How Playing Kamala Harris Helped Maya Rudolph Fight Election Anxiety

9 minute read

It’s the Friday before Election Day, and Maya Rudolph has just been summoned to the set of Saturday Night Live. On one hand, that’s not a whole lot of notice for a performer who must now travel across the country to appear on the show the following night. Then again, Rudolph has been playing Senator Kamala Harris on SNL this season. Could this account for why her immediate response to the confirmation, just a few minutes into a phone conversation with TIME, that she’ll be spending Halloween night at 30 Rockefeller Plaza isn’t shock or panic, but one of those rippling, melodious Maya Rudolph chuckles?

“I’m laughing because that doesn’t stress me out,” she explains. “I like being on call for SNL. It definitely helped me with my election anxiety, feeling like I’m actively involved. I don’t want to feel like, once this election has happened, that I’ve sat still and let this pass me by.”

Sure enough, less than 36 hours later, Rudolph has transformed into the VP hopeful for the episode’s cold open, radiating calm, confidence and catharsis in a seasonally appropriate riff on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” She returns as the highlight of a sketch set amid pandemic-stricken Times Square, dressed as a bellowing, heavily New-York-accented Statue of Liberty and selling the hell out of a parody of Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here”: “Once on the PATH train, I swear that I saw Soon-Yi! And I’m here!”

Although her triumphant return to SNL, nearly a generation after she graduated from the show’s main cast in 2007, is earning well-deserved praise, it’s far from the only project on Rudolph’s plate. The abundance of charm, spontaneity and versatility that make her such a pleasure to watch on live TV have also made her one of Hollywood’s most sought-after comedic performers. She currently lends her voice to animated characters on Netflix’s Big Mouth and Fox’s Bless the Harts. She recently appeared in Adam Sandler’s Netflix confection Hubie Halloween. And on Nov. 11, you can hear her on Hulu, leading an amusing virtual culinary tour as the narrator of Eater’s Guide to the World. Meanwhile, behind the camera, she’s teamed up with her longtime friend Natasha Lyonne to form the production company Animal Pictures. We discussed Animal’s first release, Rudolph’s prodigious output and how she’s weathering lockdown. Here are edited excerpts of that wide-ranging conversation.

TIME: You live in L.A. have been flying back and forth to New York every week for SNL—during a pandemic—on top of a raft of other projects. Plus, you have four school-age kids at home. How are you coping?

Rudolph: Every day feels different. It’s a roller coaster of anxiety and emotion and frustration and sometimes motivation. I’ve been doing quite a bit of checking in with friends, who keep me up to date and feeling more hopeful, because it’s easy to get down in the dumps. That being said, [aside from] finding four different quiet spaces for children to have school, I find the time spent with family incredibly comforting. I’ve enjoyed reassessing everything, in terms of school and work and home and family and friends. It’s a good way to weed out the bullsh-t. I don’t mind that. It’s probably allowed my secret hermit tendencies to blossom.

Harris is often framed as hard to read, because she doesn’t lead with ideology. Was it tough to find a way into her character?

I don’t see her that way—I really fell in love with her. She’s been a voice of comfort for me. There is so much wrong going on that I like hearing someone say, “You know what? This isn’t right.” There’s a very conversational and familiar tone in the way she speaks. That element of her that’s so approachable allowed us to lean into a style of telling it like it is, of someone who feels like they’re your friend or your auntie.

By the way, she is fun to be with. I’ve only spoken to her once, but I genuinely enjoyed it and could have talked to her for hours.

You’ve been popping up in plenty of other roles on SNL this season too. Is that a side effect of being inside the show’s COVID bubble?

I think it’s that, combined with everyone in that building knows how much I love the show and how much I love to play there. All the time I’ve put into the show has allowed any writer there to know my voice, so it’s easy to plug in. I speak from experience: as someone who wrote on the show, it’s a luxury to know someone’s voice.

The show has changed quite a bit since you were part of the main cast. For one thing, there are more cast members of color and openly LGBTQ voices than there used to be. Has that affected your experience on SNL, as a performer?

I don’t know that I’ve formulated my thoughts on it, because it does feel new. I mean, it’s exciting to see diversity and change reflected in the cast of SNL. I’ve certainly been someone whose name is always called up when they hire a woman of color. I’m always lumped in, like: “Not since Maya Rudolph—” Wait a minute, guys. I really hope that my only legacy was not just women of color on that show, because let me tell you, I did a lot more than that. It’s important for me to just say that my intention has never been to be based on race. That’s just me, personally. I see myself as so much more than just a Black woman. It’s never really a thought until someone else brings it up.

The feeling I have is: I’m just doing by example. And the people that are being hired on the show right now are people that are funny, wonderful to work with, excited to be there. When I met the new cast members this year, they were thrilled to be on the show. That means more than anything.

The Netflix special Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine, which came out in October, is the first release from Animal Pictures. How does your collaboration with Natasha Lyonne work?

We’re first and foremost people who love each other. She’s one of those people you can call for anything. And she feeds off of collaboration. We work at completely different speeds, which is a great thing. I came up with the idea for the name Animal because she’s an animal when it comes to work. She embraces and loves every second of it. I like to take my time.

What drew the two of you to Cooper’s comedy?

I found her because a friend sent her [Trump lip-sync videos], and I genuinely laughed out loud. I told myself a long time ago, “I’m not going to watch him anymore. I can’t stomach it.” And it was the first time that I was able to hear his voice and see the ridiculousness of what he was saying and laugh. Overnight, all of a sudden, our company had a meeting with her. Because it was something we all felt really passionate about, we all jumped in. A lot of us jumped into the writers room, Natasha jumped in as the director, and it was such an unbelievably hands-on, fast project.

You’ve reached a point in your career where you can pick and choose roles tailored to who you are as a performer—your stint as a chatty deity on NBC’s The Good Place, for example. How does that feel?

I think I’ve been able to establish myself enough that people [who enjoy my work] can reach out to me and say, “Hey, we’d love for you to join us.” That’s a nice feeling. It took me a while to get to that place. And it’s an exciting place because, creatively, it’s more inspired. I feel supported, and I’m more comfortable when I’m supported.

Do you have a sense of what, in particular, creators are looking for when they seek out your voice?

Oh, that’s hard. You’re asking me a question that I ask other people. I always have a hard time seeing how I’m seen in the world. It’s hard to see yourself as a performer.

Would it be fair to say that warmth is a trait most of your characters share?

If that is being transmitted, that’s a good thing, because that’s what I naturally gravitate towards. I do well with goofy. That’s my sweet spot. If you’re looking for [a character] infused with goofy joy, I think that’s funnier—and I’ve found, time and time again, that I work best when I think something’s funny. It’s one thing that I can rely on when I’m feeling a lot of self-doubt.

One of your most beloved characters is Big Mouth’s Connie the Hormone Monstress, an animated creature who guides kids through puberty. She’s a mentor but also the embodiment of raw, adolescent id. What appeals to you about Connie?

Her funniest stuff, to me, is when she’s in that adolescent place of true feeling—like when she’s crying because [her charge] Jessi is crying. It’s the part where I go, “We’re all human.” We’re all messy, and it’s fun to collectively laugh at how we all go there. Definitely, the mentor element is fun—having the seasoned woman in me, who’s gone through childbirth and is far past her days of puberty being able to say, “It’s OK. On the other side, you’re going to be OK.” She’s very in touch with herself, very raw and honest. On top of everything, it’s so fun to play a character that’s that free.

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