You may know her first as 'Donatella Versace' or 'Beyonce' from her vast array of characters and roles as a long-time cast member of Saturday Night Live, but now Maya Rudolph is taking on a whole new challenge. Film. She took some time to sit down with Buzzine's Molly Sullivan to discuss her more serious turn as a lead in Away We Go, as well as the importance of keeping humor as a key part of her life while branching out into new challenges.
Molly Sullivan: How did this project first come to you?
Maya Rudolph: FedEx. [Laughs]
No, I read the script a really long time ago, actually. I heard this awesome rumor that Dave (Eggers) and Vendela (Vida) wrote with me in mind, but I didn’t know if it was true. I just knew who they were and I was totally blown away and shocked.
No one was really making it yet. I think they were looking for someone to make it. Somehow I got a copy of it and I couldn’t believe it. I just fell in love with it and I couldn’t believe that this great, very specific character was just so beautifully written. I loved their relationship and then I loved the whole pregnancy aspect and what that crazy experience is like.
So I kind of stalked Dave and Vendela for over a year. I didn’t know them, but I tried to get messages [to them] that I loved it and I really wanted to do it if they were ever making it, and then, when I heard Sam (Mendes) was making it, I just tried to get in there, and I eventually did.
MS: Were you ever able to confirm whether they did, in fact, write it with you in mind?
MR: (Dave) said last night, at this Q&A, that they wrote it in mind for both John (Krasinski) and myself, which I’m still wondering — that’s amazing. They’re just so nice. But I think he said they wrote it with us in mind, and then Sam, after he decided what he wanted and saw everybody, he was like, “Oh yeah, that’s the direction to go in,” so then they got their confidence up. Then I think they were suggesting all their friends. Sam was like, “Alright, that’s enough.” [Laughs]
MS: You have a very specific chemistry — the two characters. Was that evident when you read the script — that they were two unique people who have a unique relationship? And how much of it was there and how much of it came forward when you started working?
MR: It was totally there. I think that’s why I felt like, when do you ever read something like this, that’s so flushed out in such a simple way — in the way that, when two people know each other really well, they speak their own language? You could tell it was written by people who know each other really well. I’ve heard Dave and Vendela say that they wrote it together; they didn’t necessarily always take turns, but they were always just trying to make each other laugh while they were writing it. That chemistry was there, which is what I think made them so loveable immediately, and their love was so infectious. You immediately fell in love with them and then went on the journey with them. You trusted them completely, just from reading it, and I felt like that was what we were trying to actually bring to life. They are really just the most alive when they’re together. It just felt like they existed with each other.
MS: Did you know John before this?
MR: I’d met him. We weren’t friends — we were mortal enemies. [Laughs] I’d met him because we have mutual friends from SNL. My friend Amy Poehler and her husband are really good friends of John’s, and I see him all the time at the show and I loved his work, but I didn’t really know him at all. It was just that first day I went to go read with him at Sam’s office and I found myself doing a lot of cackling and laughing where I snort a lot. He’s just really funny and really sweet and was so nice. It was just so easy to be with him.
MS: I’m wondering how much of that chemistry you’re talking about is natural and how much of it is acting.
MR: I think it was natural. We just really loved each other. We had such a great time working together and really being there for each other. I loved so much having a partner like John because he was totally in it and totally interested in making it the best that it could be, and he loved Burt and Verona as much as I did. I felt like we were totally dedicated to making this great. And because so much of it was just the two of us, we really had to be there for each other, so we ate a lot of meals together in weird towns and bought pillows together at Costco so we could make sure those horrible furnished apartments weren’t as terribly depressing as they can be, kept each other company playing Guitar Hero, and doing all the things you need to do to make sure someone’s not going to jump off their balcony. Like, “Uh, where am I in this weird part of Connecticut where people don’t really live?” He’s just an exceptional person — he’s so goddamn talented. He takes his job seriously because it means a lot to him and he wants it to be great, and I really felt that drive, even when I got lazy and I was like, “John, I’m tired.” He was like, “We’ve got to do it, Rudolph. We’ve got to do it for the people.” [Laughs]
MS: Can you talk a little bit about working with Sam? I find it so interesting that he’s British and yet all of his movies are kind of American stories. Does he bring a different kind of sensibility to telling the story?
MR: I didn’t feel that when we were making it, but I’m sure, absolutely. That’s an enormous part of the way he watches, even though I felt…because it’s a road movie, you see America and you see people traveling and people in all different states doing different things and being weirder and weirder in the next place, and Canada as well. But because this is a relationship movie, for me, it took away the idea of looking at America from the outside and I felt it’s like music or clothing, like we can all relate to relationships and we’ve all had them, hopefully, in our lives or have them or are in them, and he has children. He definitely was talking about the same things, even though John doesn’t have kids — I think we all related to the relationship, and that was the part where I felt like we were unified.
When Sam and John and I came together to work on it and to rehearse, I felt like we were really trying hard to make this beautiful thing come to life, but we were all in it together. It felt like everybody understood them because they were so well-written that we could talk and talk and talk about who they were and find out how we could be them. I just he knew every nook and cranny about people and life and love and babies. To me, it was more of an exploration of that.
MS: Everyone has a point in their life where they go, “Am I a fuck-up?” and that’s where these characters are at this point. Have you had those moments?
MR: Oh yeah. I think I had one this morning. I think it was on Wilshire Boulevard turning into the Beverly Hilton. I know, from the experience of having a child, there’s that moment where you realize, “Oh shit. I’m not just responsible for myself anymore. I can’t get away with the medium-level bullshit. I’ve got to clean up around here, mentally and physically and spiritually.” And you take it more seriously because you’re responsible for somebody else’s well-being. So you reexamine, at some point — I’ve done it before. I’ve had a child, no question, and throughout life, but I think that’s when you really can’t fuck around anymore and you really have to get your shit together.
I don’t think I’ve said it out loud, thank god, that many times this morning… I think you’ll always do that, but this is really for these people that are so close and have had each other for so long — I think it’s the first time it takes them out of their little bubble and they have to look at a bigger world. They’re so happy in their little space. They have each other and they can always coexist in this little fantasy Burt-and-Verona-land. It’s good; they have to shake it up a little.
MS: One of the things that struck me about the structure of this road movie that’s different than most of the ones you see involving couples is that the two of you don’t have a major cataclysmic blowup and then have to make up. Was that something you noticed when you read the script, and were there other things you saw that were something that wasn’t really done?
MR: There was no question — not so much that it stood out that it wasn’t there, but I appreciated how realistic it was, that it wasn’t a movie version of romance. Vendela was the one I heard talking about it, saying they really didn’t want to write this with a big breakup scene and a montage where he’s trying to get her back, and they also didn’t want to end it with “and then they get married and they go off into the sunset.” It was just normal for whatever normalcy they live in and it wasn’t perfectly wrapped up at the end, and I loved that. I loved that it was people figuring out their lives, and that’s never perfect. There’s no such thing as perfect, and that was okay.
MS: There was that line from Catherine O’Hara: “How black is she going to be?” about the baby which sounded like something that kind of family would talk about perhaps inappropriately, but it would come out in conversation…
MR: I know, and it’s like one of those odd things where you’re like, “How do you answer that exactly?” What do you say when someone asks you that crazy question that you have no answer to?
MS: Does the fact that you can personally relate to this character on certain levels make it necessarily easier to play or less challenging?
MR: I think it was more interesting. I don’t think, if she was like crazy, she had an Irish accent and she walked on stilts, I’m sure it would have probably been more exciting because I would be like, “How do I do that?” — more of a challenge. From reading it, I found it really interesting, and maybe that made it more believable to me.
MS: Was there ever anything in the script about what happened to her parents?
MR: Her situation is definitely different than mine, but I feel like, when you lose a parent, you become part of the club of people [who] have this horrible thing happen to them in their life or in their young life. I think Verona and I are different in the sense that Verona loses her parents when she was 22, but she’s just shut off from those feelings. I think what’s nice, what I got to do in this movie — and not in this movie way where you’re ripping off layers — but very gingerly unravel a little bit and look at and examine a little bit of that pain and the grief that she refused to do. I think that’s where our similarity ends, at the fact that we lost parents, because my situation is different, but there’s no question. Reading something like tha,t you’re like, “Oh, I know a lot more about that than a lot of people I know.” I lost my mother when I was seven, which is completely different than when you’re 22. You’re a child; it’s a whole other can.
MS: There was nothing in the script that explained how her parents died…
MR: No, we talked about it a lot because Dave and Vendela actually never really told us what they thought, so we kind of made up that we thought. Maybe it happened really quickly and it was both of them together, and she was in college and she’s older than her sister, so she was a bit more in charge and couldn’t deal with it. They have that scene in the bathtub where they talk about the house and being responsible for it, but losing both parents — I can’t even imagine just all of a sudden that part of your safety net and people [who] care for you is upended and completely gone. All of a sudden, you’re in charge of the family home and she was just like, “I can’t do it,” and I think she took off mentally.
MS: The structure of the script is very episodic. Did you have a favorite episode or segment?
MR: I fell in love so many times. I love the parents because I love that whole thing about, “You’re going away 3,000 miles from the baby.” “Oh, I think it’s more than 3,000 miles.” Of course, with Catherine O’Hara, who could be more perfect? Then I loved Lily and Lowell, Allison Janney and Jim Gaffigan — that was just an insane character and she did it beautifully, and Jim’s unbelievable rant about losing the water… I was always looking forward to those days when we’d get to see the people actually doing these things that I’d read so many times and been such a fan of. Then the stuff with LN and Roderick and seahorses… It was funnier than the next each time. It was like, “What’s coming next?” Then there’s some really tragic stuff, but I love the funny stuff. I can’t lie.
MS: It seems like this is going to be a really big deal for you — it’s a leading role that’s a more dramatic role than you’ve done before. Do you feel some pressure? What are you anticipating?
MR: I’m off the hook now, because the first day of shooting was the first scene in the movie, so that was the most pressure I’ve had, and I’m done. I lived that. I don’t have to do that anymore. This is easy compared to the first scene in the movie. Because Saturday Night Live is what people know me for and associate me with, I think people expect me to be Saturday Night Live lady everyday. When I go to the grocery store, which is where I usually find people, they’re like, “Hey crazy! Do some crazy stuff.” I’m like, “Alright buddy. I’m just buying oatmeal.”
It’s funny. I didn’t have the talent or the balls to write this movie, but I think I always imagined, I always hoped I could do something like this because, as much as Saturday Night Live really, truly is my first love, I’ve really always wanted to be a part of that show since I was a kid, and it’s just part of my personality and my fiber, and now it’s my family. That will never change, but it’s nice to be able to show more of yourself. I feel like, especially with SNL, people really get used to you being on that show and being a specific comedy player or a sketch character, and I think people feel like you’re coming away from that or you’re abandoning something, and I got lucky that I got to do more. I feel so lucky, but don’t worry — there will be more goofing off in the future. I guarantee it. I can’t help it. It’s unfortunately part of my genetic makeup.
MS: After this role, do you finish a movie like this and then you just want to goof around for like six months?
MR: Well, luckily, John and I got to goof around the entire time we made the movie, so I’m okay. But to me, there’s so much incredibly funny stuff in this movie, and yes, it’s much quieter, but the scene with Roderick (Josh Hamilton) and LN (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in the big bed and all the stuff they say is like the cavalcade of douchy comment after douchy comment. We’re just standing there, and I couldn’t have had more fun. Every line was worse than the next — you’re just like, “This is unbelievable.” I loved being part of a comedy army like SNL so that every human being in that building made me laugh. Even when you were having a fucking terrible day, or your friend was or you were tired or whatever it was, you were guaranteed to guffaw all day long, or just have that as part of your life. I’ll never be able to replace that. I can always call Lorne (Michaels) and get my job back.
'Away We Go' is in theaters now from Focus Features.