The actress and comedian can move up and down the scales of race, age and gender with hilarious ease — a talent that grew from finding her place in a world where no one looked like her.
upposing that God is real and possessed of a human corporeal form — mankind being created in his image (reportedly) — we might reasonably conjecture that God’s anthropoid body integrates the totality of physical traits expressed in Earth’s human population: the skin tones blended to a light tan; the hair dark and thick; the height neither too tall nor too short — about 5-foot-7, say; every shade of human iris (the iridescent blue of a morpho butterfly, the pale green of lichen clinging to a tree, lots of brown) combining to create eyes that are … also brown. Considering his propensity for giving life, God would probably be a mother. Considering his appreciation of beauty (e.g., snowflake geometry) and busy schedule (e.g., Genesis), he would probably clothe himself in breezily tasteful garments made from natural fabrics cut for maneuverability, like a long denim jumper dress worn over a shirt of pure white cotton. God would look, in other words, like Maya Rudolph running errands on a Tuesday.
Separate from the irrefutable fact that God looks like Maya Rudolph is the equally remarkable revelation that Maya Rudolph looks like God — that is, she looks at you the same way, you must imagine, that God takes in his creation: happy to see it, while somehow existentially disappointed in it, but forgiving of it and still maintaining affection for it, even though it has absolutely let him down in some indefinable way only he can understand. Her wide eyes, which lend themselves so easily to bald astonishment or mania in her comedy, turn down one fraction of one degree at the outer corners when at rest, lending a suggestion of ruefulness to her neutral gaze. The effect is offset by Rudolph’s cautious, closemouthed smile, which rests on her face as easily as powder on a puff. It’s invigorating to find yourself the subject of a look so wistful, even if the expression is inadvertent. It makes you want to be the better version of yourself Maya Rudolph apparently knows you can be.
Traditionally, one of the slipperiest things about talking to God is trying to tell someone else about it after the fact. It’s the same with Maya Rudolph. Her comedy is so rooted in elasticized facial expressions and meticulously off-kilter impressions that attempts to recreate conversations with her inevitably fall flat. One of the funniest things Rudolph said at our first meeting, as we sat in a San Fernando Valley French bistro tucking into hot, pricey fries so good they could have been from McDonald’s, was: “O.K., well.”
She was telling the story of the time she was bitten by a black-widow spider while getting a massage on a girls’ vacation that many comedy fans might commit real-life murder to attend, with her “Saturday Night Live” friends Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch and Ana Gasteyer and the writers Paula Pell and Emily Spivey. Rudolph was doing an impression of Gasteyer the moment Rudolph explained to her that she was possibly about to die.
Her Gasteyer was a 120 percent concentration: angular head movements; precise intentional blinks; a modulated operatic voice — classic Gasteyer, but swirled with the essential oils of her performance as a tightly wound 1990s Martha Stewart. Rudolph’s account of the fiasco was bursting with rollicking impressions — Poehler taking charge with peppy fortitude; Dratch trying to discreetly escape to a shower — but to print the transcript would be a disservice to Rudolph, because the transcript is simply not funny. The element that brings tears of laughter to your eyes is not the words themselves, but the curious, thrilling sensation of witnessing other people’s faces and voices emerge from Rudolph’s own.
It’s tough to put a finger on exactly when Maya Rudolph became someone Americans love to love. They liked her on “Saturday Night Live,” when she demonstrated a particular knack for impersonating musical divas across time and race. They liked her, too, in the 2011 film “Bridesmaids,” when she turned the part of the ostensible straight-woman — the bridal tether against which the titular maids jostle like Mylar balloons in the wind — into a character at once heartfelt and grotesque. At some point, though, viewers began to regard Rudolph with an enthusiasm normally reserved for a three-day weekend. Like those holidays, she comes around fairly regularly: stealing scenes in movies, turning up for delightful guest arcs in prime time. “It’s kind of like everybody has a song,” Poehler told me, “and I think Maya’s song is like a really good popular song that will stand the test of time.”
When Rudolph took the stage at the Oscars, in a flowing red Valentino turtleneck jumpsuit, to present a couple of awards alongside the funnywoman of the moment, Tiffany Haddish, the response was overwhelming. Haddish displayed her trademark manic energy, but Rudolph earned no fewer laughs with a demeanor of stately calm. It felt as if a wry adult had entered the room. On the internet for days after, people craved Maya Rudolph. They thirsted for her dry wisdom. They demanded that she and Haddish be given the reins to next year’s show. They wanted them to star in a buddy comedy, their own sitcom, a two-woman play about presenting the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject — anything.
Nearly 20 years in, Rudolph’s career appears to be entering a platinum era. Earlier this summer, she wrapped filming on a 2019 Netflix movie directed by Poehler, inspired by their real-life vacations: “Wine Country.” This year, she’s up for an Emmy for playing, well, God; Rudolph captivated viewers in a two-episode stint on NBC’s “The Good Place,” as an all-powerful cosmic decider. Her “Judge” was goofy, charming and sinisterly unreadable — perhaps her strongest-ever flexing of her ability to embody multiple personalities concurrently. This month, she’ll star in “Forever,” a new streaming series for Amazon. Less a traditional comedy than a surreal minimalist comedy, it offers an opportunity for Rudolph to display a quality rarely seen in two-minute comedy sketches about space travel: pathos.
Why has the nation now decided to pine for Maya Rudolph? Perhaps it’s not so much a sudden appreciation for the chameleonic ability to slide up and down the spectrum of races, ages and personae that she’s always possessed, but that a more fundamental aspect of her character is just now coming into view: the groundedness behind the fun-house reflections. In a world that seems increasingly, exhaustingly unpredictable — unbound by rules of any sort — wouldn’t it be nice to crawl into a bottle of wine with Maya Rudolph, wearing matching silk jumpsuits, and listen to her canny assessments of what’s really going on?
Rudolph was born in 1972 in Gainesville, Fla., to parents she calls “hippies.” Her mother, the famed soul soprano Minnie Riperton, was raised a black Presbyterian on the South Side of Chicago. Her father, the songwriter and producer Richard Rudolph, came from a family that was, in his daughter’s words, “agnostic Jewish, because my grandfather didn’t like being told what to do.” Richard and Minnie met on a stairwell at a rock club in Chicago. He (standing at the top of the stairs) was managing the club; she (at the bottom) was performing there with her psychedelic band. The vibe of the Riperton-Rudolph home was that it was the kind of home where vibes flourished like shaggy jasmine vines. Instead of Froot Loops, they had puffed rice. Instead of chocolate, they had carob, which is the same color. The family was committedly unreligious. “I remember my mom not even saying ‘God bless you,’ ” Rudolph said. “She’d say, ‘Guh bless you,’ because she didn’t want us to say ‘God.’ ”
Two years after Rudolph’s birth, her father, working alongside Stevie Wonder, produced Riperton’s album “Perfect Angel,” featuring the song that would be Riperton’s biggest hit: “Lovin’ You,” a spare, dreamy number that showcased Riperton’s mastery of the so-called whistle register — precariously high notes at the upper upper reaches of what can be produced in the human vocal tract. The song’s origins as a lullaby for Rudolph are preserved in vinyl grooves; the album cut ends with Riperton cooing, “Maya.” “Lovin’ You” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1975, generating intense, sometimes rattling public interest in Riperton.
“When I was a kid, and people would come up to me or stare at me because of my mom, I didn’t like it. I really didn’t like it,” Rudolph told me. “I used to think, Oh, they’re staring at my hair, because it’s so big and ugly,” she said. “Because I didn’t realize people were just staring at my mother, like, ‘Wow, that’s her daughter!’ I didn’t know; I was a kid. And kids always personalize things.”
In the early ’70s, when Rudolph’s parents wed, there were about 65,000 black-and-white married couples in the United States. Rudolph and her older brother, Marc, are members of what is sometimes called the Loving generation — a miniature population boom of mixed-race individuals born in the years immediately following the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision, which struck down state laws criminalizing interracial marriage. Marc was born a year after the ruling, when their parents were living in Chicago. Rudolph recalls hearing stories about the racism that permeated the family’s lives; when her father entered the apartment building where they lived, she said, he would have to conceal her brother so that the landlady wouldn’t see him entering with a black child. When Riperton became pregnant a second time, the family determined to quit Chicago for a new environment. To choose a nesting spot, they visited friends in various cities across the United States (a tactic employed by Rudolph’s pregnant character in the 2009 film “Away We Go”) before settling in Gainesville, where Rudolph was born.
I knew that Maya Rudolph was the daughter of a black person and a white person the first time I saw her, because I am, too. Rudolph’s early 2000s stint on “Saturday Night Live” directly coincided with my adolescence and led to a brief obsession with “S.N.L.” that culminated in my lugging a 600-page history of the show back and forth to day camp. I deeply felt, watching her face flash on screen in the show’s opening credits, that Rudolph’s being on “Saturday Night Live” was tantamount to my being on “Saturday Night Live.” Her successes gave me more than confidence — they imparted a sense of accomplishment, as if they were my own. I told her this over lunch, feeling more nervous to meet anyone than I ever had in my entire life, and at the same time completely at ease catching up with my beloved co-worker Maya Rudolph from my years at “S.N.L.” Her face glowed from my confession. I asked if, growing up, she had her own version of Maya Rudolph. She considered it.
“No,” she said finally. “I don’t think I did.”
After her mother signed with Epic Records, the family moved to Los Angeles, where most of the people she knew were, she recalls, “either black or white-slash-Jewish.” She embraced the closest analogue she could find on television: Lisa Bonet, an actress just a couple of years older, who played the daughter of two black parents, despite having a white mother in real life. “I was obsessed with ‘The Cosby Show,’ but mainly because of Lisa Bonet,” Rudolph said. “There is no prettier creature in the universe.” Their shared racial background afforded Rudolph an opportunity to brag. “I’d be like, ‘I’m mixed, too!’ ” She rolled her eyes at the implied physical comparison. “ ‘Just like Lisa Bonet!’ ”
I asked Rudolph if she was often asked the question perennially posed to mixed-race kids, in what always feels like a sleazy attempt to catch you in a lie about being multiple things simultaneously: Which side do you identify with? “Yeah,” she said. I admitted that, more than black or white, I’ve always felt closest to other mixed people — regardless of race — because they’re the ones who grow up being asked questions like that. Rudolph nodded. “Meeting other mixed kids has always affected me. It was like part of a secret society.”
In childhood, her exposure to mixed-race people was limited to her older brother and a few encounters with what she describes as “musicians’ kids,” the children of parents similar to her own: socially liberal, prosperously artistic. Children are often eager to define themselves with simple descriptions, but Rudolph’s parents did not want her to feel restricted by categories like race, part of their tireless promotion of peace and love. “ ‘Be whatever you want to be,’ ” Rudolph recalls them saying. “ ‘You’re beautiful. You’re unique.’ I was like: ‘Oh, unique. There’s always going to be a [expletive] name for what I am.’
“Every SAT and test,” she said, recalling the mandatory demographic questions included on many standardized tests, “it’s like, ‘What are you?’ I’m an ‘other.’ So attractive.”
The romantic portrait of an interracial family is that parents from two different worlds combine their love and reproductive cells to create a new class of multicultural ambassadors. But imagine the portrait now reconfigured — one of the primary elements lost. Rudolph’s mother died of breast cancer two weeks before Rudolph’s seventh birthday. Learning how to be black and white simultaneously is a convoluted task even when your teachers are themselves black and white. What if your only teacher were white?
Hold your heart carefully before you read this next sentence: Rudolph’s father — in her words, a “pretty adorable Jew” — did not know how to do his daughter’s hair after his wife’s death. “So much of my childhood was dealing with my hair and being super embarrassed by it, mainly because I grew up being the only mixed kid,” she said. Rudolph and her brother were raised in an affluent part of the Westwood neighborhood in Los Angeles. The school Rudolph attended was so white that one of her grade-school friends was Gwyneth Paltrow. To the white people outside their family, she and her brother looked black. But their black relatives lived halfway across the country in Chicago; they saw them only on visits. “I never felt like my black cousins,” she said. “I felt loved, but I didn’t feel culturally. …” She trailed off. “I was the kid that lived in California who didn’t grow up around the family.”
Her independent attempts to style her “super, super, superthick and supercurly” hair were hapless. “I was just completely lost,” she said. “My mom died when I was 7, so when you don’t have a woman —” She cut herself off. “First of all, hair products that exist today did not exist when I was a child. The detangling system that I use now on my children is light-years beyond anything that would’ve ever happened to me growing up in Westwood.”
Riperton’s sisters would perform labor-intensive black-hair maintenance on their niece during their California sojourns. “My neighbors used to say, ‘We could hear you screaming across the street.’ My aunties would come to town from Chicago and get the marcel iron out,” she said.
Her hair remained an object of fascination for strangers into adulthood. In college, a student came up to her and remarked: “Your hair is so ethnic. Can I touch it?” (“No.”) “I actually have an aversion to that word, way more than people say they hate the word ‘moist.’ I hate the word ‘ethnic’ in that way. It’s like they’re talking about a print.”
From a young age, comedy was Rudolph’s defense against other people’s intrusions. “I know that part of owning being funny was an armor, and was, like, to literally not cry,” Rudolph said. “It’s a protection. Just be like: ‘Oh, yeah! I’m the lady with the crazy hair!’ ” Intentional zaniness, she said, is “so much better than the painful alternative. The alternative is I’m an ugly duckling. I’m just a weirdo.”
If people were familiar with her mother, they “wanted to know why I wasn’t as black as my mother, more or less,” she said. “I didn’t seem as culturally black.” They also knew that her mother was gone. “It really didn’t help that it was a public experience,” Rudolph said, of growing up in the aftermath of her death. Two months after the event, Rudolph appeared on the cover of Jet magazine alongside her father and brother; an inside spread featured photographs and a detailed description of her motherless seventh-birthday pool party. “It was weird to grow up that way, thinking, I’m the kid whose mom died, and everybody knows it — or at least you feel like everybody knows it.”
It was fitting, then, that Rudolph, who before second grade had already been assigned two seemingly permanent identities — the kid who looked different and the girl without a mother — would develop a virtuosic talent for becoming other people, transforming herself, in the process, into someone it was impossible to exactly pin down.
One of the people Rudolph memorably became was the Italian fashion designer Donatella Versace. On “Saturday Night Live,” where Rudolph was a cast member from 2000 to 2007, she portrayed Versace, with a satin-flat mantilla of white-blond hair, as hazy and psychotic, frequently possessed by whiplash bursts of anger yet ultimately softhearted. Her Versace was held captive by her own industriousness, forever taking on new projects (a tape of Versace children’s songs sung by herself, a line of Hot Pocket-inspired Versace Pockets) yet also Champagne-drunk and quite sleepy. While not by any stretch a flattering portrait, it hovered just north of cruel. In Rudolph’s hands, Versace was not dumb — merely too glamorous for the world and occasionally hampered by a thick Italian accent. It was an impression in the truest sense of the word — not an identical copy but a blend of heightened tics and imagined quirks that felt so true to the idea of a person that the real version paled by comparison.
You didn’t even have to exist for Rudolph to inhabit you fully; her character Megan, the anxious, awkward, striving-to-be-noticed teenage host of her school’s morning news program, “Wake Up, Wakefield,” was such an accurate depiction of a poor-postured adolescent that it was almost physically painful to watch Megan’s dreams of being cool fail to come true in every one of her sketches.
Like many “Saturday Night Live” alumni, Rudolph came to the show after a stint in the Groundlings comedy troupe in Los Angeles, which she joined postcollege. (Rudolph was a photography major at the University of California, Santa Cruz.) Tina Fey was one of the “S.N.L.” writers who scouted her, and she championed her hiring after being impressed with the way Rudolph handled herself in a scene with an uncooperative improv partner. “There’s that thing of like, ‘She could read the phone book and it’d be funny!’ ” Fey told me. “But she really could. And it’s not like she’s trying to act funny. A lot of times actors think, Oh, and then you like kind of act funny — that’s usually a disaster. It’s just, she is just so inherently — she’ll make a specific choice to be some strange person that lives in her imagination, and it will just come out funny.”
Rudolph joined “S.N.L.” at the tail end of the 1999-2000 season, and it swiftly took over her life. “It was literally my everything,” she recalled. “My baby and my husband all at once. I cared about it more than my laundry or my food, which — neither were being well taken care of. I gave all my energy to that show. Plus you’re creating a new show every week, so it was just really intense — in a good way. In a way that I liked.”
Black women have been habitually underrepresented in the cast of “Saturday Night Live.” Rudolph was only the fourth since the show’s 1975 debut. “When I did ‘S.N.L.,’ I didn’t feel like I was hired to be the black lady, which can happen a lot,” Rudolph said. “Who knows? Maybe I was and no one told me.”
The show was a place where trying out identities was not only allowed but also rewarded with applause. She curated an ever-diversifying portfolio of esteemed, wealthy black women: a room-dominating, lusty-voiced Oprah; a monotonous, pageant-calm Beyoncé; a cream-clad Whitney Houston who lived so fast she practically cast sparks; an elderly Maya Angelou whose vowels were poems. She could also be white (Paris Hilton), Latina (Charo), every once in a while Asian (Lucy Liu). Many invented characters had no clear ethnicity. One reason for the range of her repertoire was that Rudolph was helping write much of her own material. “I just never felt like that was the first place to go, to define myself by race,” she said. “Now, the difference is not everybody else believes that you can play those things, but if you’re writing it, who gives a [expletive]?”
Rudolph describes “S.N.L.” as a positive experience but concedes that there were moments of disappointment, when the writing was out of her hands. “There were times I was frustrated, like, ‘Why can’t I [expletive] just play that role?’ But obviously the person next to me that’s white is going to play that white character.”
As in her childhood, her hair marked her as an outsider. In her limited on-camera experience before “S.N.L.,” she recalled, “every time I’d work, they’d be like, ‘I really don’t — like, can I touch? — I really don’t know what to do with your hair.’ They would just say the most awful, disgusting things.” When she arrived at Studio 8H, she encountered a new obstacle: “My hair was natural when I started ‘Saturday Night Live,’ but it was so thick to get under the wigs.”
She began devoting several hours a week to altering its texture, including a standing Friday-night blowout appointment with her friend Jodi Mancuso, who ran the hair department. The blow-dry station “was on the same hallway as a lot of the dudes’ dressing rooms. And every [expletive] Friday night, we’d hear some [expletive] white guy walking down the hall going, ‘Is something burning in here? What’s burning?’ ”
“I’m like” — Rudolph’s lips and voice tensed, and she enunciated every exasperated syllable — “ ‘I’m. Get-ting. My. Hair. Done.’ ”
Rudolph’s first child with the director Paul Thomas Anderson was born in 2005, an event she credits with making her a more productive cast member, because of its freezing effect on her personal life. Previously unmissable activities, like “socializing, and going out for” — she spilled into a Valley Girl shriek — “draaanks!” suddenly revealed themselves to be nonessential. But even with her newfound focus and an internal clock recalibrated for the topsy-turvy “S.N.L.” night-owl schedule, the pace was grueling for a new parent. Sometimes, on writing nights, Rudolph would put her toddler to bed, head to work until “between 6 and 9 in the morning” and come home just as she awoke. Rudolph left the show in November 2007, when her daughter was 2.
“It was too hard,” she said. “And nobody else understands or cares, when they don’t have kids. They’re like: ‘Oh, that’s cool!’ ” she said, turning away with a distracted nod. “ ‘What are you guys doing tonight?’ They’re like, ‘We’re going to see Justin Timberlake because Andy’s doing “Dick in a Box” with him! What are you doing?’ And I was like” — Rudolph affected the faraway stare of a revenant — “ ‘My daughter’s sick. I’m going home.’ ”
Members of the public familiar with the careers of Rudolph and Anderson react to their long-term relationship in one of two ways: Either they are surprised to learn that Rudolph and Anderson have been a couple since 2001 or they knew that but are surprised to remember it. Perhaps it’s that a high-minded film auteur would not seem to possess a wacky enough personality to pair with a woman who earned a living parodying Beyoncé from Destiny’s Child as “Britanica” from “Gemini’s Twin”; perhaps it’s that Maya Rudolph is not Daniel Day-Lewis. Often people’s response to the couple takes the form of jocular fetishization, as when New York Magazine’s The Cut published a short opinion piece titled “Paul Thomas Anderson and Maya Rudolph Are the Greatest Celebrity Couple,” affectionately citing, as a piece of evidence, an unsmiling candid paparazzi photo of them walking side by side. There have been instances, however, when the teasing has overreached and Rudolph has, like her parents, found her interracial relationship the object of prurient interest. She recalled a comedy writer who told her that her and Anderson’s children were “quadroons or octoroons” — “because people think that being aggressive is funny, I guess.”
Although they are not married, Rudolph refers to Anderson as “my husband” in conversation, as when a maître d’ told her that a man once introduced himself to the restaurant’s staff as “the unofficial mayor of the Valley” and Rudolph instantly blurted, “I hope it wasn’t my husband.” She said it felt “ooky” to keep referring to her long-term partner as her “boyfriend” after the birth of their daughter (they now have four children); she likes “husband” because “people know what that means. It means he’s the father of my child, and I live with him, and we are a couple, and we are not going anywhere.”
Information regarding Rudolph’s new series, “Forever,” created by the “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang and the “30 Rock” writer Matt Hubbard, has been ferociously guarded by Amazon. Last September, it was rumored that Rudolph and the “S.N.L.” alumnus Fred Armisen would be portraying a married couple. “S.N.L.” viewers have been watching Rudolph and Armisen play soul mates since 2004, when they introduced “The Prince Show,” a talk-show parody in which Beyoncé (Rudolph) relays whispered messages from Prince (Armisen); 2005 marked their first appearance as Nuni and Nuni, a pair of married European art dealers. But on “Forever,” their coupledom turns melancholic. Rudolph, as June, the wife to Armisen’s character, Oscar, makes excellent use of her resting wistful face. Her big, round eyes telegraph ennui, and while there are moments of Rudolph’s trademark physical zaniness, the show also reveals her particular skill for imbuing small gestures with anguish.
“Forever” asks a lot of its viewers. It doesn’t require them to have a casual familiarity with centuries of fake monarchical successions or jump through multiple tangled timelines. Instead it tests their capacity for existential dread — but funny. As a unit of time, the concept of forever is inherently unsettling to humans; an idea of which we have a broad working definition, but which none of us can actually experience. On the show, forever is a state that is quiet to the point of being sepulchral, with no electronic distractions (though there is shuffleboard). It is suffused with slowly deepening panic, unhurried but increasingly restless. Most TV shows are something you turn to to escape real life, but this one almost works the opposite way; real life is a pressure release valve for “Forever.”
Like Rudolph, Armisen is mixed-race — a fact to which she partly attributes their closeness. His background is Venezuelan, German and Korean. On “Forever,” their union of blends adds a further layer of ambiguity to the environment; June and Oscar are residents of a nondescript California suburb, but they look as if they could be from anywhere.
“His impression of me is the most upsetting impression I’ve heard,” she said, hunching her shoulders. In a voice that sounded like an irritated version of her own, but colored with Armisen’s intonation, she looked askance and asked: “ ‘Why am I cold?’ ” Everyone, she said, tells her the impression is valid. “Literally, I have more fun working with him than, like, most things in life.” While Armisen and Rudolph’s close friendship inspired them to collaborate again, the result is surprisingly macabre. “Forever” is saturated with death.
“Let’s be honest,” Rudolph said. “I’m afraid of death. But I’ve been more fearful in the past, and lately I’ve been more like, ‘Oh, I hope we all get to go somewhere.’ ” Rudolph said this as we sat across from each other in a pair of human-size bird cages. We’d been wandering around a brand-new outdoor plaza in search of a quiet spot to talk. In classic upscale-California-mall style, that ended up being these bird cages. We each crawled inside one. “The show feels like scratching an itch to me a little bit,” she said.
Rudolph’s performance in the second episode of “Forever” is heart-rending. Without betraying key elements of the plot: Her character is in a consumer-electronics store, trying to make a purchase, when she breaks down in tears. It’s a depiction of grieving that will prick anyone who has ever been caught off guard by a sudden longing for a lost person. It also feels like a distinctly adult moment of mourning. I asked Rudolph if she recalls what grieving was like as a 7-year-old.
“For many, many years,” she said, “I couldn’t even touch this conversation. Like my mom was always — it was such a painful —” She changed course. “I don’t remember if I ever did proper grieving. I know I did, but it came out in ways — like when I was a kid, I went to a new school and I kicked people. I was like the kicker for a year. And then people tell me stories that I don’t remember, like I’d be crying at a roller-skating party, and they were like: ‘What’s wrong? Why are you crying?’ And I wanted to skate with a boy, and they said that I was like” — she quaked with sobs — “ ‘My grandma died.’ Which wasn’t true! But I was [expletive] laying it on thick. I definitely think that children process very differently. And I’m genuinely fascinated by it, so I wish I knew all the ways that I do or did, but I don’t. But I know that the place that I was with it most of my life was more of a, ‘Poor me, why me?’
“Up until very recently,” she said, “it was still, like, a sting to talk about her” — a particularly difficult set of circumstances when you remember that so many of Riperton’s fans took a special interest in her daughter after her death. Even among her acquaintances, Rudolph said, she is regarded as an authority on parental death. “If they lose a parent, even when they’re like, 40, they’re like: ‘I’ve got to talk to you!’ And I’m like: ‘Right’ ” — she nodded resignedly. “This is my department. But I also know it’s why I really wanted to do this show.”
Rudolph has mixed remembrances of having grown up the child of a celebrity. Her memories from “on the road” are marked by the excitement of buses and unguarded receptionist desks and receiving a poker chip from the tooth fairy while passing through casino country. “Backstage is way more fun for a kid than being in the audience.”
It was less fun to be the child of a famous person when she wasn’t backstage. Rudolph repeated multiple times her request that any pleasantries I may or may not have exchanged with zero to four of her children at any point during our interview sessions (all of which took place in public spaces, rather than at her home) not be described. “I grew up with people knowing who my mother was,” she added, “and that isn’t lost on me. I understand that I probably have more of an awareness of strangers’ recognizing me.”
After her mother’s death, strangers started stopping Rudolph to share their emotional reactions with her, “about things,” she said, “that were really kind of intense, sometimes. Complete strangers would just be like: ‘I felt like she was this angel!’ And you’re like: ‘I’m 16. Why are you telling me about my dead mother?’ ” It happened so often that Rudolph wondered if she were drawing them out. “Honestly, I used to think — I was like, Do I have, like, a power?”
One sun-dappled morning in late August, she and I sat on a bench under a canopy of plane trees, looking out over the concentric circles of gardens at the Getty Center. I asked her if she can usually tell when someone has recognized her but hasn’t said anything.
“It just happened,” she said, not moving her head. Rudolph was wearing a tiered sundress in a muted rainbow geometric pattern and no makeup. Even behind her white cat-eye sunglasses, her freckled face was still familiar. I asked her to tell me the next time she saw someone spot her, and almost immediately, she nodded at a cluster of women on a lower level of the garden. “This group is the group,” Rudolph said. “The lady that’s second to last, with the white shirt, she’s letting all her friends know where we’re sitting.” As Rudolph narrated, the group’s pace slowed. “They’re all checking us out.” They continued to walk back and forth over the same patch of path, like a gang of Ms. Pac-Mans trapped between two walls. “So they’re just getting a better peek,” Rudolph continued. “But you know what, they’re not bothering — oh!” She interrupted herself as one of the women jumped to the back of the line to walk the path yet again. “She’s getting a second peek! Look at that. But they’re not taking pictures.” She can’t ask for more than that.
As we watched, the group of women exited their well-worn patch of garden and moved to the upper level, where we were seated, a bold maneuver that allowed them to pass directly in front of us, as close as polite American society would permit.
This is the thorny part of finding yourself in the public role of people’s fantasy friend: Your friends are everywhere, and they’d love to see you. Rudolph seems as if she could be your pal because maybe she could be. She is fun and casual. Poehler says people sense “a really warm mother and maternal thread” in Rudolph. “They’re sensing it correctly,” she added. Rudolph doesn’t travel with a team in tow; there is no bodyguard lurking at a discreet distance. But because she’s so approachable, she is approached — probably more than any one person approaching her would realize. (Almost never when she’s with a man, she has noticed; people wait for “the minute the man steps away.”) The daily life of Maya Rudolph is jam-packed with people’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to meet Maya Rudolph, because she’s not quite aloof enough to seem off limits.
Instead, she’s a canvas — for herself, in her impressions, but more exceptionally, for others as well. She is strangers’ down-to-earth friend, if only they could meet her. She is their unwitting emotional confidante. She is black, unless she’s not black enough, in which case she is weird. She is smiling slightly and regarding the manicured garden in peaceful contemplation, or perhaps so she will not inadvertently make affable eye contact with a gawking visitor and embolden them to invite themselves over. It can be exhilarating to be universal. But it’s also a little exhausting.
Rudolph estimates that about half the people who come up to her aren’t exactly fans. She is, she said, more “recognizable” than famous. They just want to confirm her identity.
Usually, she tells them who she is. But recently a woman interrupted her when she was in a department store searching for a pair of shoes. “I was in a zone,” she told me, and mimed inspecting a shoe in her hand. The woman tapped her on the shoulder, so that Rudolph would face her. “She said, ‘Excuse me, aren’t you that lady?’ ”
“I just looked quizzical.” Rudolph made the expression you might make if someone asked you what time it was on Mars. “She said: ‘No? Aren’t you the lady from “Bridesmaids”?’ And I went” — she gave an understated, bewildered head shake — “ ‘No.’ ”