New Again: Maya Rudolph
In New Again, we highlight a piece from Interview’s past that resonates with the present.
Maya Rudolph is a cool mom. The former SNL star and actress Rudolph is reportedly pregnant with her fourth child with director Paul Thomas Anderson. Pregnant or not, next month Rudolph will take the stage at Carngie Hall with her Prince cover band, Princess, for a “Music of Prince” benefit concert alongside Elvis Costello, Talib Kweli, The Roots, and Sandra Bernhard.
We first met Rudolph two years into her SNL run in October of 2002, when we asked Donatella Versace, the subject of one of her most famous skits, to give Rudolph some lessons in how to be a diva.
Comedy and diva summit
by Donatella Versace
Self-described California girl and Lakers fan Maya Rudolph grew up in an LA showbiz family. Her mother was singer Minnie Riperton and her father is songwriter and producer Richard Rudolph, and Rudolph spent her early years standing backstage watching her parents perform. Although she followed them into a music career, Rudolph soon turned to her first love, comedy, joining the Groundlings, LA’s renowned theater group. In 2000 she joined the cast of Saturday Night Live and found a way to combine both of her talents with her hilarious parodies of singers including Nelly Furtado and Destiny’s Child. But it is her impersonation of Donatella Versace that is fast becoming Rudolph’s trademark. La Versace has seen her imitator and approves, although she believes the 30-year-old could use a few lessons in how to be a diva. So, with Ingrid Sischy moving the conversation along from her office in New York, Rudolph sat pen in hand at the Covent Garden Hotel in London, while Versace reclined in her suite at the Ritz hotel in Paris, surrounded by her communications director, two assistants, a hair stylist, makeup artist, and assorted bodyguards. Welcome to Diva 101.
INGRID SISCHY: Hi, Donatella.
DONATELLA VERSACE: Hi, Ingrid. How are you?
SISCHY: Good. So we’ve got Maya on the line, too.
VERSACE: Hi, Maya.
MAYA RUDOLPH: Hi, Donatella. How are you?
VERSACE: I’m good. But forgive me if I immediately start to bitch a little bit. [laughs] Maya, the diamonds you wear when you imitate me on Saturday Night Live are nothing compared to mine. I can tell from a mile away that your jewelry is fake. You can’t do that to me, darling. You can’t wear fake jewelry. I’m allergic to it. I get a rash all over my body. [all laugh]
RUDOLPH: I’m going to start saying that on set. “I can’t wear these fake jewels—I’m allergic.”
VERSACE: I think I should teach you a few things about being a diva.
VERSACE: A real diva would never scream at her guests to get out—she would ask one of her assistants to make the guests get out. This is one of the rules of divadom.
RUDOLPH: Because you want to keep an air of calm and cool.
VERSACE: Yes, you send your assistant. Not to shout, just to take people out of the room. To shout is too much, that’s vulgar. A diva doesn’t do that. You understand? The second rule is if you can afford jewelry, you buy the real ones; if you cannot afford real ones, don’t wear them.
RUDOLPH: Exactly, go naked.
VERSACE: OK? And third, the hair doesn’t move enough. It looks so fake. From Italy to New York you can see it. And I don’t wear a dress in the bathtub. [all laugh] The bathtub is full of water, scented oil, and I wear my embroidered-by-hand G-string. A little black one. And petal roses are scattered all over the water.
RUDOLPH: That sounds nice.
VERSACE: Yeah. And the guy who’s playing your assistant looks passé. The guys I like now are taller and slender.
RUDOLPH: So I need better guys.
VERSACE: Yeah. Your assistant has a very ’80s look—out of fashion. I am going to send you some pictures of the models I use now. I’ll select the men for you. I have a thousand more things to tell you.
RUDOLPH: I’m writing it down as we speak—my notes on being a diva. [all laugh]
VERSACE: It takes a while to make yourself a diva.
SISCHY: How long?
VERSACE: Oh, my God. At least 10 years.
RUDOLPH: But you don’t think you were born with it?
VERSACE: Of course I was born with it. I was a diva the first day I was born. That was in my fingers in the nursery room. [all laugh] Anyway, I speak English very badly, but not as badly as you do when you’re being me.
RUDOLPH: No, no, no. Your accent is so beautiful.
VERSACE: Yours is better than mine, but you make me sound like a Brooklyn girl. I never do go to Brooklyn, always Manhattan. But I don’t want to offend you. I really like you.
RUDOLPH: Oh, that’s so nice to hear, Donatella. It means so much to me that you like what I do.
VERSACE: I like you very much but I want you to do me for real.
RUDOLPH: I would love if you would come in and teach me how to really do you.
VERSACE: Keep doing me, please, for the rest of your life. [all laugh]
RUDOLPH: I want to create a Donatella franchise.
VERSACE: That’s a good idea. Let’s call it DV Franchising. With the initials. You see, a real diva doesn’t need to say her name.
RUDOLPH: Yeah, I don’t call myself Maya anymore, it’s just MR. You can call me M for short.
VERSACE: I call you M, you call me D.
RUDOLPH: Okay. [both laugh]
VERSACE: One thing you do well is the dresses. But I can send you some real Versace gowns—it would be better.
RUDOLPH: Yeah! We need to have the real thing. For this story I wore Versace, and I look like a fox. The dress made my body look insane, and it was the most exquisite thing. I’m in love with it. It’s purple and yellow—Lakers colors. I’m such a Lakers fan; I’m such a California girl.
SISCHY: Donatella, I was thinking we might ask Maya some things about her life before she became obsessed with playing you. First of all, Maya, you grew up in LA and your mother was singer Minnie Riperton and your dad is Richard Rudolph, the songwriter and producer. I know your mother died when you were very young, but what an amazing thing it must have been to have parents who were such incredible musicians.
RUDOLPH: Yeah, music is really my life. I don’t sound anything like my mother; she was so unique and her voice was its own thing. When I was a little girl, I would stand on the side of the stage and watch my mom singing out there in beautiful gowns. She was a diva in the most exquisite sense. Those are very vivid memories for me. I always had the idea of wanting to be on a stage, in these beautiful gowns, with a microphone in my hand, and that comes from my mom.
SISCHY: A few years ago you were at the start of a major music career, touring with your band The Rentals in support of Alanis Morissette, Garbage, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but then you moved into comedy. How did that happen?
RUDOLPH: The truth is that I had always felt most comfortable doing comedy. But music is such a natural part of me, it was something that I always did. So a gig came up, and then it became a job, and the next thing I knew I was just out of college and I thought, All right, I’ll do music, because it’s the one thing I can do easily without ever worrying about it. But then the comedy was always there—my dream since I was a little girl was to be on Saturday Night Live. I was truly obsessed with Gilda Radner. I thought she was the funniest woman, and I believed that being a comedian was the most exciting thing you could be. I used to do impressions of her when I was five, because I had hair that looked like Roseanne Roseannadanna. [laughs] When you find your heroes as a kid, they stay with you forever, and so I’d always wanted to be like Gilda when I grew up—it was something inside of me that I knew I had to do. So I thought, I know I’ll pick up the music again, but let’s go and find out what this is really like.
VERSACE: It sounds to me like whatever you want to do you get done. You’re a very determined person.
RUDOLPH: I hope so. You know, I studied fashion design—
VERSACE: —Oh, don’t go there, please. Forget about fashion design.
SISCHY: [laughs] Donatella, when did you first see Maya doing you?
VERSACE: Somebody sent me a tape from New York. I think she’s the best person that imitates me. They also imitate me in Italy, but not that well.
SISCHY: It’s amazing how many people do imitate you, Donatella.
VERSACE: Why is that? Am I ridiculous? [laughs]
RUDOLPH: No, you’re amazing.
SISCHY: Maya, when you imitate people, do you ever worry about offending them?
RUDOLPH: Well, the reaction from Donatella has been the most favorable in terms of someone who really has a good sense of humor about themselves.
SISCHY: Are other people offended?
RUDOLPH: Yeah, I think they do get offended sometimes. It’s interesting to me, because if I was such a well-known figure that people were doing me, I would be so flattered.
VERSACE; I’m very flattered. I think the ones who are offended are less intelligent than the other ones.
SISCHY: Yes. Also for you, Donatella, I know from being with you and your brother Gianni that laughing was always the most important thing.
VERSACE: Yes. It’s very, very important.
SISCHY: And is it important to you too, Maya?
RUDOLPH: Absolutely. Any comedian knows that it’s like not to laugh. I think a lot of people in comedy would say that they know the dark places as well as the light—
VERSACE: Excuse me, both of you. But I have a private jet waiting for me to take me to St. Tropez, so I am off.
RUDOLPH: Wait a minute! Where are you going?
VERSACE: I’m going to St. Tropez for the weekend. I just finished the haute couture fashion show here in Paris, and my jet is waiting for me.
SISCHY: In true diva style, huh? Donatella, since you have a private jet waiting, is that another diva rule for Maya?
VERSACE: Of course. Never commercial flights, only private jets. The minimum is Gulfstream Four.
SISCHY: And what needs to be on that jet?
VERSACE: Water, ice and lemon and a straw, because drinking without a straw can mess up your lipstick. You should drink from a straw, a black straw.
SISCHY: A black straw?
VERSACE: Yes. [Rudolph laughs] You know I like black. Anyway, I can’t wait to meet you, Maya. You are very talented, that’s obvious. And thank you for making me laugh.
RUDOLPH: Thank you for being so gracious, you make it such a joy to do you. Will you promise me one thing—that you will come be on the show?
VERSACE: Of course, whenever you want. And tell anyone who bothers you that somebody who can make people laugh is a very important person—a great mind.
RUDOLPH: I agree. We are going to get along just fine.
VERSACE: Yes. Bye, bye Maya.
RUDOLPH: Bye, bye.
SISCHY: Bye, DV. Have a great trip.
VERSACE: Ciao, Ingrid. Ciao. [hangs up]
SISCHY: Wasn’t that heaven? Maya, you touched on something earlier about knowing what it’s like not to laugh. Why do you think so many comedians find their humor comes from dark places?
RUDOLPH: I don’t know. I can only say for myself that the comedy was always there. I always enjoyed being “on” and making people laugh. There’s this moment I remember from when I was seven or eight; I was with a friend and she hurt herself and started to cry, and I just started talking in a funny voice. I thought, This is much better than feeling bad; I want to make her feel good. And she started to laugh. There’s the power that comedy gives you, and enjoyment. It’s like, “Yes, you’re deferring pain, but isn’t it more fun to laugh while you’re doing it?”
A lot of comedians will say they find humor in sadness. The characters that I write on the show are not totally together people. I’ve got a girl who is 14 and lovelorn and will never have the boy she’s obsessed with. To me that’s very real and very honest. I understand the sadness, but it’s so pathetic that you just have to laugh.
SISCHY: You majored in photography at the University of California, Santa Cruz and you also studied fashion design. Do you think comedy is visual, too?
RUDOLPH: For me it is. I’m a visual person, so when I think of characters, a lot of the times I’ll say, “I want to do a lady with really big red hair,” and it will start from there.
SISCHY: How do you do your research? Are you constantly looking at TV and fashion magazines?
RUDOLPH: Yes. I’ve always been obsessed with pop culture. Growing up in LA, you’re a city kid, but it’s a company town. It’s like living in the town where there’s a steel mill and everybody works for the mill. It becomes part of your consciousness, whether you realize it or not.
SISCY: So you left LA and moved to New York when you got the job on Saturday Night Live.
RUDOLPH: When they told me I got the show, I had two weeks to move to the East Coast. It was all so last-minute. But it was the best way to go, because I didn’t have time to think about it.
SISCHY: Exactly. People always think this stuff happens in a planned way, but it rarely does.
RUDOLPH: Absolutely. And I’m glad it happened that way, because I can’t imagine a better fit. It’s a really natural evolution of this thing I was creating in my head as a kid, growing up feeling like such a freak and that I didn’t belong anywhere. It came at the right time and it just feels right.
THIS INTERVIEW INITIALLY APPEARED IN THE OCTOBER 2002 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.
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