The first five minutes of Divorce, premiering Sunday on HBO, belong to Molly Shannon. She plays Diane, the best friend of Sarah Jessica Parker's Frances and the wife of Tracy Letts's Nick, with whom she enjoys a surreal birthday-party showdown that kicks off the series with, er, a bang. We won't spoil it further, but suffice to say that, with Diane, Shannon adds another delightfully unhinged, hilarious woman with an undercurrent of melancholy to her seemingly endless repertoire of such characters.
It's a meaty, weird, and well-deserved role for Shannon, who's been working in TV and film for almost three decades but hasn't found a regular part worthy of her idiosyncratic talent since, arguably, her days spent sniffing her own armpits on Saturday Night Live. It also coincides with something of a resurgence in Shannon's movie career, which stalled a bit in the mid-aughts but picked up this year with Other People. The dark dramedy, which just left theaters, was written and directed by SNL's Chris Kelly based on his own experience caring for his dying mother. Kelly handpicked Shannon to play Joanne, a wry, deeply emotional woman saying goodbye to her family; Shannon, of course, imbues the role with equal parts humor, sorrow, and grace. It's not unrelated that she's now got no fewer than seven movies on the horizon.
MTV News caught up with Shannon as she lounged around in her hotel the day after Divorce's New York premiere to talk about working with Parker, getting Superstar-ed at the airport, and her career revival.
MTV News: The Divorce role seems really perfect for you. How’d it come to you and what stuck out to you about it?
Molly Shannon: I think they were seeing a lot of girls for a long time, and toward the very end of casting, I was flown in to ask to read for it with Sarah [Jessica Parker]. I've known Paul Simms for years, since he was at NewsRadio, and he's our executive producer with our creator Sharon Horgan. And I just thought the script was so good. I was like, "Whew, this would be on my TiVo, set, ready to go." I'm such a fan of Sarah Jessica's for years, so to be asked to be with her, I was like, "What, are you kidding me?"
We shot the pilot in the winter in New York City. It was so fun and easy. I love that it's emotional and then really funny, but the emotional components of the story are real, they're not silly. Sometimes shows like that get too silly, and I'm like, "Oh, this is unfortunate, because this is really rich material." It's OK to have comedy around that, but I like that those real emotional moments are played honestly.
Diane presents as pretty deranged right off the bat, but she’s also sympathetic and funny. How do you play a character like that without making her seem just straight-up ridiculous?
Shannon: I would never want to make her silly. I always want to make it real — that she really is in a complicated roller-coaster marriage. And I want to play the truth: that she's struggling. Sometimes you have a good day, sometimes you have a horrible day, like the day of her 50th birthday party. She gets hurt by him, she gets angry at him, and she's sad, and then she's happy again. Just to play it really truthfully. She does a very over-the-top thing, but I think a lot of people will relate to her, if you make it real.
A lot of your iconic characters have that vaguely unhinged quality. They’re sort of sad, too, but still really lovable. I’m thinking of Mary Katherine Gallagher from SNL and Gail from Wet Hot American Summer. Are you drawn to roles like that? Do you bring those qualities to your characters, or do those sort of roles come to you?
Shannon: I think I can make some of that dark stuff funny, so it's not too heavy. I think I get cast because I can bring a humor to it. If you didn't have that, it'd be too dark and depressing. I think it's great when you have a comic performer doing that stuff, because it gives it a lightness. You can make the audience laugh, be funny and sad at the same time. I probably get cast in [roles like these] because most comedians come from a dark past and have a lot of sadness. I try to put my own history in my work. I certainly struggled when I was little and didn't have an easy time, so I try to put that stuff in my work. I think people pick up on that. You use personal stuff and mix it all in — I definitely pull on that stuff in my acting.
Outside of yourself, do you pull character stuff from other people you know?
Shannon: It's usually a combo. Like, for Divorce, I definitely know women like Diane. I don't have anybody specific in mind, but I have fans who come up to me who are like her. They come up to me and are like [yells loudly], "Ahhhh!!!!!!" They're wild and sexy and divorced and they like drinking and they have questionable boundaries, but they're fun [laughs]. You might want to go out for dinner with them. I have a vague vision of somebody like that in my mind. And I'm sure I'll meet more people that are like her, and I'll study them. Sometimes a fan comes up to me, and I'm really interested in how they're acting, so I'll study them and use that in my material. There probably is [somebody specific the role is based on], but nobody has asked me yet. It's really just somebody who's childlike in her silliness, and she's open, and she gets kinda wild, and she likes attention. I do think I've met a lot of women like that. It's not me, but it's definitely women I've come across [laughs].
What do your fans usually come up screaming to you about?
Shannon: Definitely Mary Katherine Gallagher. Like, at Starbucks, or the airport. That is the universal one that I get recognized for the most. They [say things] like, "Oh my God, that girl's crazy!!" I was swimming the other day at Equinox in New York, and the girl who works at the pool was like, "Oh my Goooood, that's the girl that made the Superstar!" I get that every. single. day. [Laughs] It's hysterical. I think people feel a warmth. I think it affected their childhood. People really like that character because she's an underdog but she succeeds. I think that's relatable to many different kinds of people, and that's so touching, because that's me. That's based on me when I was little, that's 100 percent how I felt when I was a little girl. It's not a character. So people are like, "I like that!" And I'm like, "Thaaank you, because it's me!"
It was funny because I wrote her on SNL — this awkward girl who really wants to be kissed and wants love but is kind of anxious and accident-prone — and I couldn't believe when I got it on air, how many people came up to me and were like, "That reminds me of me and my sister, I relate to that!" I can't believe when you write something from within, how many people relate to it.
Do your kids watch and relate to her?
Shannon: They don't watch SNL stuff, but they did see Superstar recently, because they did a screening of it in LA. So the kids all got to come to the screening and it was so fun. I actually just showed it to them at home, too, and it was so fun having them there with their friends and seeing them laugh at stuff. They love when I'm looking at my breasts in the mirror, like, "This one's bigger than this one." They laughed at really original stuff. It was really moving watching it with them. I was like, "This is a big deal."
To get back to Divorce for a second, I remembered the other day that you were actually on Sex and the City as a guest star. So this isn’t your first time working with Sarah Jessica. When did you guys first meet?
Shannon: That was so fun. I was on with Amy Sedaris and we played her book publicists, we were so funny. I met Sarah Jessica years ago, I kind of knew her from around town. Matthew Broderick [Parker's husband] and I did Music Man together and had the best time. He's the greatest. And Kristin Chenoweth, Matthew, and I would go out to dinner after — it was one of those special things where literally every day after shooting we would go out for these big, fun dinners, so Matthew and I got to know each other very well. Sarah Jessica lives in my neighborhood in New York City, and Kenneth Lonergan is also a mutual friend who I met one day at a play. So we have people in common.
One night we all had dinner — me, Matthew, Kenny, my husband — and Sarah Jessica showed up and she was so sweet. I was such a huge fan of Sex and the City, and I was like, "Oh my God." She was pregnant at the time, and I just remember she was such a bright light, and so excited to be pregnant with [her son] James. I also remember her coming to visit the Music Man set a few times and saying, "I'm gonna go out to lunch and read." I was like, "You go out to lunch by yourself?!" She was like, "Yeah, I just go to quiet places and wear a hat." She's a delight. She has a great sense of humor.
So anyway, back in New York, I had dinner with Matthew, and Sarah Jessica came, and I was pregnant, and she said, "You can't walk home alone pregnant! I'm gonna walk you home." I was like, "Okay!" I felt so shy. She walked me back with her sparkly shoes and her beautiful hair and she smelled so good. She was so considerate, she walked me all the way back to my door. I was like [squeals], I hope somebody sees me walking home with Sarah Jessica! And I went up to my husband and I was like, "GUESS WHO WALKED ME HOME." Because he knew that every Sunday night I got so excited to watch her show.
You must have died when you found out you were gonna be on it, then.
Shannon: I honestly felt like a fan who won a part on the show. I was like, "I can't believe I'm on Sex and the City!" I felt very unprofessional [laughs]. I couldn't believe I was on with Amy and Sarah, who are really good friends. I felt distracted the whole time, it was almost too much. Like blinking yourself into your favorite show. And I love watching Sarah Jessica [on set]. She's so professional. She has her lines perfectly memorized, in her purse. I remember the whole experience being so surreal, with fans waiting out on the sidewalk. She is a superstar. A true, elegant [affects Mary Katherine Gallagher voice] Superstar.
I also want to talk about Other People, which is another really complicated and dark part for you.
Shannon: It was pretty dark. I think Chris Kelly wrote such a beautiful script, and I just loved that it was a complicated, emotional comedy. I've never been offered a part like that, and I just felt so grateful to get to be in a movie like that.
Shannon: I guess so! I guess he tells people that he was telling people around town, "I'd cast somebody to play my mom like Molly Shannon." His mom in real life was funny, and he wanted comedians in the movie to balance out the darker stuff.
How difficult was it to play a woman based on your director’s actual dead mother? Did you feel added pressure to get the character exactly right?
Shannon: He didn't really want it to be a docudrama, he just wanted her essence, so I didn't have to get her perfectly right. But he really guided me. We'd shoot all over the place — sometimes she's on chemo, sometimes she's off, sometimes she's doing better. So he really helped me with all of that, you know, "In this scene, she can't really talk, you have to depress your vocal chords to speak." He also introduced me to his mom's best friend, and I talked to her for about two hours. Her name is Bonnie, and she plays one of the teachers in the school scene. She helped me so much. She just gave me a sense of [Chris's mother's] values, about what she thought about being a mother. And then I put my own stuff into it, as well.
You’ve worked pretty steadily in TV for a long time, but movie-wise, your career seems like it’s having sort of a revival. Does it feel that way to you?
Shannon: It does feel that way. I feel so grateful. I think I've worked really hard, so it's fun when you can let go and let stuff come to you. I've got wonderful people I get to work with, and I'm trying to focus on that, instead of worrying about, Aw, who doesn't want to work with me? You focus on the ones who do.
Is that a new strategy for you? Have you always been that way?
Shannon: I think in show business, it's really kind of easy to perpetuate that feeling of, like, Oh, I don't measure up. Or always having to prove yourself. I do make a conscious effort to not repeat old patterns, instead of being like, But they don't want me! I haven't always been that way. There was a turning point. Look at Chris's mom — her life was cut short. My mom, her life was cut short. After a while it's like, Enough! Nobody knows how long you're going to have life on Earth, so you really have to work at being joyous and happy.
What was that turning point?
Shannon: I was worrying too much, being in fear too much. I was like, Oh god, this is so old, so boring. I don't want to waste my life doing this. I'm healthy, I have beautiful children and a beautiful life. I don't want to go toward negative stuff because I'm scared. So I really do think about that a lot. Like every day. It takes work, and if I do get off track — as everyone does, of course, it's hard — I try to go back to reminding myself, Nope, don't focus on that!
I interviewed Kathryn Hahn a few weeks ago and she said something similar, about how when she leaned into who she actually was versus trying to strive for some Hollywood ideal, her career flourished. Which is really interesting, especially considering both of you are women over 25, aka women Hollywood usually ignores.
Shannon: Wow. I know! I completely agree, and I feel like there is this resurgence of amazing roles for women. It's because TV is so good — there are amazing parts for women on TV, and it's upped the game in movies. There's so much to watch, I can't even keep up. I barely have time to watch stuff that I'm in, or my friends' stuff. The bar for writing has really elevated and it's really exciting, it's not just parts for 25-year-olds. But even when it was a harder period for me, I never just waited around to be cast. My philosophy was always, like on SNL: Don't complain. If it's not happening, write your own thing!