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Molly Shannon gravitated toward extremes in 2021, playing a terminally compassionate talk show host who’d rather collapse than complain about her taxing schedule on HBO Max’s The Other Two and a monstrous mother-in-law on the HBO satire The White Lotus. In reality, the comedy legend presents herself as much closer to the former — though, by her own admission, she’s better at setting work-life boundaries.
And while she may have been a fixture in film and TV since that seven-season run on Saturday Night Live jump-started her career in 1995, Shannon does appear to be in the midst of a moment. Both of her recent TV roles courted the zeitgeist and critics. On top of a robust film slate that includes Zach Braff’s latest feature, she’s got the Showtime comedy I Love This for You and her first memoir (Hello Molly!, out April 12) on deck.
Speaking with THR on the phone in early November, Shannon opened up about what’s making her say “yes” to work these days, her toughest sell at SNL and her recent evening in the star-stuffed audience of Adele’s CBS concert special.
Aside from sharing personal things, what was the biggest challenge of writing a memoir?
Getting your voice on the page — the way it’s like when you’re talking with me. Turning stories that I’ve always written down about my dad or my childhood into prose, that’s the hardest part. I wanted to make it very literary. My mom was a librarian. She got her major in library science. So, I just wanted to make it a good read, make it fun, but make it real.
Do you have any favorite memoirs?
Well, I did love Mia Farrow’s [What Falls Away]. That was a very good read. And I love Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up. It’s so clean and simple. He’s a very writerly writer.
What does it take to get you to say “yes” to a role these days?
It has to feel fun. That’s really all it comes down to. Of course, excellent writing. I don’t want to work too much because I love being a mom, and I want to be with my kids. That’s what comes first. I like having time off. I’m not one of those people who likes to work all the time.
Pat, your character on The Other Two, is overwhelmed to the point of a physical breakdown in the second season — but she doesn’t want to gripe to anybody. Have you ever been there in your own career?
[Co-creator and showrunner] Chris Kelly and I would be on set, and he’d be like, “OK, in this scene, Pat is working, but once she’s finished, she’s going to hop on a red eye to California to work on something else …” We would crack up because I’d think, “Oh, my God. This is exactly like my life right now.”
But no 20-second naps while standing up, I hope?
I do that a little bit. If the dogs wake up before the kids, I’ll let them out and I’ll stand there with my eyes closed for a few minutes — standing up, sleeping, while they go to the bathroom.
Is it a tough sell to get you to do a series these days, given the time commitment?
When Chris Kelly asked me to do it, I just felt so lucky. He’s so talented. And his writing partner, Sarah Schneider, whom I had not worked with before, they’re like the A-Team. It was just a quick yes. I think I am really good at knowing super talent. So, when it was first on Comedy Central, it was hard because it wasn’t really streaming. It really did bother me. I wanted more people to see it. Thankfully, now that it’s on HBO Max, more people are.
You first worked with Chris on Other People?
He just called me and was like, “Would you read my script?” I loved it so much. I sobbed, I laughed. It’s one of the most beautiful screenplays I’ve ever read.
Do you look for a sweet spot between sobbing and laughing in the material you take on?
It’s hard to have to sob. God, it’s really hard. I do try to find a balance — but I feel like comedy, the best comedy, I play with an emotional truth. I treat comedy the way a dramatic actress would. I’m not thinking of it as a comedy. I think it’s funnier if it’s real, because then you’re not distant from your character, winking like you’re in on the joke. When I was at NYU, I did this comedy show called The Follies. Adam Sandler was in it. We improvised and made up characters. I remember there was this ingenue girl at school, who was a very serious dramatic actress. She wanted to be part of our group, but she wasn’t natural at comedy. I think she was intellectualizing it too much, trying to be cerebral about comedy. It’s the opposite of that for me. You have to let yourself go and not be so controlled. That makes it funny.
You never overlapped with Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider when they were writing on SNL, but do you find there’s a shorthand working with people who’ve been through the show?
There is, absolutely. With Chris and Sarah, it’s just there. You immediately understand one another. It’s just natural. It feels like family.
Will Ferrell recently said in an interview with THR that your first outing as Mary Katherine Gallagher is one of his favorite SNL memories because of how strong of a reaction it got from the audience. Was that true for you?
Will’s a really good friend of mine. I saw that, and I was so touched. That was the first time I did feel that — and I won’t go into it too much, because this is in the book — but I did have a hard time getting that character on. When I finally did, it was a real moment of victory. I believed in it, because I’d done the character in my stage show. But that was the first moment where I was like, “OK, good. I think we’re on to something.”
Can you tell me about another character that was hard to get on air? Because I always wondered if Jeannie Darcy, the horrible stand-up who can’t tell a joke, was an easy sell?
That was the hardest sell. I put it in the read-through. It did not get on. And you never ever put something through again. It’s embarrassing and you’re just not supposed to do it. But I think I asked Mike Shoemaker, and he was like, “Oh, well, all right.” It got on, but that was really hard because people were just like, “What is this?” That was my reaction to having to always get laughs. It was the end of when I was at SNL, and I wanted to do something really dull that got no laughs and just really play the realness of it. She’s just a girl who’s not talented who shouldn’t be in comedy, maybe on the spectrum, but she is driven and really sticking to it. I wanted to get no laughs except from Jimmy Fallon and Will Ferrell. It was just really for them.
Is cringe comedy a big draw for you? That was certainly a throughline in The White Lotus.
Mike White [the creator and showrunner] will be specific about what he wants, and I want to please him. At first, I was doing it too much like a “rich lady” — acting how I thought rich ladies act. Mike was like, “No, no, no. I want it really natural. You’re just rich. You’ve got money. You always had it. You don’t have to act rich.” I did have to adjust, because my character has to drive those scenes. She doesn’t listen. She talks at people. I wanted to come in and master the scene, control it, dominate it. She’s there to say, “Look, your job is to just make my son happy, and you’ll make your life a lot simpler if you don’t complicate it and just do that.” She comes in with that message and then flies back out. It was a really fun character to play. She’s such a bitch.
Do bitches amuse you? Because you appear to gravitate toward more earnest characters.
Kitty really amused me. I really tried to understand how she thinks, not make fun of it, because there are people like that, just in their own world. I wanted to understand a woman like that. It helped that I was wearing hundreds of thousands of dollars of real diamonds from the Four Seasons jewelry shop. I’ve never been so doused in diamonds in my life.
Whom do you go to for advice?
I go back to my original friends from childhood. Those are the ones I really trust — Allison, Earl, Debbie Palermo, George Cheeks — the people I’ve known since I was a kid.
George Cheeks, the CEO of CBS Entertainment Group?
Yeah, we met in fifth grade. We were in The Wizard of Oz together in theater. He’s one of my closest friends, and he’s killing it. We actually just got to see Adele together, and it was just the best night ever.
You were in the audience for Adele: One Night Only?
It was so fun. Gayle King and Oprah were there. And Adele’s little boy was sitting in front of us. It was the first time he’d ever seen her perform! I kept watching him watch her, like, “This is such a moment in time, this little boy seeing his mother perform onstage for the first time.” I watched him half the time, too, because it was so touching.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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