Maya Rudolph On SNL, Self-Acceptance, Social Media And Seeing Yourself On Screen : It's Been a Minute 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

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

My guest on today's show, you know her as an actress and a sketch comedian. But she also occasionally fronts a Prince cover band.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Yeah, a Prince cover band - a cover band that I saw perform at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., several years ago.

MAYA RUDOLPH: That was the first time I realized that really diehard Prince fans are now coming to see our shows. And so there were a few ladies in the front row who were, like, serious.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Were they throwing panties up there at y'all?

RUDOLPH: We got a couple bras that night.

SANDERS: Love it.

RUDOLPH: I'm going to come clean. Like, you can throw me anything. I don't want your stinky panties.

SANDERS: (Laughter) So this Prince cover band is called Princess. Get it? And there is one Prince song my guest loves to perform with her band.

RUDOLPH: I think I always look forward to doing "Darling Nikki" just because it's such a dynamic song.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRINCESS: (Singing) I knew a girl named Nikki. I guess you could say she was a sex fiend.

SANDERS: That's an underwear-throwing song. Let's be clear.

RUDOLPH: Listen; by the end of this conversation, I might retract my statement.

SANDERS: If the Princess concert is really good and we're all sweating, all the underwear is going to be moist.

RUDOLPH: It's going to be funky - moist panties and Prince songs on stage.

SANDERS: There you go.

RUDOLPH: Those go together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE FROM NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. In this episode, a very special treat - no news, no Who Said That, just one iconic guest - Maya Rudolph. So Maya's up for two Emmys this year - one nomination for guest-hosting "Saturday Night Live," playing one role in particular that you might remember.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

RUDOLPH: (As Kamala Harris) Good evening, America. I'm Vice President Kamala Harris.

SANDERS: And she has another nomination for playing Connie the Hormone Monstress on the Netflix animated show "Big Mouth."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BIG MOUTH")

RUDOLPH: (As Connie the Hormone Monstress) Now, let's fling ourselves onto the bed and cry so hard, no sound comes out.

SANDERS: So Maya already won at the Emmys last year for the same two shows. And, you know, in the last few years, Maya Rudolph has been everywhere. She's done comedies and dramas and big roles and small roles. She's hosted award shows. She's made guest appearances here and there. And it seems like wherever she is, whatever Maya Rudolph does these days, we love it.

So in this chat, Maya and I talk about how she got to that place in her career. We discuss what it meant to watch her mother perform at a young age and how that influences her as a performer. We also discuss what it means to have career role models that look like you. And, of course, we talk "SNL." All right. This is a fun one. Enjoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Of the two nominations, one for your voiceover work in "Big Mouth" and the other for hosting "SNL," which one are you most stoked about?

RUDOLPH: I never choose which child I love the most. But for me, "Saturday Night Live" is a genuine childhood dream. Like, I wanted...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: ...To be on that show since I was a little kid and go there and play. And, like, that's what I get to do now. And so that one just has a lot of meaning. Also, coming back to host the show and being there with my kids there, with my whole family there, like, it was really a life moment, especially at a time when things had been shut down and things had felt really weird. So, like, the things that are special and that are meaningful, you really - I was fully appreciating, which I kind of always do at "Saturday Night Live," you know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: This show has just become a huge part of my life. And it was always kind of something I loved...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: ...For so much of my life. So that has a lot of meaning for me, yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah. Thinking about "SNL," I was talking to a friend yesterday. I was like, I am going to get to interview Maya Rudolph. And, like, I don't know what my favorite impersonation she's done is. And we fixated on two that I love. And I want hear which one you like the best. I love your Versace.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

AMY POEHLER: (As character) I don't feel like cooking.

SETH MEYERS: (As character) I don't feel like going out.

RUDOLPH: (As Donatella Versace) Now you don't have to.

POEHLER: (As character) Donatella Versace?

MEYERS: (As character) Donatella Versace?

(LAUGHTER)

MEYERS: (As character) What are you doing behind our couch?

RUDOLPH: (As Donatella Versace) I was hoping you would know the answer to that.

(LAUGHTER)

RUDOLPH: (As Donatella Versace) Anyway...

SANDERS: I love the, like, not quite Destiny's Child - was it Gemini's Twin?

RUDOLPH: Gemini's Twin, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

RUDOLPH: (As Britanica, singing) Scowl (ph), electro shock (ph), saw - you seem to think of my love as an appliance. (Unintelligible).

SANDERS: But, like, of all the ones that you've done, which is your favorite?

RUDOLPH: I don't know if I have a favorite.

SANDERS: You're such a good parent - no favorite kids.

RUDOLPH: Well, I'm - you know, I've been asked this before, and it's hard because it's always relative. Like, Donatella was definitely one of the big ones for me.

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: I felt like that was the first true, like recurring character that I had where I felt like - because it wasn't really an impression, it was a character. And even...

SANDERS: You just made up a character. Yeah.

RUDOLPH: ...Yeah. Even Donatella was like, this is crazy. I love it, you know?

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

RUDOLPH: And so I felt like those sketches were really fun because I've always been such a closeted fashion nerd. So I loved getting a chance to, like, be a part of that world and all the fun stuff I did. And then also just, like, we just made her into the craziest character possible. And, like, she could do anything. She could get electrocuted and keep going. And that was really fun. And then getting to play Oprah was like - I get to be Oprah for...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: ...You know, like, when you get to, like, speak to people in a way where they like - their eyeballs look at you differently. Like, they're - feel like they're, like, among royalty.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

RUDOLPH: (As Oprah Winfrey) Get ready for Oprah's Favorite Things: Birthday Edition.

(APPLAUSE)

RUDOLPH: There were just so many things like that. I think Gemini's Twin was probably the first, like, yeah, recurring thing I ever really, truly got to do that felt like, wow, this is really, like, ours. And we used to have so much fun writing those songs, those goofy [expletive] songs.

SANDERS: What would, like, your one piece of, like, Maya Rudolph impersonation advice, the one thing you must remember when you're doing it - what would it be for those that want to get better at their impersonations?

RUDOLPH: I don't know that I ever have felt like an impressionist, but I know that my version of it is finding something about someone's personality or their mannerisms or their manner of speech and then taking that and finding the game in it and finding the goofiness or the joy in it. Because, I mean, there are several forms of comedy. And I've never been a big fan of - I don't like watching comedy that makes me uncomfortable. I don't like the kind of comedy that, like, puts people down or makes them - makes fun of them in a way that's like, look at you. You're a total idiot. I like the - I think it probably comes from a place of, like, in the same way that kids play.

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: And then once I'm able to find something that makes fun - because, like, with, you know, Kamala Harris, like, I wasn't like, oh, here's my Kamala Harris impression. Like, I didn't know how to do her, but I wanted to find something that felt like - what felt like her to me, which was this - like, she feels very cool to me and very, like, feminine and strong, and I just wanted to make her, like, somebody that you want to be in the room with.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

RUDOLPH: (As Kamala Harris) A Kamala Harris unity Seder. Tonight, we ask the four questions - how's school? Did you eat? When are you giving me grandchildren? And what's with that haircut?

(LAUGHTER)

RUDOLPH: So I think, like, there's just more than one way to an impression. Some people are just impressionists. Like, they can just...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: ...Get the tics and the vocal mannerisms down. Like, those are all things that sometimes they come and sometimes they don't. But I think if you've got something that feels like - I don't know. I always make them more of a character.

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: I can't ever really make them a real person.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Coming up, more Maya Rudolph. She tells me her greatest inspiration.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: When did young Maya Rudolph realize that she was into becoming larger-than-life characters?

RUDOLPH: Pretty early. I've been doing shows in people's living rooms as long - for as long as I can remember.

SANDERS: I read that you used to write one-girl musicals.

RUDOLPH: Yeah. I mean, they were one-girl musicals if I was the only one around. Usually, my friend Jennifer Stander (ph) was in them. We would reenact the soundtrack to the movie "Fame" or we would do...

SANDERS: Oh my, God, yes.

RUDOLPH: ..."Dreamgirls" or "Annie." Sometimes my dog was in it. There weren't that many actors available.

SANDERS: What do you think it was about your childhood that made you want to do that kind of character work so young?

RUDOLPH: I mean, I don't think it's any mystery that I saw my mother on a stage and thought that that was normal. And not just that but, like, you know, she was commanding in performance. And I just thought she looked so beautiful and so in her element. And, yeah, that just seemed very normal to me, just like anybody, you know, seeing their mommy at work...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: ...Would think. And, I mean, my family's a very funny family. So I was definitely given that imprint of comedy early on. But I don't know why I'm the one that sort of just went down that path. I definitely think the desire to make people laugh and not cry was a big impetus for me. And so as a kid, it was a great way to remove discomfort, to disallow the pain of feeling like an other 'cause I think growing up, I felt very much like an other.

SANDERS: Why?

RUDOLPH: Not having a mom.

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: Well, not having a mom, not looking like anybody else, having, you know, different hair than a lot of the girls in my - you know, all the - all those beautiful bumps and bruises that come with adolescence. And being mixed I think wasn't as seen...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: ...And well-known. And no one was named Maya. Like, it wasn't, like, a thing.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

RUDOLPH: Like, now, people's dogs are named Maya. So...

SANDERS: Wait, who has a dog named Maya? It's a little weird.

RUDOLPH: I won't say here, but I do know, yeah.

SANDERS: OK.

RUDOLPH: But, I mean, that's a good thing, right? It's, like, more...

SANDERS: Yeah, it's a good...

RUDOLPH: ...Popular, yeah, all of it. It's all my own personal makeup of all these things, where you can tell yourself that you're an other. And I knew from not only the joy of performing but having the reaction where people would laugh, like, I knew that felt good.

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: So I never stopped.

SANDERS: Yeah. Do you still feel other?

RUDOLPH: I do, yeah, sometimes. I mean, I definitely feel more me than other. I think other is more of a childhood version of trying to assess and make sense of emotions or feelings. The flip side of other is that I was sort of raised to feel like other's a good thing because it's you, and it's unique. And, I mean, my parents loved me so much and, like, loved the, like, otherness into me that it was also a positive thing. So, you know, just kind of coming to terms with, like, who you are and the cards you're dealt.

It's not like it's, like, an easy life out there in the world. Like, there's a lot of things that can remind you that things aren't equal or fair or right. But I do feel like I've navigated in a way that's been correct for me for a long time. And that feels good. So I think, sometimes, my otherness can be a good thing because I definitely choose to live my life the way I feel most comfortable.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, there's this really fascinating profile of you that I was reading to prepare for this interview. Caity Weaver at The New York Times profiled you in, like, 2018. She spends the first few paragraphs comparing you to God, which was very nice. Remember that one?

RUDOLPH: The spruce is very nice. Yes, I do.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

RUDOLPH: Nothing has compared since, Sam.

SANDERS: Right? That was - and they, like, did a portrait of you for the spread. It was delightful.

RUDOLPH: Yeah - no, it was crazy, yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: It was very, very, very delightful.

SANDERS: But she spent a lot of time talking about what you meant to her growing up, her seeing a mixed-race woman on screen as she was a mixed-race girl. And I've consumed your comedy as long as I've been watching you for years. And I've never really thought about - you know, like, oh, well, what message are you sending to kids who feel like an other? Do you think of that? Do you think you should have to think about that? But reading that piece yesterday, I was like, oh, she is representing something that's important for some people.

RUDOLPH: Yeah. And I didn't really - you know, I didn't always have the words for it. And I don't know that I always have the words for it, but I feel like I've definitely stayed in my own lane out of instinct. So I have never felt limited by my races.

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: I don't think of myself in that way, you know? I just - I think I've learned enough by now that a lot of those conversations about what I am are for those people. They're not really for me. Having the opportunity to be all of the things that I believe I can be has been, if anything, like, such a positive. When you say, like, being an other and am I still experiencing that, like, it's one of the moments where I pat myself on the back and go like, wow, you were really true to yourself and...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: ...You listen to your own voice because I don't know why, but I've always thought I can be anything. I just feel that way. I...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: And I'm talking about in sort of, you know, in my mind and in make believe.

SANDERS: Well, also in the - like, also in the work that you do comedically, like, you do play all kinds of ethnicities and races and ages.

RUDOLPH: Yeah.

SANDERS: And there's a certain chameleon-like quality. I wonder - do you think that would be less if you weren't mixed-race, if you weren't someone that people couldn't put in a box?

RUDOLPH: It's such a great question. I've thought about that as well because I don't really know. You know, I've only known me in this body. And - you know, and there's always going to be frustrations, you know? I used to be really frustrated that I didn't get to play as many of the political candidates because I'm not white. We tried me as Obama, and that did not work.

SANDERS: Wait, really?

RUDOLPH: Yeah, that did not work.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Oh, my God. Did you get the dialogue right?

RUDOLPH: I did not, no. I did get to meet him, so that was cool.

SANDERS: OK. That's very cool.

RUDOLPH: But I was dressed like him. So that was probably really embarrassing for both of us.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

RUDOLPH: But I think it all lined up in the correct way with Kamala Harris. So sometimes when I look back on things, I think like, wow, I was really frustrated by this thing, but I wasn't - it hadn't met up with me or I hadn't met up with it. You know, there's always going to be something that you're frustrated by. And I, you know, I think back to those times when I was, like, really, you know, eager to play things because I'm like, that's good that I wanted that, and I wasn't, you know, satisfied that I was still hungry for trying to do more things.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Coming up, we dig into Maya's hilarious character on the animated show "Big Mouth" - Connie the Hormone Monstress.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: When I watch you take on all of these different roles - like, you've played Lucy Liu, Charo, J-Lo, and you just slide into it. And it is not any kind of meta commentary on race and performance. You're just like doing the role, and it's fun. And it feels like you're unencumbered by sometimes it feels like this pressure in the culture to, like, have something to say about race or have something say about gender.

RUDOLPH: For sure.

SANDERS: It's kind of just like Maya Rudolph is having fun.

RUDOLPH: Yeah, and I think that that was also at a time when that was part of what was going on in the world. I mean, when I worked on that show, we didn't have social media. Thank God.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

RUDOLPH: I think it's got to be really difficult to create content and to create comedy in a world when everyone's creating it immediately. I bet that's really hard. And not to mention the constant criticism that's coming with it on a regular basis. You know, we used to get letters when people didn't like stuff. And Lorne would tack them up on the wall, and we'd see them outside of his office.

SANDERS: Wait, really?

RUDOLPH: Yeah. Like, if there was somebody that was really disgruntled about a sketch or something, they'd write a letter. And he'd get a letter, and then you'd read the letter. And that's the way it was before they could get in touch with you.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: Or post it. You know, and then forums started when I was there. And then things - so - yeah, I do feel like you have been there 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, I think.

SANDERS: Yeah. We got to talk about "Big Mouth" before I have to let you go because I'm sure you have some other interview to go to. You're busy, but...

RUDOLPH: No, I have nothing else to do today.

SANDERS: You cleared your schedule for us?

RUDOLPH: Yes, yes.

SANDERS: Oh, my God. I'm so honored.

RUDOLPH: I know. It's so sweet.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: How do we set up "Big Mouth" and your character on "Big Mouth" for folks who haven't watched "Big Mouth" yet? It's such an interesting, big role.

RUDOLPH: Sure. Well, my character, Connie, is a hormone monstress. And she began is the hormone monstress to young Jessi, a young girl who was getting her period.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BIG MOUTH")

JESSSI KLEIN: (As Jessi) What? Why am I so soaked?

RUDOLPH: (As Connie the Hormone Monstress) Let's just go back to sleep.

KLEIN: (As Jessi) It's blood.

RUDOLPH: (As Connie the Hormone Monstress) Did you get killed in your sleep, dummy?

KLEIN: (As Jessi) Actually, yes.

RUDOLPH: And the hormone monster is really responsible for every hormone, every feeling, every - just the guide to getting you through this time. So she tells you to yell at your mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BIG MOUTH")

KLEIN: (As Jessi) Hey.

RUDOLPH: (As Connie the Hormone Monstress) Listen to me. You want to shoplift lipstick.

She tells you to rip up your T-shirts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BIG MOUTH")

RUDOLPH: (As Connie the Hormone Monstress) You want to listen to Lana Del Rey on repeat while you cut up all your T-shirts. You want to scream...

She tells you to cry.

SANDERS: Loudly.

RUDOLPH: Yeah. And then on top of that, she's a monster.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

RUDOLPH: So she's a big, beautiful, hairy, nasty, stinky, hormonal monster. So she feels everything. She's all your hormones in monster - in a sexy monster form.

SANDERS: Did they bring it to you? And if they brought it to you when you first saw it, were you like, what in the world? Or were you like, yup, I get it?

RUDOLPH: No. They - well, I mean, technically, they didn't bring anything to me because I had started the show because I love Nick Kroll so much. And...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: ...I was playing his mom. Fred Armisen and I were hired to be his parents. And so I did a few episodes where I was his mom. And then I think early on, you know, with animated stuff, they always throw you fun stuff to do, you know, a voice here or there. And they said, Nick is doing a hormone monster. Will you do the female hormone monstress for this episode? And so we tried it. And we all went like - oh, we all loved her.

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: We soon came to find that her name is Connie. And they kept writing for her 'cause she was so fun to write for that it was - like, we were all kind of giving birth to her at the same time. So we were all in on it together, it felt like.

SANDERS: Yeah. Did you draw from your adolescence to inhabit the hormone monster? There's...

RUDOLPH: No.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

RUDOLPH: I have no boldness in my adolescence.

SANDERS: OK.

RUDOLPH: Connie is bold. No, I was not thrilled about puberty. And, I mean, I think the nice thing is giving a voice to that time. This is something that we all collectively go through individually. So we're all feeling this quiet, individual shame. And yet everyone is going through - especially, like, everyone in your seventh and eighth grade class is going through the exact same time as you are, you know? Connie is who you want to be but you're - you know, you never are. So she speaks up for you. She says the things that you would never say. But then, sometimes, she does get you to say those things. Connie's bold.

SANDERS: Connie would throw funky, moist panties onstage.

RUDOLPH: Connie would do a lot more than that with funky, moist panties.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yes, most definitely. You know, I just keep thinking of that New York Times profile of you, the one, like, where you're God, which is just amazing. But the writer - it was really great. I was like, oh, it makes sense. I can see that. I can see that.

RUDOLPH: Well, it was cool because she was talking about it from her perspective of growing up mixed and seeing someone...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: ...On TV that was mixed. And I really related to that. You know, growing up, I didn't feel like I had a plethora of mixed role models. And 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. Like, that's...

SANDERS: Also, the casting of "The Cosby Show." Really, y'all?

RUDOLPH: I mean, that's TV, you know? And that was like that - but, like, my little radar was like, I sense something. She's one of us. I'm one of her. And, like, you find those people. Or, like, you know, I used to keep a Jennifer Beals "Flashdance" poster in my room. I didn't even know she was mixed. But I - like, I thought she was so beautiful, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: And it's always interesting when you reflect on the way that you gravitated towards things as a kid and found these things that you can identify with. And it's just like this beautiful, like, self-care that, you know, you see yourself doing as a younger person. So I really related to what she was - some of the stuff that she was saying in terms of seeing herself in someone on television. I just never imagined that I would be that person for someone else. So it's so wild to, like, grow up...

SANDERS: Yeah.

RUDOLPH: ...And then realize...

SANDERS: You're that.

RUDOLPH: ...You can actually do that for someone else.

SANDERS: You're someone's Lisa Bonet.

RUDOLPH: OK, what you just said...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

RUDOLPH: I'm going to throw this computer.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

RUDOLPH: No one's ever said that to me before.

SANDERS: Hey, I mean it. I mean it. I mean it.

RUDOLPH: Oh, my God. That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me. Oh, [expletive].

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Hey, well, thank you so much. Best of luck with the Emmys and such and - yeah.

RUDOLPH: Thank you.

SANDERS: Thank you for everything.

RUDOLPH: Thank you. It was so nice. Thank you, Sam.

SANDERS: Thanks again to actress and comedian Maya Rudolph. Please come back soon. In the meantime, I will be playing Princess on loop.

All right. This week, IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by Anjuli Sastry, Andrea Gutierrez and Liam McBain. Our fearless editor is Jordana Hochman. Our director of programming is Steve Nelson, and our big boss is NPR's senior VP of programming, Anya Grundmann.

I want to take a little time now to thank Steve Nelson. He has been my boss for a few years now, and he was the one in charge of making this show come together. He is quiet and patient and genius and smart and long-suffering and puts up with me. And I got to tell you, I don't think I've ever felt more heard by a colleague. Thank you, Steve, for always listening. I will miss you, but I'll still make you listen to me when I call you all the time for advice.

All right. Listeners, till next time, I'm Sam Sanders. Be good to yourselves. We'll talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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