooting, Wilson anonymously attends the test screenings to gauge audience feedback: “I wear a little wig and sit at the back and people don’t know I’m there taking notes and listening to what people are saying. Then I make changes.”

As a result, an extra musical number is being added to the closing scene of Isn’t it Romantic because the already existing musical number was the highest-testing scene: “So we’re like: ‘Let’s give them more – a fun thing at the end.’”

When it comes to the writing, Wilson prefers a quiet location with a view. “When you’re writing, it’s very imaginative and internal,” she explains. Before we met, she had been looking out to the Opera House from her hotel room, brainstorming ideas for her next collection for Rebel Wilson X Angels, her plus-size clothing label. Designs are based on the body-con styles Wilson herself loves to wear and what her team imagines and refers to as ‘This Is Rebel’s Friend’ would like to wear. Sneakers, flats and tiny kitten heels are also set to join the range.

She has also been writing “a little bit” for the Billboard Awards, which she is invited to, to present an award this month. “Unscripted, drugs, chaos …” she says of the backstage craziness of music events. “It’s the day after the royal wedding, so not many people will have done jokes from the actual event, so I’ll do something related to that,” she says. I ask if she is on a Meghan Markle trajectory: “Well, I can’t marry a royal; they are all taken now,” she quips.

Asked about romance, the comedian reveals she doesn’t have a boyfriend. “I am totally single. I think I’m looking for the right person, but there isn’t a good pool of people to date in LA.” As she disclosed on Channel 10’s The Project, she would be happy to be on the next season of reality show The Bachelorette. “I really related,” she says of having watched Sophie Monk in the last series, “although I don’t think they could afford me.”

Wilson is a major consumer of reality TV and has just finished Married At First Sight. “I became obsessed with that show; I had to watch every episode,” she says. The Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, about a cult in Oregon, was also on her viewing list, along with “heavy dramas”, like The Handmaid’s Tale. “Elisabeth Moss – I love everything she does. And I love Wentworth, such good Australian drama with such strong female actors.”

She watches a lot of Bravo, too, and The Block and HGTV, the home renovations channel. Wilson loves property. After lunch she will be off to look at the Sydney property she bought two years ago. She also has homes in LA, New York and London. Interior decorating and custom designing are other passions. “I was living with Matt Lucas, who has a good eye for design and worked on the interior design of the house in West Hollywood we shared,” she says. “I learnt a bit from that and then it just started. I went with Jeff Lewis, who has a show called Flipping Out, and I learnt everything: I went to the marble quarry, tile store, flooring stores, all of them … and I’m obsessed with textured wallpapers. I never thought I would even care about that kind of thing, but maybe because I travel so much and work, so hard I want my house to be a sanctuary.”

Her LA home is in the Hollywood Hills, which, she says, “is a bit more peaceful and you have deer, rabbits and coyotes … which are not so good”. The house faces the iconic Hollywood sign and her office is close by in West Hollywood.

For all the TV inspiration she remains all about the movies. “It’s still where the power is,” she says. We talk awards – or rather the lack of an Oscar category for comedy. Doubtless she will lobby for that now she is a member of the academy. Of the five movies she has in development, one is in partnership with Simon Cowell. “We are making a film about K-pop, because he is very musical. It will star primarily an Asian cast. And I just sold one to Universal about bi-racial twins. It was in the National Geographic recently and I thought it was very interesting; especially considering race relations in America, and to do a comic storyline with overt themes about race in it but that isn’t overtly about race … it’s a very rare phenomenon. We are writing the script now. It’s in the early stages but it’s a big commercial comedy.”

Her favourite movies growing up were Muriel’s Wedding, which had a big influence on her. “I just adore it; it is so funny and heartfelt and emotional.” Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was another one. “I remember my mum taking me to the RSL club to watch movies and Priscilla was hilarious. I’d love to create my own Australian movie that is like that – something universal. I  don’t think I’ve got it yet.”

She adds: “There are so many really great talents from here … Rose (Byrne) out of nowhere becomes like a comedy legend – incredible She just inhabits a character and does it from there.” Of the new generation of Aussies to watch she says Geraldine Viswanathan “is the funniest in Blockers”, and Katherine Langford of 13 Reasons Why and Love, Simon, fame is “really talented”.

Recently she approached Paul Hogan seeking permission to do a Crocodile Dundee remake, since he owns the rights to the film. “Obviously it would have Paul Hogan in it in some way, but he doesn’t want a female to play Crocodile Dundee,” she says. “Which I think is a travesty as I think out of anyone in Australia I’m the most suited to do it …” Doesn’t he know she is qualified?

“I’ve wrestled crocodiles and dingoes simultaneously.” – Fat Amy, Pitch Perfect 1

Surprisingly, Wilson admits she never intended to be a comedian. While training at ATYP she was determined to be more like Dame Judi Dench. “I always thought I’d be a dramatic actress,” she says.

“I was in a play at Sydney Theatre Company and I thought I’d made it. I  was 19 and thought I was playing a dramatic role and as I got on stage people just started laughing at me and I was like: ‘What am I doing?’ It was very confusing that first show, and then I just leaned into that and realised that there is something people find funny about me, so I just kept doing it.” She adds: “Only when I got the ATYP international scholarship from Nicole Kidman did I realise I wanted to specialise in comedy.”

When she got to America she had the chance to meet Jason Segel and Amy Poehler on two separate occasions and received some great advice. At that time, she pitched herself only as a comic actress, but that doesn’t mean she’s given up on serious roles; out of the seven agents who manage her, one is scoping dramatic roles for her.

I ask if she were a castaway on a desert island, who she would want there with her to make her laugh. “Jennifer Saunders – she is a hero of mine. I just adore her and I was so glad to cast her as my mother in the opening scene of Isn’t It Romantic … and Joanna Lumley and also Dawn French, and then Australians Magda (Szubanski), Gina (Riley) and Jane (Turner) – they have all been big comedy influences. Then from America, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are very, very funny, and Sarah Silverman has the sharpest wit …”

Photographed by Nicole Bentley, styled by Kate Darvill, Vogue Australia, June 2018.

Photographed by Nicole Bentley, styled by Kate Darvill, Vogue Australia, June 2018.

“When I was 18 I had to run away, which was a real bitch because of the chafing …” – Fat Amy, Pitch Perfect 3

This is the kind of line that endeared Rebel Wilson to Michelle Obama. “She is a fan of Pitch Perfect,” Wilson confirms. She has been invited to make a speech with the former First Lady for College Signing Day at Temple University in Philadelphia, which encourages kids to further their education. “She had invited me to the White House after Pitch Perfect 1 came out, but I was filming and couldn’t travel. She is such a nice woman and I like what she’s all about – and her arms,” she says with a laugh. “When Barack Obama was in office she was encouraging a lot of health programs and she just seems like a really cool woman and I hope she runs for President of America – her or Oprah. They are both in the same category: inspiring, good, strong women.”

We talk about women standing up for themselves and #MeToo. Wilson admits a married man has once coerced her in a hotel room and also dealt with a sexist incident during the filming of Pitch Perfect 1.

Of equal pay, she says: “I have been in such girl-power projects, my first movie Bridesmaids and then Pitch Perfect. The girls far outweighed the boys and got paid far more. Pay disparity hasn’t been an issue and I also think I’m a good negotiator, which is why I get good contracts. Some women may not know their worth, but I have a good sense of it. I don’t need to be paid more than men: I just need to be paid fairly.”

Of the benefits of being famous, she says: “You get to meet really interesting people and get to know the real person, and have crazy experiences, and get free tickets court-side to the LA Lakers.”

Wilson tells it like it is. She is a woman making the most of her success, on a mission. Total respect.

“You crush it so hard your nips tingle.” – Fat Amy, Pitch Perfect 3

Oh yes, she does. And so do we.

This article originally appeared in Vogue Australia's June 2018 issue. 

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