Rebel Wilson: "Bigger girls do better in comedy. Maybe because people find it easier to laugh." Photo: Steven Chee
Rebel Wilson leans in towards the lens, her bangled hands resting on bent knees, as a photographer's assistant aims a hand-held Makita blower at her face. The little wind gun throws her platinum hair spectacularly about her head as she pouts and purrs "like a tiger" – the effect is Marilyn-esque – then gives playful "rap hands" across her chest before flashing the toothy, ecstatic-to-be-here smile that Australia, and now the world, has come to love.
There's the shot.
"I told you I'm doing some of my best modelling today," deadpans the daughter of a beagle breeder from Sydney's north-western suburbs, shuffling from under the hot lights towards a bank of monitors chequered with photos of her face. "That's a delete," she says, chuckling at one image in which her delicate features are scrunched into a mess of creases. But the overall assessment of the pictures so far is unflinchingly positive: "Crushing it."
Hitting all the right notes: Wilson will be back as Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect 2 in May. Photo: Steven Chee
Confidence is a tough look to carry off. On the wrong person, in the wrong light, it can read as conceited. But on Wilson – who threw aside a promising career in law to pursue acting and who, despite looking like nobody else in Hollywood, is fast becoming one of its biggest stars – confidence is utterly beguiling.
That's partly because she's the kind of tall poppy who's not afraid to take the axe to herself. Wilson knows she is every bit as photogenic as those Hollywood girls her Pitch Perfect character, Fat Amy, would call "twig bitches", but she's also quick to take a dig at her fuller frame. "One time I got X-rayed by a chiropractor and he goes, 'You know, you don't actually have a big build,' " she tells Sunday Life, laughing. "It's like, you're just fat!"
It's also because there's little false modesty. Wilson owns her success, and the smarts that got her there. Reflecting on a stunning four years in Hollywood that kicked off with a minor role in Bridesmaids, exploded with Pitch Perfect, and this year will see her in the film's sequel, Wilson gets mathematical.
Rebel with a cause: Wilson with Winnie, the Tanzanian schoolgirl she has sponsored since 2005.
"The odds of an Australian girl making it in Hollywood is, like, one in 25 million," says Wilson, who has done the calculation by extrapolating from a report she read about the odds of an American making it in the movie business. How did she manage to be that one? "I'm lucky," she begins, taking a sip of Diet Coke before quickly adding: "But I also think I worked hard. I deserve it."
The night before the Sunday Life photo shoot, Rebel Wilson posed for the paparazzi as she headed into a hip restaurant with Channel Nine CEO David Gyngell. That morning she had been at Flower Power Glenhaven with her nan, buying plants and having a bite.
"That's life now," says Wilson. "You can spend time with family or friends in a very low-key situation, or you can be on a private jet flying somewhere to introduce Miley Cyrus."
"No photos please": Wilson poses for a selfie in the mirror with writer Joel Meares.
Lately, life seems weighted towards the latter. Her social media accounts – Twitter, 1.97 million followers; Instagram, 735,000 – show Wilson hamming it up at glamorous premières with Night at the Museum co-stars Ben Stiller, Ricky Gervais and Sir Ben Kingsley, and tearing through Disneyland with the "Bellas", her co-stars from Pitch Perfect 2 (out in May).
Then there are the commercial endorsements, including one for Fairfax Media and Channel Nine's forthcoming streaming service, Stan (she and housemate Matt Lucas, of Little Britain fame, have "like 800 channels on cable, but you always need more"). And she's just bought a $US2.2 million home in the Hollywood Hills, meaning her friend Jennifer Lawrence is now also her neighbour.
Back in Australia at Christmas, Wilson posted a picture of herself in big black sunglasses and a leather hat on a boat on Sydney Harbour. Below the image, she told her Twitter followers she was "crushing it". No one was arguing.
The standard Rebel Wilson bio jumps from childhood in Castle Hill among the beagles to global superstardom in a few swift – and predestined – steps. One of the brightest and most popular girls at Parramatta's Tara Anglican School for Girls, Wilson spent a year in South Africa as a Rotary International Youth Ambassador when she was 17. While there, she contracted malaria and, in the midst of a feverish hallucination, imagined herself accepting an Oscar.
When she got better, she set about making the dream come true: she studied at the Australian Theatre for Young People, won a scholarship to train at comedy-improv school Second City in New York City, then came home to create and star in Bogan Pride, her affectionate, crude, musical-comedy ode to Sydney's western suburbs, before moving to LA and landing her role in Bridesmaids.
As Wilson tells it, the moments between those big headlines were the most formative. There were the nights spent in her small inner-city Newtown apartment, not going out so she could save pennies and write stage shows to perform on the Sydney fringe scene. There were the shifts working at the Greater Union cinema in Castle Hill. And there was her earliest taste of performing, as a handler at dog shows with her family. "I liked to give eyes to the judges," she says.
Girls' school, says Wilson, was a good "training ground" for life – especially life in Hollywood. "I think I know all sorts of girls and how all sorts of girls operate by going to an all-girls' school. It's a good skill to have." She was popular by the time she graduated, but it had taken some work. In her second week of high school, Wilson was invited for a smoke behind the toilets but had said "no, smoking's bad". "I was unpopular for two years because of that," she says, laughing.
Eventually, she won her classmates over. "Weirdly, girls turned from being really bitchy and mean, and me being a target, to me being the popular, cool one because I never bent to anyone else. I was just myself."
That sense of self is what ultimately clicked with Hollywood. In a New York Magazine cover story ahead of the 2013 première of Super Fun Night, the TV sitcom Wilson wrote and starred in, executive producer Conan O'Brien described her as "revolutionary". "She's authentic," O'Brien said. "It's harder and harder to find that authenticity when so many actresses have been taking improv classes since they were a foetus. In her quiet way, you can't believe the balls on this girl."
Super Fun Night is one of few blights on the Wilson CV, cancelled by the US ABC network after 17 episodes aired due to poor ratings. But Wilson doesn't see it that way. "That one network commissioned 100 pilots," she says. "Of those, 11 were made; of those, three were put on air. It was a triumph to even get on."
It was also a lesson. "I was the lead in the show, so I had to be the straighter character. People are used to seeing me as the curvy line, rather than the straight line, in comedy terms. It was a bit odd: I wasn't Fat Amy."
Pitch Perfect's Fat Amy is Wilson's most beloved creation – a feral Tasmanian college a cappella singer who calls herself Fat "so that twig bitches like you don't call me it behind my back". The character was never meant to be Australian. Wilson was playing her with an American accent – and keeping her real voice hidden from the crew – but when the film's director, Jason Moore, heard her slip three days into shooting, he asked her to use her natural voice. The script was rewritten to make the character from Tasmania.
Fat Amy owns her weight, and plays it for laughs, just like Wilson. "I took something that was seen as a disadvantage – no one thinks, if you're fat, that you're going to be an actress and everyone's going to love you – and turned it into a positive.
"And bigger girls do better in comedy," she continues. "I don't know why. Maybe because people find it easier to laugh. It's very hard to laugh at someone who's very attractive, I think. And normally those people don't have a great personality anyway."
Does she ever wonder what would happen if she lost weight, if she herself shrunk down to a "twig bitch"? "I do have these dreams, like, 'What if I just went to a health farm and lost 50 kilos? What would happen? Would it affect my career?' But then I think, that's never going to happen."
Like Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill, who started in teen comedies and with whom she shares an agent, Wilson says she would eventually like to move into dramatic work. "I'll have to go super dark when I go dark," she says. "You don't want people to think, 'Is this Fat Amy?' "
She mentions Cate Blanchett as the kind of smart, calculating actress she admires. Could she play the kinds of characters Blanchett is known for? Wilson laughs. "I could pull it off."
Among the glamorous celebrity selfies and photographs from premières and chat-show appearances that dominate Wilson's Twitter feed is a set of pictures, from last September, taken at the School of St Jude, a secondary school for 1900 bright but poor kids in northern Tanzania. There is Wilson making peace signs with a group of students, and there she is climbing a jungle gym with another group. And there she is with Winnie, the 17-year-old she has sponsored for eight years, sitting with the girl's family on a couch. A laminated photo of a Rebel Wilson head shot from 2007 – that same full face topped with curly black hair – sits on the family's mantelpiece.
Wilson, who began her sponsorship after seeing an episode of Australian Story about St Jude's in 2005, now also sponsors some boys at the school and hopes to one day take them all to Disneyland. She has never made a big deal about this: the school's founder, Gemma Sisia, only found out she had a Hollywood A-Lister on the books last year after stumbling across the name during a routine look through the school's database. But she has a theory about why the star was drawn to her school.
"I think Rebel could associate with Winnie being so driven, with Winnie being so intelligent, and with Winnie coming from a non-affluent background," says Sisia. "And there would be no way that Winnie would be in secondary school if it wasn't for Rebel." Winnie has told her sponsor she wants to be a marketing manager, which Wilson finds amusingly specific.
After we speak, Sisia sends through a set of images from a South African safari Wilson took them on last year. A picture of Wilson and Winnie stands out. There is nothing glamorous about the shot, no wind machine and no make-up, just Wilson in a plain white T-shirt, clutching Winnie as they stand before a dry, endless, tree-dotted plain. Still, the two women are "crushing it", both looking strong, confident and as beautiful as any magazine cover.
THREE FACTS: REBEL WILSON
Her brother is named Ryot, while her sisters are Liberty and Annachi.
She loves amusement parks so much she wants to build one herself.
Her hero is Oprah Winfrey. "I love Oprah. She's like the one person I have not met who I really want to meet."
Photography: Steven Chee. Styling: Penny McCarthy. Make-up: Max May for La Mer. Hair: Richard Kavanagh for Redken. Manicure: Zoe Vokis at DLM using Manicare.
Lead-in image: Rebel Wilson wears dress by Marina Rinaldi.
Top image: Rebel Wilson wears top by Alexander Wang from Neiman Marcus.
Above image: Rebel Wilson wears dress by Leona Edmiston; bangle by Dinosour Designs.