Heidi Gardner

Heidi Gardner Was a Career Hairstylist. Then She Tried Comedy

The SNL cast member, who returns for her fifth season this month, on career pivots, attending lingerie parties with her mom in the ’80s, and what’s next.

Becoming a cast member on the most popular and long-running sketch comedy series on network television was never part of Heidi Gardner's plan, exactly.

Before Gardner joined the American comedy institution that is Saturday Night Live, she worked as a hairstylist in Los Angeles for nine years. At a certain point, she had a realization: she wasn't creatively inspired by cutting hair like other stylists, who had goals of opening their own salons. So, in 2010, Gardner started taking improv classes at The Groundlings theater, known for alums like Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Jennifer Coolidge

Gardner jokes that she got into Groundlings at exactly the right time. The Missouri native signed up for classes six months before Bridesmaids came out in 2011. The film made McCarthy a star (it also jumpstarted Wiig's film career) and Groundlings suddenly became a hot spot for aspiring comedians and actors. But Gardner just managed to beat the endless waitlist. After several years with the Groundlings, Gardner could afford to quit her job as a hairstylist to focus on improv full-time. It would be seven years of Groundlings before she was cast on SNL in 2017. The upcoming 47th season will be her fifth. 

Heidi Gardner
Retrofête dress, Missoma earrings. | Credit: Elena Mudd

Gardner is down-to-earth, charming, and, as a grandpa would probably say, a riot. Talking to the 38-year-old feels like catching up with a friend you haven't seen in a couple years — easy and comforting. In other words, she's a true Midwesterner. If we're comparing Gardner to her SNL predecessors, Molly Shannon meets Gilda Radner sounds about right. 

When I arrive on the set of her photoshoot for this interview, which wraps early, she's looking through images on a monitor. Gardner takes pictures of the ones she likes on her phone. "I like feeling like I'm from a different time," she says after snapping a photo of herself in a long dress with a Victorian era-meets-1970s aesthetic. 

Though she's into styles of the past, Gardner's comedy is set in the present — she references films, things, and people specific to millennials, and brings over-the-top emotion to each of her roles. Her characters on SNL — like Bailey Gismert, the teenage girl who reviews movies, and "every boxer's girlfriend" — are outrageous and yet incredibly familiar; parodies of people millennials likely know in real life (or, more likely, online). But once you speak to her for more than a couple minutes, her fascination with the past starts to make sense.

InStyle spoke to the SNL star about the inspiration for her characters — including lingerie parties she attended with her mom in the '80s —- her favorite movies, celebrity crushes, and more. 

Heidi Gardner
Rebecca Vallance dress, Bea Bongiasca earrings. | Credit: Elena Mudd

How are you feeling about the new season of SNL?

I'm excited. It does feel like going back to school. We have an enormously long summer break because it's May to October, basically. And even though you want to get back to it, it's like back to school vibes, like seeing everybody again. And it's scary.

This is your fifth season of the show. That's a big milestone. Is that exciting for you? I can't believe it's been that long, honestly.

I know. I can't believe it either. I think during my time at SNL, the only person that's left the show was Leslie [Jones], so it feels very ... It's hard to tell time because you're like, "well, there's never been a big shakeup on the show or a change in cast." So to me, I still feel very new because [the seniors] I came in with are still the seniors. In my head I'm like, "oh, I'm still the new kid."

You started SNL during the Trump administration. Have you felt a different energy, especially last year after Biden won the election?

For sure. I felt like our cold opens before were very Trump-centric. Every week, Trump was doing something to earn an entire cold open about him, and I feel like the administration since Biden took over has become a lot calmer. And it was interesting last season, the cold opens, they still skewed political, but it wasn't like, "this is the President talking for five minutes." Actually, there were a lot more cold opens that had the entire cast in them just playing funny voters. Sometimes, we were ourselves. It definitely opened up a variety [of ways] to start the show.

Heidi Gardner
Rebecca Vallance dress, Frasier Sterling earrings, Larroudé shoes. | Credit: Elena Mudd

Are you already thinking of ideas for the new season or do you take a mental break?

It's weird, when the season ended last year, I was very much like, "why is it over right now? I still have ideas. I could still keep going." But like a month into summer break, you realize, "no, I need this time to recharge, re-inspire myself, calibrate."

I'm always writing notes in my phone and sketches [about] people I see. So, it's weird. I do sometimes have to challenge myself not to get over-stimulated and write the sketch that I think of right away because I'm like, "Heidi, it's June. There's not going to be a show for four more months. Don't get so ahead of yourself." But at the same time, as a writer it is good to just get going when you're inspired, too.

I also write ideas into the Notes app. Then I revisit it, and I'm like, "What the hell was that?"

I know. I've read my Notes app out loud at comedy shows before because I'm like, "This is a pure psychopath, like these are the musings of the psychopath." If someone just found this phone, I don't think they would think "sketch comedian." I think they'd think "serial killer."

What kind of characters are you most comfortable playing?

If I look back at what I've done on the show, it's overly emotional, going-through-it women or teenagers. I like playing a range of emotions. In my own life, I think I've always been a bit of a people pleaser. Maybe the world around me was a little chaotic, so I had to keep my cool. And so I really like playing characters that don't care and just let loose in public with no shame, like cry, yell, roll their eyes. 

Besides people on the street, where do you get your inspiration?

I will just hear someone say something, whether it's someone just passing by, or if I'm watching a show or reality show, it's like one sentence to me can indicate so much about a person. Also what they're wearing. And then I just go from there. 

I love to write. I'm not necessarily a joke writer, but I think I can find a lot of comedy in humanity, in a person, and so I just try to, as I'm writing, inhabit who that person I just saw was and be like, "OK, what's their point of view?" That's where my comedy comes from.

Heidi Gardner
Retrofête dress, Missoma earrings, BY FAR boots. | Credit: Elena Mudd

I mean this as a compliment, but that is a very Midwestern perspective.

Fully. You don't know it when you're little, but I look back and I'm like, everyone around me, including my parents, were characters. My parents divorced when I was six, and they both had such gregarious lifestyles. My mom had this group of friends called "Girls Night Out, Let's Have Fun Club." It was these five women, and instead of Tupperware parties, they would do lingerie parties where they would show up to [each others'] houses and some lingerie saleswoman would come over with a rack full of lingerie. And that was the late '80s, when it was like, long negligees and ostrich feather shoes. If my mom had me that weekend, I had to go to the lingerie party. So, I would sit there. Now, that sounds mortifying. I wouldn't want to be seeing that. [But] that was the model of my life. 

My mom didn't cook. She refused to cook, but she had to feed her children, so she would take my brother Justin and I to happy hours at different bars at 5:00 p.m. So we were eating oysters at six years old. She was a travel agent, so she would get commissions at hotels for their dinner, so she would take us to a place called the Peppercorn Duck Club. And so at six years old — and we by no means had money — I was like, "I'll take the duck." I look back and I'm like, even though it could be a crazy, chaotic upbringing, I'm really grateful because it brought [me] so many characters. 

Are you the kind of person that plans? Do you have a vision for how long you might stay at SNL, if you want to start doing films?

Even though [SNL] wasn't my career path — because I didn't know it was even a possibility — it's the absolute dream for me. I love sketch comedy. I love playing characters, so getting to be on SNL is the ultimate thing that I want to do and thrive at. 

I will say, though, it's a show where every week, sketches get cut and characters you love get cut, and that can be a lot on the emotions. You get used to it, for sure, and you never want something bad to go on the air. That's all to say that …  I started writing a screenplay because I needed to get my creativity out in other ways, too. And so, I finished that. I'm trying to sell that. I'm starting my next script. So I would say I really want to make the movie, that is a big thing that I want to do, but I also want to thrive on SNL and have the best time ever.

Can you say anything about the screenplay?

I mean, it's a period piece. And by period, I mean, in the '80s. I don't know that I will ever write something of this . . . whatever time period we're in right now. I'm very into throwbacks. I always wonder, do people in the '70s and '80s realize while they were living during that time how cool it was?

Early in the pandemic, I was watching a bunch of movies from the '70s. Everyone looks amazing.

Oh, I know. It's like the cleanest style and it looks so refined. I'm reading a book right now about film in the '70s that I'm like, "I just want to date Warren Beatty."

What are some of the films and actors that informed your comedy?

Well, Jack Black is my all time favorite comedian. When he came on the scene, he was so surprisingly just like himself. I mean, I think he hit for most people with Orange County, and it was just like, "Who is this dude?" He was just like reckless abandon. He just did anything and everything. I feel like I am a person who can be reserved. But he just seems confident in every movie he does.

Boogie Nights is my favorite movie. The music is perfect, but also it's an ensemble cas with so many amazing actors who can also be funny. You've got the drama and the comedy.

You have an unconventional background for an SNL cast member. Most cast members start quite early in their careers, in their early 20s, but you didn't start until your 30s. Was there ever a time while you were working full-time cutting hair and doing improv that you ever felt like giving up on the improv dream?

Well, I got pretty lucky in the way that I had been doing hair for a long time. I felt like that was my career. But I definitely felt like there was something missing a little bit where I was like, "I enjoy doing this. I'm comfortable. [But] I'm not driven to have my own salon." So I was like, "there's something wrong there."

I was able to move up the ranks [in the Groundlings] until I eventually joined the Main Company. I don't want to say that happened seamlessly. [Improv] was just the thing I did on the side and I had this other career [as a hairstylist], so it never felt like, "Oh, I have to give [hairstyling] up, because comedy is my secondary thing." Suddenly,  when I was writing sketches for free I resented the fact that I had paying clients making appointments. I was like, oh my God. I have to write a free sketch and buy a $70 wig, and then I'm like, "why are they booking an appointment?" I never got to the point where I had to give up the comedy thing. It was like, "I have to give up the hair thing because comedy is [taking] over my brain."

SMALL TALK:

Who was your first celebrity crush (besides Jack Black)?

It was Donnie Wahlberg first, and then Donnie became too much of a bad boy, and then it was Jordan Knight, and then towards the end of New Kids [on the Block], I was like, I like Joey [McIntyre], and then it was definitely followed up by Luke Perry.

I remember seeing Scream, and that was the first time I ever saw Skeet Ulrich. I remember leaving the movie and telling my best friend, Ashley, "That's my new celebrity crush. That's who I'm going to like from now on." And she was like, "OK." And then Monday at school, I overheard her tell someone that she likes Skeet Ulrich. I pulled her aside and I was like, "Hey. We talked about how Skeet Ulrich was my crush and you said that Matthew Lillard was who you like?" And she was like, "I think I said Matthew Lillard was funny, but I thought Skeet Ulrich was hot, so." And I was like, "OK. Well, I don't know if I want to be friends anymore."

Are you into astrology?

It's weird. Not really anymore, but when newspapers were more of a thing, I liked reading my horoscope. Or when I was reading like YM or Seventeen magazine.

First red carpet event?

I think it was the Emmys after my first season of SNL. It was crazy. I mean, getting ready for it was like ... the only thing I could ever compare it to was prom. It felt like prom on steroids. It was sweet, though. I had a stylist to figure out the look for me, but she was in New York. And then, one of my best friends, Amanda, who's also really into fashion ended up coming with me to the hotel where we were all getting ready. So, one of my best friends helped me get dressed and it was, again, like prom.

What's your favorite item of clothing that you own?

I have this vintage sweatshirt, it's got the logo of the studio Touchstone Pictures. It's so good. And I will tell you, also, it's like middle-aged or mid-30-year-old man bait. Every time I wear it, there's a certain type of guy that's like ... It's not like he's hitting on me, he's hitting on my shirt. I can see it from a mile away when I wear that sweatshirt. I'm like, "this is the most attention I'll get from men." 

What's your guilty pleasure?

The old TV show Dallas. It started before I was born, and then when it was on, I was just too little for it. But during the pandemic my husband and I started it because like I said, my [screenplay] is of that time and I really want to be inspired and immersed in a world. It's 14 seasons long, and it's back when the seasons of shows were like 30 episodes. 

What was your last binge watch? Anything besides Dallas?

We binged that show 100 Foot Wave. It's on HBO Max and it's about these surfers that are searching for the ultimate wave. This guy, Garret [McNamara], he finds these enormous waves in Nazaré, Portugal.

I think the biggest wave anyone's ever done at this point is either 78 feet or like 86. And also the way that they measure a wave is really surfery in its logic because ... I mean, there's no way to really measure a wave because it only lasts for so long and they talk about this on the show. You see a picture of a dude in the wave and here's the surfer, and then they're like, then we just take the height of the surfer, which is like 5'10 or something, but then he's crouched down on a surfboard, so it's like give or take 5 feet, and then we just add that up until the top of the wave. So, it's very not accurate, but the show is thrilling because these guys ... I mean, I don't want to say it's a death wish, but it's crazy to take on a wave that's almost 100 feet. That much water surrounding you and thrashing you ...

I might have taken a lesson until I watched the show. But when they talk about wiping out from a normal wave and they do a POV of underwater and water crashing around, and you're not knowing where you are, I was like, "oh yeah, I'm not doing it. Never."

Main Image: Rebecca Vallance dress, Bea Bongiasca earrings, Larroudé shoes.

Photographs by Elena Mudd, assisted by Grace Mallett. Style by Samantha Sutton. Hair Styling by Matthew Monzon using Oribe at TMG-LA.com. Makeup by Cassandra Garcia. Beauty Direction by Kayla Greaves. Creative direction and production by Kelly Chiello.