Lorne Michaels Talks 'SNL' Cast Changes and Alec Baldwin's Trump

Lorne Michaels - H 2016
Getty Images

Lorne Michaels - H 2016

Ahead of the Season 42 premiere, Michaels opens up about Baldwin's high-profile addition (it was Tina Fey's idea!) and the "intuitive decisions" that led him to part ways with Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah.

He's been at it now for 42 years, but Lorne Michaels still has a few tricks up his sleeve. The Saturday Night Live executive producer, 71, made headlines on Wednesday by revealing Alec Baldwin would take on the all-important role of Donald Trump in the Oct. 1 season premiere — a part Baldwin will revisit throughout the season. Michaels also shook up his cast, releasing two six-year veterans from their contracts — Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah — and one relative newcomer (Jon Rudnitsky); to fill out the ranks, he's added three new faces to the mix, including the show's first Latina castmember. Ahead of the Season 42 premiere (hosted by Margot Robbie, and the first of four weekly shows in a row), The Hollywood Reporter talked to Michaels about his new Trump (Tina Fey's idea!), his reasoning behind the casting changes and the potential downsides of breaking out on a stage as big as SNL's.

When did you come up with the idea to make Alec Baldwin your new Donald Trump and how did you present it to him?

The idea came out of a conversation with Tina Fey at some point during the summer. Then I mentioned it to Alec but he’d already committed himself to a movie and [he and wife Hilaria] were about to have their third child. There were a lot of obstacles in the way to working it out. But I just thought he’d be brilliant doing it and I thought he and Kate [McKinnon] would be a match.

What did Tina Fey say to you?

We were talking about who should do it. And she said, “Well, the person that should really play it is Alec.” And I went, “Yeah!” A light went on.

Some say Trump has gone past the point of satire. What new is Alec bringing to the topic?

I think [it’s more about] the people writing the debate sketch — [SNL head writers] Chris [Kelly] and Sarah [Schneider]. We have a long tradition of doing these debates and I think, hopefully, it’s funny.

You’re famously tough to make laugh. Have you laughed out loud watching it in rehearsals?

We read it yesterday and it was really funny. We’re not rehearsing it until tomorrow. But the read-through was really funny. Whether it’s Bush-Gore or Ford-Carter, it’s getting a take. It’s much more in the writing than almost anything else. You have to stand back enough from the actual event and find a take on it that you think is funny and smart. Hopefully we did.

Have you had “what if” discussions about what direction the humor will take if Trump wins versus if he doesn’t win?

You so don’t understand my life. I’m just thinking right now about Saturday. Next week, [Oct. 8 host] Lin-Manuel Miranda will be sitting in the office and we’ll start again — so, no, we never go that far. There’s no long-range plans. There’s just, you know, Saturday.

There have been some big casting changes this season. Can you explain what happened to Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah?

I think that the lifeblood of the shows change. I love Taran, I love Jay, I think they’re both super talented. They’ve both been here six years. And if you don’t keep making changes you don’t change. You know? I can’t explain it any other way, because there’s no way of explaining it. Every now and then new voices come in — both in the writing staff and the cast.

I’m just curious what the difference was between Taran and Jay and other veteran cast members that end up staying with the show much longer?

Well, put it this way. Chevy Chase was there for a year-and-a-half. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd were there for four years. Jimmy Fallon was there for five years. Fred Armisen was I don’t know how many years. It’s whether or not they’re — I don’t know. There’s people's lives involved here so I’m not really... There are decisions that you intuitively come to, that now we have to do something different, that’s all.

What drew you to the three new cast additions? What are you looking for now, in 2016?

I don’t think I’m looking so much from a 2016 point of view. You’re always looking at the same thing, which is people that are doing something that you haven’t seen before, that you think have some level of originality and freshness and talent that make you laugh. And that stand a decent chance in the group we have now — where there would be no displacement, where they’d get parts and where you think there’s a future for them. Two years ago, when I brought in Pete [Davidson] and Leslie [Jones], we already had a full cast. But they both had an impact right away — and I think that’s what happens. You’re just trying to in some way always improve the show in the off-season.

Leslie has really popped over the summer, between her social-media coverage of the Olympics and Ghostbusters. The downside of that was the trolling and bullying she faced online. Have you ever had to deal with a situation like that?

We’ve dealt with a lot of things over 42 years. I think no one is prepared for the level of celebrity that comes with being on television and particularly as big a stage as this. Everything changes and almost no one adjusts quickly because it’s overwhelming. So I think she handles everything really well and I love her. We were at dinner the other night with the cast and Margot Robbie and [Leslie] was really funny about all of it. I felt terrible that she had to go through it. That part was awful. But it’s also fame in the age of social media. The velocity of those attacks and how perspectives change is really difficult to deal with.

You’ve been tinkering with Weekend Update for a while. Are you finally happy with the chemistry, writing and pace?

We spent a lot of time on it over the summer. I think it’s in a good place. I think [Colin Jost and Michael Che] are good with each other now. I mean, they were always good with each other in the sense of liking each other and getting along — but I think they’ve found a way to work that really good.

There was some controversy over having Trump on to host last season. Do you regret that at all? Are you going to have him back this season?

I don’t want to rehash those things. He is the nominee of the Republican party. We’ve always tried to be non-partisan. I think that he’s one of the most controversial candidates that’s ever happened. But you’ll see what we do this week.