If a friend hadn't invited her to see a show at The Groundlings, Heidi Gardner might be doing hair and makeup on film sets.
Instead, she joined the cast of Saturday Night Live last year as a featured player and recently appeared in Melissa McCarthy's Life of the Party.
Doing hair and makeup was the goal when Gardner moved from Kansas City, Missouri, to Los Angeles in the '00s. But she was mesmerized by what she saw at The Groundlings, the legendary improv and sketch comedy training theater that's spawned such comedy stars as Jon Lovitz, Lisa Kudrow, Will Ferrell and McCarthy herself. Gardner wanted to be part of it.
So, in 2009, she signed up for an improv class at the theater, though she wouldn't have described herself as an actor back then. "I thought of myself as a hairdresser, and this was a side thing that was really fun and making me a less shy person," she says.
Five years later, Gardner was invited to join The Groundlings Sunday Company, and this "side thing" had become her all-consuming passion. "I started to feel bad because I'd be going to the salon, and I'd have a paying client booked, but, in my head, I was frustrated because I was like, 'I need to write a sketch — for free!' So I decided, 'Okay, I need to stop being a hairdresser,'" she recalls.
Gardner graduated to The Groundlings Main Company in 2015. That year, she began voicing characters on Bryan Cranston's animated Crackle series SuperMansion, for which she also writes.
After making the jump to SNL last fall, Gardner quickly made an impression with characters like Angel, "Every Boxer's Girlfriend From Every Movie About Boxing Ever"; James Franco's concerned cousin, Pretty Mandy; and teen YouTube movie critic Bailey Gismert. Just a few years ago, some of Gardner's hairdressing clients were surprised to hear she was pursuing a career in comedy.
"I remember a client saying, 'What? Are you funny?'" Gardner says. "I was like, 'I think I am, but I'm not funny here. That's why I have to leave.'"
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018