Gilbey on Film: Saturday night livewire

The comedian Maya Rudolph talks about working with Robert Altman and her new film, Bridesmaids.

It's absurd that the US sketch show Saturday Night Live has never had a continuous, dependable showing in the UK despite the talent farm it has proved itself to be over nearly four decades. (You know the roll-call by now: John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Chris Rock and Tina Fey among others.)

Sky Arts is currently showing the series in sequence, but is still way back in the you-really-had-to-be-there-at-the-time 1970s episodes.

Consequently, British audiences are unlikely to be too familiar with the 38-year-old livewire comic and former SNL regular Maya Rudolph -- daughter of the late soul legend Minnie Riperton, and partner of the filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson -- unless it is for her straight(ish) work in movies like Sam Mendes's Away We Go or Robert Altman's swansong, A Prairie Home Companion. If that was all you knew of her (as it was for me), it would've been quite a shock to see her in the SNL spin-off movie MacGruber last year, in which she played a ghost who has energetic sex on her own gravestone.

SNL material is inaccessible to UK viewers even on the internet (though if you're in the US, hulu.com has a generous selection); but a quick perusal of what few titbits there are available of Rudolph's work -- such as the sketch in which she performs the US national anthem as a checkout clerk seemingly possessed by Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and every American Idol contestant ever -- is enough to prove how fiendishly inspired she can be.

Rudolph left SNL in 2007 after seven years. Thankfully she features prominently in the raucous new comedy Bridesmaids, produced by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Funny People) and co-written by its star Kristen Wiig (her former colleague at SNL and in the LA improvisational troupe The Groundlings). Rudolph plays bride-to-be Lillian, who in the approach to her wedding is torn between two of her best friends -- the down-at-heel Annie (Wiig), whom she has appointed maid of honour, and the glamorous and wealthy Helen (Rose Byrne), whose splashy, opulent ideas for Lillian's wedding rub Annie up the wrong way. I met a heavily pregnant Rudolph (she is expecting her third child by Anderson) recently in Los Angeles, where she told me about joining Bridesmaids, leaving SNL, and being manhandled by Bill Murray.

Lillian's an interesting character: she has to be loyal to Annie, but also enthusiastic about Helen's over-the-top wedding plans. Did that make her hard to play?
You know, it was pretty hard in that way. You have to decide when her bullshit meter goes off with Helen. She's under enormous pressure, because it's the toughest thing bringing together two very different friends who are both important in your life. My biggest concern with playing her was I didn't want her to seem two-faced. It's so hard to watch her interact with Annie, yet still see her being friendly with Helen and not notice Annie's discomfort. I didn't want her to come off like some vapid jerk.

How much of the film was improvised?
We were encouraged to improvise all the time, and to come up with our own stuff in a voice that sounded natural to the characters. By the time it's all cut together you really look great. I know the parts in Bridesmaids where it's been edited to cut away from people losing it; I can tell. You can still sort of see people starting to go, there's something in the eyes that shows they're about to crack. I love that. It's the best. There literally wasn't a downside to doing the film; you just get in there and play. You know, I met Bill Murray once and he said, 'If you're rehearsing something and the crew is laughing, you're doing something right.' It sounds obvious, I know, but it helped me. Oh, it was so dreamy meeting him, I can't tell you... He came into SNL one time when I was there, and he just started hanging out. He slung me over his shoulder for some reason. I don't know why. That's a whole other story. Thank God I wasn't pregnant; it wouldn't have worked. He was just dishing out advice, talking about his time on SNL, giving me tips like, 'If you need a good massage and it's 11pm and you've got half an hour before you do the show, go to this place down on 57th St, we used to do that all the time...'

Do you miss SNL?
I do. It's where I feel my heart is the most, the place I feel I gained the most confidence. It's a weekly show, so we had to create all these new characters every week; you really develop yourself there because you're constantly writing, figuring out your voice, producing these pieces. The choice to go was hard. I was raising a family, my daughter was very young at time, and it's an arduous schedule. You're writing constantly, then by the time Monday rolls around you're pitching new ideas, then writing them, blocking, rewriting 'til you get to Saturday, which ends at 1am, which is really Sunday, then it all starts again. It's hard on your loved ones. I think it'll be easier for me once my friends from SNL have left the show; it's hard when I turn on the TV and see Kristen or Andy [Samberg] on there, all the people I love.

How did the show's tight deadlines help you creatively?
It's the only way I ever get anything done. I was always the kid in high school who wrote my paper the night before it was due. When I joined SNL I didn't realise I'd be doing so much writing, and the only way to get me to do it is to say 'It's now or never.' I heard Lorne [Michaels, producer of SNL] say, 'We don't do the show because it's ready. We do it because it's 11.30 on Saturday night and it's time to go on.' Things aren't always finished; you just go on somehow.

People who don't know you from SNL might be surprised to see you in out-and-out comedy after, say, Away We Go.
It does confuse people, it's true. But I never used to look at it that way. When I first read Away We Go, which Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida had written, I thought it was a black comedy really, an acerbic take on how annoying people can be when you're starting a family. But when the film came out, the response I kept getting was completely unexpected; people would ask, 'So, have you left comedy now?' Comedy's my first love; it defines me. But when you get the opportunity to do more, it's so exciting. I think people want you to be what they know you as, or else it confuses them. But I can never imagine leaving comedy. It's who I am.

Is it the same thing doing comedy improv and working with Robert Altman, who also encouraged improvisation?
It is comparable, yeah. Bob loved people coming up with stuff. I was playing a stage manager in A Prairie Home Companion, so I got to be in everything, to be in every room, yet still to be sort of on the outside of it. You get to watch someone like Kevin Kline, who's the perfect example of a skilful improviser; Bob would encourage him to improvise and do more and we'd just watch him fly, coming up with all this insane, hysterical physical comedy, none of which was in the script. You'd always hear Bob say, 'Ah, that's great, let's keep going.' There were multiple cameras moving all the time, and everyone was miked at all times; he loved that organised chaos. Being with him was like being at the most fun party ever, with the best host.

Your partner Paul Thomas Anderson was a back-up director on the film.
Yeah, Paul called himself the pinch hitter, which is a baseball term. Bob was quite a bit older and he was sick, and while you'd think he could get financing for anything, the insurance company needed someone who could take over in case he, you know, died on the spot. By that time, Bob knew and loved Paul and asked him to do it.

And Paul dedicated There Will Be Blood to Altman.
He did. Wasn't that lovely? They really loved one another.

As a comedian, do you crave getting laughs off-screen too?
I probably do. You have to pick and choose. You don't wanna do it at the doctor's office when he's giving you bad news. You don't wanna be someone who takes a drum kit everywhere, you know, 'Badum-ching!' What's that called? I think it's rimshot. But it's good for cocktail parties. Good for those uncomfortable moments. It's helpful to have that ability in your back pocket.

Bridesmaids is released on 22 June

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit