Maya Rudolph creates characters that exude charisma and poise. But shortly after they captivate you, they begin to reveal just how tarnished and peculiar they actually are. While most comedic characters are outwardly flawed, Rudolph’s are more subtly bizarre. You wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with these people. They’re the type that would stand too close, or stare too long, or hum softly in the corner—decidedly more unnerving than the obvious misfits.
Although Rudolph grew up wanting to be on Saturday Night Live, her sole focus in life wasn’t sketch comedy. A photography major in college, she considered a career in fashion before realizing she couldn’t sew. She dabbled in music, playing keyboards for the Rentals (with Matt Sharp of Weezer fame). Eventually, she enrolled in improv classes at the Groundlings Theater, the launching pad for many Saturday Night Live cast members.
During the past five seasons on SNL, Rudolph has become one of the company’s most versatile performers. She can play a variety of races and genders, and has a voice that’s often better than those of the recording artists she impersonates. She’s even made the risky leap from SNL to the big screen, landing her first starring role in Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (due in theaters this winter).
I met with Rudolph in Los Angeles at a Zen tea garden called Elixir, for no other reason than its convenient location.
I. PROFESSIONAL MIMICRY
THE BELIEVER: What’s your process for creating a character on Saturday Night Live?
MAYA RUDOLPH: I try to think sometimes: where did that character come from? I have no idea, half the time. I think it’s visual. If I can visualize it or if I have a voice for the character, then I know. There was one character I did that was based on the voice of this girl my friend used to date. This girl was a horrible human being, and her voice drove me crazy. The people that are the most memorable are the annoying assholes.
BLVR: Do the SNL people dictate what you’re going to wear, or do you have any input?
MR: You totally have input. It’s the best. After the sketches get chosen, you go into the design room and talk to costumes and wigs and props about everything. That’s the only thing I feel like I’m super-duper anal about. I know I drive everyone crazy. I really get specific about how I want the hair to look and how I want the costume. I know in the end when it’s right because it’ll be the way I’ve been imagining it the whole time. When it’s off, then I feel like I’m lying.
BLVR: So you don’t have the opposite experience when maybe you have the seed of the character but you can’t picture what they would wear, and then the costumer says, “How about this jumper?” and you’re like, “Perfect. Yes, the jumper.”
MR: That happens sometimes. Our costume guy is amazing. Sometimes we’ll describe it in the stage direction, and he’ll draw a sketch and it’s ridiculously perfect. Every time we did Donatella [Versace], it was his decision to do a new gown. He’d build it from scratch. It really should be in a comedy museum.
BLVR: What about impressions? Do you decide you want to do a certain impression or does someone say, “Maya, you should do Beyoncé?”
MR: They do that now. When I started at SNL, I didn’t have my trunk filled with characters and impressions. It’s sort of trial and error. You find out someone’s writing an award show sketch and Anna Nicole Smith was crazy last week, and the writers ask, “Who can do Anna Nicole?”
BLVR: Do you have to answer on the spot or can you think about it and watch tapes of that person?
MR: You want to be in the show so badly, because there’s always this fear you won’t be in anything by the time Saturday at 11:30 rolls around. So you’re like, “Yeah, thanks for thinking of me, put me in it.” It’s such a crapshoot. You don’t even know half the time if your impression is going to be good. Every once in awhile, people write Jennifer Lopez stuff, and I really can’t do an impression of her. I know how she talks if I hear her, but I can’t do it. But they’re not going to get Amy [Poehler] to do it, so I guess I have to try. There are only four girls in the cast and somebody’s got to do it. That always ends up in my favor. Anybody with any sort of brown coloring, they’re like, “Give it to Maya.” I didn’t do Oprah because I wanted to. I did Oprah because someone wrote it. I didn’t really have any sort of handle on it. Usually I’ll watch something and be like, “Oh, I see what’s funny about this,” and I’ll kind of mimic it. But I had no fucking clue how to do her, and I don’t look anything like her. Everybody who had done her on SNL up until then was a man, so it was always a funny drag joke.
BLVR: Is it overwhelming trying to do someone for the first time?
MR: Yeah. I mean, I never feel great, like, “I really nailed that impression.” But sometimes, like that first time we did Oprah, I actually felt like the sketch as a whole was really funny. But I didn’t go home patting myself on the back. [Pats herself on back] “Got another impression there.Another one on the list.” I never think of myself as a professional mimicist. What is the word for that?
BLVR: Is it mimicker? I don’t know. There’s mockery.
MR: It is really mockery, I guess.The same thing happened with Beyoncé. Fred [Armisen] and our friend James Anderson, who writes The Prince Show with him, wanted to do Beyoncé, so again it was like,“Well, Maya, obviously.”
BLVR:And you can sing.
MR: Yeah.I get away with that,too. You just sing a little bit and people will be so impressed. It’s like a little extra juice you can give the character. One time I had to do Beyoncé when they [Destiny’s Child] were guests on the show. So they wrote a Prince Show, thinking that she would be in it and it’d be like dueling Beyoncés. She was sick apparently and said, [slipping into Beyoncé] “No, I’m not coming.” So I was doing Beyoncé while Beyoncé was backstage, watching the show. It was very uncomfortable.
BLVR: Did you talk to her at all?
MR: I said something to her like, “I’m really embarrassed. I’m doing you and you’re here.”And she’s like, [in perfect Beyoncé mimicry] “I don’t mind you making fun of me at all. It’s wonderful.” I can’t even imagine.That must feel so strange.
BLVR: You’ve met Donatella, too, right?
MR: I did an interview with her over the phone once, and I couldn’t understand a word she said. And then I met her, doing the VH1 Fashion Awards. They called and said she was unavailable so would I pretend I was her and sit in the audience. I said sure. Moments later, I got a call saying, “She heard you’re going to do it, so she’s going to make sure she’s there.” I was nervous because I feel like deep down, even though it’s my fucking job, I never want to be like,“Ha ha, I’m making fun of you.” Obviously, the thing we do with her is so bizarre now, it’s kind of become its own character. Maybe she’s like, [channeling Donatella] “It’s wonderful.” Maybe she doesn’t care. I’ve heard that she likes it. What if she cries every night when she goes to sleep? [Again channeling Donatella] “My life is ruined!”
BLVR: Your Theresa Heinz Kerry was great, too.
MR: That was another hard one. I kept making her sound like Donatella and it wasn’t working. My boyfriend said,“You should make her sound like one of the Gabor sisters.” She always looked like she’d just had a really nice massage,or that she was feeling kind of groovy. Maybe she had a little puff on something. I kept watching these tapes where she was feeling her lips a lot [she massages her lips against one another], feeling how soft and wet they were. She looked like she was feeling no pain.
BLVR: No one has taken on Laura Bush yet?
MR: Not as a character, you’re right. I’ve heard that she’s a chain-smoker, which I find really interesting. I’ve never seen her smoking. She’s skilled.
BLVR: What does she do with the cigarette when she’s giving an interview? Do you think she’s smoking right before she goes on camera?
MR: She does that tuck and roll. [Mimes putting a cigarette under her thigh] It changes her image when you think about it that way. I’ve never met her, so I don’t know what she smells like.A lot of smokers don’t smell smoky ’cause they’re so good at it, but maybe she has smoker’s breath.
II. ENJOY THE SHOW, FOLKS!
BLVR: Do you have any preshow rituals or superstitions?
MR: Everybody in the cast has the same ritual of going downstairs to eat the horrible food. We have this commissary with the nicest people, and they’re so sweet to us, but it’s basically fancy bad food. Before every show, you go down to eat, and it’s sort of a way just to be calm. We have to do the show at eight o’clock too, so we eat around six. It’s always, for me, a lot of complaining about how bad the food is.The one thing that always used to be good at the SNL commissary was taco night, and we haven’t had a taco night all fucking year.That’s something I would take on an island. I really like tacos.
BLVR: Do you all sit down and eat at one long table?
MR: It’s like little tables. It brings back all the feelings of college, when I lived in the dorms.You eat in the cafeteria and you’re like,“I hope there’s a spot at a table… OK, there’s nobody there that I know… I’m going to go sit over there… I am not going to sit alone… can I squeeze in here with you guys?” Every week! The cast and writers all convene in a general area.You know everybody, but you always end up sitting with the same people, so I guess it is weirdly like a ritual.
BLVR: But you don’t feel like,“If I don’t sit with those people, I’m going to have a bad show?”
MR: No. I also don’t do any weird touching of things. I used to try to watch for my name in the credits on the monitors backstage, but I’ve forgotten too many times. Will Ferrell wore the same underwear. He had show underwear. Horatio [Sanz] has show shorts that he wears. We dress next to each other in the quick-change area. He has these really cute little green polka-dot shorts that he wears every show, just to go under things. I don’t think they’re his undies. But Will [Ferrell]’s were money. There were dollar bills on his underwear. It was awesome. He used to be right next to me, so we’d talk to each other between the wall. He’d call out “Maya Lou, I can hear you,” and I’d just know he’d be in there in his little underwear. We have to get naked so much in front of other people because there are so many quick changes. Sometimes you do it by paint cans or Don Pardo’s booth.You have your team of hair and makeup people helping you, and you also have Lorne [Michaels] walking by sometimes. One time, my tits were out and I looked up and was like, “Oh, they don’t have the screen they sometimes put up.” The audience was right there, looking at me.“Enjoy the show, folks!”
BLVR: You can’t even keep the same bra on, right? Sometimes you’re wearing a strapless dress, or whatever. Girls have it harder.
MR:Thank you.There was a period when I was girdling it for a while. It was a one-piece girdle, like an old-timey bathing suit. But you can’t always wear a girdle with certain things. I end up wearing a lot of half outfits.
BLVR: Most of your characters have those sexy dresses.
MR: I’m sure it’s my fault. It’s some creepy repressed thing. I’ve always kind of thought I wasn’t a real girl, because when I was little I was kind of a tomboy and my mom wasn’t around. I was like,“I don’t want to be a girl.” In a weird way, I feel like most of my characters are drag queens. It’s really scary to realize what your subconscious is doing. It’s creating basically a man’s idea of a woman, I think.
BLVR: Do you have a lot of drag fans?
MR: I think that I do.When I first started, me and Ana [Gasteyer] used to do a fake Destiny’s Child called Gemini’s Twin, and I started to hear that our sketches were shown in gay bars.We’d make these little music videos in the sketches, and they’d play the videos in a bar. I do believe that the majority of my followers are gay males. It’s probably 87 percent.
BLVR: Have you had any weird run-ins with fans?
MR:I’m still not used to people recognizing me from the show and then having a conversation with me. People approach “comedy people” very differently than a major film star or respected thespian from stage and screen. They come up to me in a very weird way and it takes me a minute and then I’m like,“Oh, you’re being funny.”
BLVR: So their instinct is to do a bit with you?
MR: I think so. People see us on the show and think, “Hey, it’s that person I’d hang out with.” I like strangers to be strange, but I will make an exception when people are lovely and polite. People give their opinions very freely. I had this guy come up to me in the Container Store in New York and he was like, [in a thick New York accent] “You’re on Saturday Night Live.What’s your name?” “Maya Rudolph.” “OK. I’ve seen you, you’re funny.” “Thank you.” “But the show’s not as funny as it used to be.” Everybody who feels this way has the same little speech they give you. [Again as the guy] “I thought the show went downhill when Will
Ferrell and Cheri Oteri left.” “OK, they’re great.” “I don’t think any of the women are as funny as Cheri.” Come on, man. I don’t come down to your fucking job and tell you how bad you are.“You’re a good attorney, but you’re not as good as the other guy before you, and your firm is dying a slow death because that other guy was way better.”
III. EGGS AND TAROT
BLVR: Am I creating the right environment for an entertaining interview? I mean, it’s pretty Zen here. There are fountains, massage music, and even a tarot card reader.
MR: I don’t know if you’ve ever had a tarot reading, but I just had one done by the girl who does my hair at SNL. She calls it her religion. They were the worst cards I’ve ever seen. My cards are always really bad.
BLVR: Like what cards?
MR: It’s not like they say death, and that means death, or anything like that. But it’s like, “Your career is fine, stop worrying about money, you’re going to be fine with money.” I’m thinking,“I wasn’t that worried about money.” It wasn’t the first thing on my mind. You think what you normally think about: relationships. Am I going to get married? Am I going to have kids? Each time I asked a question, it was worse than the next. She would say, [imitating an ogrelike tarot reader] “Not with the guy you’re with. Yeah, maybe one kid, but maybe not. He’s not gonna be around if you have a kid. He won’t be there to help you raise them. He’s gonna be traveling and stuff.” It was so brutal. He’s going to leave me home with a baby, OK.
BLVR: But you’ll have a good career.
MR: Don’t worry about money. You’ll be fine.
BLVR: So you and your baby will have awesome vacations and the best stroller ever.
MR: Exactly. Whatever that famous stroller is. It’ll be gold-plated. But I’ll be really depressed and lonely and crying myself to sleep every night. It’s gonna be awesome.
BLVR: Was she nervous about revealing it to you?
MR: She told me afterwards how bad she felt. She was hugging me. I got really depressed because it wasn’t reflecting my life right now. It was saying what it’s going to be like, and that’s all kind of make-believe, as far as I’m concerned. You can either believe it or not, and there’s nothing, in terms of tarot, you can do. But it made me feel bad.
BLVR: Do you want to know about the future?
MR: I think so. Maybe it was very girly of me. I was like, [in a child’s voice] “Am I going to grow up to be a mom?” You want to hear somebody say, “Yes,” and then you’re like, “That’s great, I got good news today.” My friend Amy [Poehler] always has these good questions like,“If you were to get a letter that contained the date that you died and how you died, would you open it?” You know what? No. I don’t think I could. But how could you not want to open it? That’s one of those annoying questions people think up to drive you nuts.
BLVR: It gives me a headache, because you can think about it from both sides. On one hand, you would want to know and you could live your life to the fullest and go to Paris, or go skydiving, all those things you want to do…
MR: It’s just morbid. But then sometimes she’ll have one that’s like, “If you could have one favorite food to bring on an island, what would it be?” [fake crying] “I don’t know!”
BLVR: You don’t know what it would be? What about three favorite foods to bring on an island?
MR:When I was a kid, it was always pizza, french fries, and eggs. But now I don’t know. Although all three of those are very high ranking for me. I know it’s probably not the best thing to eat all the time, but I’m really fond of eggs. They’re comforting at times when you’re not feeling that great. I can always go to eggs.
BLVR: Do you care if your eggs are vegetarian or cage-free?
MR: I try to go for the organic.They say that the darker yolks taste different. I think some probably taste different from others, but when are you going to do an egg taste test? You must have a lot of time on your hands if you’re going to scramble up one egg and be like,“That tastes good,” and then scramble up another. But I have had great eggs, so I think it does exist. You ever had that?
BLVR:When I was in Greece, I had great eggs and the yolks were actually orange.They were a significantly different color from what we’re used to here. Is that because of what the chickens eat? It must be.
MR: It must be what they eat or drink.
BLVR: So it’s hard for you to decide what foods you’d bring to an island, but what about your last meal if you were on death row or something? Is that easier?
MR: [Laughs] You know what I’m gonna do? I’m going to tell you the first thing that popped into my head. Roscoe’s House of Chicken ’n’ Waffles. It’s really delicious.
BLVR: I’ve never been.
MR: Do you eat chicken?
BLVR: No, I don’t eat chicken, but I eat waffles.
MR: You could go for the waffles. Do you eat eggs?
MR:They have eggs and waffles, but it’s the combination of the fried part of the chicken, the skin or whatever’s in the batter, combined with the syrup and then pillowed in a fluffy, fluffy waffle. It’s really good.