Jay Pharoah Tells Us All About Working On The iPhone-Shot ‘Unsane’ And Why He Thinks His Obama Disappeared On ‘SNL’

Bleecker Street

Jay Pharoah was still only 22-years-old when he was hired as a featured player on Saturday Night Live in 2010. Over the course of six seasons, Pharoah went from a go-to impressionist – from his dead-on Barack Obama and Denzel Washington, to a surreal Shaquille O’Neal – to writing sketch material like the music parody “What Does My Girl Say?” and, yes, the now famous (or infamous) “Hotline Bling” parody that features Donald Trump dancing to Drake.

One of the tricks of Saturday Night Live is that it’s difficult, at least at first, for comedians with a background in stand-up to adjust. At SNL you’re expected to write your own material and stand-ups are thrown in there and told to do something they’ve never done before. It’s like someone who drives a car really well to all of a sudden be told to build a car. It’s possible to learn, but it takes some time. And Pharoah did learn how to play the game, appearing more and more frequently on the show as he became one of its stars. (Though during his last season we didn’t see his Obama at all other than a brief cameo in a Lonely Island sketch. Pharoah takes us through what he thinks happened.)

When I first met Pharoah in 2012, the first words he said to me were, “You don’t like my Principal Frye sketch.” I bring this up now because the thing I’ve learned about Pharoah over the years is that he is driven, even enough to call out a critic who didn’t like one of his signature sketches. (For the record, I did come around on it.) Any time I’d randomly run into him over his years at SNL — Pharoah has a superpower of being basically everywhere — the conversation was always some form of, “Watch out, you won’t believe what I have coming up.” It’s probably no coincidence that Pharoah changed his stage name to “Pharoah,” from Farrow, because there’s little doubt that he would like to rule the world if he could. When he was let go from SNL before the 2016-2017 season, of course this would just drive him even more.

Now Pharoah is co-starring in Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, a movie billed as a “psychological thriller,” which is true, but would also qualify as a straight-up horror movie. Claire Foy plays Sawyer, a woman who has recently moved to a new city to start her life over after unsuccessfully trying to stop a man from stalking her. Still feeling the effects, she seeks psychological help and winds up being committed to a private institution that is running an insurance scam – keeping patients there longer than they need to be until their insurance dries up. Pharoah plays Nate, a fellow institutionalized patient who is an undercover journalist, working on a big story about this institution, who eventually befriends Sawyer. But then a new orderly (Joshua Leonard) starts at the institution who looks a lot like Sawyer’s stalker. But even Sawyer, on a cocktail of drugs and paranoia, can’t be 100 percent sure at first. Soderbergh shot this film on an iPhone, which just brings an extra layer of weirdness to the film.

The now 30-year-old Pharoah is quite excited about Unsane, and he should be. (Read our review of the film here.) It’s a different kind of role for him and even Pharoah didn’t know his part would be quite this big. As he says ahead, he didn’t even realize how substantial his role was until he saw the credits.

I haven’t randomly run into you in a while.

Yeah, dude, I’m on the West Coast, man.

Well, I guess that’s why.

It would be a little bit hard to see me in New York.

You’re keeping busy.

Oh my God, yeah. Like nobody’s business. It’s all good.

And now you’re in a Steven Soderbergh movie.

I couldn’t believe it either. I couldn’t believe that Soderbergh had reached out and he had a part for me in his movie. I couldn’t believe it.

He came to you?

Yeah, yeah. It was, “Hey, Steven Soderbergh’s doing this movie, he wants you to be a part of it. Read the script. If you like it, he’ll hit you up” I said, hell, yeah! I was like, are you kidding me? sex, lies, and videotape? Are you kidding me? Like, what? Fucking Ocean’s? Are you kidding me? Oh my goodness.

You need to get in his crew where you’re in all his movies.

I know. I was like, man, I could be in the Soderbergh camp, man. I hope I do 40 films with him. I’m like the new Don Cheadle. Let’s do that.

You could be the new Matt Damon.

[Laughs.] That’s right, man! It would be so sweet. Wouldn’t it be nice? I hope. Dude, I was so happy when I actually did see the movie. I knew I had a prolific part in the film, of course, because I was in it a lot…

Always a good sign.

Yeah, always a good sign. And then when I saw the names and the credits, I said, wait, my name came up third? Oh snap, son.

This movie is very unsettling. It plays like a horror movie.

Yeah, a psychological thriller, dude. I mean, it’s definitely different. And that was another aspect that was really attractive: the fact that it was a different genre. It was kind of cool to be like, man, Soderbergh is doing one of these movies, man? Like, yo, let’s see, let’s look into this. But I wasn’t going to say no. I don’t give a damn. I wasn’t going to say no.

When you were filming, did it almost seem like a practical joke because there’s just this iPhone staring at you?

Dude, when I walked on the set and I saw it I was like, wait a minute, there has to be other cameras, right? This can’t be the only one. There was just Steven Soderbergh, man. But the fact that there were iPhones there and he would film it on them, it really allowed us to just be super, extra natural. I mean, like more comfortable. Because you were just sitting there with your friends and you all were reading lines together. So it didn’t feel like a big production even though the final product, when that genius man puts it all together, yo, oh snap – this is a professional movie. And you have the power right in your pocket and right in your fingertips. You can shoot a movie now. But it was comfortable. It was just a comfortable setting I mean, everybody in the cast is amazing to me. Joshua Leonard is fucking creepy as hell. Claire Foy is amazing. Juno Temple, all the other players, man, it was just a real good experience.

One night, it was one of the most fun nights that I had on the set, well, back at the hotel with the cast: We all went to the gas station and we got gas station wine, because there was nothing else open by the time we got out. And we were just all sitting around like with gas station wine and pouring it back and forth and just laughing and having a good time. I mean, gas station wine, you’ve got to drink about three bottles to get a buzz!

You’re really selling me on the gas station wine.

I’m telling you! I’m telling you, Mike, we should get up and we should have some gas station wine, man, we’ve got to do it. Let’s go. I don’t know, what is it, Chevron? They’ve got Chevrons over there, right? Let’s go to Chevron and get some wine.

Next time I randomly run into you we will get some gas station wine.

Oh my God, yeah, man.

You have a very, let’s say, intense scene.

Well, I can’t delve too many details out about that scene because we’re not supposed to give it all out, but yeah, there’s a gruesome scene. I don’t know how many takes we had of that, but there was footage of me and Josh that didn’t make it in that was so dope. I think one time I was screaming and then he was screaming back at me – he was doing an impression of me in the scene and he was screaming back at me. I tried not to laugh because it was so spot-on. I think I cried seven or eight times. I don’t think they got any of that on camera. But tears were going, and when he was screaming I was like, yo, man, I’m trying to keep a straight face here.

On your last season of SNL, were you still pitching Obama? We basically went a whole season without him…

Oh, man. Mike, I pitched. Oh my God, man, I was pitching Obama stuff in 2015 and 2016. It just never materialized, you know. And not that it wasn’t good, because they were definitely dope ideas. It just, I don’t know, I was confused. I was a little baffled myself of why the show didn’t use Obama towards the end of his term. Because, jeez, he was loosening up! So I was like this is the time to attack it! But I don’t know. I think when it got announced that Trump was running, that just took precedence over everything. And, I mean, it’s easy. It’s Trump, it’s not hard to make up political satire for that guy. So I think it just took precedence. I don’t know if it was anything personal. I don’t think it was anything personal. It’s just Trump news was hot news, so they went with that.

Speaking of Trump, your “Hotline Bling” sketch with him in it, still today, you see it all the time. Is that weird looking back at that? Because that guy’s president now.

Oh my God, man.

You probably assumed like the rest of us that was never going to happen, and then it did…

Right. It’s like, aw, man. Now, looking at it, I just view it as, hey, it was a sketch for SNL. It did well. It was fun. I got to perform with Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, and Beck Bennett. You know, Taran and Bobby are really close friends of mine. So I just look at it as a fun sketch and we were just being silly doing dumb dances. I don’t put any more thought into it afterward. So it’s like, that’s just what it is.

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