Maya Rudolph would show up on the set, strap on the “gut” that made her look pregnant, and sit waiting for the first shot. But something about that one location, the old, weathered lakefront home in Leesburg, Fla., felt like home.
“I was born in Gainesville,” she says, another interior-Florida town just 75 miles northwest, as the heron flies. “I’m a Gainesvillian. This location felt like home, like a place I knew.”
There was a lot that was familiar in the former “Saturday Night Live” (2000-2008) comic’s experience of “Away We Go,” the road comedy she filmed with John Krasinski for Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”). She plays a Florida native. Her character lost her mom at an early age, as did Rudolph, the daughter of the late soul singer Minnie Ripperton, who died when Maya was just 7. Verona, her character, is the product of a mixed-race marriage, as was Rudolph.
“I guess they did write her with me in mind, which was kind of crazy, because I’ve never met (screenwriters) Dave Eggers or Vendela Vida,” Rudolph marvels.
Mendes pooh-poohs any notion that Rudolph, a longtime success “and a lot more together than her character,” is all that much like Verona. Still, the writers tailored their script to fit the contours of Rudolph’s own biography.
What the writers had in mind for the actors was an odyssey of parenting — a young couple in their 30s, about to have a baby and struggling to find the right role models as parents among their friends and family, and the right place to begin that family. They journey from Tucson to Madison, Montreal to Miami, meeting with weird friends and out-of-sync relatives at every stop. It’s not giving much away to reveal where the pregnant Verona and her beau, Burt, wind up — Florida, that very part of Florida where Rudolph herself was born.
“My parents are the ones who had the real Burt and Verona experience,” Rudolph says. “They were living in Chicago and they were expecting me and my mother said ‘I’m TIRED of Chicago. I need to get out of this city, go somewhere warm.’ They got a van and took a little trip, calling on friends. And my dad (Richard Rudolph), who grew up in Miami, had a friend in college in Gainesville, and he said ‘Come visit. Place has got a duck pond. It’s great.’ And they found a little cheap place to rent there and that’s where they had me. Quite the little journey. I loved it there.”
But it wasn’t the emotional geography of “Away We Go,” which opens around the country in June, that got to her. It was memories of what it was like being pregnant. Rudolph, 36, has a 3-year-old daughter, Pearl, with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood”). They’re now expecting their second child.
“You become this walking, waddling billboard for ‘pregnancy,’ and a magnet for all this unsolicited advice,” Rudolph recalls. “I read the script and thought, ‘That’s EXACTLY how I was feeling! Those people are CRAZY!’ All these examples of weird parenting in the movie? Not me. OK, I am a little (granola) crunchy, like one character. And maybe I’d be a little over-protective, like another one. If I could have breast-fed my daughter for five years I think I probably would have.”
Rudolph has taken on a role in the new Adam Sandler ensemble comedy “Grown Ups,” which has a similar “We’re not grownups, not yet” message “but that one will be more about chaos,” Rudolph says. “For me working with Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade and those guys, it’ll be like joining Motley Crue!”
But she won’t forget the tug she felt while filming “Away We Go.”
“You go through the journey these characters do in this movie, it’s only natural that you wind up in the place you remember as ‘home.’ Not that I’m leaving New York. Sitting by that lake in the middle of Florida, I did get a little nostalgic. This movie actually did bring me home.”