WANDA SYKES - RITA
Wanda Sykes is grateful that director Tom Shadyac is a very persuasive character. “Yes I am,” she smiles. “Because if it wasn’t for Tom convincing me I wouldn’t have made Evan Almighty. And I’m so glad that I did.”
Shadyac, a director who has built an impressive career working with America’s finest comedians and comedy actors – including Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler and Robin Williams – desperately wanted Sykes on board for Evan Almighty, a spin off from the hugely successful comedy Bruce Almighty, starring Steve Carell.
But as much she admired the director and indeed Carell, Sykes, initially, wasn’t convinced that the part of Rita, a razor sharp assistant was right for her. “I read the script and I didn’t want to do it,” she says with typical honesty.
“Because the part of Rita, you could lift her right out of the script and it wouldn’t change a thing. So they said, ‘Ok we’re going to get you in a room with Tom Shadyac…’ And I wanted to meet the guy anyway so that was great.
“And after 10 minutes of talking to him everything changed. He is so passionate about the project and was telling me how big it was going to be. I told him my concern about the role and he said ‘well this is why we want you involved because you’ll bring more to that role and I want you to play with it and we’re going to improvise a lot. If you want to write something out, do that. This role is wide open for you.’
“And I loved his honesty. He said ‘if it doesn’t work out I’m in a lot of trouble. This might be my last movie if this doesn’t go well.’ And I loved his honesty because you don’t find it a lot in Hollywood and I wanted to be part of the team.
“And so I said, “ Ok, count me in.” And I’m glad I had that meeting. I’m glad that I changed my mind.”
In the film, Evan Baxter – the preening TV newsreader we last saw, all to briefly, in Bruce Almighty – has successfully run for office with a pledge to ‘change the world’ central to his campaign.
Brimming with self importance and confidence he arrives in the corridors of power determined to live up to his promise and make a difference. And that’s when God – in the ever-impressive human form of Morgan Freeman – takes a hand and orders him to build an ark and prepare for a looming flood.
“Rita is Evan’s assistant and she sees first hand when her boss starts acting a little strange,” explains Sykes. “And when all these birds and animals start following him everywhere, she knows something is happening. I didn’t have to work with the animals anything like as much as Steve did. He did an incredible job with them and that isn’t easy. Animals are very unpredictable and you kind of have to react to them.”
Before filming started Sykes and Carell spent time together working out how their characters would react on screen, And Shadyac encouraged them to improvise even when the cameras were rolling. A key to Sykes and Carell sparking on screen came with a dance which Baxter does several times throughout the film, with hilarious results.
“The first day we were shooting, it was just trying to test the water, seeing which direction we were going to take this in and trying to establish what our relationship was like,” says Skyes. “What type of boss /employee type relationship we had.
“A lot of it was in the guidelines through the script. Rita’s outspoken and tells them what’s going on and what’s on her mind. But it’s also, ‘Ok, is this pure friendship? What else is going on?’
“So that first day Steve came up with that thing where he walked in and said, “I think I might have to do it Rita. And I say. ‘What?’ And he says ‘I got to do the dance!’ And I say ‘Well, do the dance!’ And that just sealed what our relationship was. It was very important. We were playing with stuff.”
Sykes is rightly regarded as one of the funniest people in America. She began her stand up career back in 1987 when she decided to try her luck as a novice at a talent contest in Washington.
“It was my first time on stage,” she recalls. “I’d never been to a comedy club so I didn’t know any people who were comedians. So I didn’t have the information about how incredibly wrong it could go or how humiliating it could be. So I was naïve. I walked in and felt comfortable and had a good time and everybody laughed.”
Some five years later she’d gathered up enough experience – and courage – to quit her “regular” job as a procurement officer with the National Security Agency to try her luck as a professional stand up. She’s never looked back.
Sykes is a regular on Larry David’s critically acclaimed HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm and has starred in numerous films including Monster-in-Law opposite Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda, My Super Ex Girlfriend with Luke Wilson and Uma Thurman and was recently heard in the animated feature Over The Hedge. She has featured in numerous comedy specials on TV and her stand up shows are as popular as ever.
Q: You were filming in Virginia, which is where you’re from. What was that like?
A: I’m from Portsmouth, Virginia and that’s about two hours east of Charlottesville. But my parents did visit the set and get to see the ark and all the animals. They met Tom and all the actors and they were very impressed and enjoyed it. So that was good too. That was the first time they got to visit a set.
Q: Were they suitably impressed with such a huge set?
A: Yes, but unfortunately that day I was in one shot and then I was sitting around the rest of the day and my dad was like, ‘So this is what you do?’ And I said yeah!’
Q: So you knew what to expect in terms of the weather…
A: Yes, hot, humid and the mosquitoes are out at that time of year too, which is trouble. And thunderstorms can pop up at any time. But I knew what to expect at that time of year. But Tom is also from there too, so he knew what to expect.
Q: Evan Almighty seems like a very moral tale and also very timely because of its environmental message. Was that something that appealed to you?
A: To me it was more about being funny. That was the forefront but then it’s nice to have the message and to be environmentally conscious. It’s good to have all that in. But as a comedienne I’m mostly just thinking about the material and the jokes. I want it to be entertaining.
Q: How does it work between you and Steve Carell? Is the on screen relationship mostly built on spontaneity and sparking off each other?
A: Yes, it really is like that. Playing around. The first day we were shooting, it was just trying to test the water, seeing which direction we were going to take this in. Trying to establish what our relationship was like. What type of boss /employee type relationship we had. A lot of it was in the guidelines through the script. Rita’s outspoken and tells them what’s going on and what’s on her mind. But it’s also, “Ok, is this pure friendship? What else is going on?” So that first day Steve came up with that thing where he walked in and said, “I think I might have to do it Rita. And I say. “What?” And he says, “ I got to do the dance!” And I say, “Well, do the dance!” And that just sealed what our relationship was. It was very important. We were playing with stuff. He’s walk in and I’d say, “There he is the head honcho, the big boss,”. But it wasn’t until he hit the, “I’m gonna do the dance” thing that it finally gave us history. You know, I know about the dance. And from them on there was a lot of playing around. And Tom encouraged the improvisation. Take after take, it was like, “What else have you got, what else have you got?” And it’s like. “You’re over there cracking up and you still want us to give you more.” He really pushed us.
Q: Did you know Steve Carell before working with him on Evan Almighty?
A: No. Steve and I had voiced a couple of characters in Over The Hedge but we didn’t meet until the press junket because we didn’t work together then. But I’m a fan of his work especially after meeting him and getting to work with him. He’s just a really nice guy and you’re happy for all his success. When you meet someone who’s nice and normal you think, “OK, I’m glad this is all happening for you.” And he’s just incredibly funny and there are so many layers to his talent.
Q: You’ve spoken about how you improvised on Evan Almighty. Your work with Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm is largely improvising, isn’t it?
A: Yes, exactly right and it’s not like we needed a lot of takes. We do three or four passes and then he’ll say, “You know what I like that thing you said about that. Keep that.” Or do something else.
Q: What’s Larry David like to work with?
A: It’s funny because to me he seems as uncomfortable as his character. But, of course, he’s not as inappropriate as Larry is on the show.
Q: And do you enjoy that show?
A: Yes, but it’s funny. I go there and let’s say I’m doing one scene that day, maybe it’s about an hour, hour and a half of camera time of actually working and when I get home I feel that I’ve worked all day. Because it’s very intense. Because you have to be on and you have to be ready.
Q: Where does the ability to do that come from?
A: I guess it’s just the way that my brain is wired. It’s from doing stand up and being able to stand in front of a live audience and you always have to be prepared for something. You don’t know what you’re going to get from an audience and maybe you’re doing a joke and it’s not working and you’ve backed yourself into a corner and so now you have to get out of it.
Q: When was the very first time you went on stage?
A: It was in October 1987. It was a talent show and comedy was a category. This was in DC.
Q: Was it terrifying?
A: I didn’t know enough to be terrified. I didn’t have any of that. It was my first time on stage. I’d never been to a comedy club so I didn’t know any people who were comedians. So I didn’t have the information about how incredibly wrong it could go or how humiliating it could be. So I was naïve. I walked in and felt comfortable and had a good time and everybody laughed. Luckily for me that happened. And it wasn’t until going to the clubs and doing it over and over and occasionally having a bad show where I could say, “Whoa! This is bad. “And even today if I go on stage and I have a bad set, I have a bad time sleeping that night. You don’t feel good about it and so you get back on stage.
Q: Where did the comedy come from? Was it in your family background?
A: My family is pretty funny. We crack jokes all the time. My brother is really funny. I don’t know where the desire to go on stage came from. I know that in high school I was in the acting arts class and I loved the play production class. But it was really bizarre how it happened. I was working for the National Security Agency and I was just really unhappy with my job. I was living in Maryland. I was a contracting specialist. A procurement officer. I was buying things for the government and I had a good job and I was making great money, but I was just miserable, not a happy person. And I refused to believe this was my life. I just felt I was supposed to be doing something else. And I heard about this talent show and I said, “I want to do that.” And I don’t know where it came from. So I said to myself, “Write some jokes” and when I was writing them I kind of surprised myself like,” When did you learn to write a joke”?
Q: In the early days where did your material come from?
A: It was like a lot of observation. Pretty much the same kind of material that most comedians use when they first start out. It’s pretty much you impersonating what you think a comedian should be before you find your own voice. I remember one of my early jokes. Have you seen those cardboard auto shades that you put across your windscreen when you park your car so it won’t get hot? And it has directions on it and I’m like, “Who doesn’t know how to work this thing. Who’s walking around with the auto shade on their face?” And that it tells you to take it out of the window before you start driving the car and it’s like, “Who would drive off with it on the windshield, unless Ray Charles is driving?”
Q: And did you decide there and then at the talent show that you were going into the business?
A: There and then I said, ‘I like this; I think I’ve found what I want to do.’ I wanted to stay with it and the guy who hosted that show was a working local comic and he pretty much became my mentor, Andy Evans. He was like, ‘Ok I haven’t seen you round the comedy clubs.” And I was like, “ I haven’t been to any” And he said he’d get me into clubs and work with me and take me around and show me the circuit in DC and that’s what I did. And so I worked in the day and then on Thursday nights it was open mike night and I’d go out at night and hit the clubs and that’s how I started working my way to New York.
Q: And were there other comedians that you worked with and liked and knew at that time?
A: Dave Chappelle was working in the DC clubs at the same time. I used to give him ride home from the clubs.
Q: And when you finally decided to resign from your job and the safety net was gone?
A: It was scary. Very scary.
Q: How long after the talent show did it take you to resign?
A: About five years of working the open mike and then when I finally had enough material to work on I’d MC some shows at weekends and from there I got some road gigs where I was the feature act and then once I had 45 minutes of material so that I could head line somewhere, that’s when I quit my job.
Q: What did your family think?
A: They thought I’d lost my mind. It was a very secure job I left working for the government and they didn’t get it. But I think they get it now! .