Maya Rudolph Even 16 years ago she was very special

September 2009 By Philip Berk

If you’ve never seen Maya Rudolph on Saturday Night Live, you’re be in for a pleasant surprise, as was I, when suddenly she’s the female lead in Sam Mendes’s Away We Go and she’s alluring, bewitching, and an actress of unusual subtlety and sensitivity.

No wonder I was smitten!

Q:  Do you consider yourself a dramatic actress rather than a comedian?

A:  When you’re associated with a show like SNL or sketch comedy people only know you as a comedian; so I’ve been really lucky to be able to express myself even further without having to abandon what I’ve done before.  But I’m happy doing both.

Q:  In the film your character is the only sane person in the movie, and yet she’s not quite happy.

A:  The thing that I related to about Verona’s experience, having been pregnant myself, was you receive a lot of information from the world once you become pregnant.  People have a lot of opinions and people tell you what they think that you should do—my personal experience was, I became sort of like this billboard for pregnancy where everyone was touching me and telling me what they thought, what I look like and Omygod, you’re having twins, and it felt like this enormous onslaught of unsolicited advice that I didn’t expect.  It was such a new experience for me, and in doing the movie I felt like I could relate to that experience. That was the funny way of laughing at how crazy that experience was.

Q:  Have you ever taken a road trip?

A:  I did once across the United States.  God, how long ago was that?  I was still technically in college but I decided to go AWOL and live in New York City for a while because I really wanted to live there, and I was experimenting with what I wanted to do and my boyfriend at the time. I really wanted to live there.  There was this thing where you could apply to this service, instead of renting a car, offer to drive someone else’s car for them across the country.  So we did, and then it ended up that there was a hole near the gas tank and it was raining and all the water got in; so we got stuck in Atlanta, but that was also interesting because we ended up staying at this weird girl’s house, someone we met in a diner. It was great, and we went to weird little towns like Rabbitstown, Georgia, to find this weird folk artist, Ari Miller, who used to be a pig farmer, and we got to go into all these crazy nooks. 

Q: Sounds like the crazies you visit in the movie. But wasn’t Los Angeles your home town?

 A: I grew up in Los Angeles, but there’s so much of the country that I hadn’t seen.  And it’s such a pretty and amazing thing to do, and we weren’t looking for a  home at the time, but it was great to have that freedom—that wonderful time in your life where you can be kind of selfish with your time because you’re young and don’t have any real responsibilities or real jobs.  It was really great.  I’ve always been exploring and figuring stuff out, and it was at the Groundlings (an improv club in LA) that I felt for the first time that I had found a common place with people that I felt were like me.  I had gotten out of college and I really knew that I wanted to do:  SNL.  It had always been a dream of mine since I was a little girl, but I didn’t know there were other weirdos like me that were goofing off and being funny and improvising and spoke this language.  It was very similar to the language that I spoke with John (Krazinski) when I met him doing this movie; you feel like you’re part of the same fibre.  So it was at the Groundlings when I finally found a language for what I did and felt like I was part of a group.  It felt like comedy grad school or something like that, and it was from there I got discovered to do SNL.

Q:  Talk about your own family unit.  I know you have a daughter.  You live with somebody (famed director Paul Thomas Anderson) but I’m not sure if you’re married.   What kind of family do you have?

A:  Our house is like most houses with young children.  My daughter’s three-and-a-half.  It’s filled with her stuff, sporadically splayed throughout the house.  The house sort of just turns into the child’s house as well, and you find yourself tripping over things that weren’t there three seconds ago and stubbing your toe on something because she left some weird wheel that belonged to something else in the middle of the kitchen, and you’re like, ‘How did I step on a gingerbread cookie cutter?’  But it’s such a wonderful thing.  I can’t imagine living any other way now. It’s just so nice to have her everywhere.  And then you find yourself spending more time in certain rooms because it’s where we can be as a family. We’re using our yard a lot more, and our dog is happy about that.  He’s happy to have somebody to chase him around.

Q:  Minnie Ripperton was your mother.  She had an amazing voice—what do you feel when you hear her records?

A:  It’s true when they say you’re connected to your parents, especially my mother.  You have that umbilical connection, and obviously I lost her when I was very young.  We all lost her, and her voice is emotional for me.  No matter where I am, I can hear it anywhere like if it’s on the radio, in a car passing by me, it sort of gives me the chills.  Her voice sounds like my childhood.  My brother and I spent so many years on the road with my parents, in weird hotels.  If my tooth fell out in Lake Tahoe, I’d get a chip instead of money.  We had this really incredible gypsy lifestyle—to me it seemed like forever, but it was a really finite amount of time. I love hearing my mom, and I can hear her more happily now that she’s on YouTube all the time.  It’s wild.  It’s wild to see her moving and singing and emoting.  It’s amazing.

Q:  So where is your heart?

A:  It’s everywhere for sure.  I feel like music is just a part of my soul because that’s the family business and that’s what feels the most familiar to me, because that’s been a part of my fabric from the moment I was born.  As much as I fantasize about being a musician, for some reason my path was just comedy and then drama for sure.  Maybe just not always on camera.  I love performing and mainly performing live.  I just really feel at home.  I can’t explain it or express it.  I fell in love with SNL—to me that was the best expression of what live comedy is.  Doing a million characters and all these voices I felt that because of music being a part of my life, my ear was so musical I could pick up on the way that people spoke and imitate the way they spoke; it came naturally, but it’s  nice to be able to express this other part of me too and who knows what else is in me. Away We Go was a very special movie and a special character, so I just got really lucky to be able to do her right out of doing SNL.

Q:  Where did you meet Paul (of Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood fame)?

A:  He saw me on television and came to get me.  He traveled quite far.  We’ve been together for a long time. I was an enormous fan of his work, and I think even more so now that I know where it comes from.  He is so incredibly true to what he does and loves and believes in.  He loves movies so much.  It’s really his life, and it really is his true love.  He’s really an incredibly disciplined writer.  I’ve never seen anybody work in that way.  He just works because he wants to and because he loves it and is really specific about the choices that he makes because I think he really wants to be true to himself.  He doesn’t compromise and I admire that.

Q:  Talk about your dad He was also in the business,

A:  My dad started out as a songwriter.  My mom was from Chicago.  My parents met at the time, because my dad was managing a rock club called like The Electric Theatre, and they literally met like on the stairs.  It was one of those romantic like fairytale things.  My mom was in a band called The Rotary Connection at the time, and my dad started writing for them. Then my mom decided, ‘I’m pregnant, I’m tired, let’s get the hell out of Chicago.’ It was a lot like Burt and Verona in the movie.  She was like, “Take me someplace warm.”  She had been in Chicago her whole life.  She wanted to move so they traveled around looking for places and ended up in Gainsville, Florida, which is where I was born.  And that’s where they ended up writing, “Loving You”.  All the songs on her first record.  When I was coming into the world, my dad sort of became a songwriter because of my mom.  He always was a writer, and then they just magically had something together.

Q:  Is there a Jewish background somewhere?

A:  Oh yes, very much so.  I wasn’t raised religiously, but I was definitely raised culturally Jewish.  My grandma is responsible for that.  But religion was never a part of my household.  My parents were never adamant about raising my brother and me religiously; they wanted us to be able to choose.  Growing up mixed, I think they really made a big deal out of us feeling normal when we were at home, and wanting us to feel good about who we were and not putting any emphasis on what we were.  There’s no question that the world will do that to you naturally, and yes, that’s a very hippie, crunchy way of doing it, but at the same time, I have been able to live my way, where I don’t spend every day of my life thinking about race, and I am fortunate in that way, and I related to that about this movie because I found it so fascinating that for the first time I read something that mentioned that she was mixed but they weren’t spending time over dinner talking about how do you feel about being mixed, honey?  How do you feel, honey, that I’m white?  It was just sort of part of who they were and not discussed.  I really loved that.