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Known for her masterful Saturday Night Live impersonations and starring role in the comedy hit film Bridesmaids, Maya Rudolph is now tackling the subject of married mundanity in the new series Forever. But while her own life is far from dull, her priorities for work and family remain very simple. “For me, when I became a mum, I changed, and my needs changed. I didn’t want to be away from my kids … If something I’m loathing is taking me away from my kids, then I shouldn’t be there.”

By Donna Walker-Mitchell.

‘Triple threat’ Maya Rudolph

Maya Rudolph.
Credit: Colleen Hayes / Amazon Prime Video

“This is pretty nice, right?” Maya Rudolph says, slouching onto an overstuffed couch and slipping a butter-yellow cushion under her arm. The lauded Saturday Night Live alumnus and actress, known for her crafted and inimitable impersonations, has been smiling since she sat down. Here, glancing out of floor-length French windows onto a Beverly Hills street lined with palms so tall they bend in the wind, she seems content.

She launches into a story about her eldest daughter, Pearl, who apparently does a pitch-perfect Australian accent. “My daughter makes me laugh every time she does her Australian accent,” she tells me. “And she likes to do that accent on a regular basis.” Putting aside her obvious bias, this is high praise coming from a woman who built her early career on impressions of Beyoncé, Donatella Versace, pop star Fergie and more. Then of course, came Bridesmaids, the unexpected 2011 hit, which she starred in as the foil to Kristen Wiig’s chaotic maid of honour.

Recently, Rudolph has been garnering praise for her latest TV show, Forever, a dark comedy that is both bitingly funny and bittersweet. The first episode, which opens with a sultry jazz montage, focuses on the show’s main characters, June, played by Rudolph, and her long-time dentist husband, Oscar – fellow Saturday Night Live alumnus Fred Armisen – a sweet man who tries his hardest but borders on boring. June and Oscar go through the motions – visiting the same places, eating the same food, sitting in silence in their suburban home while they look at their phones for hours on end. When Oscar suggests a trip to the lake house they’ve been holidaying at for the past 13 years, June has other plans. Wanting to try something new, she suggests the couple go skiing in Big Bear, despite the fact neither can ski. Hesitant at first, Oscar agrees, and the couple embarks on an adventurous quest to escape their suburban drudge.

Rudolph says she can relate to June, in part, and loves the character she plays, but growing up in suburbia was hardly her reality. The child of songwriter and producer Richard Rudolph and soul singer Minnie Riperton, she grew up in leafy Westwood, wedged between the elite areas of Brentwood and Bel Air on Los Angeles’ prestigious Westside.

“Suburbia is depressing to me,” Rudolph says without skipping a beat. “Then again, I think I did grow up at a time when suburbia was a bad word. So, suburbia to me meant, ‘Oh, the doldrums.’ ”

All of a sudden, her body shifts, and her eyes light up. “Have you ever seen the punk rock movie Suburbia?” she asks. She moves into impersonation mode and affects a tough, rebellious voice and channels some of her inner anarchy. “They were kids. They were punks,” she says, her voice deepening and getting louder. “They were growing up in this suburban wasteland. Life sucks in suburbia.”

She laughs and comes back to herself, admitting she can see why, for some people, the quieter life is appealing. “I do understand the romanticism of it,” she says. “The creature-comfort necessity for why they were built is really fascinating. You have everything you need there. Everything is the same. It’s comforting… but,” she says, taking a pause, “it’s still very depressing to me.”

 

Growing up, life for Rudolph was anything but ordinary. Artists such as Stevie Wonder would regularly drop in to her family’s home, which she remembers being filled with music and happiness. But this privileged early life was not without devastation. Two weeks before her seventh birthday, her mother – talented and loving – succumbed to breast cancer, aged 31. The loss has left an indelible mark. “For many, many years,” Rudolph said in a recent cover story for The New York Times Magazine, “I couldn’t even touch this conversation.” It wasn’t until she was an adult that Rudolph discovered her mother’s 1975 US Billboard chart-topping hit, “Lovin’ You”, was actually about her and her brother, Marc.

Like her parents, Rudolph excelled in the arts. She attended the trophy Crossroads School in Santa Monica where she became close friends with classmate Gwyneth Paltrow, another child of famous parents, but in this elite environment Rudolph was acutely aware of her multiracial heritage. After her mother’s death, her Jewish father didn’t know how to do her hair. “So much of my childhood was dealing with my hair and being super embarrassed by it, mainly because I grew up being the only mixed kid,” she told The New York Times.

As she’d dabbled in music and fashion design as a student, Rudolph decided to attend design school in Paris when she left Crossroads. “I always wanted to be a fashion designer,” she tells me. I note her outfit, though it’s often hard to parse where stylist ends and personal style begins – she’s dressed in a white and blue jumpsuit, with chunky metallic ice-blue block heels and long blue and white earrings that graze her shoulders. She laughs, “But I’ve let that go now.”

Returning to the United States, she also toyed with a career in music, but found her niche with the comedy troupe The Groundlings, where she met future Saturday Night Live cast member Will Forte. A “triple threat” – with comedic, acting and musical skill – Rudolph signed on to the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2000. On the show, she says her heritage was never an issue. As she told The Guardian in 2015: “When I was cast on Saturday Night Live, people gave me black characters to play. And they gave me white characters, too. Because I never thought about myself one way or another, I think it helped my performances. I never think of the characters I play based on race. Ever. It doesn’t come into my head.”

Looking back on her seven years in the SNL cast, plus many more as a returning guest star, Rudolph says one of the most important skills she learnt was writing. “Saturday Night Live taught me the importance of writing for myself. I quickly discovered if you don’t write, you don’t eat. It’s pretty simple. We had to write and, when you do that, people discover your voice. It was empowering,” she says.

She also honed what she sees as her greatest fortune: the skill of carefully choosing who she works with. “More and more I feel lucky enough to be able to choose who I get to work with,” she says. “Doing Forever was the first time I really set out to do something in this way. To say, ‘We’re going to create something. We’re doing this together and we have this brand-new idea.’ I do feel like I tend to gravitate towards something I would like to see. That’s how I choose what I want to do.”

Clearly, it’s a career philosophy that’s working. “Here’s the thing,” she says. “I don’t know if I could function any longer making something just to make it.” She takes a sip from her glass of water and switches, once again, into impersonation mode. “Imagine being like, ‘Oh, I made this really crappy show about two guys who lift boxes. I hate it, it’s terrible and everyone was a jerk, but hey, it’s a living!’ No thanks.

“For me, when I became a mum, I changed, and my needs changed,” she says. “I didn’t want to be away from my kids … If something I’m loathing is taking me away from my kids, then I shouldn’t be there because I should be with them. That’s a survival thing, isn’t it?” She rests back on the couch. “It’s prioritising. I need to be taking care of my children. Sometimes when I’m at work and I’m not taking care of my kids I feel guilty and shitty. That’s what working mums do and it sucks.

“I have gotten into situations where I’ve said, ‘Yeah, this is definitely a money job, but I’ll do it. It feels kind of dirty though and then you get there, and you say to yourself, ‘What the hell was I thinking? This feels terrible!’ I know right away if I’m working on something like that. And you know what? To be totally honest with you, I’m not that resilient. I am not Teflon and I can’t hide it. I’m really sensitive in that way,” she says.

Working on Amazon Prime Video’s Forever, though, Maya says she never had to second-guess herself.

“I love Oscar and June so much. They are us and then not us at all,” she explains.

“They’re very funny to me because they are very particular. I kind of love to make fun of them in my mind a little bit, but they are also so endearing. They’re trying to make their relationship work. They are two people who love each other and are going through what we all go through, and that is life and how it moves in every direction.

“I really consciously choose to let myself know it is okay to let myself enjoy what I’m doing and make sure I’m not somewhere where I don’t want to be. Then it doesn’t feel like a waste of time,” she says.

Enjoying and sharing her working life with old friends is part of the grand plan. Rudolph recently signed to reunite with her SNL and Bridesmaids’ co-star Wiig for an upcoming adult animation comedy series titled Bless the Harts.

Rudolph says that, on a personal level, she is satisfied with the course her life has taken. She lives in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles with her partner, director Paul Thomas Anderson, who she has been with since 2001, and their four kids – Pearl, 13, Lucille, 8, Jack, 7, and Minnie, 5.

Knowing when to work and who to work with is key, she says. “There should be no dance which needs to be done,” she says. “That comfort level is such a great component to creating good work. For me at least, when that comfort is in place I feel like I can really relax into whatever I’m doing.”

She says she knows now what she wants when it comes to her career and her life. She doesn’t have the time, or the inclination, to do something she doesn’t love. “If being at work is a struggle and you’re not comfortable, I’m finding more and more in my life I’m staying away from work that might be challenging for me in that respect and I think it is probably just an accumulation of a lot of life things,” she says.

“That doesn’t work for me anymore,” she says, shaking her head. “Does it work for anyone? I don’t think it does.

“I want to be with people I like. No fucking drama. At the end of the day I want to do my work and then go home because I want to be with my family. You have to work with nice people. No bullshit. Life is too short.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 27, 2018 as "Forever Maya". Subscribe here.

Donna Walker-Mitchell
is an Australian journalist based in Los Angeles.