Still photographs of "Over the Hedge"
The Over the Hedge Interview with Kam Williams
Born on March 7, 1964 in Portsmouth, Virginia, Wanda Sykes was raised in Maryland just outside Washington, D.C. The gifted comedienne attended Hampton University where she earned a bachelor's degree in marketing before embarking on an unfulfilling career in government. The world is grateful for the day Wanda first took a shot at stand-up at a local comedy club on open mike night, taking to the stage like a fish to water.
After spending several years on the nightclub circuit honing her act, the sassy Sykes' big break arrived when Chris rock offered her a spot as an ensemble cast member on his HBO show. Since then, she's had her own comedy special, Wanda Sykes: Tongue Untied, plus a couple of short-lived series, Wanda Does It and Wanda at Large.
She's also made appearances on countless other TV shows, including Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Tavis Smiley, Drew Cary, Carson Daly, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Mad TV. On the big screen, she's upstaged some of the best in the business, for instance, Chris Rock in Down to Earth and Pootie Tang, and J-Lo and Jane Fonda in Monster-in-Law.
Recognized by both her peers and her fans as among the best in the business, Wanda was named one of the 25 Funniest People in America by Entertainment Weekly and was the only black female to make Comedy Central's list of the 100 Greatest Comics of All Times.
Here, she talks about her new film, Over the Hedge, an animated feature where she lends her distinctive voice to the character Stella the Skunk.
KW: Hi Wanda, I don't know if you saw my annual Blacktrospective column, but I named you the second best black actress of 2005.
WS: Wow! Thank you. No, I didn't see that. Who won, Queen Latifah?
KW: No, Thandie Newton for Crash.
WS: Great! That's not too shabby at all.
KW: You definitely deserved the accolade, because once again you somehow managed to steal scene after scene from some very talented co-stars, in this case J-Lo and Jane Fonda. Why is it that when an audience comes away from Monster-in-Law, the most memorable thing about it is you?
WS: Wow! I'm not going to say that I stole anything. I guess you could say that they provided an environment for me to be comfortable in so that I was to carve out a little space that wasn't being used. It just kinda worked out.
KW: What interested you in your latest role as Stella the Skunk?
WS: Well, I started this process about three years ago, so I've had quite a few successes since then. But three years ago, my agent called me and says, ’[producer] Jeffrey Katzenberg and some people at Dreamworks want to meet because they’re about to do a new animated movie and they want to talk to you about being in it.’
KW: What was your reaction?
WS: I said, ’Oh my God, let's get over there before they see Pootie Tang.’ So, I went over there and they pitched the story and told me that they had me in mind for Stella the Skunk. And then they all kinda ducked, waiting to see if I was going to blow up. But I responded immediately and I got the role. I was looking forward to doing it and I loved it.
KW: Even though you're self-deprecating about Pootie Tang, I loved that movie and it made the Top Ten List in my Blacktrospective for 2001. Even though it was a low-budget film, I thought that its message was great, plus I found it very entertaining.
WS: Thank you very much. I don't put it down, because, like anything I do, if I'm in it, it's because I believe in it. It's just fun to joke around with it. And also, Pootie Tang is one of those movies that either people get it, or they don't. So, they either love it or despise it. But, I'm not really ashamed of it or embarrassed by it at all.
KW: I see you're doing a lot of animated voicework, as Bessy the Cow in Barnyard, Sister Moon in Brer Rabbit, etcetera. Why do you think you've become so popular as a cartoon character?
WS: My voice is distinctive, there's a rhythm to it, and also it's funny. I was just blessed with a funny-sounding voice.
KW: What do you think it is that makes you so funny as comedienne? When did you discover that you were funny?
WS: I knew I was outspoken when I was a kid, because whenever my parents had company coming over, they would pay me to leave. ’Go see your grandmother.
Get out of here.’ That was my first paying gig. But it really wasn't until junior high school, around my peers. They would laugh and always tell me that I was funny. I was like the unofficial class clown. So, yeah, back then, I knew that I had something, a certain wit.
KW: But you went to college and tried a career as bureaucrat before finally pursuing your true calling.
WS: I had never been to a comedy club, and I didn't know any working comedians, so it just took a while for me to write some jokes and get into a talent show. But then it all made sense to me. I said, ’Okay, this is why I am here on this Earth. This is what I'm supposed to be doing.’
KW: What was it like to explode into a superstar? Can you still go to a mall or a supermarket?
WS: Oh, definitely. I still go wherever I want to go and do whatever I want to do. People’ I hate to use the word ’fans,’ are very respectful. It's not like I'm some pop idol or big movie star. I'm very approachable, and I love the people who enjoy me, because they react like they've run into a friend.
Usually, it's like, ’Hey, Wanda! How ya’ doing?’
KW: I know you're a member of AKA, the pink-and-green sorority. Are you still in touch with any of your sorority sisters?
WS: The ones I went to school with at Hampton, we still keep in touch. It's just so hard getting together, because we're scattered all over the country.
But when I'm on tour, if someone is in that city, she’ll come out to the show and it's always great seeing them.
KW: I saw that you're in Clerks II. How did you hook up with [director] Kevin Smith and what was it like working with him?
WS: He was a lot of fun to work with. I met Kevin when he and [producer] Norman Lear, who I'm a big fan of, were working together on a project. They were doing public service announcements to get people to vote. They asked me to do one of them that Kevin was directing, so that was the first time that I actually worked with Kevin. Then, when he was doing Clerks II, he called me and said, ’I've got a small part. Would you come aboard and just play with us for a day?’ I said, ’Sure!’ since I loved the original. And after reading the script, I definitely wanted to be a part of it.
KW: you're also in Evan Almighty, the sequel to Bruce Almighty. Have you started shooting that yet?
WS: Yes, we're already in production and shooting in Charlottesville, Virginia.
KW: You've written a book, written scripts, done stand-up, been in movies, and on TV. Which type of work is your favorite?
WS: Stand-up, by far, is my favorite.
KW: Have you ever considered taking a dramatic role. I think you'd be great at that, too?
WS: Oh, thank you. What I love about comedy is that there's room to have those dramatic scenes. As long as it's real, there can still be something funny in a tragic situation. But while I won’t say never, right now I enjoy being funny, and that's where I'm comfortable, so I think I'm going to stay with the funny.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
WS: You better be very passionate about it, because there's a lot of rejection before you get to the good stuff. It's something that you just have to love and be tenacious about and hang in there. If you don't love it, and are only getting into it because you want to be famous, you're going to be crushed. You've got to do it because you love it.
KW: What would you say was your big break?
WS: I would say that would be the Chris Rock Show, when I started writing on that show. I opened for Chris when he was preparing to do Bring the Pain. He was working at Caroline’s. Then when he got his own show, I got a call to submit some writing samples. I got the job and I can't even put a value on what I learned from working with him. I still credit him and the exposure I got on his show for my big break. But I just credit him. I don't write him a check or anything.
KW: Do you think you’ll work with him again.
KW: Is there a question you always wished someone would ask you that you've never been asked?
WS: Hmm’. That question right there that you just asked me is a good question, because I'm thinking about it. That's a very good question.
KW: Are you willing to reveal what general area of L.A. you live in? I don't mean to be annoying, but this is what I call the Jimmy Bayan question.
WS: I live in The Valley.
KW: He's friend of mine who lives in Los Angeles and always wants to know the answer to that question, not that he's a’
WS: A stalker?
KW: Have you ever been to Princeton?
WS: Yeah, I think I played the school or somewhere around there back when I was doing a college tour. I used to live in Woodbridge, New Jersey early on when I was pursuing stand-up. I couldn't afford New York, so I lived in Jersey for a few years before I moved into the City.
KW: Thanks for the interview, Wanda.
WS: Well, thank you. Appreciate it. Take care.