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Maya Rudolph on Life, Laughs & Wigging Out (INTERVIEW)

Happy birthday, Maya Rudolph! We chatted with comic chameleon Maya Rudolph about becoming one of the reigning queens of comedy.

Most of us never have a lullaby penned in our honor, let alone by our own parents. Rarer still is that said custom lullaby, crooned in a definitive, spellbinding rendition by mom, goes on to become a pop music staple, a latter-day romantic standard, ubiquitous at weddings and on radio dedication shows. Then, for good measure, that’s your actual given name cascading and descanting through the song’s dynamic, octave-pirouetting outro in your mother’s singular falsetto. 

You’re 3-years-old at the time. By 7, your mother will be dead. Three decades later, you’re a beloved, well-respected comedienne working in a picaresque array of entertainment projects – touring the world with cult rockers The Rentals, fronting a Prince tribute band in Los Angeles, voicing unforgettable characters in animated films like last spring’s Angry Birds and also Shrek, a billion-dollar Dreamworks franchise, in which that lullaby – your very own, personal bedtime song – serves as a riotous joke, its scale-clambering climax causing a quaintly animated bluebird to explode into a grisly pond of feathers and dust like it had just met, beak-first, a Randy Johnson heater. 

This is the life story of Maya Rudolph in 100 words, give or take, sweet, sour, unexpected, and irreverent – and minus falling in love with Paul Thomas Anderson, one of today’s great auteurs of cinema, becoming a break-out star on Saturday Night Live during its fin de siècle Renaissance (1999 – 2006), or giving birth to four lovely children of her own or establishing herself as a leading actress of extraordinary depth and vulnerability in films like 2009’s Away We Go and, dashed with salty laughs, Bridesmaids

Indeed, a summary of Rudolph’s life only suggests, and barely, that it has been almost supernaturally charmed, even when the levee of heartache occasionally breaks, as with the untimely passing of her mother, Minnie (“Lovin’ You”) Riperton. At the center of this life story is Rudolph herself, a stunningly beautiful creature and a bona fide chameleon all at once. Possessed of an uncanny, Zelig-esque ability – or is that proclivity – for vanishing into the scenery until the perfect moment presents itself to spark intelligent, absurdist chaos, the 43-year-old Rudolph is also a mistress of disguise, capable of playing any ethnicity, a nimble acrobat with accents, addicted quite possibly to wigs, wielding a telekinetic comic scalpel (and not hand grenades) on her targets. Who else could play Oprah Winfrey and Paris Hilton, Tyra Banks and Liza Minnelli, and be equally convincing as all of them? 

Maya Rudolph Seth Meyers Photo Courtesy NBC

Maya Rudolph wigging out on Late Night with Seth Meyers. (Photo: Courtesy NBC)

With Rudolph, it’s “now you see her, now you don’t,” but even when you’re seeing her, are you really seeing her at all? Rudolph is a mischief maker lying in wait, a comic genius reading the cultural pulse for the optimal vanishing point, a child of wonder waiting and watching in the wings for that next flood of love, the heroine of a thousand faces. This year alone, Rudolph’s gifted the world with stellar turns in Angry Birds, the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler feature Sister, Sister, and this summer on NBC, a weekly, “old school” variety show with fellow SNL veteran, Martin Short, Maya & Marty. What comes next for Rudolph is anybody’s guess, but audiences worldwide are almost certainly going to be la la la la la la la, do do do do do, lovin’ her. 

Thanks to small theater live shows in Los Angeles and New York, many of your fans have known for years how big of a role music plays in your life and work, but most audiences are just learning that now on the NBC variety show. 

Music means the world to me, and I always think I’m going to make some great, funky album, but I’m still here on my butt acting and doing comedy and have the time of my life with Marty (Short) and being a parent and talking to you. I do love writing parody songs. Doing that is easy as breathing for me. But a real album? We’ll see. Maybe I should go do that right now. You know what? I’ll call you back in an hour. 

Was music a key component in wanting to do the show with Martin Short? 

I should probably say yes, and that would be true. I love music. I love performing music for an audience. I love being ridiculous in front of people. I love that this has somehow become my job. All of that is true. But the bigger truth is “why did I want to do the show with Martin Short?” Um . . .Oh, yeah. Martin Short! Come on, man . . . (Laughs) Wouldn’t you go clean Port A Potties with Martin Short? I would. They asked me to sing songs and make comedy instead. 

Poor you… 

I’ll survive . . . (Laughs) 

Maya Rudolph Martin Short Photo Courtesy NBC

Maya Rudolph and Martin Short star in the variety show Maya & Marty. (Photo: Courtesy NCB)

After leaving Saturday Night Live, most of the show’s star performers have, historically speaking, sought to stretch out their most popular sketches in a bid for movie stardom. Though you’ve done quite a bit of film acting, there’s been a little more distance between your work on SNL and “post-graduate” work – until the new variety show. How influential was SNL in your life and career? 

Saturday Night Live is like childbirth. Whenever I try to remember it, I go completely blank. I don’t even remember half the things that went on the air, or the things that might have been cut. But I do remember it was a pretty good time and I felt a lot of love. There was a spark beneath every live show. 

Other SNL vets with whom I’ve spoken say that a live show can be a tightrope act. Does that sound right to you? 

Yes, it does. When you’ve got good partners, a great gang, you can do anything because you know you’ll never fall on your face. And if you do fall on your face somehow, that gang will be around to laugh at you. And then, hopefully, they’ll pick you up. Or maybe they won’t. But it’s very freeing knowing you can fall. 

What was your favorite part of being on SNL? 

Oh, the “dress up” stuff, definitely. On Saturday Night Live, it was always a lucky thing, I thought, to be able to play anybody I want because of the way I look. A lot of people aren’t really sure what I am: is she white or black or Martian or, dammit, what is she? (Laughs) So I got to play all of those things. I think . . .I never thought, “Oh, if I put on this wig, I can cross racial boundaries and be white or Asian or Latina.” I’m not a barrier-cracker. I’m no Norma Rae. But I do love wigs, and I do hate my real hair, and maybe it all worked out well. I don’t think I’d wear wigs around the house. I don’t think it would be sexy to be with my man and have my wig fall off. That’s kind of a bummer. 

Maya Rudolph Saturday Night Live Photo Courtesy NBC

“Saturday Night Live is like childbirth,” Rudolph says. “Whenever I try to remember it, I go completely blank. I don’t even remember half the things that went on the air, or the things that might have been cut. But I do remember it was a pretty good time and I felt a lot of love.”

In an age where the “can a woman really be funny” debate still, somehow, rages on, you’ve always named Gilda Radner as your comedy inspiration. Tell me about that. 

Gilda Radner was just so insanely funny. When I was a kid, I also felt deeply connected with whatever she was doing on TV. She was so sweet and so human. That humanity always came through in her work. I never knew her and I don’t think I wanted to be her, but I did want to be her best friend. It got complicated, though, because I was also madly in love with Gene Wilder. I could not wait to marry Gene Wilder. So sickly funny. Such amazing eyes. Turns out, they were married. 

Somehow, though you’ve never left the film and television screens for long, you’ve managed to devote most of this decade to raising your children. What does that mean to you? 

I just hope every single day that I have the goodness in me that my mom (1970s pop star Minnie Riperton) did. She was a very special human being. I think of her often when I’m parenting my own children, and it always makes me laugh. I wonder if she was amazed as often as I am that these children actually listen and follow directions. (Laughs) Living for another person is a completely different universe, and I do live for these girls. It was interesting giving birth and then going back to SNL. I was the only mom there. Everybody on the show would do their extended college thing – do your work, go out to party until 4 am. And I would make my way home to hold my baby – happy about it. 

Last spring, you teamed with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, your former SNL colleagues and two of the best comic talents alive, for Sister, Sister. How were you able to get through that shoot without dying laughing? 

Oh, I did die laughing. You’re talking to Maya’s ghost right now. (Laughs) Seriously, making that movie was the greatest. It was impossible to keep a straight face. It wasn’t your typical, “day at the office” job. It wasn’t a “coast through the day, grab your paycheck” job. With Tina and Amy, I knew what I was in for. I’d know the script – which was great, by the way! – but I knew that Amy and Tina would be improvising like mad, throwing out their best stuff, and all I’d be able to do is try to keep up. And I did! 

How did this movie come along for you? 

I got a simple text from Tina saying, “Hey, would you like to come be in our movie? You get to play a character named Brenda.” Instantly, I just knew this character was gross, gross, gross – which, for me, is fun, fun, fun. “Yes” was the only answer. Playing Brenda wasn’t about having to dream up crazy stuff to figure out who she was and where she was coming from; Brenda was just kind of always out there in the world, and if I just listened or watched for a minute, I’d see her – or somebody who was obviously channeling her in some weird way – and I’d just do that. She’s a jerk in this movie. She’s always been a jerk. It was fun to start a character who was already blaring at 10. It’s always a little scary when you have to play the dick, but it’s also the most fun. And, in today’s world, it’s probably some form of social progress that a woman can be a dick. (Laughs) I’m kidding. I think . . .

Conversely, in the Angry Birds feature film, you were the salve, the tonic, the calm. 

Yes, I play the silver screen’s first “self-help” bird. I am a guru. I am the great hope for easing the fury and suffering of these angry birds. 

In other words, no acting at all for that one. 

(Laughs, then coos) Oh, thank you. Yes, I am the “self-help” sketch comedy/variety show/voiceover/comedy nerd with bad hair – who really loves her family. (Laughs) That was actually a really cool thing about Angry Birds. I learned so much about birds! (Laughs) There’s a lot of pride in those creatures. And they really protect their young and stand up for their species. My character knows how to stand up for other birds. Now I do too. And one day, I’ll know how to stand up for people! 

A lot of times animated characters end up looking somewhat like the actor voicing the character . . .

I take back that “thank you.” Are you saying I look like a big old chicken? With big, beautiful eyelashes? (Pause, then coos) Thank you . . .I think that will be my goal from now on: forget the hair and the freckles and the “big old chicken” parts of myself, and just put it all on big beautiful eyelashes. Yep, that’s the game plan now!