Casting director Cindy Tolan (Emmy-nominated for the third consecutive year for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”; she won in 2018) has often had to hire actors to embody real-life icons in the stand-up comedy world. But when it came to bringing Moms Mabley to life in the third season of the Amazon Prime Video show, Wanda Sykes came aboard without ever meeting Tolan.
Instead, Sykes got a call from her agent who told her series showrunners Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino wanted to do an episode that featured the veteran performer. Sykes hopped on a phone call with Sherman-Palladino, during which the two discussed their histories in the business and Sykes’ “passion” for Mabley’s work, the actor says.
“I want to give Moms more credit and hopefully expose her to more people. They should know her,” Sykes says. “I had to nail this. I had to do it for Moms.”
Now Sykes is nominated for the role in the guest comedy actress category at the Emmys.
Although Tolan says more often than not the Palladinos “would love to see every single person in the world [audition] and have it done in person,” Sykes was a no-brainer for the role because “Wanda in and of her own style is amazing and just carves it out for herself and is so funny and so sharp.”
“You have to be able to do [what] we call the Palladino pace. It’s a very fast show. With Wanda, that was never going to be an issue,” Tolan continues. “And also with Wanda as a stand-up comic, you just knew that she would have the stamina to do whatever Amy needed her to do. Because Amy and Dan are so famous for their one shots and one takes so the person needs the stamina to deliver that over and over and over again if they don’t get it, and not be fazed by that.”
Although it wasn’t fully clear what Sykes’ role exactly would be when she signed on, she ended up in pivotal moments in the third season finale. Part of the performance required her to step on stage — at the Apollo Theater, no less — and perform Mabley’s words. But part of it was also about peeling back a layer on Mabley as cameras followed her out of the spotlight and into a backstage interaction with the titular comedian (Rachel Brosnahan).
“It was the off-stage part that I had to really think about,” Sykes admits. “We know that she did have a different life off-stage. And I know how that felt: you’re being authentic and saying what’s on your mind, but then there’s this other little thing that you’re keeping for yourself.”
Sykes most wanted to capture Mabley’s “boldness and joy,” in addition to her cadence and mannerisms for the stand-up performance. To aid with this, she listened to a lot of Mabley’s real-life material. Then, it was just a matter of stepping out onto that real-life Apollo stage, which Sykes says elevated the experience.
“After that first take everybody was genuinely laughing. And after Amy said cut, they jumped up and were laughing and it was so cool because it was my people: an African American audience. And that was Moms’ audience.”