Jay Pharoah won’t be contained. After an electric exit from Saturday Night Live in 2016 where he spoke out against being “a yes man,” and the lack of diversity that has continually plagued the program since its inception four decades ago, Pharoah has been everywhere. From the comedic stage to a Showtime comedy series, and now in the gripping Steven Soderbergh stalker thriller Unsane, the comedian is embracing life as it comes.
Unsane follows a young woman Sawyer (The Crown’s Claire Foy) who is involuntarily committed to a mental institution where she is forced to confront her greatest fear – the man who has been stalking her. Pharoah plays Nate, a fellow patient whose battling his own demons while holding on to some shocking secrets.
On a brisk Sunday morning in New York City, Pharoah sat down to chat with Shadow and Act about Unsane, his forthcoming album, and why he isn’t afraid of anything. According to the 30-year-old, the opportunity to step into Nate’s shoes came as a bit of a surprise. “My agent hit me up,” he revealed. “She said, ‘Well, you know Steven Soderbergh has this film. He wants to work with you on this. It’s a cool film and its something you should do.’ This wasn’t some random director DMing you on Instagram saying, ‘I’ve got this project. You’d be perfect for it.’ This was an established legend in the game, so it was a no-brainer for me. When we did have a conversation, he said, ‘I know you do comedies, but I can see you have a dramatic side. I want to show that to the world if you have the opportunity to do it.’ I was like, ‘Man. Whatever you need, I’m down. Let’s do it.’”
Shot entirely on an iPhone, Soderbergh dives deep into Sawyer’s psyche as she tries to find some semblance of normalcy following a series of terrifying stalking incidents by a former acquaintance named David Strine (Joshua Lenord). The use of the iPhone grounded the film in the real world, making the more chilling moments downright terrifying. “It was a 9-day shoot,” Pharoah recalled. “For me, personally, I think I had 5 or 6 days. It was so fast, and since it was shot on the iPhone,(Soderbergh) was editing everything while we were on set. When the days ended, he would go upstairs. He would just chop it up. You would literally see extra parts of the movie every day. It was like, ‘We just shot this, but it’s in here.’ It looked amazing. He’s such a genius. I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to work with him, and then all of the cast, and Joshua Leonard, of course, who’s my guy. Claire (Foy), Juno Temple, and everybody else. It just felt real, and we all had such vibrant chemistry. It was a really good experience.”
Though we certainly recognize Pharoah for his comedic work, drama isn’t exactly foreign to him. “I actually started in theater when I was eight-years-old,” he said. “I just continued on and started stand-up when I was 15 or 16. That’s why I was never afraid of doing stand-up because I was already on the stage. Dramatic acting has always been one of my strong points. To be able to jump back into those shoes and actually have a prolific director on it felt like, ‘Hey, welcome back.’ It was like I went away to college and came back home. It was Thanksgiving.”
The opportunity to do Unsane came at the perfect time for Pharoah who has felt at times that Hollywood has tried to pigeonhole him – particularly when it comes to his infamous impressions. “I do feel like the industry is trying to put me into a box,” he explained. “I feel like a lot of folks do love what they do love, but what I’ve started to do is use that to my advantage. You might know me for this, but come see this and get a different perspective. Just to round out everybody’s thinking or their perception of Jay Pharoah and what I can do. I look at Jamie Fox; that’s what I see myself going towards. People say, ‘Well, you know, he just does this. He just does that.’ Then they come and see something like (Unsane), and they’re like, ‘Wow. Wait a minute.’”
One of the first people in Hollywood to recognize Pharoah’s versatility was filmmaker Ava DuVernay. “Ava DuVernay, shout-out to her,” the Sing actor said. “I did an audition for Selma years ago, and it was very powerful. I didn’t end up getting the role, but she did call me. She left a very nice message; she’s so dope. She was like, ‘I can’t wait for the world to see that side of you. You really have that down. The world needs to see that. You’ve got the comedic part, but do that.’ Even now when people come to my standup shows, its like ‘Wow, we thought you were going to do impressions.’ More people are saying, ‘You don’t even need your impressions. You do all this material. Your stuff is strong without the impressions.’ I feel like those Jay Pharoah put-in-a-box things are now being broken. So, it feels good.”
Up next, Pharoah is focusing on his debut rap album and a new film, #Twominutesoffame starring opposite Keke Palmer and Katt Williams. “Shout out to Keke and Katt, man,” he laughed. “I’ve also got music coming out. If I can just get a pocket of time to sit down and do the videos and all of that, but it’s happening. I’ve got another film that I’m doing next month overseas. What else, man? Standup. I’ll be doing my next special pretty soon.”
With several years in the business under his belt, the Virginia native has now been able to reflect on the trajectory of his career, and what fame looks like at this stage in his life. “It’s a good time,” he explained. “When I was younger, I probably wasn’t mature enough to handle it. I like growth, and I like evolution. Whatever I do, whether it’s a movie, whether it’s television, whether it’s standup, even if it’s a game show, I just try to get better at what I’m doing every single time.”
One of the more notoriously outspoken voices in Hollywood, I was curious to know if Pharoah felt like he’d been penalized for voicing his opinions. He paused and sat back in his chair slowly before answering. “I don’t know,” he said after awhile. “I feel like I’m doing alright. Look, in the end, you’re never going to make history by playing it safe. You’re never going to get better by playing it safe. Everything is trial and error. Once you do try something, if you don’t succeed at it, it’s all a process. Sometimes it does have a negative effect, but then sometimes it does solidify you in a way that’s longevous. Look at Colin Kaepernick, he ain’t even playing any football, and he’s a legend. I think I’m exactly where I need to be right now. I think that every project and every blessing I get, I’m ready for it. I’m 30 now. I can handle it mentally. I can be free to fail. I’m willing to try things to see if they work. The fun for me is in the experiment. When I did my old YouTube video, I didn’t know that Will Smith versus Denzel (Washington) video was going to get millions of hits. I had no clue. I don’t think there’s anything I’m scared of. I’m open to trying, and I’m open to pushing myself. Ultimately, I hope that that just makes me a better actor, entertainer, and person in general.”
Unsane premieres Friday, March 23, 2018.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami