Good golly, Miss Molly
Molly Shannon talks about comedy, drama, parenthood, and more in an extended Web-only interview.
Most people know Molly Shannon as Mary Katherine Gallagher, the wildly enthusiastic character she created for Saturday Night Live. Skits involving Mary Katherine usually build to a slapstick crescendo of high kicks, panty flashing and finger sniffing. Given her penchant for broad physical comedy, Shannon’s restrained performance in Year of the Dog may throw people. Though the film, directed by Mike White (School of Rock), is an offbeat comedy, Shannon brings a delicate pathos to the role of Peggy, a lonely woman whose life is upended when her beloved dog dies. We spoke to Shannon when she was in town the other day to promote the film, and what follows is an extended Web-only version of the the interview that runs in this week's issue.
Mike White said he wrote this movie for you. How does that work? Did he talk to you as he developed it?
Well we did a TV series together in 2003 called Cracking Up. Mike had developed that for Fox. They were all excited because they wanted a Mike White show. So he cast me as the alcoholic, bipolar, pill popping mother and we were all excited but then the network really wanted to change it. So the experience was really hard for Mike because he felt under a lot of pressure. But we had so much fun working together. We felt like we could do so much better. He wanted to have a better creative experience. After that collapsed we would meet for dinner every few months or so in NY or LA and he said one night, “I’m going to write a movie for you.” And so he’d just go and work on it. He didn’t tell me what it was about so really I had no idea until one day after Christmas he said, “I’ve got something to send you.” And it was the script.
What was your reaction?
Well, first of all, if you have someone like Mike White telling you they’re going to write a movie for you, then you are just overjoyed. Words cannot describe it. The best actors, everyone wants to work with him. He’s just so talented. I was really excited to read it. I loved the script. I really responded to it. I felt the story just on paper was so compelling, so interesting. You didn’t really know where it was going to go. I just think it’s such an original piece of material. I find Mike so inspiring as a writer and a director because I really feel he takes chances, he doesn’t do what he should do or what’s expected of him. He’s able to do the big commercially appealing comedy films, but he can also do the small dark interesting original ones. He really takes chances and writes from his heart and follows his gut. I find him to be such an inspiration.
You’ve got this reputation as this very physical comedian, but this is a role that’s very internal. In fact, you seem to be using stillness a lot.
Mike said, “Molly, you use your hands so much, I really want you to tone it down.” I was like okay. I have to say I really like that kind of acting though because, as Mike said, it’s going to be funny but it’s brought down a little. It’s subtler, more real. It’s a style of acting that I happen to love. It just feels more intricate, detailed, quieter. So, yeah, as an actress I love it. I worked with Todd Solondz. I did a little scene in Happiness. Todd worked in a similar way. I shot it in a day but I did a take once and he was like, ‘Can you bring it down a little?’ And then I did it again and he was like, ‘Down more,’ and then I did it again and then he was like, ‘Down more.’ And I was like, ‘Really? This is fantastic!’ And I just love the way it plays on film. And the same thing with Laura Dern [Shannon’s Year of the Dog costar], the scenes where she throws stuff away. You can’t hear her! I like when sometimes you can’t hear. Like, what is she saying? I like that.
That’s interesting because you came to big fame as a broad physical actress. On the other hand you’ve got a degree from NYU in drama. So are you a dramatic actress who got sidetracked into comedy or are you a comic actress who is now getting into drama?
I initially started out doing drama. Shakespeare and all that. Doing body work, breath work. But that got a bit tedious. When I was at NYU I would audition for soap operas and stuff and they would have you come in and do monologues. I was always drawn to very intense stuff, very intense drama, so I put that into my comedy. I think of myself as a dramatic comedian. To me, they are close together, though it may not seem that way to people. I approach my comedy very dramatically.
I’ve heard people say that this character is a complete departure for you but I don’t know. I think it’s something like that intensity that you cultivated in your characters that you worked on for SNL. I think what we’re getting is people who we recognize things about them as things that are in ourselves, but they’re things that you are a little uncomfortable about. That painful moment when her friend says, “I don’t want to be forty and be unmarried.”
I think it’s interesting because Mike describes Peggy as the kind of character who is really sweet. She’s the kind of person who if you worked with you’d say, “Oh, Peggy is sweet. She’s nice.” But you don’t pay that much attention to her, you don’t think twice about her but he brings her front and center. He’s like, ‘Let’s look at her. Let’s watch her.’ It’s interesting because you don’t see a lot of stories like that with women over 40 that are struggling through stuff. I found it so refreshing. And then all the other characters and the things that they’re obsessed with, it’s just such an interesting narrative. Does that answer your question?
Yeah, it does. Especially what you’re saying about a woman over 40…
Surprisingly or maybe not surprisingly, so many friends have come up to me and said, “Omigod, that’s me. That’s me.” I happen to know people like that. There are a lot of people struggling with relationships. I think we really relate to her.
Peggy seems very different from you. She’s single and lonely; you’re married and social. Are there aspects of you in her character?
There’s parts of her that I can relate to. She’s a really good listener, she’s really nice, she’s kind. She’s sweet. She cares about people in a deep way. She has a big heart. She doesn’t want to see people get hurt. In the romance department, she doesn’t have a lot of experience. She doesn’t pick the right people. I’ve certainly been there, kind of stumbling through that and not knowing who is right for you. Those parts, I can relate to.
You describe her as sweet. When we say “sweet,” it’s always a sort of backhanded compliment.
What do you mean by that?
It's like she's a nice person but...
Sort of dismissive.
I say that all the time but I don’t mean it that way.
Mike has said this is a comedy that isn’t funny. How do you approach that as an actress?
Well, that’s not the greatest way to market the movie. That doesn’t sound good. I think I’m the one that started it. I was like, that’s funny, a comedy that’s not all that funny and I started saying it all over the place. So, no, I wouldn’t describe it as that. I would describe it as a quirky, original comedy. There are a lot of comedies that are formulaic. This is different. You kind of don’t know where it’s going. There are twists and turns and it’s a compelling story.
A lot of comedies signal the funny moments with big flags. This is different.
There’s one scene where some people are horrified and some people are laughing hysterically which is such an interesting reaction to the movie. Then there are things that everybody laughs at but there is a mixed reaction and it’s very interesting.
Do you like watching movies that you are in with the audience?
I love it. I go. Year of the Dog opened in NY last weekend and I told Ben LeClair, the producer, and Mike White that I was going to go. And they were like, “You’re going to go? How do you do that?” I just wear a hat. I would be embarrassed if people saw me. They had questionnaires and I was like what if I filled it out? … I LOVED HER! It’s so much fun. I really enjoy. I would so much rather see it with a big audience than a small screening with ten people. I like being with the real people and seeing the reactions.
What was it like on the set? This was a tricky movie because your character is about being awkward. Did you find that carried over?
No, I try not to do that because my kids come on the set. I just try to do it while I’m in the scene and let go of it after because it’s a relief. You don’t want to stay in your character the whole time, especially if the character is devastated throughout a lot of the movie and really very very sad. And I would never want to stay in that for too long. I don’t think it’s healthy. But I love doing it for little bursts because it’s cathartic but obviously when it’s cut I’m like, so what’s happening with your boyfriend? And back to business, gossiping, laughing, having fun. And Mike creates a laid-back fun atmosphere with lots of kidding around and fun, just a laid-back and happy set.
You mentioned your kids. What kind of mom are you?
I’d say I’m a fun mom. I don’t think I am cool but I think I’m definitely fun. We play a lot of games. We dance a lot. We listen to music. We turn on the music and we listen to Destiny’s Child and U2 and we dance dance dance around the house. We play tons of games.
I was just trying to imagine what sort of mom you would be.
I have a lot of fun with it. I really enjoy being a mom. I think I’m easy going. I’m cut out for it. Some days it’s hard, don’t get me wrong, but for the most part I feel so lucky that I have kids. I embrace it. I’m like, I can’t believe it worked out because I did it a little bit on the later end having kids so I’m just really glad it worked out. I appreciate it.
Just in terms of how you balance career with having kids, you said your kids were coming on the set and stuff like that.
It really worked out well. I’m able to take the time off because this summer I worked really hard on the movie for six weeks and then I had months and months off. So I can spend so much time with them and then I can go back to work and work really hard for a week or two. You know movies, sometimes you can do a small part in a movie, like Talladega Nights, for example, I shot that in North Carolina for a week. It’s easy. Or you can do some low budgets you can shoot really fast, you could shoot a pretty good sized part in two weeks. I bring my kids with me everywhere. We stay in hotels. I get to work. It’s kind of like a vacation because you’re in a hotel so all you can do is work and then come back and hang out with your kids. For me and my lifestyle it works great. We love hotels and traveling and I find it exciting. I pick and choose.
So at this time in your life you’re probably not a time when you would go back to television, a bit of a grind?
It would depend on kind of show because there are some show that are single camera, shot like movies. If you were the main one then you’d be working such long hours so that’s very hard. TV’s so hard that I understand if you get that break you’re going to want to do it. The ideal schedule is a sitcom but the three camera comedy is really an ideal schedule for a mom because there’s a lot less hours. I actually just shot a pilot in NY for a show called The Mastersons of Manhattan with Natasha Richardson, Brian Benben, Amanda Walsh, Jonathan Cake. It’s a soap opera about these three sisters and they live in Manhattan and my character is on trial for murdering her husband. It’s very over-the-top. It’s comedy and mystery and it’s written by the guy called Gary Janetti who was one of the original big head writers from Will and Grace. Jim Burroughs directed the pilot. We’re still waiting to see if it’ll be picked up. If it is, that would be fun. But the whole balance is hard to figure it all out. My daughter Stella is only in preschool so it’s easy to pull her out. But when they get older, I’ll have to see how that plays out.