How Heidi Gardner went from a hair stylist taking improv classes to Saturday Night Live star
Heidi Gardner is always early. On a sunny Tuesday morning in New York, the Saturday Night Live star is already seated at David’s Café in the East Village when I show up. Gardner wears a black airbrush-style T-shirt with NBA all-stars on it. She orders eggs and bacon, “not too crispy.” She asks for a side of avocado but is rebuffed — at David’s Café, avocado only comes on toast, even if you’re on TV.
Gardner can’t bring herself to leave anyone waiting. Maybe it’s the humble Midwestern roots of a woman who grew up in the Westport neighborhood. Or maybe it’s an occupational lingering from the years she spent making her living as a hairdresser in Los Angeles, where everyone’s a VIP and traffic is always an excuse.
“I’ll actually try to be late sometimes and I’ll still be, like, three minutes early,” she says. “I just can’t make myself do it.”
On the other hand, Gardner has always been running a little late.
Her first Hollywood credit came from a 2013 short directed by her husband, when she was already 30 years old. She landed a spot on the SNL cast in 2017 at age 34 and returns for her third season this month. Last year, she made her movie debut in Melissa McCarthy’s Life of the Party.
“I always felt a little behind in figuring out what I wanted to do,” Gardner says. “Even when I was going to school for hair — I know it sounds crazy, but I was 22, and there were girls who had figured out they wanted to do that straight out of high school, so they were 18. So I was always like, ‘God, why didn’t I figure it out when I was their age?’ I’ve always felt like everything has come to me later.”
Unlike most people who go on to SNL stardom, Gardner didn’t grow up performing. She spent her teens buying CDs at Streetside Records and working the concession stand at Tivoli Cinemas so she could see indie movies for free. The closest she came to performing was playing flute in the school band and doing comedy sketches with a friend in talent shows. She remembers acting out a scene from Christopher Guest’s cult-favorite mockumentary Waiting For Guffman.
“Growing up, I was obsessed with comedy, I was obsessed with pop culture — movies, indie movies, everything,” she says. “But I wasn’t a child actor, so I never thought of being an actor or a comedian. The furthest I got was buying a book about directing because I was like, ‘Well, maybe I can be a P.T. Anderson.’ And then that was too confusing.”
Gardner graduated from Notre Dame de Sion High School in 2002. Though she was a Missouri resident, she followed a friend to Lawrence for two years at KU. When that friend transferred to a college in Chicago, Gardner drifted over to Columbia for one aimless semester at Mizzou.
“Right when you get out of high school, it feels like you have to know what you want to do,” she says. “I went to a college-preparatory private school. Even the idea of taking a year off sounded so bad.”
Christine Hall, a high school classmate who later lived with Gardner in Columbia, says she knew Gardner had a special talent when they made prank calls as teens.
“We used to do a lot of prank calls,” she says. “I’m a boring lawyer, so I certainly didn’t have that creativity. We would call strangers, back when people picked up their landlines. She didn’t know what she was going to say. A character would be created when the person picked up the phone, and she would just go with it. She wouldn’t break, and we’d all be dying laughing.”
Hall, who still lives in the Brookside neighborhood where she grew up, says she’s not surprised that Gardner is on TV.
“She had this special quality about her where if, like, we would go to a concert, somehow she would meet the band afterward,” Hall says. “If someone famous was in town, she would bump into them in the grocery store. I always knew that she just needed to get in the right rooms and things were going to happen for her.”
But when she was living with Hall in Columbia, Gardner was struggling. She wasn’t focused and wasn’t going to classes, Gardner says, and she wasn’t telling anyone about it. She ended up dropping out of school and moved to Los Angeles — she thought it sounded more glamorous than dropping out and going back to Kansas City.
“I had started cutting some friends’ hair just because they asked me, not because I ever said I could cut hair,” she says. “Someone thought I was good at it, so I just did that. I was like, ‘I’m lost, I’m ashamed. I’m not talking to my parents or anyone and saying I don’t feel like I’m good at college.’ So out of a totally shame-based decision I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m kind of good at this hair thing, so I’ll drop out of school, and I’ll go to school for hair.’ But that felt really bad, saying I’m going to drop out of school. So I was like, ‘Well, maybe if I say I’m moving to L.A. to do hair and makeup, it’ll sound better.’ So that’s what I did.”
In L.A., Gardner did cut hair. She ended up with an apprenticeship that developed into a fledgling career. She thought she would be a stylist until she retired.
“A few years in, I had all the things I needed to succeed at my fingertips. I had a boss who was super supportive. I was building my clientele. But there was something like, ‘Why don’t I want this more?’ I saw my boss, and I saw how motivated she was, and I didn’t feel like that.”
Everything changed for Gardner when she went to see the Groundlings, the L.A. improv troupe that has launched dozens of stars from Kristen Wiig and Jimmy Fallon to Phil Hartman and Conan O’Brien. At the time, Melissa McCarthy was still in the cast.
“We were like ‘Uh, why isn’t this the biggest star in the world?’” Gardner says of McCarthy. “Six months later, Bridesmaids came out.”
Gardner decided to take some Groundlings classes herself. Having never acted, she took the community workshops instead of auditioning into the beginner-level classes for aspiring professionals. There, the future SNL star learned the basics of improv comedy next to accountants and insurance salespeople. After taking every community class, she auditioned into the Groundlings basic class.
“You were supposed to bring a headshot, but I didn’t have a headshot,” she says. “So I just brought a photo that I liked of myself from a friends wedding, but like zoomed in. But I’m taking classes and I’m doing hair and I’m thinking, ‘This is fun. I have an outlet for this thing that I’ve always kept inside.’”
Eventually, Gardner made it to the Groundlings Sunday Company, “basically a mini SNL,” which produces a new show every week. Then, with the encouragement of her husband, she quit her job to focus on comedy.
It made for some tough conversations with clients.
“You don’t want to know that your hair stylist who moved out to L.A. to do hair is now becoming the cliché,” she says. “I told my clients, ‘I’m leaving the salon.’ And they were like, ‘OK, where are you going? We’ll follow you so long as it’s within a 10-mile radius.’ And I told them, ‘No, I’m leaving the profession… pursuing comedy.’ And they’re like, ‘Are you funny?’ I had clients go, ‘Don’t do that!’”
Once on the Sunday Company, Gardner started to come into herself. As a standout, she eventually performed in front of SNL talent scout Lindsay Shookus, who visits feeders like the Groundlings, Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade. After a few agonizing false starts, she got a call from SNL producer Lorne Michaels, offering her a spot on the cast. It was just before the season opened.
“It was like in the movies,” she says. “I got a call, ‘Heidi Gardner, hold for Lorne Michaels.’ I was speechless for a good three minutes.”
She flew to New York the next day and immediately rehearsed with Ryan Gosling.
On SNL, most cast members also help write sketches. Her first week at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Gardner pitched her own sketch.
“I had written a sketch that was at an outdoor sex party but Ryan Gosling was a guy who was grilling,” she says. “Ryan Gosling was on the grill and all these people were ready to get hot and heavy, but he just kept talking about the grill and stuff he was cooking.”
Not understanding the pitching process, she ended up in an awkward position.
“What I didn’t know is that Lorne Michaels reads all the stage directions,” she says. “So Lorne Michaels was reading the directions, like the disgusting calamari that was dropping into the hot tub. I was just mortified that he was reading sexual food jokes.”
The sketch did not make it onto the air.
“It did about as well as it could have at the table — while also being slightly embarrassing that I had my boss read that,” she says.
There have been plenty of surreal moments since, such as when she saw Matt Damon’s name on a dressing room and realized he was flying in to play Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh on that week’s cold open.
“I was obsessed with Good Will Hunting,” she says. “I didn’t have it recorded on video — I had it recorded on cassette so I could listen to the movie in my car.”
Gardner has featured prominently in ensemble sketches, but her breakthrough character has been painfully awkward teen movie critic Bailey Gismert, who appears on the Weekend Update segment.
“I feel very comfortable playing her,” Gardner says. “I think about that sometimes: Why is she so easy for me to play? People say I’m really good at playing emotional characters. But me, myself, I keep a lot of emotions inside, and when I play people like that I get to let all those things out. So it feels kind of freeing and good. Even though she’s uncomfortable, she’s more comfortable in her skin than I would have been.”
Gardner loves playing characters like Gismert — people that tap into parts of her former self, the awkward and insecure Kansas City teenager.
“Even though I would have never wanted to be characterized this way, I think people could probably tell I was insecure and fragile and probably didn’t want to be honest with me because I didn’t seem strong enough to take it,” she says. “People were very gentle and kind with me and were like, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea,’ or ‘Well, you’re weird — sure, go do that.’”
Since starring on SNL, Gardner has felt the love from the Midwest.
“An old friend of mine from middle school just wrote me and said, ‘Hey, I have to tell you, the first season you were on SNL, I had it on and just saw you out of nowhere pop up, and I screamed so loud that my wife thought I had a heart attack. I was in shock,’” she says. “There are so many people like that guy that I had not talked to in 20 years that are like, ‘Just so you know, we watch every week now and we’re rooting for you.’ Not even people I knew — it’s like people’s stepdads, a friend of a friend.”
She also tries to pay that back by being an ambassador for the city and bringing our unique culture to TV viewers across the country.
“You’re in the Midwest, you’re in the heart of America, so it is this mish-mash of football and NASCAR and going over to my mom’s boyfriend’s on a Sunday to watch football with his roomates,” she says. “There are just so many characters in Kansas City. We’ll just get labeled as a cowtown, but it’s rich with art and culture, especially now. But there is this grittiness to it. People are hardworking. And this built up so much of my character and personality.”
At the same time, Kansas City is starting to gain a reputation amongst the coastal culturati.
“I used to have to do that work of being like, ‘No, Kansas City is really cool! I promise!’” she says. “But I feel like something has happened in the last few years, enough little articles have come out about it being an up-and-coming hotspot. Kansas City is cool — people are noticing.”
Heidi’s KC Faves:
“I love Arthur Bryant’s. I love the burnt ends at LC’s. I think Gates has the most nostalgic taste — like I know what the sauce tastes like in my mouth right now.”
“I love that feeling of a quarterback that you can depend on — a quarterback that might convert on a third down. Not only might, but will!”
“Jalapenos is my favorite Mexican restaurant in Kansas City. It’s mostly for the chips and salsa. I searched all over L.A. and couldn’t find anything like it.”
“I love driving down Ward Parkway — windows down, music on. When you’re a teenager in Kansas City and there’s nothing to do, we would just drive around with the windows down, down Ward Parkway — fast.”