When was the first time you realized you were funny?
“I was in elementary school and, as a way of fitting in, I sort of stumbled upon the currency of telling jokes."
When did you realize that this could be a career? Something you could pursue for the long term?
"When I started doing improv after college; and then at the Groundlings I also started to write more. That was instrumental in my trajectory, because I realized the value in creating opportunities for myself as an actor instead of waiting around for the right audition to come along that I’m then competing with all these other people for. So, I began writing there, and I wrote a one-woman show called Me, Myself, and Iran, and that’s sort of what led to the whole process of getting to SNL.”
What was the audition like?
“It wasn’t lost on me that it was an incredible opportunity, even just to get the audition itself. And, it’s so hard even just to get those five minutes on that stage in front of those people, that even getting through it feels like an accomplishment in and of itself, because there’s only one show like that, you know? So, then to prepare for it and go there and get through it, you’re kind of like, whatever happens happens. I auditioned the first time with five or six different characters and impressions. And, then I found out they wanted to see me again in a couple weeks, and went back and did a completely new audition with different characters and impressions. And then, after that they said, ‘okay Lorne wants to meet with you.’”
So, how did you finally hear the news?
“I was wandering in Midtown, and then my phone died. I went to a store to charge it, and when I turned it on I had like, five voicemails. It was really exciting. I was very grateful to Tina Fey; she saw my one-woman show and suggested to them that I get the opportunity to audition."
How did you come to the decision to leave the show? What was that feeling like?
“Everyone knows there’s nothing like SNL, so I [didn’t] think it would ever be an easy departure, but I knew I couldn’t pass on this opportunity to play Jane. I got five years there; that’s pretty great.”
None of us have seen Mulaney yet. So, give us a preview of Jane. What do we have to look forward to?
“She is a character I think a lot of women can relate to. John [Mulaney, the show’s writer and star] jokes that she’s obsessed with justice but has zero jurisdiction whatsoever over anything that happens in her life. And, she lives with these two stand-up comedians whose profession she could care less about. When John and I were trying to figure out who the character was, when he was writing the pilot for Fox, we had a two-hour discussion about this Huffington Post article that talked about using the word 'crazy' to describe a woman and the implications of that. And, it ended up making it into the pilot — Jane's first line in the entire show is, 'I am not crazy.' I think what some people call crazy can also just be having a dynamic personality. A lot of girls that get called crazy are just some of the most dynamic women out there.
Great point. What kind of similarities do you and Jane share?
“She’s very vocal and says a lot of the things that most people would self-edit. I’m not the best at bottling things up inside. In some ways it’s healthy, in other ways I guess it can terrify people at times. But, you know, she’s not passive-aggressive — she’s just aggressive. She’ll tell you exactly what’s on her mind, sometimes loudly and in a room full of people. But, you can trust that she’ll call people out on their shit. And, she has zero tolerance for idiots.”
Looking at the entertainment industry as a whole, what's your current perception of women in the space?
“I’m almost surprised people are still talking about it like it’s this novel, new thing. I grew up, borderline learned English, watching I Love Lucy. So, that was my example of just a funny person. She happened to be a woman, and was doing things that no one else had done at that time. But, first and foremost she was just an incredible performer and comedian.”
What makes you excited about the future of female comedians and female writers?
“The thing I’m most excited about is women in comedy being such a normal thing that no one’s surprised by it anymore. And, I feel like we’re way past needing to prove that that can be done. Obviously, in the last few years, there have been movies and TV shows that have shown that they can also be commercially successful.”
Do you recall any lessons that you picked up from a co-worker, from SNL or elsewhere, that helped your process?
“I remember [Will] Forte telling me — telling Jenny [Slate] and me when we started SNL — that that particular job, try to think of that job as a marathon and not a sprint. Because, it’s obviously so physically and emotionally taxing, you have to be able to last. In a lot of ways it’s a game of survival.”
“I think if you’re interested in comedy, the best thing you could do is to put yourself in a school like the Groundlings or UCB, and provide yourself with that structure of taking classes, performing, learning, growing, even failing sometimes, and growing from that. You have to just do it. And, that’s one way to do it — to sign up for classes and immerse yourself in a community of other people that also love to perform.
Your parents brought your family here from Iran when you were three. What do they think about your success as a comedy actress?
“What’s really cool is that they were always incredibly supportive, even though I’m sure on the inside they were shitting their pants that they immigrated here and that their daughter, with a four-year degree, decided to pursue comedy. I’m not sure they even knew what that meant or was going to look like. But, that’s what makes me even more grateful that they were supportive of it. And, then my little sister also went into comedy, and at that point they were just like, 'What happened? How did this happen?'"
Since you have so much experience with improv and live performance, any advice for thinking on your toes?
“I remember my first show on SNL. I got a card from Kristen Wiig. I opened it, and on the inside it just said, 'Have fun.' It’s so simple, but an incredibly easy thing to forget when you’re in a pressure cooker like that. I’m so grateful to have been reminded to do that, because I think when you’re having fun, especially in comedy, it really shows.”
Look 1: Apiece Apart shirt and pants; Topshop coat; Italia Independent sunglasses; Alexis Bittar rings.
Look 2: Chadwick Bell dress; American Apparel T-shirt; Adidas sneakers.