He blows celebrities’ minds while impersonating them to their faces

NEW YORK

To the celebrity impressionist, there are few subjects more tantalizing than Nicolas Cage. And yet there Matt Friend was at the Golden Globes in January, doing his Cage for Cage himself (“I just wanna kind of FIND the Declaration of Independence!”), when Paul Giamatti walked into his sightline.

Friend had spent years nailing Giamatti’s vocal tics and signature exasperations, and he was desperate to share his imitation with the veteran actor. But in the star-studded chaos, Giamatti skirted right by Friend’s perch on the press line. “The carpet is like Madame Tussauds come to life,” Friend said recently over lunch in SoHo. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I missed him.’”

End of carousel

A couple hours later, though, while loitering inside the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Friend spotted the “Holdovers” star again, just moments after he had won for best actor in a musical or comedy. Giamatti had started walking across a nondescript hallway to the winners’ press room. Friend wouldn’t miss his second chance. He raced over to introduce himself, gave his phone to his own manager and then broke into an uncanny impersonation right beside his idol.

“I am doing you, to you, right now,” Friend shouts, shaking his head in the actor’s visceral style.

Without missing a beat, Giamatti perks up and participates. “That’s very good!” he yells, matching Friend’s exaggerated tone. “Very good!”

The surreal video, which blew up on Friend’s TikTok and Instagram accounts, is a prime example of the comedian’s sharp miming abilities, which often impress and surprise his targets. Though their encounter lasts just a minute, Giamatti can’t stop laughing at the charade, commending Friend’s startlingly familiar and hard-to-achieve mannerisms. “I was unbelievably lucky,” Friend says. “You have to be quick on your feet when you see a celebrity — and then moments can happen.”

Over the past couple of months, Friend has turned the red carpet into a petri dish for similar viral content, mastering impromptu interactions with actors and musicians who have become increasingly familiar with his online presence. He’s prompted Kieran Culkin to slap him after a profane parody of “Succession” character Tom Wambsgans. He’s traded King Charles III’s syllabic riffs with “The Crown” actor Dominic West. And he’s broken out his near-identical Howard Stern voice to appease Netflix head Ted Sarandos. These days, whether he’s at the Grammys or the Emmys, it seems like every celebrity is pleased to meet Friend, Hollywood’s new favorite impressionist and an improbable protagonist of the 2024 awards season.

“It was very nerve-racking at first, but I just love it,” Friend says. “It’s crazy. I actually feel the most in my element when I’m on that carpet.”

Friend got his first taste of the red carpet at last year’s Globes, after Jeremy Lowe, a friend who works at Dick Clark Productions, granted him press access. The 25-year-old impressionist purchased his own microphone at a camera store, Ubered to the event from his hotel, and set up shop without much of a plan. “There was no producer helping me,” he says. “I had my manager filming me, holding my phone, and I was monitoring the sound. It could have been a disaster.” Then Austin Butler approached him, eager to compliment Friend’s recent Elvis impression as Friend broke into song in the actor’s husky drawl. The filmed interaction proved Friend didn’t need to flag down A-listers — they were already looking for him. “It’s been amazing that they’ve been so receptive to it. It’s pretty wild,” he says. “My goal in these events is to get really funny moments and make the celebrities feel comfortable and relaxed.”

The press line is just a heightened glimpse of Friend’s instinctual social media and comedic skills. Since his more than 250 impressions began catching fire throughout the pandemic, he’s amassed more than a million followers on TikTok, where he shares cooking spoofs of Stanley Tucci, croons like Michael Bublé and addresses constituents as Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, often while walking through public places. He frequently guests on cable news networks, has started voicing characters on “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons,” and is currently in the middle of a national stand-up tour, mixing in his astute impressions with observational humor. A few years removed from college, he can’t quite believe how far his videos have taken him. “To have these things happening at such a quick rate compared to a lot of other people is amazing,” Friend says. “I do not take it for granted.”

A Chicago native, Friend remembers starting his comedy journey after watching “Austin Powers in Goldmember” as a 4-year-old, reciting Mike Myers’s various characters around the house. As a teenager, he developed his vocal skills watching and recording himself on YouTube, and transferred to NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study after his freshman year at Tufts to be closer to New York’s comedy scene. “I submitted a video and read my essay with different impressions. I think that’s how I got in,” he laughs. After interning with the Second City comedy troupe and “The Tonight Show,” he began incorporating impressions into stand-up sets at Gotham Comedy Club, where he could get laughs with decent-sounding one-liners. But it wasn’t until the pandemic quarantine that he found time to test, refine and expand his material with a broader online audience. “I was just very obsessive,” Friend says. “I was posting a lot.”

Friend estimates his early impression of Rami Malek put his profile on the map. He got another boost after an encounter with Jeff Goldblum, who spontaneously brought Friend up onstage at a jazz club so the pair could out-Goldblum each other. (Friend smartly came prepared with the actor’s trademark throat lozenges.) His impression of Stern — arguably his most accurate of the bunch — was so good that the longtime radio host invited him on the show to poke fun at his own vocabulary. Living in downtown New York has also had its perks, as his frequent, random run-ins with Andy Cohen, John Oliver and David Letterman have almost functioned like test runs for his red carpet shtick. “I actually read theories that people have on me,” Friend says. “Like, ‘‘How are you so connected?’ ‘Are you in the CIA?’”

Throughout our conversation, Friend sipped an iced coffee, occasionally slipped into various voices, blurted out a word-perfect rendition of “The Music Man’s” “Ya Got Trouble” and began self-awarely narrating his own profile: “Can he really be himself?” Indeed, his imposing baritone voice (complemented by his 6-foot-2 stature) makes it easy to fluidly mimic celebrities with lower registers, which sometimes made it hard to discern his actual voice from the impressions he slips in and out of. “People think I’m telling a joke all the time,” he laughs. “I want to make the record clear: I’m able to recognize when I’m being myself versus a voice or an impression.”

Though “Saturday Night Live” would seem to be one possible next step (the actor auditioned last summer but didn’t hear back), Friend’s social media surge — and frequent hobnobbing with Hollywood’s elite — has provided him a plausible shortcut to pursue his dream job as a late-night television host. “I love this blend of politics and pop culture, celebrities and politicians and the news,” he says. “That’s what I’m working toward.” In the meantime, he can barely keep up with his growing list of voice requests. Last month, country artist Jelly Roll and actor Glen Powell both blitzed Friend for impressions of themselves, which caught him uncharacteristically off-guard. (He plans to work them into his repertoire soon.)

Several hours after we spoke, Friend was flying back to Los Angeles for a few stand-up sets and Oscars events, where his phone will be at the ready. But before we could part ways, a middle-aged man on the street had noticed him, approached to shake his hand, and gave the impressionist another taste of what’s been happening to him all winter. “You’re all over my social media,” he said excitedly, before turning to me. “He does the best impressions.”

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