Jay Pharoah channels ‘Sparta’ at the gym

April 13, 2018

Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK — Jay Pharoah, an actor, impressionist and former “Saturday Night Live” comedian, stood in front of a mirror beneath the glaring lights of Titan Fitness Studio, a gym in Chelsea.

“Take it off, take it off,” said Jason Castaño, his longtime personal trainer.

Pharoah, 30, obliged, shedding his tank top and wetting his rippling chest down with a bottle of alkaline water. “Oh snap,” he said. “I am proud of my damn self.”

Near the end of his time on “Saturday Night Live” (he was fired in 2016, a year before his contract ended), the busy rehearsal schedule and 3 a.m. pizzas with writers caught up with him. His weight ballooned to 215 pounds. After hiring the baby-faced Castaño and following a rigorous diet, Pharoah dropped more than 40 pounds and built some serious muscles.

“I got handsome,” he said, as he admired himself in the mirror. “Men — we turn 30, we get kind of sexy. I’m not saying I’m sexy. I’m just saying.”

It takes punishing workouts to stay kind of sexy, so even though Pharoah now lives in Los Angeles, he sees Castaño whenever he’s in town. Last month, when he was in New York to promote “Unsane,” the Steven Soderbergh movie shot on iPhone, he made time for an afternoon workout.

“Unsane” is his first dramatic role. He stars opposite Claire Foy (“The Queen”), who plays a woman unwillingly committed to a mental health facility. Pharoah appears as Nate, a recovering opioid addict and fellow inmate. Soderbergh told him, “Just play this as real as you can.”

Realness is Pharoah’s specialty. A master impressionist, he can emulate the voices of more than 200 celebrities, including Eddie Murphy, Barack Obama and Nicolas Cage. He just added Jason Statham, and he has been working on Foy, too.

“I haven’t mastered that yet. But I got a little something,” he said.

“They call me — I’m not saying this, it’s the world saying this — arguably the best impressionist of our time,” he added, as he began a set of crunches.

He kept the impressions going during the workout, alternating among Arnold Schwarzenegger, Denzel Washington and Michael B. Jordan, as the villain Killmonger in “Black Panther.”

“I’m your king!” he said in a menacing accent, as he tensed for a dead lift. (Pharoah hasn’t quite mastered that one either.)

His favorite cardiovascular impression: Gerard Butler as King Leonidas in the battle flick “300.” “For Sparta,” he said, growling as he dragged a 300-pound sled behind him. “For Sparta,” Castaño answered him.

Pharoah kept growling until he could barely breathe. Had Castaño beaten the comedy out of it? “Nah,” Castaño said. “He’ll come back to it.” And Pharoah did, slipping into the Scottish accent during his chest presses.

“Young Spartan, I can lift way more than this,” he said.

When Pharoah wasn’t doing impressions, he joked around as himself. “Curls for girls,” he said during his biceps curls, admiring his veined arms in the mirror.

“I’m going on vacation,” he said. He hopes other vacationers will see him as a sex object. “I can’t wait. Thirst trap, thirst trap, walking thirst trap, gonna be crazy.”

Pharoah wouldn’t say where was he was going, since it was a surprise for “somebody special.” (Sorry, ladies, the thirst trap is taken.)

After stretching with Castaño, he showered, spritzed with Versace Blue and changed into jeans, a denim shirt and a blingy cross and ankh. As he came out of the locker room, he rubbed himself with cocoa butter. “I get ashy,” he said.

You see, Pharoah wasn’t always such a thirst trap. He was a chubby boy growing up in Chesapeake, Virginia. “People did this thing with my chest, flipped up my man breasts,” he said. “Theater was an escape for me. People would adore me for the work.”

He landed on “Saturday Night Live” when he was 22, after an audition that included impressions of Eddie Murphy in a library, Chris Tucker in a mental hospital and Will Smith as a tour guide.

He created more characters there, including a straight-talking Pooh bear and a heavy-breathing high school principal. He was also outspoken about the show’s lack of black women. A year ago, in an interview with the radio station Hot 97, he spoke heatedly about the show’s typecasting of comedians: “They put people into boxes. And they want you to do what they expect you to do.”

He sounds more philosophical about the show these days. “‘Saturday Night Live’ was comedy college,” he said. “It’s good for exposure, but if you want to elevate yourself, you have to show everybody what you can do.”

He tried to show everybody on “White Famous,” a Showtime comedy about a black comedian, loosely based on Jamie Foxx, trying to crack mainstream Hollywood. The show received mixed reviews and was canceled after one season. “It still showed people my range,” Pharoah said.

He hopes “Unsane” will show people more of it. In the meantime, he’s working on a rap album (“It’s a whole journey,” he said) and writing a new comedy special. He is also trying “to get into ‘Black Panther 2,’” he said.

“I’m dead serious. Who can do an African accent? Me! Who can do any kind of accent? Me!”

“There’s so much more to Jay Pharoah. I’m a piñata, man. You hit me; I bust open with all this talent. You get a Reese’s and a Twix!” he said, naming a couple of candies his trainer won’t let him eat. “Oh snap.”

— (The New York Times)