Maya Rudolph on returning to SNL to play Kamala Harris: 'I smelled it coming'
Last November, America chose Kamala Harris as its next vice president. Months before that though, they'd already decided who should play her on Saturday Night Live. "More and more, there are some people that our audience casts," the show's legendary creator and executive producer told EW during an interview for March's Maya Rudolph cover story.
"When Sarah Palin had that [first] debate," he recalls, "I got two or three emails — because this was a period of emails — 'It's Tina Fey!" She was Tina Fey. I was walking out of my building on the way to the studio on that Monday and my doorman said, 'Mr. Michaels, Tina Fey. It's like a no brainer.' And then I heard it three or four more times that day. So when I got sent a couple of memes of Maya, I just realized."
Rudolph for her part was flattered, if not exactly surprised. "Yeah, I smelled it coming," she laughs. "And I remember when Tina 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 and everyone was talking about it I was like, 'I'm going to get the call.' It felt like that, but much more rewarding. "
From there it was mostly a matter of logistics; Rudolph lives in Los Angeles with her husband, the director Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread, There Will Be Blood), and their four young children, so participating would mean flying back and forth across the country in the midst of a pandemic.
Nevertheless, she persisted. "A huge element of working at SNL is the political portion of it," she says. "But it's rare to be involved in a presidential campaign.... I think knowing that there was a candidate that I resembled so much was so cool in and of itself. And then icing on the cake is just simply getting to do it on the show, a place that I feel so at home in, and that I love. But also it's just the charge of this time and being able to have any sort of voice in the story. 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."
The influence may flow both ways, at least according to Michaels. "There was a moment a couple weeks before the election when I thought, 'Is Kamala doing Maya?'" he says. "I had the same moment with Dana Carvey with the first George Bush, that after a while watching Dana and then watching the president, you thought that he should talk a little faster like Dana. But those impressions are indelible. And I can tell you one of the ways you know that is because people can do it after they see her do it. You know what I mean? The way she pronounces things, the mannerisms, a certain look — when she's out there, she just owns it."
He also appreciates the scope of what Rudolph may be signing up for the next four years, and possibly beyond. "I mean, Jim Carrey came in from Hawaii and lived in New York for those first six shows [as then-candidate Joe Biden], which was always sort of what we thought he would do. I just needed him until the election. But it's a big commitment, you're stopping your life."
Often, he explains, "She's flying in on a Friday and if the flight gets in on time, we'll rehearse it at 10 o'clock that night. So she's used to that... She's not a stress person, you know what I mean? She knows somehow when she goes out there she's going to figure it out, and she's worked so much with the writers over the years that they know her voice."
Whatever the future holds, he says, "I think there's something powerful in what she's doing with Kamala, and I think now with [cast member] Alex [Moffat] playing Biden, we saw a glimpse of what that chemistry will be like... We've been in such a dark period, it feels to me that any glimpse of optimism or hopefulness will help everyone. And I think Maya will be part of that."