You know Jay Pharoah from his brilliant impressions of everyone from Barack Obama and Jay-Z to Kanye West and Denzel Washington. The 29-year-old comedian’s ability to mimic anyone and everyone earned him YouTube stardom and a six-year stint as a featured player on Saturday Night Live. That run ended last summer—but Pharoah is officially back with White Famous, a hugely anticipated new Showtime satire that premieres this weekend.
The single-camera comedy stars Pharoah as Floyd Mooney, a character loosely based on White Famous producer and co-star Jamie Foxx. It’s a raucous romp about striving, struggling, and succeeding in the entertainment world. We caught up with Pharoah to chat about hanging with Mr. Foxx, Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump, and when to bring an impression out in the dating game.
White Famous takes cues from Jamie Foxx’s life, but are there elements of your own experience that make it into the show?
Definitely, there are a lot of parallels between Floyd Mooney and me personally. The fact that he doesn’t want to sell out as an artist or performer. Floyd’s character really doesn’t care about Hollywood or being famous. He really just wants to make sure that his family and the people are being taken care of. That’s why he wants to be white famous.
I mean, I want fame. Fame’s cool to me. That’s cool sh*t. I think fame’s cool. I’m not going to be like the hunchback from 300 saying, “I’ll do anything.” But fame’s cool. There are stories that I have given [creator] Tom Kapinos that I think will be in season two.
What exactly is definition of “white famous?”
Being known by everybody. A crossover artist, basically. Someone who moves from the underground circuit to being known by millions upon millions upon billions of people. Jamie Foxx is white famous. Eddie Murphy is white famous. Jay-Z. Will Smith. Colin Powell. Folks like that who were known by a few and are now known by everybody.
Have you made it to white famous?
I think I’m getting there. It’s been a burn, a slow burn, but I’m getting there, dog.
The show is a comedy but there’s also an educational component to it. How would you describe it?
It’s a vocalization of things that happen behind closed doors in Hollywood. These things that my character experiences do happen, and I feel like they needed to be talked about. I think the show does a great job in putting those issues on Front Street.
What are your thoughts on the response to the show so far?
You know, most of the reviews have been positive, so I’m digging it. The write up in BuzzFeed said that it was a star-making performance by yours truly, which was very nice of them. Shoutout to BuzzFeed. I feel like if you like shock, if you like social commentary, this show is for you. I think it’s coming at a great time. This show makes sense at this time in this world we are in right now, especially in America.
What’s the best Jamie Foxx experience you’ve had?
It was going to a random club with him and out of the blue, you see Leonardo DiCaprio pop up and the two of them started talking. Then there’s Odell Beckham Jr. there and Eva Longoria over there. It’s like, “what type of life is this?” Every time I’m with Jamie Foxx it’s a fun experience.
What’s your opening line to Leo?
[Laughs] “Hey man, did you see me sitting in front of you at the Floyd Mayweather fight? I was right in front of you. You saw me? It was me, my dad, my cousin. We was all sitting with a lot of blackness, sitting right in front of you. I know you saw it, Leo. Don’t try to act like you didn’t because I know you saw it. You saw them seats. This is Showtime, bitch. You saw it.”
Nah, I’m totally joking. I didn’t say that to him. I was too scared. It was more like, “Yo man, I’m a big fan. Are you ever going to host SNL?” I was starstruck, dude. Totally starstruck.
What’s the key to doing a good impression?
Losing yourself in the character but being able to come out of it at any minute or any second. You have to lose yourself to become somebody else. You can’t be thinking, “I gotta be Jay.” You can’t be Jay-Z if you’re still Jay.
That’s very philosophical. The zen of impressions.
[Laughs] Sure, man.
You obviously did President Obama on SNL during the last administration. What are your thoughts on Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump during this one?
He does a fantastic job. It’s good sh*t. Trump has that thing where he looks like there’s an eclipse that’s happening and he’s trying to stare at it but he can’t. When Baldwin pokes the lip out and squints, that works really well for the impression.
How many dates do you need to go on before you start bringing out your impressions?
It depends. If she’s freaky and she asks for it, do it for the night. But if not, you gotta wait. Maybe three or four. Don’t do a lot. Just do one and wait. Go with your best material. Sprinkle them in. Before you know it, you’ll have been together for five years and she won’t have seen them all. You gotta keep working. That’s what keeps the relationship fresh. You gotta remix it, like Sprite.
For more great interviews, don’t miss our conversation with Narcos‘ Michael Stahl-David.