Jay Pharoah on Meeting Obama, Understudying Jay-Z, and What’s to Come on SNL
The 25-year-old comedian and impressionist talks prepping for his act, his best friends on “Saturday Night Live,” and how a fan once complimented his butt.
Jay Pharoah might have wrapped up his third season with Saturday Night Live this past weekend, but the 25-year-old Virginia native isn’t stopping to catch his breath. Pharoah, who took over playing President Obama from outgoing cast member Fred Armisen this season, performs May 24 through 26 at Arlington Cinema & Drafthouse, offering everything from political jokes and personal anecdotes to the impersonations (Will Smith, Eddie Murphy, Jay-Z, Denzel Washington) he showcases on NBC. We caught up with him to talk weird fan moments, transitioning into a bigger role on SNL, how he researches his impressions, and playing the President while he’s sitting just inches away.
It isn’t all that close to where you grew up in Chesapeake, but is it nice to come back to Virginia?
Heck yeah. Oh, hell yeah. I appreciate going to Arlington, Virginia, because I’ve sold out the Arlington Drafthouse the past couple of years, and I hope I can do it again this year. It’s just a great house and a great crowd. People in Arlington don’t have sticks up their butts. It’s great. Some places you go, they’re like a little too sensitive or whatever, but when you’re a comedian you’re supposed to speak your mind.
What’s the best thing about touring as opposed to being in the studio?
I love everything, but the difference is it’s just you one-on-one with the crowd and you have control over everything you’re saying, and you have that connection with the audience, that intimacy. It’s not from behind a television screen. Even on SNL you have an audience, but they’re looking at the screen, so it’s that intimacy between you and the crowd and the fact that they can almost feel your vulnerability right there when you talk to them.
You just finished filming Saturday Night Live, and now you’re on the road for most of the summer. Do you get to take a break at some point?
Do I get to take a break? No! What’s a break? Kit Kat bars? Broken bones? I’m 25. I’ve got to do as much as I can before I get over the hill. I’m trying to establish a lot before that happens, so I’ve got to keep busy. I don’t sit down. I’m not like that book on the shelf of somebody who acts studious when they’ve got company over. You know those people I’m talking about? The ones who’ve got whole offices full of damn books, and they never read a book in their lives? People come over and go, “Oh, my god, you’re so scholarly!” Not scholarly. You open those books and you’re gonna see a whole family of spiders saying hey.
If you’re not that book, which book are you?
Oh, the Places You’ll Go. The Dr. Seuss book. That’s the book I’ll be. They read it at every graduation.
You were just 22 when you made your SNL debut. Was it terrifying?
Yeah. It was terrifying, and there was definitely some naive mixed in there because I was just happy-go-lucky. As you grow you see more things and you learn more and it turns you into a more mature and on-point performer. Being so young, I was just enjoying the lights and being up there and getting the opportunity to do a lot of the stuff that a lot of people would probably kill for. I knew it was great, but as you get older you realize just how great it was.
Who’s the hardest person you’ve ever had to do an impression of?
Oh, the hardest? I thought you said the hottest. I was about to be like, “I don’t know, I don’t really do impressions of women… .” Will Smith took a while. Denzel took about three years, so I would say Denzel Washington. I definitely feel like I have him now, but there’s more I could learn to get him on point. As an impressionist and a comedian it’s about constantly learning and adding to your act.
What kind of research do you do?
I watch movies, I watch YouTube videos, I date them. Look, there’re a lot of things that can happen in the process. You know that last one’s a joke. But it’s like playing a sport—you definitely have to study the game or study that person. If you’re in the NBA you have to work on your jump shot till you know it like the back of your hand. It’s synonymous with playing sports.
You met the President a week ago. How did he react to your impression of him?
It was great. He was standing right there beside me while I was doing it, like an inch away from me, standing in my face, and he said [puts on Barack Obama voice], “That guy’s pretty good. I’m glad I met him. He did good.” I was like, okay, that’s enough for me. I’ve had a good week, personally. I did some stuff in the studio with rapper J. Cole, I had a great audition for a movie, I met the President of the United States of America. I can’t complain. There’s nothing to be mad about.
What movie? Can you say?
I can’t talk about that. But know that it’s a very smart movie and hopefully it’s going to be in the works in a few months. That’s all I can say.
You do have a movie, Ride Along, coming up in 2014.
Yes, I do. Kevin Hart, Ice Cube. It was a fun experience. Kevin is one of the greatest down-to-earth guys ever, and Ice Cube is the same. And I have another movie coming up in the fall called Get a Job. It’s CBS Films, Bryan Cranston, Anna Kendrick, Miles Teller. I’m in it. It’s a good cast.
With so many cast members leaving SNL this season, have you had any conversations with Lorne Michaels about what you’ll be doing next season?
Lorne is Lorne. He just said, “We’ll be talking over the summer,” and I definitely feel like with the void in the cast, that’ll be filled by the younger people who’ve been there for a couple of years. There are people still there who’re going to carry the show on, and I believe I’ll be a part of that. I’m kind of excited to see what happens. My two best friends on the show are Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan—we’re real close, so it’s going to be crazy to see that transition next year and the responsibilities and the duties that’ll be handed out to us.
Who will you miss the most?
I’ll miss everybody who’s leaving. There’s not one person out of the people who’re departing where I can’t say that I didn’t pick up something from them. Everybody hangs out, man—we’re a family. It’s like three of your family members moving to another state where you can’t see them as much. We’ve had Andy Samberg leave and Kristen Wiig leave but the show still goes on.
You got famous pretty fast. What’s the weirdest fan experience you’ve ever had?
Oh, I’ll tell you one. When I was at the Will Smith Men in Black premiere, there was a girl who came up to me, and she said some stuf—she said [female voice], “Hey, Jay, I’m a big fan. You know you have feminine butt cheeks.” I was like, what? What does that even mean? “You’re nice down there. It’s nice.” She proceeded to get closer to me, and at that point I was like, “Hey, Will, I’m gonna have to leave, I don’t feel this. Thanks for the food, thanks for the laughs and the alcohol, but I’m leaving. I’m not staying, because this is pretty weird.”
Meeting Jay-Z was pretty weird, too, because it was the end of the night and we were walking out under the bleachers and he’s standing there, and I didn’t realize it and I turned around, and he’s like [Jay-Z voice], “Yeah, how are you?” And I was just like, dohhhhhh. And I couldn’t say anything, I was frozen, and somebody behind him was like [gruff voice], “Do the Jay-Z impression.” And I was like, “Damn,” and so I was like [Jay-Z voice], “Yeah, I don’t really wanna do it right now cause we about to go onstage, maybe afterward ha ha ha.” And as soon as he came off the stage he was like, “That was perfect timing, perfect.” And we got in the hallway and I was like, “Dude, if you ever want somebody to take over rapping from you, give me a call.” And he started laughing.
You could be his understudy.
Yeah. I wanna be his understudy. Everything. Give me a piece. Let me understudy your money, sir. He’s like half a billionaire.
That’s a cool story, but I still think the feminine hips one is weirder.
That was really weird. She’s saying I have a nice ass, that’s what she’s trying to say, but it came out very weird. Are you saying I have childbearing mother hips? Is that what you’re saying? You don’t say that to somebody the first time you meet them. Maybe if we go out and you buy me a drink or something, but not when we just met. And they’re not childbearing mother hips, they’re adopting mother hips. I adopt.
Jay Pharoah is at the Arlington Drafthouse May 24 through 26. Tickets ($25) are available via Arlington Drafthouse’s website.