Ego Nwodim Talks First Year on 'SNL', Leslie Jones' Mentorship and Leaving L.A. for N.Y.

The season 44 newcomer also breaks down her 'Us' parody and talks about what it's like to be the seventh-ever black female cast member on the NBC show.
Courtesy of SNL/NBC
Ego Nwodim

Alongside her impressions of Lupita N'yongo's character in Us, Tiffany Haddish and "L'evanka" Trump, Ego Nwodim's "Rae Rae" may go down as one of her most memorable roles on her first season of Saturday Night Live.

A difficult Millennial with a smothering father, Rae Rae is a guest on Tracy, a familial conflict-focused daytime talk show à la Jerry Springer that's hosted by an Ellen DeGeneres lookalike (Kate McKinnon). Upon entering the show's set, Nwodim's Rae Rae, clad in sneakers and hoop earrings, encounters a wave of boos from the audience. She gives it back to them: "Y'all don't know me!" (The sketch's main joke, revealed later, is that while Rae Rae keeps insisting she is a mystery, a Q&A with the audience proves they know everything about her.)

It was a tongue-in-cheek part for Nwodim, who, as Saturday Night Live's newest cast member, has been the subject of endless "get to know her" stories aimed at priming SNL viewers on the performer's life and work. Those stories have tended to note that Nwodim, born and raised in Baltimore, got a degree in biology at the University of Southern California and, to the dismay of her first-generation immigrant parents, began to pursue acting not long after. Also: In L.A., she became a regular at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, performed in the CBS Diversity Showcase, was named a "New Face" at 2016's Just for Laughs Festival and performed a killer Maya Angelou impersonation for Funny or Die.

Less covered has been Nwodim's road to SNL, which started when she first tested for the show in 2016 and culminated with another test two years later. As she was waiting to hear back from NBC in 2018, Nwodim says was couch-surfing after abruptly moving out of a cockroach-infested apartment: "I was desperate to hear [back]," she tells The Hollywood Reporter, to learn whether she should search for another place in New York or L.A. Nor has Nwodim spoken much about her first season as the seventh-ever black female cast member on the show after Sasheer Zamata quietly left SNL in 2017. 

In an interview with THR, Nwodim discussed her friendship with Leslie Jones (a major champion of hers on Twitter), the sketches she's successfully pitched and her dream post-SNL career.

To start at the beginning, how did you end up getting cast on Saturday Night Live?

They graciously had me test for the show back in 2016, in the spring. And then I showcased again in L.A. in August of 2018 and tested later that month, and it was cool to get to do it a second time: It was like, "Okay, now I sort of know what to expect." That was a lot of fun, to get to go back and show my growth as well.

I was desperate to hear [back]. I had very abruptly moved out of my apartment in Los Angeles because of roaches. And so I was in between homes and couchsurfing, which is not my favorite thing to do, I learned. I wanted to get a new apartment, but I didn't know if I could because I didn’t know if I would be living in Los Angeles for the next year or New York. And one day, after waking up on my former roommate’s couch, I got a call from Lorne [Michaels] himself saying that I had been cast. Because I told him about my housing situation, he cleverly said, "Well, you're going to have the same problem you have in Los Angeles about where to live, only now in New York." And that's how he broke the news to me.

Saturday Night Live has famously come under scrutiny for only having four black female cast members before Leslie Jones, Sasheer Zamata and yourself. Did you feel like you had outsized expectations on your shoulders?

I don’t think so. However, as a black woman, and I think most minorities will agree or say they share this experience, you are sort of a representative for the group you’re in, whether you like it or not. Hopefully that doesn’t have to be the case many moons from now, and sooner rather than later. I understand I’m the seventh black woman cast on the show, and that's an incredible honor. I hope that ultimately there will be more and I'll be in a larger pool of people. But it's exciting; it’s more exciting than burdensome, I would say, to get to be in the position that I'm in as the seventh African-American female cast member on the show.

What were the challenges that you faced transitioning from your work in L.A. to the Saturday Night Live model of performance and writing?

I have always wanted to live in New York City. I don't know if you heard that car honk just now, but it makes me feel alive; I love New York. And what better job as a writer and performer to have anywhere, really, but especially in New York, than to be an SNL cast member? So I was very excited about that.

As for the writing night schedule, I had heard about how the writers and cast members stay up pretty late on writing night, which is Tuesdays, into the morning. And I was kind of scared because I didn't know if I could hang after being in L.A. for so long. I think in L.A. we value our sleep a lot, and I lived there for so long that I had kind of adapted to that. The first week of working here, I felt like, "I am going where I’m told to go, I don’t know what’s going on right now," but then you do quickly adjust. I have found the work schedule exhilarating and exciting, and it's so cool that we get to do something totally new every week with the model looking the same, but it's just so different every week. It obviously comes with its challenges, like if you’re tired, it’s hard to do anything, but somehow we’re running on adrenaline.

How instructive or brutal have you found SNL pitch meetings?

Our pitches are on Monday, and it’s sort of our introduction to the host. Some of our pitches are just to make the host laugh in that moment: whether they'll be written or not is a different story. But I don’t find it to be brutal. It feels like a nice, light introduction, and it's always fun to see how each host reacts to the pitches. It's also really fun to be in the room with all my coworkers — the writers and the cast — and hearing some of the ideas that they have, because you don't know what people are going to say. I have had a few pitches make it through, and that feels like a freaking celebration. "Traffic Stop" was one, and Bowen Yang and I pitched the Us Discover Card parody, and that was very fun as well.

I wanted to ask about "Traffic Stop," which subverted the way that traffic stops involving black Americans and women sometimes go. How did that sketch come about?

It’s an idea I’ve had for some time — it was sort of like, what would it look like for two female officers to have a lot of fun on their job? I think a lot of things that I write do have some type of message behind them, but that’s not always how they’re born. I was really excited to get to do something with Leslie, so, in my mind, I was like, "I want to do something with Leslie," and I thought it would be very fun for us to get to do this thing together and bounce off of each other’s energy. And it was. I do understand the implications of that sketch as well, and I think it made people think, that's for sure, about police interactions with civilians and male interactions with women. To be able to do that in, still, a humorous way [is something] I'm proud of.

Leslie's been very supportive of you on Twitter. What is your relationship like behind the scenes?

Oh my god, yes, I love her. I love Leslie! She embraced me immediately and has been a mentor and such a cheerleader and so supportive of me through this whole process. Having her there my first year has been so helpful, and it has been so special to be there with her, especially considering the number of African-American female cast members in the history of the show. To be here with another African-American female cast member is so amazing, and to have her experience — her life experience and experience on the show — has been so helpful. I'm eternally grateful to Leslie.

Your Discover commercial/Us spoof definitely made the rounds on the Internet. Tell me about how you ended up playing her character, and how you perfected it.

I had seen the movie on opening night; in fact, I was coming back to New York, and my friends and I made plans to see it at a midnight screening before I caught my flight. I was so captivated by Lupita’s performance and how she really drove the movie and played both of her characters so well that I was like, "I need to do something with this." I told Bowen, and we went through a few ideas. I was like, "Okay, there’s something about this twin situation that’s really intriguing to me." At first, I was like, "Maybe we could do something like helpful haunted people and have them be terrifying." And then we finally landed on Discover, and when we finally landed on that, I was like, "Oh yes, that makes sense." Everyone knows those commercials.

Preparing for it, I watched the trailer more times than any sane person should. Because the movie had just come out, so I was like, “This is the only point of reference I have for Lupita’s voice and performance of the character”; there was no other way to see it. So I watched the trailer too many times in the dark of my apartment. It’s a wonder I didn’t scare myself. But it was such an honor to play Lupita because I was really so impressed with her in the movie, and that was the most captivating aspect of it for me, so to get to do some version of it felt really exciting. It was a lot of fun to do that.

Though it's early in your time on SNL, what are the particular ways that you want to make your mark on the show?

It is early in my time. My hope is to get an impression — or some version of an impression — of my mother on the show, who is representative of lots of first-generation Nigerian mothers. That’s my big goal, to represent for the Nigerians and their parents because they are truly characters. My mom is, for sure. I mainly want, through this experience, to learn a lot, and I am learning a lot and continue to do so, and grow as a writer and a performer and be challenged. As long as I'm doing that, I think I'll be happy.

Are there any past cast members whose careers after SNL you've been particularly inspired by and are interested in emulating?

Oh, absolutely. Amy Poehler, Tina Fey — I mean, such talented, powerful women that I really admire and look up to. I started at UCB Theater, which Amy is one of the founding members of. To do anything like they’ve done at this point would be a true dream. Adam Sandler is somebody who has taken his talents and found a way to play kooky characters in box-office films: That would also be a dream. But I do want to, like those people I mentioned, be a creator and active participant in projects that I do as far as behind the scenes and creatively, beyond just performing. That excites me, and also to be in the position, like Amy and Tina are, too, to give a platform to up-and-coming performers and comedians. That's many moons from now, but hopefully one day that's what I'll have to do.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.