Last September, at the 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards, Maya Rudolph took home two trophies for her portrayal of two very different characters: Connie the Hormone Monstress on the animated series Big Mouth, and the then–presidential candidate Kamala Harris on Saturday Night Live. During one of her acceptance speeches, she remarked upon the medium that launched her career. “I don’t know why live television is my happy place,” she said, “but it is.” Just a few weeks earlier, Joe Biden had selected Harris as his running mate, and amid the excitement over the prospect of America’s first Black female vice president was collective rejoicing that Rudolph would be heading back to studio 8H. And sure enough, during the cold open for SNL’s 46th season premiere, there she was, stepping back into those rarefied sneakers and spouting lines like, “I got this. Let Mom-ala go to work.”
At 48, Rudolph’s wry charm, brassy energy, and go-for-broke attitude has earned her widespread recognition as one of the most gifted comedians of her time. Over the course of seven seasons on Saturday Night Live, she stood out with a panoply of wide-ranging impersonations, from Donatella Versace to Dilma Rousseff. After she left the show in 2007, she somehow became even more omnipresent, taking on the job of professional scene-stealer in far too many projects to list here, most recently as the narrator of the food-and-travel series Eater’s Guide to the World. Here, on a break from rehearsals for Saturday Night Live, Rudolph fields questions from some famous friends and admirers. —MARA VEITCH
TIFFANY HADDISH: Have you ever thought someone was trying to be your friend, but really they were just trying to date your dad?
MAYA RUDOLPH: Yeah, Tiffany, don’t think I didn’t notice! I’ve been through it before. When I was in ninth grade, there was a girl who used to carpool with me, and when she’d see my dad carrying my backpack to the car in the morning, she’d say, “Oh my god, Maya, your dad is so rad. I wanna do your dad.” (It was the ’80s.)
CAROL BURNETT: How do you deal with being a mom, a wife, and having a career? I dealt with it and I’m wondering if you and I were or are on the same page.
RUDOLPH: Carol, if my page is anywhere close to your page, I’m doing great. I think all of those things are great responsibilities that I do not take lightly. I always feel like I’m never doing any of them fully, which can be very frustrating. But knowing you were a working mom paved the way for women like me to be able to have a family and a career, and for that I am eternally grateful. I’ve also gotten a lot better at asking for help.
SARAH SILVERMAN: You know how they have light bulbs that don’t get hot now? How do they do that?
RUDOLPH: Sarah, thank you for this invaluable information. I’ve been burning my tongue on those things for years.
ANDRÉ LEON TALLEY: Do you think that you could do a good Melania Trump? Or Ivanka? Or both?
RUDOLPH: I would love to get my hands on Ivanka. Put me in, coach. I actually got to do Melania once before on our variety show [with Martin Short] Maya & Marty. All she did was eat diamonds.
MARTIN SHORT: Why do you think you get sexier with age?
RUDOLPH: Because heterosexual men love saggy, “been there, done that” boobs.
AMY SEDARIS: Do you have a vivid memory of your mother [the legendary performer Minnie Riperton]?
RUDOLPH: My memories of my mother are a combination of reality and a kid’s imagination, if that makes sense. I never know which memories are accurate or not. I do remember being at many of my brother’s Little League games, and after he’d make a great play, my mom would always scream, “That’s my baby! He came out of my womb!”
NICK KROLL: What’s the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the word “delicious”?
RUDOLPH: A pastrami Reuben.
HAIM: If your life was a song title, which song would it be?
RUDOLPH: “A Message to You Rudy.”
PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE: What food makes you laugh?
RUDOLPH: Corn dogs. But I eat them anyway.
MICHAEL BOLTON: What (besides working with me on Michael Bolton’s Big, Sexy Valentine’s Day Special, of course) has been your favorite project to date?
RUDOLPH: It’s funny you should ask. I just did Kenny G’s Big, Sexy St. Patrick’s Day Special.
SETH MEYERS: Of everyone you’ve impersonated on SNL, who would you most want to spend a full day as?
RUDOLPH: Oprah, of course.
TINA FEY: What role, in all of film history, do you wish you could have played? And should we just remake it and can I be in it also?
RUDOLPH: It’s a toss-up between Tootsie, and Violet or Doralee in 9 to 5. You better be Judy.
PAUL REUBENS: Excluding the obvious stuff, like your kids and their dad [the filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson], what subject are you most passionate about that would surprise most people? What turns you serious?
RUDOLPH: Music. Ever since I was a kid, if I fell in love with a musician, I’d daydream that I was them up on stage singing. If I’m ever watching someone playing live, to this day I have to see their shoes. I get very obsessive about it. It makes them a real person for me somehow. I think I’ve always been too scared to play music and be that vulnerable in front of people, so much so that I’ve always put the idea of seriously doing it on the backburner. But the dream is always there.
JIMMY FALLON: What’s been your most electric moment or feeling while performing on SNL?
RUDOLPH: Singing the National Anthem. That was the only time on that show that I walked off stage and thought, “Holy shit! I think that went really well.”
FALLON: If you had to give a yearbook quote right now, what would it be?
RUDOLPH: EAT A BAG OF DICKS, 2020.
WILL FERRELL: We have known each other for a while and I know it’s not something you normally discuss, but I think your audience would find it extremely helpful if you talked about your enormous fear of spiders. Perhaps you could explain how they laid eggs in your ear when you were a child.
RUDOLPH: Dear Mr. Ferrell, I consider you a monster for bringing this up. You have now embarrassed me in front of my millions of fans. How dare you. But since you brought it up, I’d just like to take this opportunity to say how much I hate spiders. I fucking hate them. They can go straight to hell. There, I said it. Love, Mrs. Rudolph.
KENAN THOMPSON: Who do you hope your children see you as: the legendary Maya Rudolph, mommy, or both?
RUDOLPH: In a perfect world, they’d see me as The Legendary Mommy.
COMMON: How has your mom’s music affected you creatively and as a person?
RUDOLPH: Creatively, I think I was infused with music before I even came out. Over time, I’ve realized that music is one of my elements. As a person, well, that’s harder to answer. If I hear her music anywhere in the world, the moment I’m in, no matter what, comes to a standstill.
BILLIE EILISH: What’s something that you don’t miss?
RUDOLPH: Traffic. And small talk.
MELISSA McCARTHY: How do you teach your children about love, kindness, and acceptance when the world around us burns with racism, sexism, and so much hatred?
RUDOLPH: Because those are the only things that matter. The truth is, kids were invented for us to learn to love something so much that we want to fill it with all the best possible things. That’s all we can do.
SARAH COOPER: What is the most recent thing you’ve learned about yourself?
RUDOLPH: That I’m a Halloween person, which is odd to me because I’m terrified of scary things. I can’t watch scary movies or even a scary movie trailer. But I love the aesthetic of Halloween more than most holidays. We’re not talking about Christmas, of course—let’s put Christmas aside. Anything that gets Halloweenified in orange and black, or has an occasional bat or ghost or monster, really does it for me. But just to be clear, I’m not interested in terror. I’m interested in a delightful monster or witch. I don’t care for jump scares. Don’t scare me or I will definitely punch you in the face.
QUESTLOVE: Your obsession with Prince is legendary. Is there a Prince-related story you can share?
RUDOLPH: I once got to be stuck on an airplane with him. He was on my flight so he couldn’t escape, and I got to be in his company for five hours. I’d never met him before. He was scheduled to be on SNL when I was on maternity leave. At the time, I’d been flying back and forth between L.A. and New York, and when I found out he was going to be on the show, I ended my maternity leave early and flew back to New York to do the show because it was him and Steve Martin. I was like, “Well, the lord must have granted my wishes and heard my prayers, so I need to be there.” Two of my favorite humans on the planet in that building. I went back to work and did that show and brought my husband and baby, and then they flew us back on Sunday. I got on the plane home, and it was really a strange, wonderful, perfect situation because I had just gotten to know the Lonely Island boys, Akiva [Schaffer] and Andy [Samberg] and Jorma [Taccone]. The flight attendant bumped me, my husband, and our baby up to first class because those were the days where they would be like, “Hey, there are two empty seats. Would you guys like to sit up there?” I guess they were being sweet because of the baby. So, anyway, it was us, the Lonely Island boys, and some poor random lady. We were all sitting there, and I started noticing that everybody from Prince’s band was boarding the plane. I was like, “If that motherfucker is on this plane, I’m going to lose my mind.” And then, literally as the doors were closing, I saw this figure in a little white sweater sit down in the front window seat, and I watched him sit there for a while. Eventually, he and his then-protége, the girl he had sung with on SNL, came over. She wanted to see the baby, and everyone was talking. He thought we’d met before, and I remember thinking, “Okay, my dreams are crushed. He said we met at a Rock the Vote party. I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m the singer Mya. My life is destroyed. My heart is broken.” But then the next morning, he came back to where we were sitting, and said about my baby, Pearl, who was 3 months old at the time, “Does she sing?” And I said, “Yeah, she makes noise all the time.” And he said, “Maybe that’s your mom.” And then all of a sudden he goes, “The first time I saw your mom on The Mike Douglas Show, I shed a tear.” And he took his index finger and made the motion of a tear falling from his eye down his cheek.
AMY POEHLER: Have you ever seen a ghost?
RUDOLPH: Does Martin Short count?
NATASHA LYONNE: As you know, you’re my favorite actor other than Giulietta Masina. I’ve been lucky enough to direct you three times and I remain in awe of the effortless, almost musical alchemy that seems to happen privately just as you’re about to step into the light the moment “Action!” is called. Can you describe this internal experience? Or is it ineffable?
RUDOLPH: Ineffable? Man, you really are a brain. I think that experience you’re referring to is called “completely winging it.” It’s called “being old enough to seem like I know what I’m doing.” I believe the French call it “making shit up as I go along.” The truth is that when I’m in a creative situation, like when you directed me in our Kenzo short film, and I feel cared for and stimulated, that’s when I try things and hope that the good stuff comes out.
RACHEL DRATCH: Now Mayerts, you are a California gal. On some of our lady trips, we have done some pretty airy-fairy activities including psychic readings and tarot cards. What’s the most California activity you’ve ever engaged in and was it worthwhile or a bust? Have you ever had a psychic experience?
RUDOLPH: My senior year in high school, we had to do a sweat lodge in Ojai. Which is really intense when you’re in high school because you really have to open up and share things about yourself while sweating profusely. You’re supposed to endure the heat but I remember cheating and lifting the flap and sucking in the cool air because I couldn’t take it.
JOHN KRASINSKI: When we were shooting Away We Go, you gave me some of the best parenting advice—do you remember what it was? Okay, fine, I’ll tell you (and I’m paraphrasing): “The idea of you ‘parenting’ your kids is a farce. At the end of the day, you’re just the bumpers laid down on a bowling lane. You’re never going to be able to control where the ball goes, your job is just to make sure they don’t go in the gutter.” Please tell the world what you meant.
RUDOLPH: Did I really say that? I mean, I believe you, but I don’t remember saying any of those words. The fact that you remember that and I don’t is why you are my true friend. I hope you will stay by my side in the nursing home so that you can remind me of the other things I cannot remember.
KRISTEN WIIG: If an alien came down from outer space and asked you the three things they must see while they’re on earth, what would they be?
RUDOLPH: 1. Hawaii. 2. A baby’s butt. 3. Jack White playing guitar.