Molly Shannon Interview
Year of the Dog
Before "Saturday Night Live," Molly Shannon had a struggling career in films. She landed a supporting role as Meg in the present day sequences in the horror film remake of The Phantom of the Opera with Robert Englund and Jill Schoelen. In 1993, she appeared in a supporting role in an episode of In Living Color ("Police Brutality Training"). Shannon's major break came in February 1995 when she was hired as a featured player on Saturday Night Live to replace Janeane Garofalo after Garofalo left mid-season. Shannon was one of the few castmembers to be kept when Lorne Michaels overhauled his cast for season 21 after season 20 proved to be a critical and ratings disappointment (along with David Spade, Norm MacDonald, Mark McKinney, and Tim Meadows). She played various recurring characters on the show, including 50-year old dancer Sally O'Mally (who constantly proclaimed her age), quirky joyologist Helen Madden, and NPR radio co-host of Delicious Dish (with Ana Gasteyer). She was especially known for playing the character of neurotic, yet melodramatic Catholic school girl Mary Katherine Gallagher. She also did impressions of Monica Lewinsky (alongside frequent host John Goodman's Linda Tripp), Elizabeth Taylor, Courtney Love, Ann Miller (from the recurring sketch "Leg Up"), and Björk. On a noteworthy Seinfeld episode called The Summer of George, she played Sam, the co-worker who drove Elaine Benes crazy because she didn't swing her arms while walking. She also appeared in Sheryl Crow's video for the song "A Change (Will Do You Good)" and played the recurring role of loony neighbor Val Bassett, Grace Adler's nemesis, on Will & Grace, appearing in five episodes over the sitcom's eight-season run.
Molly Shannon left SNL in 2001 (surpassing Victoria Jackson as the show's longest-serving female cast member). In 1998, she played the role of Emily Sanderson in A Night at the Roxbury, featuring Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan who were also cast members of SNL at the time. In 1999, she reprised her Mary Katherine Gallagher character for the movie Superstar, and had a supporting role in Never Been Kissed. In 2004, she starred in a Fox network television series Cracking Up with actor Jason Schwartzman. It lasted only nine episodes before cancellation. She guest starred in an episode of Scrubs that same year.
Currently, Molly Shannon is the lead in the Paramount Vantage film "Year of the Dog." Here' what she has to say about "Year of the Dog" and her career in Hollywood, thusfar!
Wild About Movies: What was it like working with Mike White in his feature directorial debut?
Molly Shannon: It was great. We had worked together on this TV show, Cracking Up that got canceled at Fox. So I had a lot of experience with him as a writer. And he would come on the set and direct. And then when he would leave, I was like, "No, I want Mike!" So I always wanted him around because he was so much. He's naturally a director. And so it came very naturally to him. He was really good. He's just really confident, and he has a lot of experience because he's made a lot of movies, so it was a very natural next step for him. He's great. He's really humble, and he's funny and laid back, and he just knows what he wants. And those are always the best to work with. He has no ego. Sometimes it's hard to work with people that are trying to "act like they're directors" or prove themselves. Mike's like the opposite of that.
Wild About Movies: To get a script like this must've been awesome because we don't see characters in movies like this these days. What were your thoughts when you got the script?
Molly Shannon: A character like Peggy? Her whole story?
Wild About Movies: Yeah.
Molly Shannon: There's a real misconception because sometimes people say, why did you choose to do that, like there's so much to choose from all these wonderful parts for women, and that's really not the case. It is certainly for a privileged percentage of people, but that hasn't always been my experience. I used to wish it was more and I'd get mad. There was an article in the New York Times recently by Lynn Hirschberg and she said there were more interesting, complicated parts written for 12 year olds than there are for women. Those are the more compelling parts. It's interesting. With comedies, you get used to seeing the guys' stories and little boys won't go see movies starring little girls but little girls will go see stories about guys because that's all they know. They get used to that because that's all they have to choose from. So my long response to your question was that I felt so grateful because when you have someone like Mike White say that I'm going to write a movie for you, ring you up, here's the script, it's an amazing gift, and he's so talented and an original filmmaker, and brave. He does his own thing. He does broad commercial comedies and then he'll say, eh, I'll write this crazy thing. Like with this movie, he doesn't follow a career trajectory, and I admire him for that because I have a lot of friends that are screenwriters, and they'll go, oh, I did this and my next movie has to be this, and my agent said I have to do this. And they kind of get into a rut, writing and sitting at their desk, and they lose the original joy of why they got into it in the first place.
Mike is unique in that he just does what he wants; he doesn't follow a particular path. And he has so many fans because people can't wait to see what he's going to do. He takes chances and stuff. Mike was saying that there is a population of the moviegoing public that is overserved; there's so much of what they want, but there's another segment that's underserved. The people that are craving original stories and characters that aren't always likable.
Wild About Movies: Talk about your character and what challenges you faced playing her.
Molly Shannon: Someone said to me, do you mind playing somebody that looks so terrible, like you let yourself look awful? And I was like, really? I don't think that way because I think she's a character so I'd rather be true to the character. When you see superstar actresses playing working class but they still look really gorgeous. They're like, where's my baby. But they still have beautiful, natural makeup. I prefer being grittier and I prefer seeing movies where I can identify myself or women that I know in the movie. It's refreshing, and I think we need more of it. I also feel like playing a character makes me feel less self-conscious. When I've had to play closer to myself or if I'm supposed to look kind of pretty, I feel more self-conscious. Whereas if you're playing a character that can look kind of plain and a little dorky, you're not as self-conscious. As an actress, I prefer it. In the scene where I do no makeup, I'm greasy and unraveled, I like it. But my manager Steven Levy came by the set one day and he hadn't been to the movie yet, and it was a day that I was looking really dowdy and unraveled, and he was like, oh, is this the look for the movie? He was horrified. You could see he was like, oh my God, because I looked terrible. The risky part is that people will think, oh, she's not looking good. They think that's how you're going to look. It's hard.
Wild About Movies: Peggy's friend is Pencil. What's the real story? Is it five dogs and two of them are divas?
Molly Shannon: That little dog, Pencil, I said oh my God, where did you find this dog? But they had actually had auditions for the dog and that particular dog, I don't remember his real name, but he could do this amazing death shake. It could look like it was dying and quiver. So they cast that dog. He was so sweet. They take good care of those dogs. The trainers are really nice. It's a whole crazy world. There could be a movie about the dog trainers.
Wild About Movies: What was it like working with the dogs? And the scene with 15 dogs?
Molly Shannon: I was actually on my way home to go to a premiere for Talladega Nights, and that was the last scene of the day. I was hoping that I could make it to the premiere without getting scratched and pounced on. It gets crazy because they jump on you. But I had little pads and stuff. But they were pretty good; it's choreographed and rehearsed and stuff, so each dog-every single take-one dog's coming this way, and another is coming this way. It's all the same thing over and over. They're trained. Coco! Coco! Coco! Here! So they keep doing the same thing.
Wild About Movies: You're experienced with dogs.
Molly Shannon: Yeah, I've done so many films with dogs. My husband was like, you've got to stop doing so many dog and Christmas movies.
Wild About Movies: What's your own situation? Do you have a dog?
Molly Shannon: No. We had dogs when I was younger. I had a German Shepherd namedHannibal who could sing opera. And I had a little mutt named Oliver that we had to get rid of because I developed an allergy, so I could relate to Peggy where we had to take him to a farm. I was so sad.
Wild About Movies: Talk about your character's journey.
Molly Shannon: She gets so involved in that particular cause in a radical way because she doesn't want to face how devastated she is by the loss of the dog, and her love life. She doesn't want to feel that she gets involved in this cause so to not feel her annihilation and devastation. Ultimately, you have to feel it; you can't escape that pain because eventually it catches up to you. She has her thing, and Bret has her thing with motherhood and obsessions with allergies and children, and then my boss has his thing with work and making money. They each have their own thing. Judge how you want, but they each have their own thing that drives their obsessional kind of thinking. Hers just happens to be animal rights activism that becomes extremely radical. She's able to come to a better place at the end of the movie.
Wild About Movies: Did they get the dogs from a rescue place or a farm?
Molly Shannon: A rescue place or a farm. Let's see. A rescue place or a farm.
Wild About Movies: Did you get to know the dogs first?
Molly Shannon: Yeah. I trained with the dogs before we started the movie just to kind of see how that would work, but it wasn't that elaborate or anything. Those trainers are so good, I didn't have to do much. Peter Sarsgaard had to do more. But he wasn't supposed to be a really good dog trainer.
Wild About Movies: Has career management been very important to you?
Molly Shannon: Career management?
Wild About Movies: Was it difficult transitioning from Saturnday Night Live to film?
Molly Shannon: Oh yeah, it's definitely, at times, been hard. And I think that I didn't really understand how the movies worked, and I think I thought it was easier than it was, and I was like, "Oh God, this is hard." So I kind of had to go through like a grieving process of what I thought maybe the movie industry was. And I think Tina Fey said a great thing on NPR where she said Hollywood is a lot harder on women than SNL. Because people would always be like, "Oh, SNL's so hard on women." And she was like, "I think Hollywood's a lot harder on women than Saturday Night Live." You know? But I think...I don't mind struggling because sometimes I feel like it can help you create something that you might not have thought of through that struggle where you get like, "God, it's not so easy." But then you're forced to get together with a friend, or...Usually, something comes out of that struggle, so that's kind of the way I look at it. I try not to blame anyone. You know, people are just going to write what they know. It was like that at Saturday Night Live. Like you could go, "Why aren't those boys writing for me? Why are they just writing sketches with bears and robots? Why can't they write a complicated female part?" They don't mean any harm, they just want to write about bears and robots, you know? So if you want to do something for yourself, you have to create that for yourself, you know? And so Hollywood's similar in that once in a while, you're so lucky. Well, Mike White, this is a special circumstance, but I feel like, "Wow, how lucky." I just feel gratitude because I know how hard it is, you know?
Wild About Movies: Do you stay in touch with a lot of your former SNL cast members?
Molly Shannon: I do.
Wild About Movies: It's almost like having gone to school with these guys.
Molly Shannon: It is, yeah.
Wild About Movies: And you can work on the same projects.
Molly Shannon: Yeah.
Wild About Movies: Does that offer a little bit of security in acting?
Molly Shannon: There's never so much security. But that is true, because if you're friends, and people go, "Oh, can you do this?" That does happen, you know. I'm fortunate that that's happened for me. But you can't count on that. You know, you still kind of have to do your own thing. But yeah, it's great when you form those relationships and then you have that history. So that is really nice. But yeah, I wouldn't just sit back with that and be like, "Yeah, I'm taken care of." No, I don't feel that way.
Wild About Movies: Did you grow up feeling driven to act?
Molly Shannon: Yeah. Let me see. I remember I went to a parochial school and we used to, every St. Patrick's Day, we would do a song and dance number.
Wild About Movies: Catholic school?
Molly Shannon: Yeah. Catholic school, yeah. So every St. Patrick's Day, each class would do a song and dance number, and I remember being like. There were these two choreographers named Miss Patty and Miss Jackie, they would come around January, and they wore leotards, and they had jet black hair and red lips. And I was like, I couldn't wait for Miss Patty and Miss Jackie to come and teach us our routine. So I remember, at a very young age, feeling like I couldn't wait to do that show on St. Patrick's Day, and my dad would be like, "Molly!" And he'd wave, and he'd tell me to push up into the front row. So it started really young.
Wild About Movies: How young?
Molly Shannon: Around fifth grade? Fourth grade? Yeah.
Wild About Movies: Do you miss Mary Katherine Gallagher? And do you do stand up?
Molly Shannon: No. I never did stand up. I'm an actress who does characters. But I know some comedians do stand up. I don't do stand up. But I don't miss that that much, because it was physically very taxing and you would bruise yourself. Now that I'm a parent, I have two toddlers, I have a three and a half year old and a two year old. I don't want to do such risky stuff. But at that time, I was more reckless. I was like, I didn't even care. And now I look at some of that stuff and I'm like, "You’re going to break your neck! That is crazy!" But fortunately, I never really did any major damage, thank God. But yeah, I don't have this huge burning desire to do that particular character again.
Wild About Movies: How does working and motherhood work for you?
Molly Shannon: Yeah. Well, it's great. I've had it really great since my kids have been born, because I've just done movies. You know, you can do like a little part in a movie. Like Talladega Nights, for example. I did that part in like a week. It was easy. We go to Virginia, stay in a hotel. You're actually there for two weeks, but you only work three days. I mean, you can do these nice sized little cameo parts in a very short time, and then you have months off. Like I worked this summer doing Mike's movie, and then I've had months and months and months and months off. And now I'm back to work again. So movies are great. You can pick and choose and have lots of time off. I think it's harder for maybe the mothers on single camera shows, hour long, where they're the lead star. That's hard. But I haven't done that. So that would be hard. So it works out pretty well for me.
Wild About Movies: With the dog playing Valentine, was it kind of scary when they snap their fingers and he has to jump at you?
Molly Shannon: Yeah, it was kind of scary. Yeah, that dog was so sweet, but I was like, "Are you sure it's sweet? He looks so mean." Like I had to do that scene where I'm wiping up what I spill, and then the dog is...And so I have a rag and the dog's supposed to bite the rag. But yeah, I was scared. Yeah. It was hard. And then in the scene, you can't really even see it that much. I was like, "Oh, I shouldn't have even..." But the trainers were great. So I didn't really worry about it. They were not vicious dogs.
Wild About Movies: What are you working on now?
Molly Shannon: Well, I, just last night, did a pilot for NBC called The Mastersons of Manhattan. It's about this very wealthy, eccentric New York City family, and Natasha Richardson and I play sisters, and my sister's the wild, boozing, party girl sister who's being accused of murdering her husband. And Natasha Richardson never leaves the house. She's this eccentric. She has a fear of big spaces. It's a comedy. And James Burrows directed the pilot, and Gary Janetti, one of the Will and Grace scribes, created it. So we'll wait and see if it's picked up. But that's a sitcom, which is actually a great schedule for a mom. So if it did get picked up, it shoots in New York, and that would be ideal. Because it's a lot less hours. So it would be great. But TV, you never know.