Maya Rudolph: 'I'm not a woman in comedy... I'm a comedian'
She's been a Saturday Night Live regular for years, with her hilarious celebrity send-ups, and she hit the global bigtime as the bride in Bridesmaids. So why is Maya Rudolph now playing nasty? She tells us about her latest role in the hit comedy Sisters
Inside a hot studio, on a hot day in Los Angeles, Maya Rudolph is being photographed in a dress that's luxurious and snazzy but doesn't breathe so well. She manages her discomfort by changing voices and pulling faces -by slipping in and out of other people's skins. Now she's a 40s movie star, slurring vowels and giving sidelong glances. Now she's Jamaican: "My hair is turning electric, mun." For a while she's Maya Rudolph - 43-year-old actor, comedian, Californian - and then she's Texan, brassy … Beyoncé! "I need some more booty room in this dress." As the shoot winds down, Rudolph lies on a sofa and silently channels Burt Reynolds. She says she has a particular image of Burt in mind, one from the 70s in which he posed nude for Cosmopolitan on a bearskin rug. Watching on from a corner of the studio, I call up the picture on my phone, for comparison. Nailed it.
We know Rudolph best for her anchoring role in the 2011 comedy Bridesmaids. She played the bride around whom the maids, led by Kristen Wiig, created such a memorable fiasco. But for years before that, Rudolph was a regular on the weekly American sketch show Saturday Night Live, justly famous for her celebrity caricatures. She did Oprah, Beyoncé, Whitney, and a Donatella Versace so accurate that even Donatella said she would have endorsed it, were Rudolph's costume diamonds not so obviously fake.
Many of Rudolph's SNL castmates from the same period have gone on to become stars: Wiig, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler all came through at about the same time, and the gang are still close. They text constantly, Rudolph says, send each other pictures of their kids. Rudolph reunites with Fey and Poehler for Sisters, a comedy about two siblings in their 40s who take over their soon-to-be-sold childhood home for a last big party. Rudolph plays the film's baddie, an uninvited guest intent on ruining the fun. She got the job, she tells me, "when Tina texted. She said, 'Would you please come and play a really awful woman called Brinda for us?'"
Photoshoot over, Rudolph steps outside for some air. On a seat in the shade she eats a sandwich, and I ask her about those characters she pulls on like outfits. It must be a handy skill to have - being able to manage uncomfortable situations by cloaking yourself in other people.
"I think … I know that's the reason for me doing it. When you're doing something like a photoshoot, which is the epitome of self-consciousness, my go-to instinct is always humour. Because taking pictures is not what I do for a living."
Rudolph says she's no better at walking red carpets, or attending awards ceremonies - all the pizzazz that frames Hollywood life. She is married to the director Paul Thomas Anderson, who made Boogie Nights and Magnolia; together the couple have four children. Back in 2008, Rudolph accompanied Anderson to the Oscars - it was the year his film There Will Be Blood swept up - and when she entered the celebrity-filled theatre, Rudolph recalls being thrown into such a tizzy of self-consciousness, she ended up making a beeline for a total stranger. George Clooney.
"It was only as my arms were closing around him that I thought, 'No. No, wait. I had a part on Chicago Hope, not ER. Different hospital show. I don't know this person at all."
She had to learn to laugh about that one. "Nobody teaches you how to do this side of the job, the non-creative side. So I kind of mask it with humour." She gestures back inside the studio. "It used to make me unhappy. I don't feel at all, like, photogenic. And then being on TV really fucks you up. You're like, 'Wait, that's what I look like? Uh-oh!'"
Rudolph has an amazing face: pretty, miles-apart eyes, a fascinating pattern of freckles and birthmarks around the nose and mouth. Plump lips pursed, by default, to form an expression that's something like wry amusement, maybe even disappointment. Fans of Bridesmaids will know the look. A big reason that comedy did so well (taking close to £200m at the box office) was that the escalating farce was always underpinned by a seriousness - the sense of an overburdened friendship between Wiig and Rudolph, much of it expressed through Rudolph's wistful stares.
You have an amazing face, I say.
"Thanks. I still don't feel it's photogenic. And, like, right now…" She circles a hand around her cheeks, gesturing at the thick makeup she has on. "This is not me. I'm not a lady who's big on slick."
She checks the time on her phone: she has to be somewhere, her kids have a thing. But she wants to keep on talking. "Are you still in town tomorrow? Do you have an eating buddy for breakfast?"
I don't. "I'll be your eating buddy for breakfast."We arrange to meet at a cafe she knows. No characters. No makeup. "You won't recognise me."
The next day, Rudolph arrives with her hair tied back, wearing a pale knitted jumper, jeans and canvas shoes. She looks comfortable, relaxed. We order coffee and pastries, and I tell her I've never been asked by an interviewee to be their breakfast buddy before.
Anticipating meals is a thing she does, Rudolph explains. She'll think about tomorrow's breakfast the day before. "And talk about where I'm gonna eat lunch even while I'm eating breakfast." She credits this to her Jewishness. Her father, a songwriter called Dick Rudolph, is Ashkenazi. "So we talk a lot on the phone about the medicines we've taken recently," Rudolph says. "We talk a lot about what new medicines we might want to try."
How else does this part of her genetic coding show through in her character? "I'm glad you phrased it that way. It is a coding. It is genetic." She says this as if refuting someone who'd say otherwise. "Do I have the gene where I want to talk for 30 minutes about what's ailing me, what aches? Absolutely. Then I have the worry gene."
Rudolph had an uncommon upbringing. Her mother was the African American singer Minnie Riperton. In 1975, three years after Rudolph was born, Riperton had a worldwide hit with a ballad called Lovin' You ("Is easy cause you're beautiful"). Her father played guitar for his wife on the road, and the Rudolph-Ripertons would tour the country together. Some of Rudolph's earliest memories are of watching her mother from the wings of shows, or of sleeping in creepy hotels. One year, she lost a tooth, when the family were gigging through casino territory, and she woke up to find a poker chip under her pillow.
In 1979, two weeks before Rudolph's seventh birthday, her mother died from cancer. She and her elder brother were raised by their father. It has meant that while the actor feels she has a decent grasp on the Jewish part of herself, the African American part is slipperier altogether - "more patchworky", she says. "Because my mom died when I was so young, that identity was torn apart, in a way. I grew up without a lot of female identity, and specifically black female identity. Some of it was naturally there. Some of it I just sort of made up. And some of it was probably lost."
Both her parents were hippies, she says, so they were set against her ever overdefining herself anyway. When she was old enough to ask her father what she was, racially, he told her: "Beautiful and unique." She wasn't quite prepared to repeat this phrase in high school, or at college in Santa Cruz, or even when she enrolled at the Groundlings theatre in LA to study improvisational comedy. So Rudolph always called herself "mixed".
And mixed, she says, "has been an interesting experience. When I was cast on Saturday Night Live [in 2000], people gave me black characters to play. And they gave me white characters, too." In one broadcast in 2002, Rudolph impersonated Condoleezza Rice for a skit and later Paris Hilton. "Because I never thought about myself one way or another, I think it helped my performances. I never think of the characters I play based on race. Ever. It doesn't come into my head."
Rudolph, in her teens and 20s, felt herself luckier than many "girls without moms". After all, Riperton had left behind lots of recorded music - had even sung, towards the end of Lovin' You, her daughter's name. There were lots of family photographs for Rudolph to study, and lots of obscure musical recordings and TV footage, and thanks to the then-emerging YouTube, hours of unseen footage were suddenly uploaded, Rudolph says that "in my adult life, almost for what felt like the first time, I could see my mom talking. Interacting. I could watch her eyes move."
How difficult was that to watch, at first?
"It's been a slow burn for me, to get to a place where I can really enjoy those things. When I first tried to watch I couldn't - too hard, I was too emotional, it was so upsetting. And in most of the TV performances they recorded she sang Lovin' You. And the song has my name in it, and … Jesus Christ, it was killing me. But then, slowly, I started to also kind of be tickled by these videos. Because my dad would be in the background, behind my mom, playing guitar with this amazing head of hair…"
Humour was your way in. "Exactly."
This all happened in the mid-00s, when Rudolph was busily engaged with life in lots of other ways. She and Anderson had their first child, Pearl, in 2005. Rudolph took maternity leave from SNL, and when she returned she found that the show's six-day, mad-hours production schedule wasn't quite so manageable now. "Before I became a mother, the show was the most important thing to me. And it was a strange experience, to go from having one love - and I truly loved that job, it was everything to me - to that love being secondary."
Rudolph stayed for a couple more seasons, then left SNL in 2007. Movie parts were offered. She was cast in a promising drama - Away We Go, directed by Sam Mendes from Dave Eggers' script - that ultimately disappointed. And she made the low-flying Bridesmaids (directed by Paul Feig, written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo) that turned out to be a year-defining smash. "The sweet spot," Rudolph says, of making Bridesmaids. "While we were shooting it seemed very funny to us, which can sometimes be a red flag. So I wasn't betting on it like a horse. But this was one of those things that turned out to be funny to everyone else, too."
Before Bridesmaids, she and Anderson had a second child, Lucille. After it they had two more, Jack and Minnie Ida. She likes to joke that by the fourth, she was so practised at handling babies, she could spin them like basketballs. "No more glamour shots in bikinis for me," she says. "Too much wear-and-tear. Too much tread."
I'm intrigued by her relationship with Anderson, in that way you can't help being when the super-talented form alliances, and also because in their dozen years together she's hardly said a word about him. "I never talk about Paul. But let's see what your questions are."
How did you first get together?
She thinks. "No, it's a sweet thing … Too personal. I don't want to share it."
They both grew up in LA, she says, and both feel like locals in the city. Movies are obviously a strong bond. They keep a TV in the family kitchen tuned to a film channel, Turner Classic Movies, in the vague hope that their kids will unconsciously absorb some Cary or Katharine-style cool. In 2013, Anderson gave Rudolph a small role as a nurse in his film Inherent Vice. "I'd always loved Paul's films," she says. "Finally I was in one." Actually, she says, it wasn't as simple as that. Come the time of the shoot, she was nine months pregnant. When reshoots were required, she ended up clawing her way back to the set and into costume just four days after labour. "So my performance maybe wasn't as … felt as I would have liked. On top of which my boobs were, like, size nine million. Seriously. Z-cups."
In Anderson's final version of the film, he soundtracked Rudolph's scene with music by Minnie Riperton. A surprise.
"I loved that," she says, simply.
As we finish our coffees, and I launch on to a new line of inquiry about comedy, specifically women in comedy, something shifts in Rudolph. She doesn't cloak herself in Beyoncé, exactly, but when she answers my questions about Bridesmaids and the impact it's had on female-fronted movies, or when we speak about Fey and Wiig and their influence, there's a definite uptick in her adopted voices, in the extravagance of her gestures - a sure sign of Rudolph's discomfort.
Because it's just these sorts of questions that she and her gang have been fielding for a decade now. Ever since they found their groove on SNL, they've been quizzed and prodded about the one thing that interests them the least - their gender. "And the headlines are always, like, 'Comedy's not a boys' club any more!'" Rudolph rolls her eyes. "Good fucking God, enough."
She thinks for a moment, then says, "Hey, can we take this opportunity to rewrite the story?" Go ahead.
She takes a breath. "It's great being a woman. I love having privileges in comedy that 40 years ago I wouldn't have had. But there's a good, healthy, feminist part of me that's, like: shut the fuck up. We're just talented.
"And all those things came up again with Bridesmaids. The same stupid question: 'Well, did ya ever think that a female comedy could be this successful…?' And the whole time I was thinking: nobody here made a female comedy. We made a comedy. I never, ever think of myself as a woman in comedy. I think of myself as a comedian. And if I ever thought there was a chance people wouldn't have liked that movie, because we have vaginas, I would have thrown in the fucking towel a long time ago.
"How's that?" Rudolph says.
Should do it. "Yay."
Sisters is now showing at cinemas nationwide