Maya Rudolph On SNL, Self-Acceptance, Social Media And Seeing Yourself On Screen : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Maya Rudolph has had a successful career, spanning decades as a Saturday Night Live cast member and well-loved actor and entertainer. She chats with Sam about her recent Emmy nominations, her approach to comedy, and the importance of having strong role models.

You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.

Maya Rudolph Once Struggled With Identity And Belonging. Now It's Her Inspiration

Maya Rudolph Once Struggled With Identity And Belonging. Now It's Her Inspiration

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1026604366/1029482167" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Maryellen Matthews
Actress and comedian Maya Rudolph
Maryellen Matthews

As a child, Maya Rudolph found performing came naturally to her – all she had to do was watch the adults in her life.

"I don't think it's any mystery that I saw my mother on a stage and thought that was normal," Rudolph says. "Not just that, but she was commanding in performance and I just thought she looked so beautiful and in her element."

Rudolph's mother, singer-songwriter Minnie Riperton, died in 1979 when Rudolph was just six years old. But Rudolph still remembers watching her mom perform, and how that influenced the performances she herself put on with friends as a kid.

"We would reenact the soundtrack to the movie Fame, or we would do Dream Girls, Annie — sometimes my dog was in it."

From the living room to iconic roles

Years after those living room performances, Maya's career led her to an iconic run as a Saturday Night Live cast member, a Prince cover band called Princess and various roles in major TV shows and movies.

Maya Rudolph attends the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Celebration at Rockefeller Plaza on Feb. 15, 2015, in New York City. Larry Busacca/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Maya Rudolph attends the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Celebration at Rockefeller Plaza on Feb. 15, 2015, in New York City.

Larry Busacca/Getty Images

In 2021, Rudolph has received two Emmy Award nominations, one for guest hosting an episode of SNL, and another for her voice work as Connie the Hormone Monstress on Netflix's animated show, Big Mouth. She also won for her work on these same shows at the 2020 Emmy Awards.

"It feels really delightful, because it's never for me been the goal, or like why I do something," Rudolph says. "So it just feels really nice to get to feel appreciated publicly, and also feeling like I must be doing something right!"

While Rudolph enjoys the public support now, she didn't always feel like she belonged. Her desire to make people laugh was born out of that feeling.

"I felt very much like an 'other,' not having a mom, not looking like anybody else, having different hair than a lot of the girls in my class. All of those beautiful bumps and bruises that come with adolescence," she says.

Being on Saturday Night Live before social media

Rudolph says that when she first started working on SNL, people couldn't comment on her work as quickly as they can now.

"We used to get letters when people didn't like stuff [on SNL]," she says. "Lorne [Michaels] would tack them up on the wall and we would see them outside of his office. ... That's the way it was, before they could get in touch with you."

She also notes the added pressure that comes from creating comedic content in a world where everyone can do so immediately. She says it made her strengthen her resolve in who she's actually performing for.

"I do feel lucky to have been there [on SNL] at a time when it was a time when you could really embrace the character. Because that's very much indicative of my personal sense of humor as opposed to doing something for someone else for the wrong reasons."

The importance of seeing role models on screen

Rudolph says she never really saw anyone like herself on-screen as a kid.

"Growing up I didn't feel like I had a plethora of mixed role models. I fell in love with Lisa Bonet, cause I was like 'I know she's mixed. That girl's mixed and she's so beautiful. My little brain, my little radar, was like 'I sense something, she's one of us, I'm one of her,'" she says.

Rudolph believes role models provide a kind of self-care for young people – and never imagined she'd become one herself.

"It's so wild to grow up and then realize, you can actually do that for someone else."

In this week's conversation with Sam Sanders, Rudolph talks more in depth about the significance of representation, as well as her comedy legacy.

This episode was adapted for Web by Manuela López Restrepo. It was produced by Anjuli Sastry, with help from Jinae West and Andrea Gutierrez, and edited by Jordana Hochman. Engineering support came from Patrick Murray and Gilly Moon. You can follow us on Twitter @NPRItsBeenAMin and email us at samsanders@npr.org.