Jay Pharoah is one of the most talented, prolific and outspoken comedians working today, running the gamut from stand-up to Saturday Night Live to independent cinema. Now, the 29-year-old is getting his first crack at the world of animated films with a role in the upcoming coming-of-age comedy Sing. Though Jay plays a pushy parental figure encouraging a young girl (well, elephant) to overcome her stage fright and seize the moment, in reality, his own story mirrors the protagonist’s — he discovered his talent for performing at the tender age of 8, was doing stand-up as a teenager and landed his breakthrough gig on SNL at 22.
We chatted with the rising star to talk about the role, his reputation for standing up for Black women and, of course, what he thinks is going on with his old pal Kanye West.
This is your first time doing an animated film. How did you come to this role?I've always wanted to get into animation. Some of my idols were definitely heavy in the animated world — Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, all these folks — I was just like, "Man I got to make sure I got something that people are going to talk about." [The producers] just reached out and I was like, "Yes! Yes! Yes I’ll do it. It's about time I did some animated films, damn." I saw Angry Birds go by, and Secret Life of Pets, like, "Why am I not in these movies?" [Laughs]
You’re used to stand-up and sketch comedy, which are both very visceral. Was it difficult to be funny in an animated film without being in close proximity of an audience?
You know what? I don't think so. The director let me run with it, and even if it was some hip-hop stuff that I would flow into the character, like a bunch of ad-libs. He would love it. He would say, "Oh my god you're giving me so much! You're giving me so much more than I even thought you were giving. This is amazing Jay!" And you would hear the him say that and you know you were doing a good job. There was a lot of freestyling and trying things out and trying to coin the character.
Like the main character in Sing, you discovered a talent when you were very young. Did you have nerves when you first started performing? And how did you overcome them?
Yeah, it's just something that you grow out of. I definitely was scared when I first started on stage, when I was 8. I remember one time, I was 9 years old, I forgot all my lines. It was so cute because all my crew members and cast mates were like feeding me lines behind this chair, so I would say them. It was crazy, it was a crazy night, but we got through it, but I was so scared.
Who gave you that big push at the start of your career?
You could say my father had something to do something with it, but that’s like the whole Joe Jackson kind of thing. The first person who was like, "Yo you really got something" was 'Freeze Luv' Paul Farmer, he used to be on Malcolm & Eddie, he used to be on the road with Charlie Murphy. He introduced me to Charlie, Charlie was impressed so he started taking me on the road and it just continued from there. And then I got SNL at 22 and I had all these other deals popping, it was crazy. But he was the first person who was like, "Yeah we're going to do something with this." So I'm very fortunate.
We know you and Kanye West are cool. What did you think about him meeting with Donald Trump?
I don't know. I really can't deduce what exactly is happening right now, but you know Kanye is Kanye. The only thing I can say is, as a Black community, we just...he just needs some prayer. We can all pray for him, that's all he needs he needs is prayer, because you know it comes around a time when his mom passed away. This is around this time, you know and he starts going off on a handle and doing different things. I wish the best for him. What can you do but just hope that he brings that old Kanye back. We miss that old Kanye.
Do you support his freedom to go meet with Trump? Or do you think he has a responsibility as one of the most famous Black men in the world to be the opposition?
I can't say I support. I can say, growing up in a Christian household, I pray for him. And I hope that the decisions that he is making are the best ones for his character and for his life in general. Only thing I am doing is praying for him.
One thing that was really big was the way you stood up to include Black women on SNL. What compelled you to speak out like that, even at the risk of your own job?
Our Black women are always verbally abused, physically put down by the community. It's always the same. I think, just generally, as Black folks, we need to uplift our Black women in the community. Highlight their talents and everything — because it's been the worst. The brothers have it bad too, but the sisters really have it bad, and this has been since we got here. That's why I get really happy when I see folks like Viola Davis winning, when I see Leslie Jones winning. The things that she went through, that cyber bullying, that was terrible. I have spoken up about it because I don't feel like it's right. I just want to see everybody win. I want to see people be uplifted, especially sisters in the Black community.
Sing hits theaters everywhere on December 21. Watch Jay perform at the Players' Awards above.
(Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald)