Last summer, three of the funniest women in SNL history — Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler — descended on Long Island to make a film, Sisters (out this week). The premise is filled with potential: Fey and Poehler star as siblings who throw one last epic house party before their childhood home is sold. Rudolph plays the desperate wannabe they never invited. Even now, she’s not on the list. When they run into her while out shopping, Fey eyes Rudolph’s oversize gold belt buckle and snaps: “Congrats on your wrestling championship.”
“It’s Ralph Lauren,” Rudolph replies, obnoxiously mispronouncing it “La-ren.”
Acting in Sisters was, in many ways, a dream job for these ladies, even if the living arrangements were less than ideal. Says Rudolph of the Long Island country club where the cast set up camp: “There were a lot of bar mitzvahs and weddings there. They had a buffet breakfast. After shooting until 5 in the morning, I’d come down for breakfast and people were like, ‘Isn’t that the girl from Bridesmaids?” And you’re like, I just want to get my hard-boiled eggs and get the f*** upstairs to my room.”
That Rudolph hates being recognized before her morning coffee makes sense, considering she’s one of comedy’s great chameleons. For more than seven years on SNL, she played such disparate women as Whitney Houston, Donatella Versace, and Ivanka Trump, only to seamlessly transition into, say, Jodi, the tough-talking co-host of Bronx Beat, or the absurd artist Nuni. Her Beyoncé impression is legendary, killing with nothing more than a well-timed shrug of her shoulders. Her comedy is that precise. But she can go big too, as in Bridesmaids when — sick with food poisoning — she memorably runs out of a dress fitting, crouches down in the middle of a street, and relieves herself in traffic.
She’s so famous for brazenly making people laugh that it’s easy to forget how versatile an actress she can be. She has done nuanced character work in Sam Mendes’s Away We Go and impressed Robert Altman in A Prairie Home Companion. She’s earned the respect of just about everybody in town — except for maybe the moms at her children’s school. She sighs as she tells me about this morning’s drop-off.
“I’m a working mom. If I drop my son off, people are like” — and here she affects a condescending voice of mock surprise — “Oh, you’re not working right now? Nice to see you. You’re like, ‘Hey, buddy, I’m doing my best.’”
It’s 2:15 on a Friday afternoon, and we’re sitting at a Jewish deli off Mulholland — a place the 43-year-old actress picked because it’s unpretentious and easy. She deserves easy. She and her husband, the director Paul Thomas Anderson, have four children younger than 11 at home. “It’s not enough for a basketball team,” she says of her brood, “but it could be a rock band.” And getting out of the house on a school day is a Herculean effort.
“Some of my girls like to wear their hair in a certain way,” she says. “Some of them don’t like to put on their shoes until they’re right about to walk out the door. One of my kids is not a breakfast person. We’re constantly trying to think: What can we do? Are you a savory breakfast person?” She laughs. “Are we going to give you a Japanese breakfast? Just some nice broiled salmon and miso soup?”
Rudolph is dressed in an oversize white button-up shirt with drop-crotch pants and orange espadrilles from RTH, a West Hollywood boutique where, she says, “everything smells good.” She loves Stella McCartney, Erdem, and The Row. Of her wardrobe, she jokes, “I’ve been, like, 30 sizes in the last 10 years.” When you get paid to take a pretend poop in the street, people don’t often ask you about couture. But Rudolph leans in to let you know how much she loves fashion, and how excited she was to see the Azzedine Alaïa exhibit in Italy last summer. Like so many of us, her love of all things sartorial began when she was a kid picking through her mother’s wardrobe. Rudolph is the daughter of soul singer Minnie Riperton (who died of breast cancer at age 31) and Richard Rudolph, a songwriter and composer. (On “Lovin’ You,” Riperton coos, “Maya, Maya, Maya, Maya.”
“My mom was badass in terms of the clothing department. She had these cool dresses from the ’40s.” Rudolph recalls a favorite pink strapless dress with keyhole cutouts and a print that said, “I love you,” all over it. “My high school didn’t have a dress code. And I basically never wore the same thing twice. I was experimenting,” she said. “If I found a sailor hat in the theater, the next day I was wearing it to school. Pretty in Pink did a number on me.”
She’s made a career of playing dress-up — an idea that isn’t lost on her. After auditioning for SNL, she remembers Lorne Michaels asking her why she wanted to work there. She panicked and said, “I really like wearing wigs.” She assumed she’d never hear from him again; instead, he wouldn’t let her leave. Even after Rudolph’s contract expired and she’d had her first kid, Michaels asked her to stick around and play (yes) Barack Obama, back when he was first running for president.
It wasn’t a passing thought. Rudolph actually got into costume one night to play Obama in a sketch opposite the man himself. She’s thankful the scene was cut before airtime, though their face-to-face meeting was unforgettable.
“They got me, like, a boy’s suit. I bound my boobs,” Rudolph says. “I used to play Scott Joplin in this time-traveling sketch. They had my old Scott Joplin wig. I was waiting to go on. Obama walked up behind me. I said, ‘How do I look?’ And he started laughing. Then he said, ‘Well, I don’t wear a three-button suit.’ I was like, ‘Ha ha ha.’” But she wasn’t sure quite what he meant. “Like, cool guys wear two buttons? But he was charismatic and handsome as f***. And tall! I was instantly won over by his baby-brown eyes. That was the thing about that place. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself and be like, ‘What is happening?’”
Life post-SNL is full of its own pinchable moments. Four days after giving birth to her fourth child, Minnie, Rudolph had to reshoot a scene in her husband’s film Inherent Vice, due to a location change. “I wasn’t thrilled about it,” she said. “But it felt like a family affair.” When asked if they would ever do a film together where Rudolph played the lead, she deadpans, “Do you mean like By the Sea?” Then she lets out a big laugh. “I just wanted to say that. We’re going to re-create it.”
Rudolph is, in a word, game. And that anything-for-a-laugh attitude is baked into every absurdly funny moment in Sisters, in which Rudolph’s character — an overeager real estate agent — finally strikes back, unleashing havoc on the sisters after getting kicked out of the party for the last time. She also tongue-kisses John Leguizamo. The chemistry between Tina, Amy, and Maya can’t be faked. (There’s a group text chain between them, Rachel Dratch and Paula Pell that started as a way to share first-day-of-school pictures but has since evolved into the Dubsmash-trading, laugh fest of your dreams.)
“When you leave SNL,” Rudolph says, “you realize there are very few people in the world who have had that experience. And it is so unique. And so special. You can’t compare it to anything else. Except for maybe if you were in the original cast of Pippin. We’ve all been in the s*** together.”
Next summer, she and another SNL alum, Martin Short, will team up for a live variety show on NBC. Rudolph had previously done a solo, one-off variety show for the network in 2014, but thinks sharing the stage with Short is more her style. Of last year’s test run, she says, “I learned more about what I already knew about myself, which is that I’m inherently a team player. I like feeling a part of a comedy gang.”
Even if that gang is her children and she’s playing the straight man. “My kids are funny,” she says. “But the punch line of every joke is either pee or poop. For my son, the punch line is usually ‘poo-poo face.’” She laughs. “Gets ’em every time.”