"Comedians have to reflect on life": "SNL" alum Jay Pharoah on comics becoming great dramatic actors

Pharaoh tells Salon about his movie "Spinning Gold" and busts out an Obama impression and his "resting Kanye face"

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published April 11, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Jay Pharoah (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Jay Pharoah (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

When it comes to success, society often pushes this idea of hyper-focus and insane dedication. Comedian Jay Pharoah explained how wandering, traveling and taking gambles has pushed both his acting and comedy to the next level. "I feel like this is the year of me really coming into myself with everything — with acting, with stand-up, even with music," he told on me on "Salon Talks."

Pharoah is most known for being a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" and being the best impressionist of all time— mastering the voices of Barack Obama, Kevin Hart, Jay-Z, Eddie Murphy, Bernie Mac and Chris Rock, to name a few. Being an industry master at anything makes it hard for fans to see you as something else. For Pharoah, that other something is dramatic acting — an art he's been practicing since he was a teenager growing up in Virginia.

"When you're really good at doing impressions, everything else has to line up with it," Pharoah said. In his new film, "Spinning Gold," in theaters now, Pharoah plays Cecil Holmes, a record executive and co-founder of Casablanca Records. It's a challenging role that will force viewers to take him seriously because he has to rely solely on acting skills, not comedy. Pharoah opened up about the process of leveling up his acting, gathering ideas for a new comedy special and how stand-up opened his world as a "sheltered kid."

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Jay Pharoah here to hear about his transition from stand-up to multi-hyphenate artist and to catch his fresh impressions of Kanye West and Barack Obama, or read a Q&A of our conversation below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You've been doing comedy for a long time. You started doing stand-up as a teenager. Is comedy in your DNA?

Absolutely, man. My family is funny. I got so many characters in my family. My dad is one of the funniest people in the world, and if I make him laugh I know I'm doing what I'm supposed to do. He used to laugh at me. Now he's laughing. I'm like, "Ah, I'm wearing you down, Papa. I'm wearing you down." We all funny. Everybody funny. My mom's funny. She from Brooklyn, you know what I mean? They don't really got no filter and they can really make somebody sensitive hurt. But whatever, you know?

Congratulations on the film "Spinning Gold." Tell us how the project came about for you.

Timothy Bogart, who's Neil Bogart's son, reached out to me years ago. This was in 2013. We sat down. '13 was funny because I had hips. I got rid of them s**ts. I don't got them no more. I got rid of them s**ts.

Timothy hit me up. We had lunch in New York and he told me about this story. He was like, "Man, Casablanca Records. Buddha Records." He was like, "The story of Kiss and P-Funk. And even Bootsy. Also Berry Gordy, Donna Summers, Bill Withers, fricking Village People." These are all the artists, the prominent artists that were on that label. He said he knows he wants me in it, but he's trying to figure out which role he's going to give me. At first, he had me doing Frankie Crocker. That's who I was supposed to be at first.

But I read for the sidekick role, which is Cecil Holmes. I read for Neil Bogart's sidekick. He was like, "It's more substance in the story, and I think you could pull it off. I want you to audition for this part." I said, "All right, cool." So I auditioned for that part, ended up getting it. And then shout-out to my boy Chris Redd. Chris Redd got Frankie Crocker. It's been a long journey — you're talking about talking about this film in 2013.

People don't understand how long this stuff takes.

Yeah, and then starting to film it in 2019, having the world shut down and then pick up filming it again in 2021, to finally have a finished product to go to the movie theaters in 2023. It's been a journey but I feel like a lot of people are going to get a chance to see different chops in this movie.

There's a scene in there that if enough people see it, it could be nominated for something big. I feel like this is the year of me really coming into myself with everything, with acting, with stand-up, even with music. Dude, I got music. I got music dropping, official stuff. And I got bars. I got bars. 

"I feel like this is the year of me really coming into myself."

You know, you drink that VA 757 water and goddammit you a superhero. I feel like everything is just pushing. I'm happy about it. I feel blessed. And I pay enough people. A lot of people getting percentages. You know what I'm saying? I'm like, God dang. We married? You take half my check. 

You got to put the work in and you got to have a team. You cannot do it without a team. Everybody has a team. Even people that you think, Michael Jackson had a team God dang it, Prince . . . Well, Prince was the only one who could do it by himself. Okay. He was the only one. Everybody else, they need a team. Prince was just like, "I don't care. I play every instrument. I don't need anybody." And he didn't. He played 22 instruments.

Prince was different, man. 

Hey, can we talk about how when I was on "Family Feud" and they were asking biggest pop stars of all time and I said Prince, it wasn't even on the board.

That's crazy. Who created that board?

Even Steve Harvey said, "Boy, that don't make no sense, boy. You mean to tell me, you know good hell well that should be up on that board, boy. Everybody leave. Everybody leave. We walking out of here. We walking out of here." Everybody just got up and walked out. 

I would've lost. I'm like Prince, the king, and HOV.

You said HOV? Hey, my cousin said Chris Brown. I said, "You done lost your mind." Not with a survey of white people. They're not going to pick Chris Brown. But I thought they'd pick Prince. I mean Breezy has frequented all communities when it comes to the ladies. Of course he has fans, but one of the kings of pop, you don't have Prince up there?

That man ain't been gone that long. They trying to forget about him already. 

They didn't like him. They didn't want him. They didn't like him because he was acquiring his masters. You know when you do that, they don't like you, man.

Funny comes so naturally to you. Is playing a role where you don't get a chance to land a lot of jokes difficult?

No, I mean the good thing about me is I did grow up in theater. That's where I started. That's why I really had no fear of the stage when I started doing stand-up because I was already out there. I got scared on stage when I was nine years old when I was Powhatan in Pocahontas and I didn't know the lines. My teacher still put me up and made me do it in front of everybody. The kids behind me, they had to feed me the lines and get me through it. My friends got me through it. They got me through it. 

But Mr. Salmons, Mr. Salmons, he was a butt at the time. I thought he was a butt, right? Fast forward to 11th grade year. 11th grade year, I do this play called "The Damn Yankees."

"If you're good at making somebody laugh, you can make somebody cry too."

Two weeks before — and like I said, I didn't know my lines when I was little — so I said to myself, I'm always going to know my lines. I have to do that.

Cut to two weeks before "The Damn Yankees" comes out, the lead, this dude, I'm not even going to give him justice because he'd probably take this clip and put it on his Facebook page or whatever. I'm not giving anybody clout, but the lead dropped out of the play two weeks before and I had to play the lead, Mr. Applegate. Shout-out to Ms. Schuler. I love Ms. Schuler. That's my drama teacher from Indian River. She said, "I think you can do it." I learned those lines in two weeks. Killed the performance. At opening night, Mr. Salmons was there and he said, "I knew you could do it. I knew you always had that in you."

So I'm not foreign to the stage when it comes to dramatic acting, man, and being able to go there, because I was in Hurrah Players, theater troupes, all in Virginia. Shout-out to Hugh Copeland. God dang it, man. You getting a lot today. God dang, you pulling the threads off Jay Pharaoh! You just pulling back the layers and seeing everything out. So it wasn't hard. It was comfortable.

If you could have it your way, would acting be number one for you?

I've been trying to tell people this for years. I've been trying to tell these folks, man. Now of course you have gotten to see some of the dramatic chops in the movies like "Unsane." That movie I did with Christina Milian. I'm a little funny in that too. But I do have serious parts, "Resort to Love." There was another movie I did with Ashley Benson called "Private Property." That was another one that was dramatic.

You can see how a lot of people who are comedians are transitioning over to that. Martin Lawrence, he just did a film where he plays a detective. Not funny at all, but it's a serious role. So if you're good in one, if you're good at making somebody laugh, you can make somebody cry too. You have those skill sets. Comedians have to reflect on life. So whatever is going on, whatever we're portraying out there, whatever we're giving out there, this is actual life that we're painting for you. And we've been through it. That's why you can connect with it. So it's just natural. Eddie Murphy is great at drama. He should have had an Oscar.

Jamie Foxx has an Oscar.

Jamie Foxx. And look, Jamie Foxx got it for "Ray." There's so many. Another one you want to talk about that could cross over to that is Mike Epps. Mike Epps is good in dramatic roles. If you look at his chops, he's good. Another one, Robin Williams. All of his characters had so much vulnerability with them. You could see the childlike innocence in his eyes. And it was like he could make you laugh or he could make you cry. Jim Carrey is the same.

I almost forgot Robin Williams did stand-up.

"In today's age, you can cross every border. Everything you want to do, you can do it, as long as you put the work in."

Right? And here's something else funny. A lot of people forget that Jamie Foxx is a great stand-up comedian. People be forgetting that because they're so used to seeing him in other things. But it's like in today's age, you can cross every border. Everything you want to do, you can do it, as long as you put the work in. You see Jake Paul and Logan Paul. You see how they just flipping, boxing, influencing, going to the WWE, all of this. It's possible.

Donald Glover, the way that he crossed over, the way that he did "Atlanta," the way that he did music, the way that he's doing movies. It's OK to be multi-talented in 2023. As long as you have a fan base and you have people who are willing to give you business, you can't get canceled. Real talk.

You are the best when it comes to doing impressions. What biopic could you see yourself being in?

There's a few. I mean, the easiest one, you can literally see it: Eddie Murphy. Listen, I can put the red leather suit on and just talk to the people and just be cool. That's what it's all about. Just being really cool. 

I can also play Kanye West. I could play Kanye West in the biopic. I was looking at our side by sides and I was looking at our smiles. I was like, "Oh s**t. I got a Kanye smile. I know I got the resting Kanye face."

You got to get the jaw implants though. 

Dude, it was so hard for me to try to do that on "SNL" when I had retainers in and they put two little jaws back here in the back of my cheeks. I was talking, but as I'm talking, it's coming up, bro. I was trying to keep it down. So I was, "You know, because. I try to tell people tidbits of information and people don't listen because they don't want the truth. And when they get the truth, they can't handle it." So I can see myself doing that. 

I could play Will Smith in a biopic if they pull my ear. If you've ever seen me do Behind the Actor on YouTube, that series I used to do with two actors going back and forth. I had Will Smith. I put tape behind my ears. Had them joints out like this, like dog, because Will Smith got some sonars on his head. Them joints is ultra 4K, he get the crispy signals. That's what he get. He get all the squiggly channels that they pick up in the ear lobes. Shout-out to Will Smith though. He don't need no bad press.

You have any specials in the works?

Yeah. I'm working on the material for this special. I haven't done one since 2014. But I really needed to put the work in and just go on the road. Go on the road and really get comfortable, comfortable, comfortable on stage again. Because you're doing "SNL," you're doing a million things. You can't put as much focus on that when you have to split it for "SNL." I'm not saying that it can't be done, but you'll have better results doing a special if you have the time to go on the road and constantly do the jokes over and over and over and over again.

Then I found my voice. I know where my voice is now. When I was like 26, 27, I didn't really know. I was still trying to develop it because I was predominantly a voice guy. 

"I could play Kanye West in the biopic. I was looking at our side by sides and I was looking at our smiles. I was like, "Oh s**t. I got a Kanye smile."

Of course I started stand-up early. I did. But I've always been really good at doing impressions. When you're really good at doing impressions, everything else has to line up with it. You got to be really, really good at jokes too. You can't just have one, because you know, you'll be exposing the chinks in your armor. You have to make sure that everything is up to par. And yeah, I had to get out there. I had to write more.

You have more experience. You're older.

That's another thing. I was a sheltered kid. I come from a real marginalized, a community of apostolic folks. My folks are apostolic, man. I didn't get exposed to everything that a lot of people got exposed to as kids. There was certain stuff I couldn't listen to. I had to sneak and listen to Ludacris and listen to Biggie. I had to sneak that stuff man, because my parents, they weren't having that.

I remember I was playing Ludacris' "Back For the First Time" and I was playing his second track and then the lyrics go, "It's too many n****s, not enough h**s, too many rookies, not enough pros. The game got switched on some Ludacris s**t. So all y'all can suck my d**k, b***h." That part was playing. My dad comes in my room as I start playing track No. 2. He said, "Oh what you listening to?" I said, "Oh no." I said, "Nah, Tony Pharoah." I said, "Not today." 

He said, "No, no, no. I want to know what you listen to. Go ahead and play it." So I said, "OK." I played the joint. "I hate it when there's too many n****s, not enough h**s. Too many rookies. The game got switched on some Ludacris s**t. All y'all can suck my d**k." My dad said, "Absolutely not." He took the CD, man. He took the CD and put it in his room. But you know what was funny, that CD was a burned CD. So I just waited for him to leave for work and I swapped it out. And I brought it back and listened to it.

I didn't have a lot of experience. I didn't get kissed until I was 16 years old. I didn't lose it until I was 18. There's things, normal kids probably were freaks at like 12, 13. They was smelling each other's fingers and s**t. I ain't know nothing about that. When I left Virginia and I was on "SNL," I had a girlfriend. I dated her for four years. And then after those four years, oh boy, them numbers. Woo. Then I started experiencing things. 

It's all material. I tell my writing students, writers live in the world. You have to live in the world. If you don't live in the world, what you talking about?

Art imitates life, bro. Art imitates life. And everything that is funny is relatable. Everything that you go through, you might think that you the only one that does something. No. We all do it. We just don't all talk about it. And folks are waiting for somebody to talk about it. So they could be like, oh, I'm not alone. Because we all, we all do the same s**t. 

"Stand-up is such a fertile ground right now."

Asian, Black, white, Spanish, Latino, whatever the hell you are. If you have a family, y'all go through the same exact s**t everybody does. Y'all might listen to different music, but the core general basis of it is all the same s**t.

I had to learn that. I thought stand-up was like some hard s**t like, "Oh, I got to come over here." No, motherf****r. Be relatable. Don't try to be so different. I know you trying to be different, but be different in commonality.

We cover a lot of politics here at Salon. How would Barack Obama tell everyone they need to go see "Spinning Gold" as soon as it comes out?

Well, he would say this. He would say that everybody in this movie is absolutely phenomenal. Also, he would also say that Jay Pharoah, he shines in a way that's so splendid. That probably wasn't highlighted the way that people wanted it to be highlighted years ago. So it is a big-screen movie. Go see it. And I get percentages. So make sure you take your a*s out to the movie theater and support Black artists.

I mean, there are other white people in there too. But it's a good movie. And it's about Motown, Buddha, Casablanca records and the history of it will never be seen like that ever again. It was sex, drugs, rock and roll. And back in the day, that's just what used to happen. And I think you're going to enjoy the ride and you're going to see a lot of people together and you're going to learn a lot and you're going to end up loving those characters even more by the time you leave the film. So go see it, b***h.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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