Dressing down for the summer dramedy Away We Go, Maya Rudolph explains why her SNL experience was such a drag.
After seven seasons of dressing up for her impressive repertoire of outrageous characters, including her infamous portrayal of fashion icon Donatella Versace, on Saturday Night Live, Maya Rudolph dressed down for Sam Mendes’s summer dramedy Away We Go, in which she and John Krasinski star as a couple searching for the perfect place to raise a family. Now ready to reanimate her ruthless Rapunzel in next year’s Shrek Goes Fourth, the 36-year-old fashion fanatic details her devotion to divas and why her SNL experience was such a drag.
The Advocate: There are many similarities between you and your character Verona in Away We Go. Though pregnant, Verona doesn’t want to get married. You and your partner, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, have also stayed unmarried even though you’re expecting your second child together. Do you not believe in marriage?
Maya Rudolph: Well, I don’t really talk about that stuff. I never have and I never will, because I feel like it’s one thing to make movies and another thing to unbutton your personal life until you’re naked. There are similarities, but I’m certainly not Verona, and I don’t feel like my beliefs are in the movie.
You do believe in gay marriage, though, as indicated by your participation in Prop. 8: The Musical for FunnyOrDie.com.
That was probably the most joyous thing that came out of the Prop. 8 vote for me. Filming that was an amazing experience because we got to put our anger into something fun and have this really beautiful day. I grew up in California, and I’m a proud Californian, but I was really offended and surprised at how many people feel differently [about marriage equality] than I do just in California alone. I was ashamed of my state.
What does the support of the gay audience mean to you?
That was the fan base I always planned on having and always expected to have, because I’m sort of a part of that fan base too. Growing up of mixed race and never really having a mom, I always felt like an outsider. Then I went to a super-duper hippie college, University of California, Santa Cruz, and most of my friends there were either gay or mixed. We were all “others” together. I feel most at home with people who need each other as a family and understand what it’s like to be different. So I wasn’t that surprised to find out that I have a good gay fan base, but I’m really proud of it.
When did you first become aware of that following?
My impression of Donatella Versace really brought out the excitement in gay people. People were grateful, in some weird way, that this bizarre woman was being represented.
During a phone interview you did with her for Interview magazine, Donatella gave you tips on how to do her better. Was she helpful?
That was so bizarre. She’s incredibly difficult to understand because her accent is very thick. It was as though someone was doing an impression of my impression. I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was growing up, and I’m a total nerd about people who make clothes, so I was blown away to talk to her. But it was literally like I was at school trying to take notes. I had no fucking clue what she was saying.
When your Donatella and the real Donatella finally appeared onstage together at the 2002 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards, somewhere a gay man probably burst into flames.
Well, I almost burst into flames! VH1 called me up and said, “Donatella won’t be able to attend, so we’ll do a bit where they call her name and you’re in the audience sitting next to P. Diddy or something.” I was like, “Great. I’ll do it.” Then 15 minutes later, I get another phone call, and they’re like, “She found out you’re going to be there, so she’ll be there too.” As they were putting on my makeup and wig backstage at the event, she walked in. She pretended she was angry and did this fake “I’m going to choke you” gag, but then she was very sweet about it. It was a surreal moment. I was just happy I could fit into the one gown they sent from Italy, but we had to use about three pairs of panty hose underneath because Spanx weren’t invented yet.
Have you had any other memorable encounters with celebrities you’ve spoofed?
Thank God I’ve never met Whitney [Houston], because I’d probably be dead. I was weirdly just on a plane with Diana Ross, another incredible woman I’ve had the opportunity to portray. I was sitting two seats down from her, and I kept sneaking looks, but I don’t think she recognized me. I don’t think she could see me at all because of her enormous cloud of black hair; all I could see was the tip of her nose. But I almost peed my pants when I saw that she was watching Baby Mama on her little DVD player. I had a good time telling Amy Poehler that.
What draws you to divas?
Growing up, I was kind of a tomboy and didn’t know how to be feminine or how to put on makeup, so I’d sneak into my friends’ bathrooms at slumber parties to see what products they had, because I was too embarrassed to ask anybody. I lost my mom when I was little, but when she was alive she was this glamorous woman always onstage singing into a microphone, so that was my idea of the most beautiful woman in the world. I’ve carried that with me, so almost every one of the characters I’ve created is my version of an ideal woman: They’re all huge dames with enormous hairdos and personalities, and they’re usually incredibly drunk and loud. Years into my tenure at SNL , I stepped back and realized that all of my characters were drag queens! Whether I was playing Liza or strange women who were apropos of nothing, they were weird, wonderfully content, whiskey-swilling women who enjoy a young man. I love those kinds of ladies, and I’ll probably end up being one when I get much older.
On NBC’s Kath & Kim you played earthy life coach and spiritual adviser Athena, who always set off my gaydar.
Oh, there’s no doubt she’s full-blown into everything. She did it with a bear on her first episode, so it’s pretty clear she doesn’t see any boundaries when it comes to sexuality. She’s a very free spirit who is all about love, experimentation, and body hair.
What was it like to work with Molly Shannon again on Kath & Kim after briefly overlapping as SNL cast members from 2000 to 2001?
I’ve always been a fan. She and Will Ferrell were the first people who really made me feel welcome when I got on SNL. She was like, “Yeah, I’m not threatened by anybody new. I know how great I am.” She taught me stuff and we bonded. On Kath & Kim all we did was gab to the point where some people thought we needed to be separated. We’re fascinated by Hollywood moms who seem perfect versus the reality of working mothers; we could talk about that topic for hours. You know those actresses who look like a million bucks carrying around their babies, and you’re like, “Really?”
Any girl-crushes on those hot mamas?
Michelle Williams immediately comes to mind. She’s so beautiful, and there’s something very special about her. I’ve never met her, but I’m always like, “She’s a really fucking good actress.”
Does a night out on the town with your girlfriends look anything like your glamorous photo with Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig in Vanity Fair‘s “Queens of Comedy” issue last year?
That actually was a night on the town with my girls, and Annie Leibovitz just happened to be there, which was weird. Yeah, that was a very typical Sunday night for me in New York City. I just threw on an old rag, grabbed one of my many black wigs, and put on an old pair of Balenciagas. Then I called Hector, my driver, and said, “Drive around Central Park, Hector. Drive around until you can’t drive anymore.”