With his expressive face and vocal tricks, Jay Pharaoh is best known for his spot-on impersonations during six seasons on Saturday Night Live. Now, instead of imitating Denzel Washington or Barack Obama, Pharaoh stars as up-and-coming comedian Floyd Williams in the new Showtime series White Famous, premiering Sunday at 10 p.m. The series, from executive producers Tom Kapinos and Jamie Foxx, is loosely based on Foxx’s early years in Hollywood and follows Floyd as he navigates making his next big career leap.
Pharaoh, who also recently competed the new, untitled Stephen Soderbergh film, spoke with Paste about his new series, its title and how his career mirrors his on-screen alter ego.
Paste: So the title is a great one, one that immediately gives you a sense of what the show is about. Is the term “white famous” one that you use and are familiar with?
Pharaoh: There’s another term for people who are on the chitlin circuit. We call this crossing over to the industry. You’re not known across the board, so you’re only n-word famous. So the other side of that would be white famous. I think the title fits. I agree with it. Jamie was like, “Hey man, you want to flip it? Let me know. We’ll talk about it and have a conversation. I’m open to hearing your words.” But I said, “No words. I think it fits perfectly.”
Paste: How did this project come about for you?
Jay Pharaoh: My agent sent it to me. I read the script. I connected with it immediately. I saw the potential in it and it was so synonymous with my path and a lot of young black comedians that come up trying to make that crossover.
Paste: Had you worked with Jamie Foxx before?
Pharaoh: I had only worked with Jamie Foxx a little bit before and that was just because he hosted Saturday Night Live one time. We kept in contact over the years and he’s always had nothing but nice things and encouraging things to say.
Paste: The show is loosely based on his life. Has Jamie told you stories of his career?
Pharaoh: He hasn’t had the chance to tell me all of the before stories that happened early on, but he’s told me a lot. it’s like Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi when he talks. You kind of shut up and listen. Maybe one day we’ll sit down and I’ll tell him some grand old stuff that happened to me. I’ve actually had the chance to put some of my stories into the show.
Paste: What kind of stories?
Pharaoh: A lot of the sweet stories. My sister has been my manager for 10 years now, going on 11, and some of the sacrifices that she made are going to end up in the show.
Paste: In the pilot, your character has a crisis when he’s offered a big movie but with the caveat that he has to appear in a dress.
Pharaoh: That is an issue that is very problematic in the black community. Black males getting emasculated by Hollywood. It’s an issue that’s culturally known. So the first episode, we tackle that. Something that the show does very well is tackle racial issues that do happen behind closed doors. Maybe there are some issues that you didn’t know about. The show shines light upon those issues. I think there [are] going to be water cooler conversations from every episode. “Oh man, would you do that?” or “If that did happen, how would you handle it?” I think there’s going to be a lot of that. That’s why I’m so excited.
Paste: Right now, most people know you from Saturday Night Live. What will people learn about you from this series?
Pharaoh: I hope that people not only see the comedic talent, but that they see the dramatic [talent] and the warmth that this character does bring out in me. To be able to show that to the world is such a gift.
Paste: Floyd takes a funny jab at Will Smith in the pilot. With the show being set in Hollywood, is anyone and everyone fair game?
Pharaoh: Comedy is fair game as long as you’re not talking about harming anybody and keeping it light. Keeping it fun. I believe you can tackle any issue. You can tackle anybody. So if there are shots thrown at people, don’t take it as a negative—it’s a positive, because we are paying attention to you. I even say this in my stand up. If I impersonate you, most of the time I have to like you to do it.
Paste: When you were leaving Saturday Night Live, is headlining your own show where you thought you were heading?
Pharaoh: Before I got SNL, I had a holding deal with NBC . They wanted to do a show about my life. I had a crazy story about me going to private school for a year and it was outrageous, one of the craziest experiences ever, and they said we’re going to make a story about that. I said I would love to do that, but nobody knows me. And if you get a chance and you don’t have a name, sometimes it don’t float. It sinks, then you have to wait years until you get another chance. So SNL came into play. I did my time. I got off. This came and pretty much what I said manifested itself. I think it will float. I think people will watch it. I think it was when I was working with Stephen Soderbergh. I’m sitting there chilling and it just hit me that it happened. I was on a show, built my name up, got off, got a pilot, it got picked up and now I have my own show.
Paste: The pilot ends with Floyd staying true to himself. Have you had moments like that in your career—the fork in the road where you have to make a tough decision that you aren’t sure at the time is the right call?
Pharaoh: I think everything happens for a reason, and I believe my career is riddled with those points. It’s just another reason why I didn’t get sucked into a lot of things that were negative and demeaning. I got my family around me. I’ve got my sister, she’s my manager. My mom. My dad. I’ve got a real good home base. Yes things that happened when I stood up for myself, my morals, my code and everything has always worked out. I know God has me. Real talk.
White Famous premieres Sunday, Oct. 15 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .