19 Sep 2009: Despite hanging with Hollywood and music-biz royalty since birth, it’s taken years for former SNL star Maya Rudolph to get a meaty film role. ‘I want to remake Purple Rain,’ she tells Amy Raphael

Between 2000 and 2007, Maya Rudolph appeared on a staggering 137 episodes of Saturday Night Live, doing riotous impressions of characters as diverse as Michelle Obama and Donatella Versace. According to a 2007 report, only 36 out of 116 cast members on SNL to that point had been women. And only 20 of those – including 30 Rock’s Tina Fey – survived into their second season. Which must mean that Rudolph is one funny woman.

  • Away We Go
  • Production year: 2009
  • Country: USA
  • Cert (UK): 15
  • Runtime: 97 mins
  • Directors: Sam Mendes
  • Cast: Allison Janney, Carmen Ejogo, Catherine O’Hara, Jeff Daniels, John Krasinski, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maya Rudolph, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Schneider
  • More on this film

She may not deny being funny – after all, she decided she had to be on SNL when she was just six, hanging out in the studio with her late mother, soul singer Minnie Riperton – but Rudolph isn’t so sure that comedy is a male sport. “People are still saying SNL is a boys’ club. But unless I was completely blind and totally out of my mind, we all worked our asses off to get pieces on each week. I never felt that being a woman was an issue. The group of women I happened to be working with were all incredibly talented and powerful. Having said all that, the women were always the better students …”

Rudolph left SNL to spend more time in Los Angeles with her partner, There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson, and their three-year-old daughter Pearl. Yet she talks of the show with all the nostalgic passion of a first love and you wonder if leaving was the right decision. “Well … If I’m in New York on a Saturday night and there’s a SNL show, I can’t not be in the building. When I started on SNL I felt like I’d found my people. It was the first place in my life where I felt I belonged.”

As children, Maya and her brother Marc spent time in the studio with their parents; their father Richard Rudolph was a composer-producer who co-wrote Minnie Riperton’s biggest hit, Lovin’ You. If you listen carefully to the end of the song you’ll hear Riperton crooning “Maya, Maya, Maya” to her three-year-old daughter, a tender moment made all the more poignant by Riperton’s death from breast cancer just four years later.

Given that she has been immersed in the music industry since birth – her godmother is R&B singer Teena Marie – Rudolph’s childhood decision to pursue any profession that involved being on stage is hardly unexpected. For a while after graduating with a photography degree from the University of California she was backing singer in the Rentals, but the pressure to be as successful as her parents was overwhelming and she turned to theatre. Shortly after joining the LA-based improv group The Groundlings she was spotted by SNL and was immediately feted for her extraordinary versatility. She can play any woman from any ethnicity or demographic and is equally brilliant at Paris Hilton, J.Lo and Lucy Liu.

Rudolph, whose mother was African-American and whose father is Jewish, is pretty sure that she hasn’t yet been cast in many films because no one knows where to place her: “If there’s a mixed actor in a film, they have to be there for a reason.” So she was ecstatic after reading Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida’s script for Away We Go, in which the central couple just happen to be a mixed race woman and her white husband. Directed by Sam Mendes as an indie film antidote to Revolutionary Road, Away We Go follows the couple as they travel around America in search of the perfect place to start a family.

It’s a gentle, meandering romcom in which Rudolph’s relationship with her on-screen husband, John Krasinski, convinces from the outset, where we see them getting intimate in bed. The story goes that Rudolph was wearing several pairs of cycling shorts at the time. Is that true? She laughs: “I knew John a little through mutual friends but as much as you like another actor, having their head between your legs on the first day of the shoot is very, very awkward. The shorts simply stopped me from feeling vulnerable and incredibly uncomfortable.”

Right now, Rudolph is feeling incredibly uncomfortable in real life; just about to give birth to her second child, she feels “totally cooked”. Asked whether her old school friend Gwyneth Paltrow offers tips on losing baby weight, Rudolph roars with laughter: “She looks fucking awesome! But I’m way lazier than she is. And horribly undisciplined …” There has been talk of Rudolph and Anderson getting married this autumn, but she will only say that they are “intellectually married”. She then adds: “I come up with a new term for our relationship every day.”

The couple have already worked together, on a comedy reading at a friend’s theatre, but she’s not sure if they’ll collaborate again. Perhaps, the Guide suggests, they could pool their talent and make a musical. Rudolph is so excited by this rather random idea that she starts shouting: “I totally want to do that! I’d be so psyched! We could do a remake of Purple Rain!” It’s such a ridiculous idea that’s it’s actually utterly brilliant. I urge her to get her intellectual husband on board straight away. “I so will!”

Then she pauses for a moment as reality hits: “Just as soon as I’ve had this goddam baby.”

• Away We Go is out now