Here’s the thing: I was supposed to interview Wyatt Cenac at Sundance, where his latest film, Jacqueline (Argentine), was premiering. But then Snowmageddon happened, and I discovered Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Snow Dogs has been lying. When it really snows, no one’s getting anywhere. Not even Cenac, who, in addition to the new movie, has a series called People of Earth slated for TBS’ fall lineup — this in addition to his long tenure (and tumultuous final days) at The Daily Show.
We rescheduled our interview for a Wednesday afternoon in New York. The conversation began as a story of his experience in the snowstorm (working; throwing snowballs in Brooklyn) before veering into an in-depth conversation on everything from his stance on whistleblowing to his thoughts on returning to The Daily Show to his favorite emoji. Spoiler alert: he freaking loves the eggplant.
Why live in Brooklyn instead of Manhattan or Queens?
Growing up, my grandma lived in Crown Heights [Brooklyn], so I would spend part of my summers there. When I came back to New York as an adult, Brooklyn felt incredibly familiar: more like home than Manhattan, Queens or the Bronx. And now all my stuff’s there, so…
At the time you were, what, in your 20s? What advice would you give your younger yourself if you could?
Don’t eat so much damn ibuprofen! You’re going to get an ulcer! I had an ulcer when I was 25. I would eat ibuprofen like they were breath mints.
You obviously lived in New York while filming The Daily Show, which you left in 2012 after a kerfuffle with Jon Stewart. Any plans to return now that Trevor Noah is hosting?
Nope, no plans. The Daily Show is a totally different thing now, and I left a long time ago. The one thing I will say is that running a writer’s room is like running a company: Each person decides how they want to run their company. I have my own way and my own expectations of how to do that; other people have their ways of doing it. I think a TV show should be a place that allows for creativity while still being respectful.
You returned to your “reporting” roots in the new film Jacqueline (Argentine) and will also play a journalist in the upcoming TBS series People of Earth. Why continue playing journalists?
I think it’s less about my desire to play journalists and more that I’ve perhaps been typecast. To be honest, I don’t often think about acting in movies or auditioning… there’s kind of an apathy on my part. But when someone approaches you and says, “Please star in my project! You play journalists so well,” it’s really flattering. My personal goal is to create other opportunities and other roles for myself through my own material. That, or to find someone who will cast me as Black Panther.
Speaking of Jacqueline (Argentine), you play a reporter exploring the world of whistleblowing. Do you have any thoughts on the phenomenon?
I think whistleblowing is an incredibly important, powerful thing: It exposes truths and injustices, things we don’t know are happening. But at the end of the day, I don’t know if whistleblowing ends up being as impactful as it should be, could be or was intended to be. It ends up being more about the person who blew the whistle in the first place. I look at Edward Snowden, for example, who has ostensibly exiled himself to Russia, and wonder if he thinks it was worth it… if what he wanted to happen happened.
Rumor has it Snowden actually watched the film. What would you say to him if you could?
I would love to text Edward Snowden and just say, “U up?” Maybe throw in an eggplant emoji. See what he says. But in all seriousness, John Oliver did such a good segment on Snowden that I don’t know if there’s anything left to add. What would be really interesting to me is whether he got the impact that he wanted. It’s like the second season of Serial: according to Bowe Bergdahl, all he wanted was to expose these injustices in what the military was doing. Now he’s in front of a military tribunal; he’s the story. And when you think about what his motive apparently was in the first place, I don’t think Bergdahl’s achieved the change he wanted.
Last question: If you don’t often think about auditioning, how can we get you to star in one of our projects?
When Bernardo [Britto, writer-director of Jacqueline (Argentine)] wanted to sit down with me, he showed up at this weekly show I host in Brooklyn on Mondays called Night Train. He walked up to me after the show and asked if we could grab a drink. Granted, I’d already received his script, so I generally knew he wasn’t going to kidnap me, cut off my ears and turn them into a necklace. But it was cool he took the time to come find me. When I see someone’s really passionate, I’m generally interested to see what it’s all about.