Ever since he rose to national prominence on Saturday Night Live in 2010, Jay Pharoah has popped up as a supporting character in comedies like Top Five, Balls Out, and Ride Along. But he’s exercising a new acting muscle in the upcoming Steven Soderbergh psycho-thriller, Unsane. In it, Claire Foy stars as Sawyer Valentini, a white-collar professional who lives in a constant panic that the stalker she’s been outrunning her entire life will track her down once again. Alone in a new city, Sawyer starts cracking under the weight of her anxiety, and seeks out a therapist to help process her trauma. But after signing a shady release form, she ends up held against her will in a mental-health-care facility, where she fears her stalker has planted himself to terrorize her — and where she meets a host of troubled characters.
Enter Pharoah as Nate Hoffman, the possibly too-kind recovering addict who seems like a respite from the chaos within the institution, but who could also just be another nefarious agent of manipulation. It’s an unshowy role, but Pharaoh holds the screen, and his steady presence serves as a perfect foil for Foy as she unravels. Vulture caught up with the actor before Unsane’s opening weekend to find out how he got involved with Soderbergh’s latest lean thriller, why he owes a favor to Matt Damon, and the advice he got from Charlie Murphy about how not to end up like Rick James.
This whole project has been so cloaked in secrecy. What was the timeline of you coming on board?
I think I heard about it May of last year. My agent hit me up and she said, “Soderbergh has this movie. It’s a cool project, and he wants you to be a part of it. If you like the script, let me know if you want to do it.” I was like, “Hell, yes I want to do a movie with Steven Soderbergh!” You don’t say no to Steven Soderbergh! No!
So you didn’t audition? He had just seen your work and asked for you by name?
He’s the greatest guy, literally. I love him. He’s a genius. Brilliant. He said to me when we talked on the phone, “I’ve been a fan of you for years.” He said, “Matt Damon kind of showed me some stuff” — it was my Denzel Washington impression. So Matt Damon showed that to everybody on set [of Contagion], and Steven Soderbergh saw it, and was like, “This kid is good. I have to work with him somehow.” And then there was a gap of years until he finally got a project that he said, “I think that Jay can do this.”
We talked on the phone and he told me, “You have a dramatic aspect that I want to show the world. And you’re gonna get a chance to do it in this movie if you’re up to it.” I said, “Damn right I’m up to it, Mr. Soderbergh [laughs]!” What the hell? Yeah, I’m up to it! I said, “Let’s go, man!” The next month, in June, we were shooting it. The experience was fantastic, phenomenal. Cast was great. Claire Foy is a beast. Joshua [Leonard], he’s dope. Juno Temple, she’s amazing. And everybody else.
Juno Temple is wild. In this, but also always.
Oh my God, yes. I love her man.
How much sort of free rein is she getting on set to do her Juno Temple thing and embody this wild character — someone who would throw a used tampon at Claire Foy? Is a detail like that in the script or is she improvising, and you’re just along for the ride as a scene partner?
[Laughs.] I think her creativity and Soderbergh’s eye collaborated perfectly. He let her play. He let all of us be that way. If there were some things we wanted to try, he was up to it. I mean, if he ain’t like it, he can just delete the video [laughs]. So there were definitely some lines in there where I got to improv, and that brought a little fun to this dreary — well, I can’t call it dreary.
It’s definitely intense. Harrowing at times.
Yes. This intense movie, a psychological thriller.
Being able to riff and improvise on camera obviously plays to your professional strengths. So is there a hidden Jay Pharoah cut of Unsane that’s actually a comedy?
I’m gonna tell you this, there was a lot of Drake jokes that probably didn’t make it [laughs].
Yeah! Because me and one of the actors, we were just talking about women and stuff like that, and somehow Drake came up, and there’s a little bit of it in the movie, but there was so much more of us just talking about Drake and how he really “saves” a lot of people — in quotes. He knows who he saves. He knows what he does. He’s Drake. He’s a nice guy. He’ll go in a strip club and then all of a sudden he’s got 20 roommates. You know what I mean? Stuff like that [laughs].
Please tell me Claire Foy was involved in these alt-takes, and that she has Drake jokes.
She was on the other side of the room at this point, when me and dude was just going back and forth. That was fun. So some of that, and there were some dramatic scenes that did not make it in — like, some really gruesome stuff. I’m sure I can’t give it out, but there were some gruesome takes that did not make it in and I was like, “Ah, man! We were really in it there.” I’m not going to put too much out there, but we were going to work. That’s all I’m saying. We were going to work.
With your character specifically, you had me wondering the whole movie what Nate Hoffman’s intentions were with Sawyer. Nate is very kind, but in the context of this paranoid thriller, your warmth read as actually very creepy to me. Were you doing that on purpose, or was I projecting given the context?
I was creeping you out?
[Laughs.] I was too nice, right? Well, I played that up. I played up being too nice. Because you don’t know who to trust. I think that was Soderbergh’s intention for the movie. So yeah, I could be crazy! But I wanted to play it as genuine as I could, of course, being in an insane asylum and having problems myself. So I’m glad you felt like that. I go through that in real life sometimes. I’m a nice dude, so people are like, “Wait. Why is he so nice? He gotta want something.” I’m like, no! I just got good parents! That’s what it is [laughs].
As a nice person with nice parents, how has your transition from New York to Los Angeles been?
Here’s the thing. I’m in Hollywood, but I’m not Hollywood, if that makes sense to you. I’m straight up about my business, you know? I’m there to work. I’m there to build my name. I’m there to get better. I do not have time to go and party. I mean, partying is cool sometimes. But I’m not a person who’s gonna go out and put myself in a compromising position, just because of the folks that are throwing a party. I don’t give a damn about that. Like, okay. I been in this since, national exposure, you can say September 25, 2010, my premiere on SNL. I’ve kind of seen a lot throughout the years, and there are just certain boundaries I’ve set for myself, and there’s things that I don’t do. Like, yo. I don’t do coke. I don’t do no drugs.
Wasn’t that passed down to you from Charlie Murphy? Don’t do coke?
Yeah! Oh, you did your research! Yeah, he told me, “Jay don’t ever mess with that stuff. Now, if you want to smoke a little bit of ganja every once in a while? Ain’t nothing wrong with that. They gonna legalize it in a minute. Trust me. It’s gonna happen. But do not do those drugs, because it changes you, and you know, you got too much talent, dude. You remind me of my brother so much. You got too much talent. Don’t do that to yourself.” I was like, “Alright!”
No one really wants their own Rick James Chappelle’s Show episode in 2018.
[Laughs.] “Bitch I’m Jay Pharoah!” I would never want that, so in honor of him and in honor of my parents, my little cousins that look up to me, I got a nephew now, my sister who loves me so much — man, there’s a certain caliber of character that I do carry around. I don’t play around. I’m no fool. I’ve seen things, and you know, I just choose to stay away from them. It’s not a hard thing for me, and I’m always working and trying to get better.
In the vein of White Famous, do you find yourself having to code switch to satisfy different personalities in the industry? And has that changed at all, going from New York to L.A,. from sketch comedy defining much of your exposure to narrative film and television work instead?
I feel like this: As I have grown as a person, I’ve just become wiser at watching things, but the bottom line is, you can’t stop talent. Talent outshines everything. If you have somebody who’s blocking — I’m not saying anybody is blocking — but if you have talent in a place for a long time, eventually it’s gonna erupt and people are going to come to you. So just keep on being yourself. I’m still just being myself as I progress in this industry, and I feel like the folks around me on my team are understanding. Like, “Okay, Jay wouldn’t do that.” They kind of create a barrier of protection to keep me away from certain things or situations. But when I’m by myself, I still have that same mentality. So I feel like everybody that I deal with on my team, we all have the same goal and that’s just to work and that’s just to get better and that’s just to get bigger and that’s to take over, but to do it in this way where we’re good.