Long Maya She Reign: Maya Rudolph gets candid about winning Emmys, her no-pants pandemic, and smashing comedy rules

By Leah Greenblatt
February 09, 2021 at 12:00 PM EST

Maya Rudolph knows that you know her. Even if she's not quite sure how you're sure that it's, you know, her. "I was on a plane recently — well, back when we could fly — and the lady was like, 'Do you want an apple?'" the actress and comedian, 48, recalls. "And I went 'Sure! I'll take one,' but she wouldn't hand it to me. She was like, 'No, do you want an AHHHP-puhl?'" Rudolph not only had to be told that it was a line from Bridesmaids, but that it was in fact she, and not her costar Kristen Wiig, who delivered it.

Fans of that scatological 2011 smash are not hard to find. (Brad and Angelina once floated over at an awards show, luminous, to let her know how many times they'd watched it at home.) Others likely know the Los Angeles native best for seven years of indelible impressions on Saturday Night Live — including but not limited to Oprah, Beyoncé, Donatella Versace, and a salty Bronx talk-show host named Jodi — and still more for a winning cavalcade of guest turns (The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and voice roles (Shrek the Third, The Willoughbys). But in September of 2019, she chanced into what may prove to be the role of a lifetime, or at least as long as term limits go: then senator and current Game-Changer-in-Chief, our Madame Vice President herself, Kamala Harris.

"Yeah, I smelled it coming," Rudolph says with a laugh, of being summoned back to 30 Rock for the part, even though she officially departed SNL in 2007. "I remember when Tina [Fey] smelled it coming for Sarah Palin. It's funny, it was almost like a red herring early on when I wasn't on the show anymore and Rachel Dolezal was in the news — like, 'I'm going to get that call.'" (It's true, the show's legendary creator and executive producer, Lorne Michaels, tells EW; after Palin's first televised debate, even his doorman told him Fey would be a "no-brainer." And for Harris, the pile of Maya memes in his inbox made it equally clear. Now the choice seems not only inspired but inspiring: "There was a moment a couple of weeks before the election," he says, "where I thought, 'Wait, is Kamala doing Maya?'")

Over Zoom from her L.A. home, Rudolph off duty radiates little of the VP's polished power-boss energy. With her chopped bob and chicly oversize glasses, in fact, she looks more like an extremely chill version of Nuni, the loopy European art dealer she played so memorably in a string of SNL sketches alongside Fred Armisen — though her laid-back cadences and the delicate spray of freckles across her cheekbones telegraph a sort of vibey California cool, miles away from the manic rhythms of most comedians.

But the historic significance of her latest role is hardly lost on the little girl who grew up biracial in a world with so few models in public life to look to, beyond Lisa Bonet on The Cosby Show. "A huge element of working at SNL is the political portion of it, but it's rare to be in on a presidential campaign," Rudolph says earnestly. "Knowing that there was a candidate that I resembled so much was so cool in and of itself. I also just felt really lucky that we figured out a way to have fun with her early on and make her a joyful character. There've been times where you're asked to play up someone's flaws or characteristics that are annoying or frustrating or embarrassing. This one feels like a superhero cape I get to don."

That cape, alas, can't teleport her to New York; being the show's resident Harris has meant having to fly back and forth across the country in the midst of a pandemic, leaving her partner of two decades, the director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood), and their four children at home. But in a way, wandering was built into her DNA: Her mother is the late soul singer Minnie Riperton, her father songwriter Richard Rudolph — yes, that's tiny Maya's name that Riperton trills like a five-octave lullaby over the final notes of her 1975 No. 1 hit "Lovin' You" — and their L.A. home spilled over with itinerant artists and bohemians. "We went on the road with my mom when we were babies," Rudolph remembers. "She was like, 'You guys are coming with me. I don't like being away from you.' So my dad ended up playing guitar with her, and my brother and I spent a lot of time backstage making ourselves laugh, doing goofy stuff, eating weird food, losing teeth in hotels. I got a casino chip when I lost a tooth, and I loved it."

Credit: Ramona Rosales for EW

Her mother's death from breast cancer at 31, just two weeks before Rudolph's seventh birthday, abruptly altered her world. "I absolutely feel like I missed out on a lot of stuff in those ways that you assume, because you'll never know," she confesses. "Sometimes when I'd go to a friend's house or a slumber party, I would look through people's bathroom cabinets and peek and see what real girls put on their faces, or how they took care of their skin.... Like, I'm too embarrassed to ask and I don't want any pity parties. So I'm just going to check some stuff out, and I'll report back to myself."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she fell in love with the stage. But, she says, "I didn't want to be a boring person who never left home and is just like, 'Oh, I grew up in L.A. And now I'm an actress.'" So she headed north to UC Santa Cruz, despite the fact that it didn't even have a theater — and, one degree in photography later, found herself playing keyboards and singing backing vocals with the Rentals, a loose indie-rock collective led by then Weezer bassist Matt Sharp, opening tour dates for mid-'90s headliners like No Doubt and Alanis Morissette.

Music moved to the passenger seat when Rudolph found a home in the Groundlings, the famed L.A. improv troupe that would introduce her to friends and future costars Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. Not long after, the other coast — or at least "the city and the lore of what I thought Saturday Night Live was, and all of this creativity that was brimming in New York" — came calling. Invited to audition for Michaels, she was sure she'd blown her chance: "The only thing I really remember was him asking me, 'Why do you think you should work here?' And I said, 'Because I love wearing wigs.'" She rolls her eyes. "Oh, that'll do. Yeah, that's good, Maya. It's true! I love wearing wigs. But when you're sitting in front of your idol and you get asked the million-dollar question, nine times out of 10 you f--- it up."

Clearly, Michaels disagreed; her 2000–2007 run there coincided with one of the show's most fertile creative stretches, in which her own contributions played no small part. Some characters, like Oprah and Donatella, quickly became pop culture legend; a few less successful ones died mercifully on the vine. (Condoleezza Rice was one she admits she couldn't crack, and Barack Obama, too: "I did it for dress [rehearsal], and poor Obama had to see it, and it didn't go great," she recalls ruefully. "I just hadn't figured him out yet. But the minute I heard Fred Armisen do his voice, and Jordan Peele, that's when I heard what the impression was.")

After the birth of her first child, Pearl Minnie, in 2005, sustaining the show's frenetic pace and bleary 4 a.m. writing sessions proved to be too much; she stayed for one more season, then departed. "It was really painful for me, watching from home and seeing my friends be together and do the thing that I love the most," she admits. But new projects soon followed, from a Simpsons cameo to a starring role in Sam Mendes' underrated 2009 dramedy Away We Go.

Credit: Ramona Rosales for EW

The secret sauce, more often than not, is the involvement of what once might have been called her squad — whether it's SNL alums like Armisen and Amy Poehler or her old friend, Russian Doll star Natasha Lyonne, with whom she formed the production company Animal Pictures in 2018. (They recently released an all-star Netflix special for comedian of the moment Sarah Cooper.) Voice work on animated shows has also proved to be not just a boon to her as a busy mom — Bless the Harts is in its second season on Fox — but a literal golden opportunity: Last September, her role on Netflix's Big Mouth won her the first Emmy of her career.

Then she took home one for playing Harris, too — beating out her own guest turn on The Good Place. Which feels like a pretty neat encapsulation of Rudolph's appeal: that she would be recognized for playing America's future first female vice president, a tetchy celestial sitcom judge, and a goat-horned hedonist called the Hormone Monstress in the same year. (Rudolph only regrets that her Big Mouth statuette arrived not long ago with the episode title, "How to Have an Orgasm," emblazoned across its base, prompting immediate questions from her kids. "Really?" she deadpans. "Can't my Emmy just say my name? Now I have to explain what an orgasm is to a 7-year-old.")

Animation, blessedly, also offered the chance to work steadily through the pandemic in what she fondly calls "a no-pants zone," and still left time for certain mandatory lockdown activities (Tiger King, sourdough). As a family, they've nearly gotten through the Harry Potter books, and long flights to the SNL set finally let her dive deep into Schitt's Creek. Now when her schedule allows, she can just step into a sound booth. "I love that there really is no limit," she says. "Some of my characters are monsters, some are dogs, some are just anyone."

The rest of Hollywood, though, still has a long way to go, particularly when it comes to seeing in full color. "I think it's a strength to be able to play anything," she says of her heritage. "And the most heartbreaking thing for me has simply been when I don't get written to be the things that I want to be, that I know I can do." Even with Bridesmaids, which she's happy to learn turns 10 this May, old ideas about race and sex persist. "There's no question that when you start to hear more than once that something is quote-unquote 'the female Hangover...'" she trails off, exasperated. "As though The Hangover was the film equivalent of, like, comedy Citizen Kane. They are two completely different movies, guys! You're talking about a group of women, a group of people who know their weight, know their worth in comedy."

Credit: Ramona Rosales for EW

The reputation of SNL as a boys' club, though, she'd like the record to show, is wildly overblown. Michaels, for one, sounds thrilled to have Rudolph back in Studio 8H — and to see where she'll go with her new Biden, Alex Moffat, the cast member who's stepped in following Jim Carrey's temporary run. "There's something powerful in what she's doing with Kamala," Michaels says. "We've been in such a dark period, but it feels to me that any glimpse of optimism or hopefulness will help everyone. And I think Maya will be part of that."

"It does feel like she's one of my aunties," she says of Harris. "I so thoroughly enjoyed when she was just telling it like it is about things that were happening with the president at the time. She's got this infectious joy and charisma, and she's just so damn gorgeous. I loved being able to hook onto that and play the confidence in that. That's a fun game."

But a lady — at least not one as creatively restless as Rudolph — cannot live on in-season Saturdays alone. She's politely circumspect about the fact that she could be stepping into Harris' signature pearls and Converse for the next four years — and possibly, fate and the Electoral College willing, far beyond. "When I'm thinking positively, I love the idea," she says. "It sounds like a lot, but I'm taking it as it comes." In the meantime, she's been "dipping a toe" into music again, and would love to maybe make a capsule clothing collection one day. "I'm all over the place," she breaks off, laughing. And that's exactly where we want her.

Credit: Ramona Rosales for EW

For more on Maya Rudolph, order the March issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Feb. 19. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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