Maya Rudolph’s first auditions were usually for parts in commercials or music videos.
It was the mid-90s when she snagged work as an extra in a Dr. Dre video. “It was a night shoot and we got paid nothing,” Rudolph recalls on Thursday’s episode of the Variety and iHeart podcast “The Big Ticket.” “They were like, ‘You’ll be walking where that liquid is, which was where they were dumping the porta potties.’ And I was like, ‘I’ll be in my car.’ So I slept in my car for the whole night of the shoot and then got my money and then went home.”
Fast forward to today. Rudolph is up for three Emmy nominations for her work as Connie on Netflix’s animated series “Big Mouth,” as The Judge on NBC’s “The Good Place” and for her performance as Kamala Harris on “Saturday Night Live.”
“People mention [Harris] and they mention me too. It’s pretty delightful, but I keep reminding myself like, ‘Henny, you are not Kamala,’” Rudolph says, laughing, from her home in Los Angeles. “But I’ll take it. It’s a nice person to be associated with.”
How’s quarantine been for you?
It has a lot of challenges, but knock wood, we are all safe and healthy. So that makes me happy. It allows you to appreciate your life a lot more and appreciate the people in it so it’s been a little bit sweeter in that respect. That being said, we’re all sick of each other.
Did we even know what Zoom was five months ago?
I didn’t. And I instantly became a teacher’s assistant on it. I was talking to their teachers and helping out with math. We were watching “Radio Days” the other night because the kids had never seen it. There was a moment when the family had to turn off all the lights so that the Germans wouldn’t see New York, and I thought, “I feel like this is the first time I can kind of relate to something like that.” We all have to do something we’re all doing together and we’re going to look back and reflect and they’ll tell their kids. And it was pretty wild. I don’t go out much, but when I have to, I get a little road rage when I see people not wearing masks around other people. I get so ragey.
Now, let’s talk about the Emmys and how you have not one, not two, but three nominations.
It couldn’t be crazier. I’m just laughing at everything that is going on. Honestly, it’s for three things that I love very much so I feel really proud. I love working on “The Good Place” and there’s no question that I love doing anything on “SNL” and I feel so lucky that I’ve been able to play Senator Harris and I love my character Connie from “Big Mouth.” It’s nice to feel proud of the things that you’ve done and feel like, “Thank you everybody. I’m glad you like it, too.”
What do you love about Connie?
Oh my God, Connie! I am nothing like Connie. She has biggest balls of them all and she’s so womanly, but she’s so hairy and musky, which I love. She’s just so unapologetically stinky and hairy, but she’s so confident and just loves herself and just loves her curves. They give me really, really funny things to say I’m always laughing whenever I’m recording her. And I’m always saying really dirty, silly things, but they’re funny.
When did you know you were funny?
When I was little. I can’t say how I gravitated towards it, but I just know that funny was definitely an option in my household because my parents were very funny and my brother was really funny. My brother’s four years older so he was really my role model. I know that when I was little, I remember I had to make my friend laugh. I think she got hurt and she was crying and it made me really uncomfortable. So I avoided that by making her laugh. It’s such a comfortable mask for me. I’ve now made peace with it and I understand why I’ve chosen to wear a mask for so many years. As I age, I think it goes nicely with all the real-life stuff, too. It even took me a long time to sort of have a sense of humor about myself because I’ve always had a mask to sort of protect myself in that way because it’s really painful the other way. But I did hundreds of living room theater for my family, hundreds of shows and performances, and I liked the audience, I liked the attention. I think once I knew that I was getting butts in seats after a while, I was hooked.
When did you realize it was a mask?
That was later. What’s funny though because we’re all smarter than we think we are especially when we’re younger and when I look back at the things I did or the way I maneuvered through life, I’m proud of the younger model of me who wasn’t consciously aware that it was a mask, but was using it at times that were necessary to deflect pain or suffering. But it wasn’t ’til later. I think even later in my years at “SNL,” I started realizing it was more than just a mask because some of my characters had sort of a through line and they had something in common. It was almost like drag. I was really realizing that this idea of a woman and feeling my whole life I didn’t really know how to be one. I was creating very larger-than-life versions of these female characters. And those seem to be the ones I go for. So after a while, it was like everyone was just giving me their diva characters. It was like, “Here’s Donatella! Here’s Oprah!” Here are all these like larger-than-life women.
Was there ever a time when you were told you that you shouldn’t be the center of attention?
Many times. [Laughs] Also, I’m such an obvious person of comedy. I have my darkness that pairs well with comedy. I’m actually pretty mellow in real life and my ear is finally tuned to not being on all the time because that’s kind of unbearable in my experience. I know when to quit. But for sure, when I was little, it was like “Waddaly Atcha” 24/7. I knew that I liked to be loud and funny because I was getting a response. I think that’s why “SNL” is my touchstone and the place that I feel I came alive in what I was already naturally doing because there’s a built-in audience. That energy fed me. There was one time, I was a cast member on the show and Bill Murray happened to be there taping something in the building and he came by and I’d never met him before. And I love him a lot — like a lot a lot — like too much. He just started talking to me as though we had had a conversation five minutes ago out of nowhere and he gave me the best advice I’d ever gotten about show. He said, “The best thing you can do is to perform for the audience in the room. Don’t perform for the audience at home, perform for this studio and when you’re on the floor and you’re rehearsing, make the cameraman laugh.” There’s something about that that made so much sense and really changed the way that I performed there specifically because it’s about the actual energy in the room. It’s like being at a dinner table, it’s about them and being connected to them. That stayed with me and those are the things that I think also sort of transcend into other parts of your life.
When do you think it will be safe to go back into the studio?
That’s a great question, God. I mean, I’m proud of New York for what they’re doing so far. I’m in California right now and I wish we were doing as well as they are, but I believe in that show and I, I know that they’ll figure it out at some point. We’re all trying to figure it out. Hopefully we’ll know what the hell is going on at some point.
Speaking of hopeful, are you hopeful about the 2020 election?
You know what? I’m not going to lose hope. When I heard that Kamala was running, I was like, “Oh, what’s that sensation in my body. It feels foreign. Oh, this is hope like maybe we can do this.”
Has the Biden-Harris campaign reached out to you yet?
Not yet. I haven’t met her. I’ve never met her. We publicly exchanged niceties after she said something really funny and cool on Twitter after I did her on “SNL” and saying that she hopes I play her for eight years. It’s so wild because I am not running for vice president and I am not a senator and I have not done the remarkable things that Senator Harris has done and yet I am getting a lot of praise and so much goodwill as though I was running for vice president. It’s hilarious. It’s nice because “Saturday Night Live” has been able to process a lot of what we’re all feeling. And at times, really cathartic for what we’re all experiencing. I know I felt that way when I watched the “Saturday Night Live at Home.” I think we all felt like, “Okay, we’re all good. This was familiar. And we’re laughing, Oh my God, we’re laughing!” I worked at the show after September 11th and I remember being in that studio with all the firemen. I think the thing that we’ve realized is people need to laugh and people need to have a collective experience. People need to talk about it. I’m a firm believer in talking about things, maybe too much, but I think it’s good.
I have a feeling you really like therapy.
It’s fantastic. It’s good for me to get things out of my brain and my body. They seem a lot smaller when they’re put out there.
You can listen to the full interview with Rudolph above. You can also find “The Big Ticket” at iHeartRadio or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.