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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