Monster-in-Law: An Interview with Wanda Sykes
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By Todd Gilchrist
How much of your character was scripted and how much was improvised?
Wanda Sykes: A lot of it, I would say was a nice balance. Anya did a great job, there was already a lot of good stuff already on the page, and you know, I respect the writer, so I would always give them what was on the page, and then Robert [Luketic] would say, 'okay, now let's just do a Wanda take- just do whatever you want to do, let's just play around.' Personally, I just think he was trying to eliminate any possibility of me trying to act (laughs). 'Let's just let her play around and make her comfortable,' and that was fun. I enjoyed having that freedom to improvise and to play around, but I give Robert and Jane and Jennifer credit for that because they created the atmosphere. No one ever raised an eyebrow, like, 'can you shut her up?' or 'hey, stick to the page.' They just made me feel very welcome and that's what they encouraged me to do.
You and Jane have a great rapport. How did you develop your on screen relationship?
WS: You know, even today, Jane was like, 'what's your name again?' (laughs) She's just that good of an actress. She acts like she likes me. No, you know what? I was so intimidated from the jump, and the first time I was going to meet Jane was at a wardrobe fitting. I was there and the stylist said, 'miss Fonda will be here in fifteen minutes.' I said, 'well, you have to have me out of here in ten. I am not prepared to meet Jane Fonda! She's a legend, an icon; I can't; no, I'm not ready.' So I got out of there and then at the table read, I met her and she was just so warm, she removed that aura of whatever it is that comes with her, you know, she just removed all of that- was just so gracious and down to earth and just a real good woman. She just made me feel very comfortable, and we just hit it off, you know, from day one.
You two share some physical exchanges as well as verbal ones. How strong is Jane Fonda?
WS: That's a strong broad, let me tell you. And it wasn't like we were rehearsing that scene; she really kneed me. It was like she came up with that. She was like, 'okay, now I'm going to- bam!' and I was like 'oh my God' and Robert goes 'yeah- that's good!' I was like, 'I've got a bruise! We're not shooting Spider-Man 3! This is a romantic comedy; why am I getting bruised up? Can I get some stunt knees in here? What's going on?' But when she fights, it's real. She goes for it. That's like one of my favorite scenes.
Was the line about having a dislocated vagina your idea?
WS: That was written- that was in the script. Oh, I loved that line, but that was in the script. But I wanted to follow up with, 'well, you know you can't put Icy Hot on this.' (laughs)
There was a lot of discussion after the screening how much they would like to see you two in a film together.
WS: Oh, yeah- I would love to do a sequel for this. I would love for Viola and Ruby to, you know, be like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. That would be wonderful- The Road to Rio or whatever- and I would love it. In think there's something here; maybe we could be like Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, you know? Who knows- we'll go to prison.
What did you come up with for Ruby's motivation to stay with Fonda's diva-like character for so many years?
WS: We talked about this, and I was like, you know what? This woman, to yell at her employer and tell her about herself and then call her an old slut on top of it, I was like this beyond a working relationship; these women are friends. They really do care for each other. I feel like Ruby has been there with her for years; she's been through all of the ex-husbands and all of the other nonsense and they've traveled the world together and also I felt like Viola has probably received a lot of nice gift baskets in her career, you know, and I think Ruby has kind of picked through them and got first dibs on the gift baskets, and maybe one day Ruby will open a closet and see all of these bottles and trinkets and crystal pieces that she's lifted from a few gift baskets- a lot of nice perks working with Viola.
Do you have friends that you can be that honest with in your personal life?
WS: Yeah. The people who I consider my close friends, yeah, we're like that. They've told me a few things, and I've told them a few things, you know, but to me that's what makes someone your close friend- when they can be honest with you.
Robert said you're destined to be a big star. What do you think of that idea?
WS: You know, it's very flattering and I love him dearly because it's like he wants that, you know, for me, and I appreciate that, but I'm just focused on doing good work. I just want to keep doing things that I enjoy and keep learning, and we'll see what happens. Like when I start out in this business, I'm a stand-up comic; I still consider myself a stand-up comic, and my first thing was I want to be a really good stand-up comic, and that's what I'm still striving for and what I keep working on, and this is just part of it- all of this comes with it, you know, so that's the way I take it. I never said, 'I want to be a big star and be famous.'
Will you be doing another season of your TV show Wanda Does It? Do you have a favorite of the ones you did?
WS: Thank you- I'm glad you're aware of that. They didn't pick it up, Comedy Central didn't pick the show up, but I think my favorite episode was the brothel (laughs). The one where I went to the brothel, that was- we had a good time because at first I was really nervous going there. I was like, you know, we're going to go talk to whores; there's not a lot of comedy with whores- this is pretty tragic- I mean, they sleep with strangers for a living. I mean, there's really no happy ending when you end up being a prostitute. You know, you don't hear, 'then I got my P.H.D. and married a lawyer, had two kids and then I had some free time so I started hooking' (laughs). But those women, they were really honest and they didn't see anything wrong with it- they were like, 'you know, we're not breaking the law,' and I was like, you know, I guess if you can't type fifty words a minute...
So that was your best job?
WS: You know what, I went through the ropes: you have to get a physical, you have to get a card from the sheriff's department, you have to get a license, you've got to get a brothel ID- this is in Nevada- but no, I didn't sleep with anybody.
At what point during your participation in this film did you know that this was a role you could make your own?
WS: Um, probably during filming. When I read the script, I was like, wow, there's quite a bit here. But I had no idea that it would grow to this big of a part. It wasn't until filming and until Robert kept creating these situations- Robert made up a lot of these scenes for me; he was like, me listening at the door when Jennifer and Jane are making amends, that was total Robert.
Playing against a character like Viola must be a gift, because it brings out the best in you.
WS: Oh my God, yeah, it is. Right- exactly. I mean, the character, she gives you so much, and then to have a great actress like Jane Fonda play that character to make it so believable, and I enjoy, instead of being the tornado causing all of the problems, I'm the one that's telling everybody to get into the cellar. You know, 'here comes the tornado.' That was enjoyable to play.
Would you have the kind of patience that she had to put up with her mood swings?
WS: Yeah, if this is a friend that I really care about and I love. With friends, we've all had relationships we were like, 'you know you need to let this go,' if they are involved with somebody, and say 'you should really let this go' and they keep going back and back. 'Where were you last night?' 'Uh, uh...' 'You dirty whore! Didn't I tell you?' So we've had those exchanges and you hang in there with the person, because you know when they hit bottom you know you'll be there to say I told you so. Who doesn't love saying I told you so?
Have you ever had a 'monster-in-law' relationship with a boyfriend's mother?
WS: You know what? I've been pretty fortunate, but I've heard horror stories about friends who have been through that, the nonstop calling, the mother who calls twelve times a day. But I understand that relationship; I understand how the mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship has so many conflicts because it's so forced. It's like, 'okay, my son loves this woman and then you're telling me I have to love her because you love her? Maybe I don't like her, but I have to get along.' It's putting these two people and they both love the same man, so it's like vying for this guy's attention. It's just a tough relationship.
When did you first realize you were funny and wanted to be comedian?
WS: Actually, I majored in marketing and I have a bachelor of science. I suck at chemistry (laughs); the hard sciences, no. I guess it hit me- early on I always was a fan of comedy, but to actually go, 'okay, I'm going to go and become a comedian and pursue this thing,' was when I was working at the National Security Agency, at the NSA, and I was just bored silly and I felt like I was stealing form the tax payers. I was like, 'I don't belong here.' I mean, there could be someone who really wants this job and would probably be doing a better job at it, and I remember reading my high school yearbook and just like every entry someone made a comment about 'thanks for being so funny,' even my teachers, 'thank you for making class so much fun,' 'you should be on stage,' and I heard about a talent show and comedy was one of the categories and I said, 'you know, I'm going to write some material.' I sat down and wrote some jokes and went to the talent show, got up on stage, fell in love with it and never turned back.
What did you do at the NSA?
WS: I was a contracting specialist. I pretty much shopped all day, basically. Instead of shoes, I bought radar equipment.
Do you still have your security clearance?
WS: No, I'm sure it's expired by now. Shoot, that was back in '87.
Did you have a special niche as a comedian that you established with your routine?
WS: I believe like my first three or four years was me doing an impression of what I thought a stand-up comic was supposed to be. I mean, it was never about my point of view; I hadn't created a stage persona yet. It was just always the jokes. I was really gifted at being able to construct a joke, but it's like they weren't even memorable, my first jokes, because they were so about nothing. You know, it was like, 'hey, you know those big things you put in your car window, the auto shades? Did you know they have instructions on the side of them? They tell you to please remove auto shade before starting your ignition. Who needs this information?' You know, jokes like that- 'have you ever seen a car coming at you on the highway with the big sunglasses?' It was like jokes like that, more observational things. It wasn't until I became more confident with myself and I put myself forward instead of the jokes; at first it was put the jokes out there and I'm just behind the jokes.
Where did you develop your sense of humor?
WS: I have a funny family, but none of them are remotely in show business. Well, a couple of them are preachers, which I find funny. I have an older brother and it did feel like he got more attention, but all made sense to me because they had known him longer (laughs). Of course they like him more! They know him. He's got a good five years on me. They love this guy. Me- enh, they're still trying to figure it out.
Do you still find yourself in situations where people expect you to tell a joke or 'be funny?'
WS: Yeah, and it's like I really don't know that many good jokes, but people are like, 'hey, tell me a joke. Make me laugh.' And I'm like, come on, man. I don't have nothin'. It's hard being put on the spot like that.
Was it a struggle to break into comedy because you are female?
WS: I think so. It's like several times I was told by club owners, 'you know, I've already got one woman on the show, I don't need two.' They will have a parade of men, but women, no, you're just going to get up there and talk about your vaginas. We only need one of you. But it was a lot of that, I felt it, but I never let it hinder me or make me give up or even have some doubt. I said, 'okay, I get it.' But I think funny and talent will always win out; I mean, of course there are hurdles, but I think if you're funny you will get over all of that. And then also I think it's harder for women because comedy is so opposite of being ladylike. You know, being a stand-up comic is just, you've got to get loud, you're just saying whatever is on your mind, you're in their face, just 'look at me, look at me.' You know, it's just so not what women want; you don't want to be judged because we get enough of that, so to be a comic and to be a woman, it's hard, but like I said, if it's your passion, stay with it.
Who were your inspirations as comedians and actresses growing up?
WS: I remember as a kid watching the Ed Sullivan show and Moms Mabley was the first one, Jackie 'Moms' Mabley, she was the first one that left, that just stuck with me. I remember her. Of course, I always watched the Tonight Show, my parents didn't know I was still up, but with Johnny Carson, who I loved, and then when Joan Rivers would guest host, that was inspiring, because I said 'a woman can do this,' but folks like Lucille Ball- I loved I love Lucy. That scene in the movie where it's like 'hide the nuts!' So I'm [stuffing my face], I look at the film and I was like, I so stole that from Lucy and the candy!
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