The former ''SNL'' cast member branches out into more serious fare with ''Away We Go''

By Dave Karger
Updated June 12, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

It was on the second day of filming Away We Go that Maya Rudolph realized she wasn’t in Saturday Night Live territory anymore. She was shooting the frank sex scene that opens the movie, in which her costar John Krasinski spends much of the time ministering to her character under the covers. ”It was hard coming from my comedy background,” says Rudolph, 36. ”It was just humiliating and embarrassing. I wore about three or four pairs of bike shorts that day.”

Yes, Rudolph has come a long way from Studio 8H. In Away We Go, a muted comedy directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road), she displays real depth as a pregnant woman traveling across North America with her boyfriend as they decide where to settle. To use the post-SNL career equivalent of Rudolph’s idol Bill Murray, it’s as if she’s skipped Stripes and Caddyshack and gone straight to Lost in Translation. ”A couple of times on the first day she said, ‘What am I doing here?”’ recalls Mendes. The director was a fan of Rudolph’s riotous SNL impressions of Oprah Winfrey, Whitney Houston, and Donatella Versace, but says he was initially ”dubious” when the film’s writers, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, suggested he meet with her. ”She auditioned, and within about 15 seconds I thought, She should play this part,” says Mendes. ”There’s no shtick anywhere at all in this performance.”

Adding extra poignancy, the release of Away We Go comes at the same time that Rudolph is expecting her second child with her offscreen boyfriend, There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson. The film is certainly emotional — she even cries — yet she insists she hasn’t suddenly become a drama queen. ”People perceive it as ‘Oh, she’s abandoning sketch comedy’ or ‘She’s crossing over to another side,”’ says Rudolph. ”And I feel like, it’s so great when you actually get to do more. I have no interest in not being what people know me as. I hope people are able to see me as this, too.”

From a young age, Rudolph has always juggled many creative interests. ”I wanted to make movies, I wanted to sing in a band, and make clothes on the side,” she says of her childhood in Los Angeles. ”But the one thing that never waned was that I wanted to be on Saturday Night Live.” A stint with L.A. improv troupe the Groundlings led to the SNL gig in 2000, where she quickly became a fan favorite. ”Some of my best ‘[Weekend] Update’ memories are when Maya was playing Whitney Houston next to me,” says her former castmate Amy Poehler. ”I could watch her play Whitney every day for the rest of my life.”

We all could have. But in 2007, two years after the birth of her daughter, Pearl, Rudolph quit the show and moved back to L.A. to focus on family life. It’s an understandable decision considering Rudolph’s own mother, singer Minnie Riperton (”Lovin’ You”), died of cancer when Rudolph was 6. ”I feel like a lot of my memories of my mom are based on stories that people tell me,” she says. ”But now with YouTube, my daughter watches her all the time and we talk about her grandma Minnie. I want her to know where she comes from.”

Rudolph’s current pregnancy (she’s due in the fall) has been written into her next role, as Chris Rock’s wife in the Adam Sandler comedy Grown Ups. After her sentimental Away We Go sojourn, it’s a return to the nuttier stuff that made her a star. ”Don’t worry, I still want to do Stripes, believe me,” Rudolph says. ”I hope that I get the chance.” Where do we enlist?