Vanessa Bayer: 'Saturday Night Live's' Secret Weapon

Actress talks Miley, Hillary Clinton and Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy

Vanessa Bayer
Jamie McCarthy/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank
Vanessa Bayer
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In the four seasons that Vanessa Bayer has been on Saturday Night Live, practically the entire cast – including Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg, Fred Armisen, Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader – has left the show. It's made the 31-year-old Cleveland native, who is best known for her impressions of Miley Cyrus, Hillary Clinton and Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy, one of SNL’s most senior talents. "It’s sort of crazy," she tells Rolling Stone. "I haven’t been there a real long time and I’m already one of the most veteran people."

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Tell me about your audition for SNL. What characters did you do?
I did some original characters, including the poetry teacher I did on the last show. There was a child actress I did that's actually based on on Stagecrafters, which was my middle school after school theater program. I did some other impressions, like Miley and Madonna. The very first thing I did was Miley. 

It must be nerve-wracking to know that so much is on the line in those few moments.
I think I was so excited to be there that I really just enjoyed it. I felt that it was cool to even get to the point where I was able to audition on the actual SNL stage. Looking back on it, I can't believe that I wasn't more nervous.

Who called you to say you had the job?
One of the producers, Lindsay Shookus. I had just been in New York doing some auditions. She called me and was like, "How are you doing?" I said that I was really tired from being in New York, but I had a great time when I was there. She said, "Well, I hope you're not too tired to come back to New York because we'd like to hire you as a cast member." I said, "What if I said I was too tired." But then I said, "But I'm not too tired!" I was so excited that I had no filter. 

You interned for Conan O'Brien, so to walk back into the building as a cast member must have been pretty crazy.
So crazy. My first day interning at Conan, somebody gave us a tour, and I remember looking over at the window where the NBC tour goes and looking at that stage and being so in awe of it. It was pretty emotional to walk in as a cast member.

Do they haze new cast members or anything?
This is a question that I've gotten a lot. Mostly, no, we really just try to welcome them. If there's any hazing, I would say that it's just karaoke, which I find enjoyable. But I feel like some new cast members could see that as hazing.

Are you giving advice to the new cast members?
Definitely. I think it's so fun to be there, but it's a lot of work and a lot to take in. Every opportunity we get, the people that have been there longer try to give tips to the newer people, even if it's something a simple as, "This is a good time to get rest" or "Thursday morning is a good time to sleep in." 

Walk me through your average week.
We get in Monday afternoon and we pitch scene ideas to the host. That involves all the cast members and the writers. Then Tuesday afternoon, the cast and the writers come in and pretty much stay in all night writing. Depending on the week, you might write more or less scenes, but we basically stay all night Tuesday writing. Then we come in Wednesday afternoon and read through all the sketches. Later that night we find out what got into the show and start rehearsing. We rehearse and rewrite the scenes that get into the show on Thursday and Friday, and then Saturday we rehearse in the afternoon. We have the dress rehearsal show at 8:00 PM and we have the live show at 11:30 PM.

On Sundays, do you just sleep?
Yeah, I sleep a lot on Sunday. It's really great. It's really convenient, and I feel like there's a lot of good TV on Sunday night, which really makes the day enjoyable.

Tell me how you created your Miley Cyrus character.
That started a few years ago – before I got hired. I started watching her on TV and thought she was a fun, lively personality. I thought she would be an interesting person to do an impression of. I was sort've starting to think about SNL and if I got the opportunity, what I would do. So I just started watching stuff that she was doing and trying to sort of mimic it. I'd workshop it, but not actually do it out in the world. People would have been like, "Maybe do that in your own time."

When did you meet her?
It was when she hosted my first year. Her mom were there as well as some of her siblings. I was a little nervous to meet them. I thought that my impression was nice and just meant to be a fun thing, but you're always nervous before you meet someone that you impersonate. But she and her family couldn't have been nicer or more enthusiastic about it.

She's changed a lot in recent years. Is it challenging to keep the impression current?
It's actually more fun. It makes it a little easier, because it gives me something new to do and it's newer for the audience, too. At the last show, it was fun to do something different with her than a Miley Cyrus show since we've already done that. It's always fun to wear new wigs and stuff like that.

What is the origin of the Bar Mitzvah kid?
The town I grew up in was at least fifty percent Jewish, so every weekend in the 7th grade, we went to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. It's kind of based on that. A lot of my brother's friends who have seen it think that the gestures I make are based on my brother, which is pretty funny and might be true. 

When I started doing standup in college, I just started doing that character. My first year on the show, one of the writers wrote me into a sketch where I played a Bar Mitzvah boy and I got to do it, which was so cool. . . but the whole thing started in my standup. I felt like I had seen that boy so much, and it's so fun to play that little awkward boy who likes to tell dad-style jokes.

It's one of my favorite characters. It just seems very familiar.
It's so funny that a little boy that age has to be so formal for an entire weekend.

And you couldn't pick a more awkward age than 13. All the girls are a good head taller than the boys, and they have to dance. . .
Totally. That's why when I do that Weekend Update character we always push the seat down as low as it goes so I look really tiny. I have, like, no makeup on.

I'm always impressed that you never seem to break. I don't think you've cracked once.
I really try not to do it. I will tell you that sometimes I know when the camera is on me, so sometimes if it's really hard for me, I'll just try to break a little if I know I'm not being taped. But I really pride myself on trying not to do it. I know it's eventually going to happen, but I'm trying to hold off as long as possible.

Tell me the moment where you had to fight it the hardest.
It was a recent Jacob skit. The writers came up with this line about how I love my brother even though he won't let me use his hair gel, and something about that made me laugh so much during the daytime rehearsal because it's so realistic – if you were a little brother you would really want to use your brother's hair gel and he'd be like, "No, you can't use my hair gel." That made me laugh so much.

You play Hillary Clinton, and that might become a major character in a couple of years.
Yeah, it's really fun playing her. We'll see, I guess.

How do you prep for her?
It's a lot of watching tapes, but she actually sort of talks like one of my rabbi's growing up who I used to impersonate. That helps me with it. 

What kind of work do you hope to do in the future?
I just filmed a spot on The Mindy Project and I've sort of been working on other stuff. I'm not totally sure what I want to be doing, but it's so fun to be on SNL because you get exposed to so many different people and so many different experiences. It's a cool, lucky way to break into the business.

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