Molly Shannon is proof there’s something particularly satisfying about a comedy star who can turn around and deliver a credible, dramatic performance.
The six-season alum of “Saturday Night Live” revealed a shaky vulnerability as a lonely secretary on the HBO series “Enlightened,” then pulled out all the stops as a mom dying of cancer in the indie film “Other People” (winning an Independent Spirit Award). And as Sarah Jessica Parker’s pal in HBO’s “Divorce,” she’s volatile, striving, yet somehow sympathetic.
Her latest film, “Private Life,” is a razor-sharp dramedy about infertility that manages to be as hilarious as it is heart-wrenching. Directed by Tamara Jenkins (“The Savages”), the film stars “Bad Moms” funnywoman Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as a New York couple desperate to start a family through any means necessary — from adoption to in vitro fertilization (IVF). Shannon plays Cynthia, their uptight, perimenopausal sister-in-law whose daughter is considering becoming a surrogate. The film hits select theaters and premieres on Netflix on Friday, Oct. 5.
Shannon, 54, lives in Los Angeles with her husband (artist Fritz Chestnut) and their teenage daughter and son.
So what was it about this script that made you say agree to do this film?
Actually I said yes before I saw the script.
You hadn’t read it?
I didn’t need to. I was like, I’m in. I’m doing it. [She laughs.] I don’t usually do that, but it’s because of Tamara [Jenkins, the director]. I’m a fan. When she shoots, she’s like an artist — creative, spontaneous.
We were on location in this house — it’s my character’s house in the film. Somebody was playing piano in the corner, and Kathryn [Hahn] and I were watching, just talking and gossiping. Tamara was in a different room, but when she came in, she saw us and said, “Wait, wait, I wanna shoot this.” So she brings the cameras over and shoots because she likes the way it looks so natural. I’ve never worked with anyone who does that. I told her we should make a movie where we live in a house for 22 days together — we’ll sleep there, and each day just come downstairs, no makeup, and shoot, shoot, shoot. Then have dinner, some wine, go to bed, then come down the next day and shoot, shoot, shoot. She’s like, “I love it.”
I think that’s called “Big Brother” on CBS.
But this’ll be a scripted movie.
Sounds much more promising. So is “Private Life” a story only a woman could tell with such accuracy?
That’s interesting. Hmmm. . . . No, I think a man — well, let me see here
. . .
It’s a huge generalization, I know. Yet it’s a story we haven’t really seen before.
IVF is so expensive and can be such a letdown when it doesn’t work. The woman is going through the physical changes . . . shooting herself with [hormones]. Only a woman could write that perspective. But they both go through an emotional rollercoaster. So . . . I think a man could’ve written it. But it would’ve been different.
Where are we today in terms of audiences accepting the fact that comic actors can also take on serious roles. There are many examples — Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig. Do you worry that people see you as a comedian first and are maybe surprised when you pop up in a drama?
I don’t think about it. I love doing pure comedy and I love drama. I approach both the same way. I do the emotional truth underneath the character. I’d do that playing Mary Catherine Gallagher on “SNL.” I consider myself a dramatic comedienne. I went to regular drama school. So if people think I can’t do that, it doesn’t bother me.
Well, I mean, I try not to think about it too much. Trying to prove yourself to people . . . just feels so negative. Exhausting. You can definitely be put in a box in Hollywood — once you do one thing, they think that’s all you can do. Friends wrote me parts. Thank God [former “SNL” writer turned producer and director] Mike White gave me that first break, in “Enlightened.” I’m very grateful. That helped people see me in a different way.
So what’s next?
Chris Kelly [who wrote and directed her in “Other People”] and Sarah Schneider, former head writers of “SNL,” just wrote a series called “The Other Two.” I play a Midwestern mother to an up-and-coming pop superstar — like a young Justin Bieber. And I have two older children — one’s a struggling actor, the other’s a millennial girl trying to find herself. I loooove my part, it’s really fun. [“SNL” creator] Lorne Michaels is producing. It’ll be on Comedy Central I think in January.