Molly Shannon's Year of Death and 'Divorce' - and How She Finally Got Hollywood to Take Her Seriously
By John Boone
Is everything OK with Molly Shannon?
Hearing her name might instantly conjure up the image of a soft-spoken Catholic schoolgirl who sometimes, when she gets nervous, tucks her hands firmly under her armpits and then smells them -- "like this!" -- before throwing her arms in the air in jubilant glee. Or maybe it sparks an image of her out of character, beaming from ear to ear, a smile so big it features the teeth farthest back in her mouth.
The very same Molly Shannon we loved on Saturday Night Live is having a rather bleak year, at least onscreen: first in Other People, playing a cancer-stricken matriarch in her final year, and next opposite Sarah Jessica Parker in HBO's evisceratingly hilarious -- and hilariously eviscerating -- new series, Divorce, premiering Oct. 9.
"My year of death and divorce!" Shannon exclaims, breaking into a giggle. It's a recent Thursday and Shannon is in New York on a day off from filming. She pauses a moment, before musing on finding humor in those darker moments. "Those types of situations are never just black or white. They're always complicated."
The 52-year-old actress' turn to more dramatic fare isn't a plot twist in her narrative. You don't even need to go as far back as her childhood -- raised in Ohio by a teacher and a sales manager -- to see that. In 1987, Shannon graduated from NYU's prestigious Tisch School of Arts drama program and, it's only fitting, then, that her first onscreen role was playing Meg in a 1989 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera.
"I always thought of myself as a very serious, dramatic actress," Shannon reflects. "I was really much more into drama, but when I came to L.A. I was like, 'How do you break in?' At the time, Second City was offering classes in Santa Monica and my friend Rob Muir said, 'Let's do a comedy show, because comedy is king.' We were in my kitchen, in my dumpy apartment in Hollywood across from an El Pollo Loco, and I was like 'Is it? Is comedy king?!'"
"It was hard to get an agent -- I was auditioning, but I wasn't really getting the stuff I wanted," she continues, excitedly running through her life's story. "When I was at NYU, I created Mary Katherine Gallagher in a stage show and people really responded to that. They were like, 'You should be on Saturday Night Live!' And I was like, 'Really?! You think?! OK!' So then I headed to L.A. thinking, 'Well, maybe that would be a good way to get into show biz, if I do a stage show where I do characters.' But I always considered myself a dramatic comedian. Like, the characters were always very serious."
Shannon and Muir created The Rob and Molly Show, which they put up at local theaters. That turned into a yearlong stint on In Living Color, which earned her a coveted spot on Saturday Night Live in 1995. There, she introduced Mary Katherine Gallagher to the masses, as well characters including 50-year-old Sally O'Malley, who likes to kick and stretch and kick, and Teri Rialto, the "Delicious Dish" host who helped make Alec Baldwin's irresistible Schweddy Balls infamous. When she left the show in 2001, she'd surpassed Victoria Jackson as SNL's longest-serving female cast member. (Her record’s since been beaten by Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch.)
"I never felt pigeonholed [by comedy], because that's how I got my break and I struggled for so long that I was just like, 'Oh my God! This is so great! I'm meeting Lorne Michaels! Now he's putting me on the show!'" she reveals. "So, I was like, 'YAY! This is my way in!'"
Still, between roles in comedy blockbusters and a handful of sitcoms, Shannon felt an itch to return to her dramatic roots. She credits one man with helping her do it: Mike White, a fellow comedian and close friend who wrote the 2007 dramedy Year of the Dog for her.
"I feel like because he cast me in that and then also Enlightened, it showed people, like, 'Oh, wow. She can do that,'" she says. "A lot of times when I get offered these parts from directors, they'll always reference Mike White. I'm so grateful that he did that, because that is not always an easy transition. But Mike knows me, so he knew I could do it."
One of those directors is Chris Kelly, who made this year’s Sundance darling Other People, a semiautobiographical indie film about a struggling comedy writer, David (Fargo's Jesse Plemons), who returns to his childhood home when his mother (Shannon) is diagnosed with cancer.
"The first person I said [I wanted] was 'a Molly Shannon type,'" Kelly explains to ET. "She was always my favorite [on SNL], because she was so exuberant and there was such a joy about her characters. She was good at playing big and broad, but all her sketch characters were also rooted in a real emotion. A lot of her post-SNL work has been so lovely, too, like Enlightened and Year of the Dog. She's done these kind of small, nuanced, dramatic performances. But I was like, 'That's not enough! Come on! Put her in more things!'"
In the end, Kelly says casting an actress known for being "funny first" unintentionally made the film even more dramatic. "I was like, 'It would be nice, because the movie is so sad and there are moments that are tough, to have someone like Molly be so funny and full of life who will bring levity to those scenes,'" he points out. "And it actually does bring levity to the scenes, but it [also] makes the scenes that much worse. Because there are actors and actresses that you expect to see be sick and die on camera -- that's their bread and butter -- but you've only ever seen Molly be so full of life. To see someone like her go through that in this movie is jarring."
It's a juxtaposition Plemons remembers playing out on set, too. "You can't meet Molly and not fall in love with her," he gushes in a phone interview, citing one memory that, for him, sums up shooting the film.
"You can't meet Molly and not fall in love with her."
"It's the opening and closing scene on her deathbed, when the family's all gathered there, basically preparing for her to pass," Plemons remembers. "Everyone was in tears. It was also sort of surreal to know that this happened -- not exactly like this, but in a way, in Chris' real life. There was a sort of eerie tone going into this scene. We started and Chris is speaking off-camera to Molly and saying, 'OK. You're taking your last breaths and now...that's it.' And five or 10 seconds pass and out of nowhere she just starts cracking up hysterically and--" Plemons' gravelly voice cracks as he chuckles, reminiscing. "None of us are sure what's going on, and she said, 'It's just so weird to play dead when you're not actually dead!'"
Shannon, who also lost her mother at a young age -- when she was 4 years old, her family got into a tragic car wreck that also took the life of her younger sister -- calls the experience "really emotional and sweet and touching and moving."
After a thoughtful silence, she adds, "If anything, it just makes me feel grateful, because, god, you can never take advantage of time on earth. And when you see somebody whose life is cut short, with cancer ravaging their body, you're like, 'Oh my God. There is nothing to be upset about.' I went through it with a close mom friend of mine, and her whole life was going to get scans and blood scans and she'd be like, 'Say a prayer for me!' This makes me so sad."
Shannon chokes up, tears welling. "And I'm just like, 'Oh my God, I'm dropping my son off at school. I'm so lucky. I'm not sick. She's going to Cedars [Sinai] and she has to get her blood checked and she's like, 'Oh please, please, please! I hope the numbers are OK!' She's fighting for her life. So, I think I just really deeply related to the material, it just makes me feel like [death] is sad and beautiful."
The film hasn't only earned rave reviews from critics -- who've called it "bold, hilarious and profoundly touching" -- but Shannon's peers, as well. Reese Witherspoon recently tweeted, "#MollyShannon performance in #OtherPeople is off the charts," alongside a broken heart emoji.
"The fact that Chris can kind of keep his mom alive and then allow other people to have these experiences with their own grief -- Chris and I are both so blown away by the response and how sweet it is to have those conversations," she says. "It's been spectacular. It's the whole reason why I wanted to become an actress."
Any talk of her hard work paying off in nominations come awards season -- and there has been plenty of buzz already -- has Shannon feeling like she's in a dream.
"It's just like, it's so sweet. Even to have that mentioned is, like, so sweet! I don't even know what to say! I couldn't even believe it..." she stammers, tearing up again. "I just feel so...It's so sweet. I could just freeze myself right there."
With Other People in a handful of theaters and continuously popping up on more and more Oscar futures lists, Shannon has turned her attention back to television and a supporting role on HBO's Divorce. The series stars Sarah Jessica Parker as Frances, a woman attempting to unwind a 17-year marriage.
"What I love about it, and I told this to Sarah Jessica, is that when the emotional elements are truthful, you can go along with the comedy," Shannon explains. "But I never like when such a wonderful, rich subject matter gets too silly. What I love about the show is how real the emotional stuff is."
Shannon plays Diane, Frances' slightly unhinged best friend who has a hand in setting off the split. Offscreen, Shannon is happily married to artist Fritz Chesnut and they have two kids together, 13-year-old Stella and 11-year-old Nolan, so the role offered her the chance to showcase yet another side of Molly Shannon that viewers hadn't seen before.
"I love that I'm a rich bitch," Shannon purrs, a hint of mischief in her voice. "I love that my character is so stinkin' rich and she lives in a glass house. It just makes me laugh. It's fun playing rich."
It helps that Diane gets the show's most deliciously bitchy lines, even if Shannon may have blocked them out.
"Do I?! Like what?!" she cries, bursting into a laugh that only gets louder the longer it goes on. "Can you remind me?!"
Here's an example: The first episode revolves around Diane's birthday dinner, an evening that starts with wine and ends with Diane firing a gun, and somewhere in the middle, she turns to Frances at the dinner table and bemoans that Frances' husband, Robert (Thomas Haden Church), is "such a wet p***y."
"I felt so bad saying that to Thomas Haden Church! Because he is so the opposite of a wet p***y," she explains, punctuating the last two words. "He's like a handsome, hilarious, sexy cowboy. I almost felt like I had apologize to him after, because I would never think that! A wet p***y!" She sniggers. "It's terrible."
Shannon's gushing goes double for Parker. "She is just everything you would want her to be and more," she reports. "I honestly feel like I'm a fan who won a part on a TV show. Because I'm like, 'Oh my god, here she comes! She's so pretty with her hair! And she smells like beautiful oils! And she's got sparkly shoes on! She's the coolest!' And then she's a really good actress and down to earth and nice and she's just a hard worker."
It's an admiration that goes both ways.
"Molly is so dedicated, so committed to the detail, which is a quality I particularly admire," Parker tells ET by email. "And she is such wonderful company off-camera as well. She brings a tenderness to the role that I think is so necessary and always a surprise."
With Parker's involvement in...basically anything also comes the Sex and the City of it all. (Fun fact: Shannon actually guest-starred on three episodes in 2002 as Carrie's publisher.) All things considered -- the anticipation over SJP's return to HBO, the inevitable analysis over whether the bestie she plays is a Miranda or a Charlotte or a Samantha -- Shannon says she isn't feeling any pressure.
"If anything, I'm like, 'Puh-lease!' I'm excited about her return to television!" she exclaims. "If I wasn't on the show, I would just be a fan. Like, 'I! Can't! Wait!' It's my kind of show that I would watch, so it's weird that I'm on it. I'm telling all my friends, 'It's de-lic-ious. Set your TiVos!'"
Like that complicated gray area between humor and heartbreak, Shannon isn't content having her career be black or white. She doesn't want to just do drama or just do comedy. She just wants good roles.
"There was a period where I stopped auditioning because I was like, 'I don't have the heart.' There's just so much rejection. I was broke and I used my waitressing money to pay for my stage show. I really, really struggled. So, when I did get SNL when I was 30, my attitude was very positive. I told Lorne, like, 'I don't care if I get cut! Just the fact I'm on the show!' I never take it for granted, because I worked so hard to get it." Her voice catches. "And I feel like I had to overcome, like, a tough childhood to get it together and jump over the obstacles, so I'm just like, I dunno..." She takes a breath. "I just feel lucky."
"I just feel like--" she voice hushes, as if telling a secret. "For my age, I feel so glad that I'm having these opportunities. I'm like, 'Wow! This is so exciting!' I worked so hard in my 20s and 30s and so I'm just really trying to enjoy everything. People would be like, 'Oh, Saturday Night Live is such a stepping stone!' And I remember being like, 'A stepping stone?! This is my everything! I could just stop right here! This is the pinnacle!' The fact that I've gotten to do more stuff after that is just...I'm pinching myself!"