Actor Jonah Hill plays a baby piano in this photo from a November 2018 episode of “Saturday Night Live.” “We talked about his favorite movie being ‘Amadeus,’ so we just ran away,” said photographer Mary Ellen Matthews.
She’s not part of the cast, but Mary Ellen Matthews has been a key figure on Saturday Night Live for the past 23 years.
Matthews has been the show’s official photographer since 1999, taking the pictures you see every time the show comes back from a commercial break. These celebrity portraits highlight the weekly hosts and musical guests that have become part of “SNL” as much as the opening monologue or “Weekend Update.”
“I always try to bring joy,” Matthews said. “That’s the motto of how I operate: bring a playful feel, keep it light. It’s also very introspective to have these occasional quiet moments. I think it’s a good balance on the show.”
The portraits have been part of the sketch comedy show since 1975, the year the show premiered. Edie Baskin was the photographer at the time, and Matthews picked up where she left off.
Every Thursday before the show, Matthews is able to meet with each host and musical guest to collaborate on various looks or concepts. The ideas she presents may affect the personality or public image of each subject. Or it’s recreating a famous artwork. Sometimes it’s as simple as putting Charles Barkley’s bald head into a sea of basketball.
“And there’s always something organic going on, so you have to make room for that,” Matthews said.
After each shot, a little post-production was required to make sure the photos had the graphics and color needed to “pop” on the livestream. In recent years, Matthews has also dabbled in animated stills.
Due to the hectic nature of the “SNL” production week, Matthews has only about 90 minutes to talk to each host and 20 minutes to talk to each musical guest. But it was exciting and she loved it.
“Every week is like the first week of a fresh start,” she said. “You always want to do better than last week, and you always want to provide the same great, creative service to every presenter and musical guest. , make it fun for them, and (make) their dreams come true.”
Make no mistake: Hosting “SNL” is a dream even for some of the most recognizable celebrities, Matthews said, who often yearn to be part of a traditional shoot.
“I’m excited,” she said. “I think (they’re) thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’ There’s a lot of funny ideas. There’s a lot of fun concepts. I think it’s time for them to relax a bit and let that trust go down.”
Air Date: January 25, 2020
This image of Driver hosting the show for the third time in 2020 did not use any special camera skills. Just placed the mirror carefully and a little patience.
“He was a guy who got what we wanted to do,” Matthews said. “It’s very collaborative to get him in the right place and the right place in the mirror and the right place for his hands. It’s great to be able to get these types of images in the camera.”
Matthews often references famous artworks in her shoots. The painting is a tribute to the painting “Clairvoyance” by René Magritte.
In Magritte’s painting, this is a self-portrait of him painting a bird while looking at an egg.
“I kind of thought, flip it,” said Matthews, who brought a prop chicken to shoot with Isaac. “And now it’s fried eggs, which chickens don’t like very much.”
Air Date: December 1, 2018
Foy, one of the stars of “The Crown,” sits on a swing and drinks a teacup.
“We’re kind of leaning towards her Britishness,” Matthews said.
Studio crews prepare the swings for filming at the NBC Studios. “That’s true,” Matthews said. “She was actually hanging from the rafters in the 8H studio.”
Air Date: October 26, 2019
Chance played the entire gospel choir by herself. It’s fitting because in this episode, he’s both the host and the musical guest.
“We had him do all these poses and group them together,” Matthews said.
Chance, who also labelled himself a Christian rapper, mentioned his faith in music.
“That said to him,” Matthews said.
Air Date: October 9, 2021
“I was doing colored gel last year, and it was kind of like a long exposure (photo), and it complemented the accent on her dress,” Matthews said. “I just thought it was beautiful to her. A little more she just felt the moment. …
“She understands what we’re doing with light and long exposures, so she knows the process, and our collaboration works well there.”
“We found the sofa and then our incredible costume designer Tom Brock made the suit,” Matthews said.
She said she couldn’t be sure where the sofa came from or if its upholstery matched Rudd’s outfit. But it’s perfect for naughty Rudd.
“He’s very expressive,” Matthews said. “He’s the best, right? We all love him.”
Air Date: November 4, 2017
This is another example of not planning some of the best portraits.
“We just started playing, and, you know, sometimes when you hand someone a pipe, a character evolves,” Matthews said.
She said it was David’s favorite on the set.
“I think he was asked to use it as a headshot or something. He liked that too,” she said.
Air Date: December 8, 2018
Matthews often tries to formulate ideas based on the public profile of each subject. But it’s also fun to do the opposite — like putting Momma, who often plays tough guy, in a goofy suit.
“In the same photo where I had him braided, there was another shot, and[his expression]was like ‘Thank you so much’ or something — it was all about fighting the genre,” Matthews said.
She originally wanted to animate the photo, but she unfolded it as a still image.
“We talked about it and he ended up giving me some moves. The suit worked perfectly in a graphic sense.”
Jean Page Director
Air Date: February 20, 2021
Matthews remembers the breakthrough “Bridgeton” star being “so beloved” during his week. “It was amazing to work with him, it was amazing,” she said.
Like Foy photographed above, this also blends into his British background.
“Maybe I drank too much from the teacup,” she said with a smile. “But we’re doing something and we’ve all just decided, why don’t you just break through to the other side? That’s at the end of the shoot. Just having fun, ruining the set. Why not?”
“He’s definitely one of my favorite people to photograph because, you know, he’s Bond,” Matthews said. “I must say it was a big thing for him to be a subject.
“I’m a huge fan and I just think he gave these looks and then put them together, it took the spy and added a little comedy to it there.”
This mirror is not intended to be part of Glover’s shoot.
“We just used it to examine the look and stuff, and it became this reflective, amazing moment,” recalls Matthews. “This kind of fun bumper isn’t common. But I think it’s really strong.”
Air Date: November 23, 2019
Every year, Matthews has a tradition of incorporating the same turkey props into a Thanksgiving show.
“We let the people who host the Thanksgiving show do other things with the turkey,” she said. “I think Matthew McConaughey was in the steam room and they were both wrapped in little towels.
“But with Will, I just want to walk his turkey on Fifth Avenue. I just made it up, don’t know like I’m not quite sure where we’re going. You’re not walking the dog, you’re Walk the turkey, and somehow it becomes a 70s version.”
Air Date: February 6, 2021
“He’s such a dynamic guy,” Matthews said of “Schitt’s Creek” star Daniel Levy. “So adding that vibrant color in that candid moment, it just looks like him. There’s no compulsion in there. Just there, Dan Levy has no trouble.”
Air Date: December 15, 2018
“Christmas shows are always fun, and for this, I found references to the Beach Boys Christmas album, and they’re decorating a Christmas tree,” Matthews said.
As with other holiday shows, Matthews will start thinking ahead about ideas that can make each year feel different. She thought it suited Damon and his clean-cut image.
“Matt nailed it perfectly with this sticky smile, ‘all is well in the world’. …I hope every shot of him here is the same, he’s come forward. “
Air Date: February 9, 2019
This photo of Halsey is another tribute to the album cover: “Goat’s Head Soup” by the Rolling Stones.
“Mick Jagger was covered in silk in the same way,” Matthews said. “We were playing the Rolling Stones and I was talking about the Rolling Stones and I made the suggestion and she loved it. … She was so present. She was such a collaborator. I love her, her art. She’s a painter. She has so much.”
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, “SNL” aired some special “At Home” episodes where the cast will be filming segments from home while practicing social distancing.
Matthews didn’t have a normal host or musical guest to take pictures, so she had to improvise too.
“We were all just barely making use of what we had at home, and she became my subject,” Matthews said. “So I put her in a bubble bath with a shower cap and a rubber duck. … It wasn’t easy. There wasn’t actually that much water. It was more of a bubble bath. But she definitely looked like : ‘Please stop. Take me out of here.’
“I’m not sure how much she enjoys there. But she’s patient and I owe her a big cookie.”
See more photos of Matthews and the story behind it.
The new season of “SNL” premieres Saturday at 11:30pm ET/8:30pm PT on NBC and Peacock. This weekend’s host is actor Miles Teller and the musical guest is Kendrick Lamar.