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.