Leslie Jones does not consider herself a comedienne who does impressions. In fact, when Chris Rock first called her to tell her he got her an audition for “Saturday Night Live,” she says her response was “What the f— did you do that for!?” because dressing up like other people was just never something she did.
“I’m myself, and myself is f—ing funny enough,” she tells Variety.
Still, taking the job on NBC’s late night sketch comedy series has required her to try on a whole bunch of different characters, from the fictional (such as Shondra of her and Kenan Thompson’s Shondra and Malik), to the political (Omarosa Manigault Newman and Condoleezza Rice), to a version of herself (when she pops by the “Weekend Update” desk to flirt with Colin Jost or appears in digital shorts as Kyle Mooney’s girlfriend).
“A lesson that I learned is that you Lucille Ball it. You really have to embrace the moment and not be scared to look like what you’re looking like,” Jones says. “That’s one thing I love about Lucille Ball. Lucille Ball was f—ing beautiful, and people don’t actually know how beautiful she was because she was always so busy being silly and she didn’t care about them thinking she was beautiful, she was more about them being funny. And that’s my whole goal.”
It was executive producer Lorne Michaels who gave her the advice that made her comfortable portraying real life people in the first place, she says. “It’s not about you being that person. It’s about you interpreting — your interpretation of that person. So what do you think Condoleezza Rice is like? What do you think Omarosa is like?” she recalls him telling her.
When she portrays Manigault Newman, Jones says she is focused on embodying her “sexiness.”
“I figured if I get her sexiness and her smile, the smirk is going to automatically come — because I’m a black woman and we’ve got the smirk,” she says.
But to step into Rice’s shoes for a pivotal season 43 cold open with former cast member-turned-returning guest host, Jones went more conservative.
“The important thing for me is the joke — what is the joke we’re cracking?” she says. “So when we did the song [in that episode] it was about the joke, it wasn’t even about me looking like Condoleeza — because I’m standing there with George Bush so you know who she was.”
Working with Ferrell was a highlight of the most recent “SNL” season for Jones, who said that anytime former cast members come back “it’s the easiest week.” But Ferrell, specifically, she said was a “beast” with how he tore through the material.
“We usually take at least two hours to practice the cold open. The cold open and the monologue are the two things that are really very important on Friday nights, and we stay very late because of those, but because of Will Ferrell, we were out of there at like 10,” Jones says. “Will did the cold open run like one time. And I was like, ‘Are you sure? You need to be prepared.’ And he was like, ‘I got it.’ That was f—ing dope. When you’re working with somebody like that, that person is so good the timing sticks to you.”
Jones admits that there have been impressions she hasn’t wanted to take on at all, like Aretha Franklin. “I don’t look like Aretha at all. I’m like several shades darker than her. I just don’t know if this is going to work,” she remembers saying when approached with that idea. But ultimately she does “the best to make it work.”
For Jones, that means trusting the wardrobe and makeup departments to handle the physical transformation, while personally “staring into the eyes” of the person she’s about to play through photos. It’s a technique she says she needed specifically to embody Oprah Winfrey.
“You have to embody Oprah’s spirit, you can’t play Oprah, so I just sat and I stared at Oprah and her smile and her breathing, and then you really just have to go for it. What else are you going to do?” she says.
One person who came naturally to Jones, though, was Whoopi Goldberg. She played the comedienne and talk show host notably in the “Jurassic Park” auditions sketch this season.
“Whoopi was somebody I’d already played in my bedroom like billions of times, so when they asked me to do Whoopi, I was like, ‘Oh easy!’ As a matter of fact, Whoopi was one of the easiest things I ever did,” she admits.
But Jones gets personal on “SNL,” too — at least, partially.
“The first time I met Colin I thought he was a robot,” she jokes. “His chin was just too perfect, his eyes — he was just too f—ing perfect.”
So she would yell things at him when she saw him in the halls at 30 Rock, calling him things like “my vanilla magnet,” which ultimately translated on-screen because she just started flirting with him during a read through for her first appearance on “Weekend Update.”
“It just became a thing that Leslie has a thing for Colin and she’s going to get him some day,” she says.
Last season, that bit evolved to include Mooney, and they shot a few digital shorts that gave a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional relationship they were in.
Jones says that evolution was “purely Kyle’s idea” because he knew they’d make “a crazy couple.” “I would never date Kyle,” she says. “I’m 50 years old, so that’s like a skateboarder to me. He’s a child. But it was so funny and it was so fun when he wrote it, and I’m all about the funny.”
After five years on “SNL,” Jones says some of the most important lessons been about balancing her standup and her sketch career, including trying jokes and characters out on stage before doing them on the show.
“I’m the type of person that gets bored very easy, so I’m always changing it up,” she says, but “I’ve learned how to pitch certain things — leave some for myself and some for ‘SNL.'”