Molly Shannon may have kicked, sniffed, and quirked her way into Saturday Night Live fame in the mid-’90s, but over the past two decades, she has slowly, but assuredly, defied the expectations of a physical comedian. While crisscrossing the small screen (Will & Grace, Sex and the City, Glee), Shannon, 54, has also performed on Broadway (Promises, Promises) and carved out a career in indie comedy-dramas such as Year of the Dog and Other People (her turn as a terminally ill mother won her an Independent Spirit Award). Her slate remains stacked: She swipes scenes on the HBO comedy Divorce, stars in the upcoming films Sextuplets and Wild Nights With Emily, lends her voice to Netflix’s animated Spy Kids: Mission Critical, pops up occasionally with Will Ferrell as TV personalities Cord & Tish, and is about to delight on the promising Comedy Central series The Other Two (debuting Thursday at 10:30 p.m.) as Pat, the spunky, excited mother of a nascent pop star named ChaseDreams (Case Walker) and his two underachieving-and-hating-it older siblings (Drew Tarver and Heléne Yorke). Let’s raise a glass — or three — and take a hit of Molly.
ROUND ONE: Saint Archer White Ale
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What kind of research did you do for the role, or did that come through Hollywood osmosis?
MOLLY SHANNON: It was kind of osmosis. I’m a big Taylor Swift fan, and my daughter’s a big Taylor Swift fan. We went to her concert, and we got to go backstage and we met her mother. I had also met Mandy Teefey, who’s Selena Gomez’s mother. I grew up loving Brooke Shields, and I was fascinated with Teri Shields. I was like, “I wish I had a momager!” I was always fascinated with those savvy mother managers. I feel like I’ve had enough experience meeting some of these people at SNL.
For all of her meetings.
Yes, she has big meetings! Yeah. Oh, you better watch out! This is no joke.
What was the wardrobe or hairstyle choice that galvanized the character for you?
Well, the hair is perfect. We wanted kind of a Kate Gosselin, “Ohio comes to New York City” cut…. I really love wearing wigs and I really like changing myself a lot, so the hair hooks me. And then I would say that little jacket that she bought at the candy store. A black leather jacket with studs. And platform shoes for the summertime. She’s the type of person that would have a French manicure to look like a classy lady doing business.
In one episode, your character takes Molly at a party. How would you prepare viewers for Molly on Molly?
Well, that was hard [laughs] because I’ve never done Molly in my real life, but there were people there who were able to consult, saying, “No, it’s like this.” It’s easier to play drunk. Being on Molly is a very different kind of thing. It’s almost like being in awe with very small things, like nuts, so that was challenging.
Your characters, such as Mary Katherine Gallagher and Sally O’Malley, often display explosive exuberance or are aggressively determined. What influences do you draw from?
My dad was my biggest fan. He was really into showbiz. My dad was like Pat [from The Other Two]. He was like, “You go out in Hollywood and you put on your high heels and doll yourself up and you march into those agents’ office and you tell them, ‘Hold the phone! I got TALENT!'” So he was really like my Mama Rose. A lot of the characters are me. Some of them, the Joyologist [Helen Madden], in particular, would be me imitating him in a very, “Ah! So excited about life!” kind of state. Sally O’Malley is me imitating my dad too, but just as a woman.
You’re working with [SNL overlord] Lorne Michaels again, as he is an executive producer of The Other Two. What’s the quintessential Lorne anecdote that sums up his essence?
People could always do the typical thing, like “Oh, Lorne’s like, [in quasi-British accent] ‘Oh, no, no.'” I just knew him as a very deep thinker and genuine, intelligent. Once I was doing a Mary Katherine Gallagher sketch with Steven Tyler, and they had to build a brick wall pretty quickly and it wasn’t working, and I was like, “Oh no, we have to get it!” And we had three more seconds, and I was supposed to crash through it, and they didn’t have it perfectly built before the sketch started and I was like, “Noooo!” I was panicked. I was in that costume, and they were like, “Five… four…” I was like, “F—! This is not right!” And then Lorne just appeared on the other side of the stage, like an apparition, and he was just like, “It’s okay. Don’t let it throw you.” I mean, it’s like the greatest old showbiz story. He gave me such peace, and it was so loving and wonderful. There’s no one like him. He’s the greatest.
There was a big reunion at SNL 40 a couple of years ago. What story did you take away from that event that embodied the spirit of that night?
Oh my god, that was amazing. Everywhere you look, it’s just like … there’s Jim Carrey, there’s Martin Short, there’s Adam Sandler, there’s Taylor Swift, Steve Martin, Prince. It was bananas! I can’t even — it was just the greatest. But then it was pressure, too, to perform. I was glad I didn’t have to perform that much. I just did a little thing with Jimmy Fallon at the beginning. I was like, “I’m glad I just have an easy bit,” because everybody loved seeing that show but they didn’t know that some people barely had a rehearsal or some people had just flown in. So it’s not like you were practicing it all weekend and writing it. But I have to say, at the party, Prince was in the corner and I was with Chris Kattan and I was like, “Oh my god, there’s Prince!” He was just in the corner by himself at the Plaza Hotel.
Did you approach him?
I did, I did! I was so scared. I never knew — Lorne told me later, he goes, “Molly, you know when he was on the show, he did [imitating the Mary Katherine Gallagher finish], ‘Superstar!’ after he did a song!” Chris and I went over together, and I kinda wish I’d just gone by myself in a way — nothing against Chris — but I think it made him a little shyer because there were two of us. He was just quiet, by himself in a corner, behind his guitar and seemed really shy and very reserved. But that was a cool moment. And meeting Taylor Swift at that party was amazing. She was like, “We might go to a diner once this is over and get breakfast or milkshakes,” but I had to go back to my hotel to see my kids. And I told my daughter when I got home, “Taylor Swift said they were going to a diner and she invited me,” and my daughter was like, “You should have gone!”
Do you have one of the Mary Katherine Gallagher outfits? I assume one of them is in a museum….
I think it’s at the Smithsonian, which is crazy. But my friend Jill Leiderman and her husband Rob [Cohen] had a benefit that they do, OneKid OneWorld. So he asked me to do Mary Katherine. I was like, “I don’t ever do Mary Katherine.” But I did it for them. So the costume designer from Jimmy Kimmel [Live, on which Leiderman serves as executive producer] made me a duplicate costume, and then they gave it to me. So I’m like, “I’ve got to peddle this around town!”
ROUND TWO: Peroni
You now move freely between comedic and dramatic projects. I know you studied drama at NYU, but what was the turning point where you could see that you weren’t just considered for comedies? Did your roles in Year of the Dog and Enlightened change the game?
Yes. Mike [White, Year writer-director and Enlightened co-creator] and I are really good friends, so I think he knew that I could do that. So that was really the turning point, let’s be honest. He believed in me. He really had to back me up and go, “Nope, I only want Molly.” So I am so grateful that he did that because they could’ve said, “Oh, let’s have somebody who’s more known to this world.” He wrote it for me…. That turned things around for me, where people saw that I could do drama.
How important was it to you to be able to have that diversity of projects?
That meant so much to me because I feel like Hollywood can be so hard, where they just think, “Oh, you can only do that.” I’ve always thought of myself as a dramatic actress; it’s just people didn’t know that! It’s almost like they only knew me from comedy because that’s how I broke in. But I was a dramatic actress at NYU, doing plays and Shakespeare. I’m like a regular serious actress!
Was there a comedian who turned to dramatic roles that you sought to model yourself after — or that you sought advice from?
No, there wasn’t anybody that I really model myself after…. I love when Jim Carrey [starred in Doing Time on Maple Drive], where he plays like an alcoholic, right? I think comedians can really be good actors, but sometimes when regular actors try to do comedy — at NYU, I remember super-thespian girls would try to do comedy. But they were too cerebral about it.
It was too labored.
Yes! It’s like, “No, the whole thing is to let go and be more organic! Don’t be so technical about your comedy.” It’s the opposite of that — where you’re letting yourself be not so controlled.
Do you remember the first laugh you ever got?
My friend, Amy Wahl, had a bunch of sisters, and I used to sleep over at her house all the time. Her mother would make dinner every night and there were five girls in the family, and the mother is like, “I’m going to make chicken cacciatore,” and the whole family was sitting around and I was like, “I’ll have the chicken, but I don’t want any of the cacciatore.” And they were like, [imitates roaring laughter]. The whole family laughed, and I was like, “Heh, heh, heh.” I acted really innocent and it got a big laugh.
And what are your thoughts on chicken cacciatore now?
I mean, I would definitely have the cacciatore. Without a doubt. Absolutely. I like sauces.
What is the role at the end of your career that we’ll look back on and say, “I can’t believe that she got to play that!”?
I mean, s—. Other People. I can’t believe I got that part. Isn’t that a part that is supposed to go to someone very serious and dramatic? The fact that I did get to do that…it was really so meaningful, and Chris Kelly [the former SNL co-head writer who wrote and directed Other People before creating The Other Two with Sarah Schneider] and I both lost our mothers [prematurely]. I poured my heart into that… I lost my mom when I was a kid, which is different than losing your parent as an adult. But I am a mother, so the part that really got me was the line where [her son] knows she’s dying and he’s like, “I just want to take you all over the world,” and she’s like, “I get to see my whole world at dinner.” I really related to that as a mother…. Chris just was so brave and had such depth in doing this. Performing in that exceeded my expectations.
ROUND THREE: Firestone Walker 805 Blonde Ale
You also star in Divorce as Diane, an impulsive, irrational, intoxicated friend of Frances [Sarah Jessica Parker]. In the season 2 finale, after your husband was arrested, you applied for a counter job at Saks Fifth Avenue. How do you see her faring in the job? I can see her doing well, save for the occasional meltdown.
Okay, good. We’ll see. I don’t know. She doesn’t have much patience. It will be fun to see her with customers. Yeah, that’s crazy what happened. She lost all her money. They lost all their dough.
There’s almost like a dramatic resignation to it, like she’s saying to herself, “Now I need to play this part of the wife who lost everything, the Ruth Madoff.”
Exactly. I love reading all that stuff about Ruth Madoff in real life. It’s so fascinating. I can’t get enough of reading about Mrs. Cosby. What fascinates me is them still hanging on for so long. I mean, I don’t know if Ruth still speaks to him, but I think she did up until, probably recently, right? Fascinates me. As an Irish woman — the loyalty and co-dependence and I don’t know what, my god, at the expense of so much.
You’re next in Sextuplets, and Marlon Wayans is playing six siblings. What can we expect from you — and him — in this movie?
I play his boss at the workplace. A tough boss who suffers no fools…. That was really fun because he’s just such a great performer, such a great actor, and a great comedian. So it was a really unique experience. Not to give away too much, but I get to perform with a couple different characters and I was like, “This is crazy! This is wild!” I had never done a scene like I did before in that movie, so it was really fun and easy, and great to work with a comedian who just gets it. I think we work in a similar fashion. He’ll just go for it. He does wild stuff and it was very simpatico. I love the Wayans brothers. Marlon was great. I worked with Keenen. I worked with them, too, on the comedy show with Jim Carrey, their original show [In Living Color].
They didn’t know me then but I used to get hired doing bit parts on that. Isn’t that weird? I did like under-fives [fewer than five lines of dialogue] where I’m in scenes with Jim Carrey, but Keenen didn’t know me then but then I got hired by them later. I was studying sketch shows, like “Oh, how does this work?” But the Wayans are great. They write great parts for women. They love when women are funny. Their mom is really funny in real life, so they like girls to shine and score.
Sally O’Malley proudly declared that she was 50. How would you characterize that your 50s so far?
I really like my 50s. I feel just so happy that I created a career for myself and I’m happy I have children and I have a great partner, so I just feel more peace and happiness. More than my 20s and 30s. Dating and all that kind of stuff, you can struggle over or worry about. I feel like I know myself better. Just happier. More at peace.
What’s the most impulsive decision you’ve ever made in regards to a role, where you just said, “I haven’t read the script yet, but I’m going to do that”?
I did that with [2018 Netflix comedy-drama] Private Life, actually. Because Tamara [Jenkins, who wrote and directed the film] emailed me and she was like, “I’m doing this movie” — and Sofia Coppola was a mutual friend of ours and Sophia gave her my email — and I said, “What’s the movie about?” She was like, “It’s about a couple going through in vitro fertility.” I feel very fortunate that I didn’t have go through that; I didn’t have trouble getting pregnant, but I said, “I 100 percent am going to be in this movie, because I feel it will be revolutionary, and nobody’s seen a movie like that, and I’ve had a lot of friends go through it.” And she was like, “You are???” And I was like, “I absolutely am going to be in this movie.” I was like, “She’s so smart and funny, and this is 100 percent yes!” And I hadn’t read the script. But I just knew it. I knew. I knew.
What’s the funniest word to say?
Rascal! I love it. Such a little rrrrascal!… It sounds like — is that an onomatopoeia, where the word sounds like what it is? I love that kind of thing. Crrrrackling!
What’s the biggest misconception about Molly Shannon?
Hmm… I don’t like if people think I’m goofy. John [C.] Reilly once said in an interview where he was interviewed about me: “Molly can be deadly serious,” and I was like, “Yes. That’s me.” I mean, I can be funny, of course, but I think I am more serious and more curious about people. And I don’t feel zany. When I read that, I think, “Zany? I don’t relate to that.”
So what words would you use to describe yourself?
I guess thoughtful. I ask a lot of questions. And serious. I’m kind of serious! I mean, not so serious, but you know what I mean. I’m very serious about love and romance…. [Laughs] This suddenly took a very serious turn!
What was the most serious act of love you’ve ever committed?
When I was first with my husband [artist Fritz Chesnut], I was very nervous. It was early on in our dating, and I was like, “Oh, I wonder if he wants to be exclusive?” I was kind of nerdy. I was like the character in Year of the Dog. I was kind of obsessing, so I was like, “I hope he wants to be serious because I feel serious, and I’m serious about romance.” [Laughs] So I wrote all these note cards, and I told him that I wanted to have a talk about stuff. I was like, “I want to talk to you,” and he was like, “Okay, what?” I put on music and I looked at the note cards before and then—
That’s amazing. It was a presentation.
Yeah, yeah! I put them in my pocket, and I was like, [imitates herself reciting from memory] “I was wondering if you were interested in still continuing to get closer because I would be interested in that too…” He was like, “Of course!” That’s so dorky. That’s pretty serious, right?
Note cards are very serious.
There’s nothing zany about it.
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