Anna and I sat down at a New York City Starbucks with Molly Shannon to discuss her successful six year run on Saturday Night Live and acting career. In hearing Molly’s story of perseverance we learned that you can accomplish your goals if you work hard, keep meeting people, and practice your craft. Read on to find out about her SNL audition process, lessons she’s learned, and upcoming projects you can see her in such as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette.
CCB: Did you first realize you wanted to be a performer in grade school at St. Dominic’s?
MS: Yes, definitely. I remember being very excited because we would put on this St. Patrick’s Day show every year. These two women choreographers would come and each grade would work on a song and dance. It was the highlight of my year. My dad was always like, “Push in the front, get in front.” (Laughs) I loved it. Initially that’s what attracted me to performing, being on stage in those shows once a year. Then when I was in about fifth grade this woman named Mrs. Fromson came and taught improv classes, which I’d never heard of. That was a whole new world, it changed my life. She is someone I’ll never forget. It was something that was very casual, about an hour long and only around six people in it. I think it was all girls. We would do these skits where we would get to make stuff up and I loved it.
CCB: What appeals to you about working as an entertainer that you decided to make this your career?
MS: I come from a family where my dad believed, just do what makes you happy. He was very supportive about that. He was never about make money or this or that. If you are happy it doesn’t matter what you are doing as long as you are happy doing it. It took a lot of courage to admit that I wanted to be an actress when I was in high school. I felt a little bit embarrassed. What if people don’t think I’m that good? It was hard to announce that out loud, I want to be an actress. People have a lot of negative things to say about it. I felt why not try it? I was really enthusiastic about it and my dad was very supportive so I had that family support and I just gave it a whirl.
CCB: Do you think of yourself more as an actress or a comedian?
MS: I would say more of an actress. I love comedy but I would say I approach comedy more from an actress’ point of view.
CCB: Like a character.
MS: Exactly. I do love comedy but when I do talk shows I get really nervous because people think jokes, but I don’t really think that way. I love telling stories.
CCB: Did most of what you learned about acting come from studying Drama at NYU?
MS: All of that experience even when I was little was important. It all forms you as a person. In Cleveland I also got involved in this children’s musical theater group called Heights Youth Theatre and I learned so much from that with Jerry Leonard and Wendy Leonard. We put on many big productions like The Wizard of Oz and Alice and Wonderland. They were big musicals and hundreds of kids would come. It was a very professional children’s theater company so I learned a lot from that and a lot from NYU. After NYU I went to LA and took improv classes at Second City, not for long. It’s all about going and picking up what you can along the way.
CCB: Was improv always a constant in your life?
MS: It was on and off. I did it when I was little. I don’t think I did it again until college probably.
CCB: How did you end up on SNL and what was the audition process like?
MS: I was living in Los Angeles at the time and this was about five years before I got the show. I heard that Lorne Michaels was coming and he was meeting women. They wanted to see impressions. I put a tape together and it turned out I was not one of the ones chosen for him to meet. I was so disappointed. My agent at the time had another girl that they were interested in. They wanted to meet with her and not me. I was devastated. I lived on Vine Street in Hollywood and I was on this pay phone across from Pollo Loco and I was like (Pretend Sobbing), “Really?” I was so bummed. I knew the girl that they were going to meet and I had seen her tape. “What was it about her tape and not my tape?” I just felt I had been trying so hard and hustling. It was very disappointing.
Basically I just went back and focused on my show. I did this two person show with this guy named Rob Muir and some other people that would improvise and do sketches with me. I kept working that show and creating more characters. Then they came around five years later and said, “We want a tape.” I said, “I’m not giving you a tape.” (Tough) Because I felt like the tape was an easy way for them to say no. “No, no, no. Come to the show. You have to come to the live performance.” They really wanted a tape of impressions. I don’t do impressions. It’s not my forte. But I have characters. I was really tough about either come to my show or I’m not sending in a tape, that’s it. Steven Levy, my manager, happened to have a relationship with Marci Klein, one of the amazing producers of the show. He got her to fly in and I set up a show just for her in a very short time. She’s coming to town, hurry. I had about three days to pack the house and get the band together. I wanted it to be crowded so it seemed like people were laughing a lot. She came to the show and she took me to the Ivy after for dinner and I brought my friend Michael. She said you are coming to New York to audition. I was so excited.
I was then brought to New York City to audition several months later with a big group of girls. They flew us there and put us up at the Paramount Hotel. We each got about ten minutes. Marci said, “If you have any questions call me. Any questions about your characters call me and I’ll help you out.” And I called her. “So what should I do, should I…” She’d say, “Don’t do that and do this.” She really guided me through my audition and helped me. We are now great friends and she was incredibly helpful in that process.
They put us up in front of this comedy club, Standup NY, and we got to do ten minutes. I remember thinking I really want to commit and not worry whether people are laughing or not. Commit as an actress, commit to the characters. When I started out it wasn’t going well. The people in the audience thought they were going to see standup. They were paying and they wanted standup, jokes.
CCB: Was Lorne Michaels in the audience?
MS: Lorne Michaels, Chris Farley, Jim Downey. They were in the back. But it was like tourists who thought they were going to see standup. It was hard to make them laugh. I started off and thought I’m bombing. I turned around and had all my little props, I had little glasses. I bent down getting ready for the next character and remember saying, “C’mon get it together.” I committed really hard and it went pretty well. I didn’t focus on what the other girls were doing because there was a lot of nervousness. “You brought wigs. I didn’t bring wigs.” Hysteria. That’s a good lesson. Stay on your own path. It can suck the life out of you if you are focused on what everyone else is doing.
CCB: What was the Saturday Night Live schedule like leading up to the show?
MS: You go in on Monday and you try and think of an idea for yourself and for the host. Then you have a meeting at around 5:00 PM and you say hello to the host. I have this idea for you and I and it’s this sketch about Courtney Love. You want to make it appealing to them so they seem interested because ultimately they are the ones who decide which sketches they want to be in. You have to write them a good part as well as for yourself. It can’t just be about you. You can find out what they want to do. A lot of the time they say I want to sing or I want to tap dance or I want to do an impression of Britney Spears. If you find that out you can write that into your sketch. It feels like you have an exam. Sometimes you don’t have an idea and people would pitch fake ideas because they wouldn’t be ready.
Then Tuesday night you stay up all night and write it. Some people write two or three sketches. Some people write just one sketch. Then you put it into the read through Wednesday and maybe there’s a total of around forty sketches and from that they pick between twelve and fifteen. Then after the dress rehearsal they narrow it down for the live show.
CCB: When do you know if something is going to be on? Do you find out the night of the show?
MS: You find out that night after the dress rehearsal. They pick the show. The dress rehearsal is a fat show and they pick what works. You are doing it in front of an audience, so you can tell right there. After the dress rehearsal you go into a meeting at Lorne’s office at around 11:00 at night right before the live show and you look on a board to see if your sketch is in or not. Sometimes you are still in your costume and you are in a costume of a sketch that’s been cut. (Laughs) It’s really embarrassing. We would all kind of laugh, “I’m in the costume!” It’s very hard because a lot of times you will have friends in the audience and you may not be in the show that week. They will ask, “What happened? We missed you.” There’s a whole emotional up and down that goes with that. There’s never a guarantee that you are even in it. It’s the performer’s job to write themselves into the show. There were some people that were written for all the time that didn’t have to worry about it.
CCB: Do you have any advice for people interested in working on a program like SNL?
MS: If someone was in LA I’d say go to The Groundlings; they always pull from The Groundlings. Personally I never went to The Groundlings, but they always seem to go there or Second City in Chicago. I don’t know much about where they look in New York, I guess Upright Citizen’s Brigade. They do see other people who do their own thing, but you would probably have to have an agent that would know somebody there. To just get in cold without knowing anybody would be hard. You’ve got to know somebody there or have an agent or manager who knows somebody there. I don’t think they just look at tapes blindly.
CCB: Can you talk about Teri “Good Times” Rialto and The Delicious Dish with Ana Gasteyer and Alec Baldwin. How did this sketch develop?
MS: Ana Gasteyer originally did those characters at The Groundlings. That NPR sketch is hers. She and another girl did that at The Groundlings and she brought that to Saturday Night Live. She created it with another person so if you bring it to SNL you have to settle up with the other person you create it with. She asked me to do the sketch, I was so excited. So that was handed to me. It was completely written for me. I didn’t develop that at all. It was a joy to perform. Once it was at the show Dennis McNicholas, Robert Carlock, and Michael Schur would all write it with Ana. Sometimes they would write it on their own. Schwetty Balls was written by Dennis McNicholas (Laughs, Smiles) and Robert Carlock I think. So, that was just handed to us. Fantastic.
CCB: You could tell from the first time you did it that it would get laughs?
MS: It was written so well. I remember thinking this is so easy. You don’t have to memorize anything because first of all it’s straight at the cameras so you look at the cards and every joke was like (Sound of roaring laughter). When you have weeks where you are just handed gold material it’s such a joy to perform. I was so grateful to the writers.
CCB: At what point did you know it was time to try something other than SNL? (There for six years)
MS: I wanted to leave while I still really loved it and when I was happy. I didn’t want to do the slow burn where you aren’t doing as much and not being as strong as you were and disappearing. I feel good endings are important. I had a great experience and I left when I still loved it. I felt like I’d done a lot.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
MS: For me, it’s finding that balance between family and working. When I was on SNL it was my whole life. My priorities have changed. I’m not willing to give up so much of my time for show business. So, basically it’s figuring out that balance.
CCB: What has been the most rewarding thing about the job so far?
MS: For me my dad was such a big influence so I really loved when he was alive and he got to see me on Saturday Night Live. He got to see me make it before he died. That was probably the most rewarding. That he got to become a part of that life that he always dreamed of through me. Nothing was better than that.
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job?
MS: The idea that there is so much more than there is out there. (Acting opportunities for women)
CCB: Were you surprised by that?
MS: I was. I don’t mind that because I always love when there is a struggle for something. I kind of like that because sometimes really original works can be created out of that struggle. I think I was in a bit of a fantasy about the movie industry. I think I had to mourn my fantasy of what I thought the movie industry was. A little bit of grieving, but in a good way.
CCB: What do you having coming up career-wise? (For example Scary Movie 4, Amazing Screw-On Head, Marie Antoinette, Shut Up and Sing, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby)
MS: Marie Antoinette, that’s Sofia Coppola’s new movie. I’m so excited to be in that movie. We shot it in Paris. I went when my son was ten days old. She asked me to do it and I was so flattered and honored. I couldn’t even believe that she was calling for me. My agent said to me, “We told her you were pregnant.” And I was like, “No!” (Laughs) How can I make this work? I will be there I promise. I asked my doctor how quickly I could go back to work after having the baby and she said you can go back pretty fast if you want. I was fine and the baby was fine. I was more worried about the baby flying. I felt fine. I had no problems getting up there and performing. I play the royal Aunt Victoire and Sofia is so talented and it was a dream. We shot at Versailles. I have a small part, but it was so cool being in her movie. I’m such a huge fan of hers. It’s so exciting to see women doing their own work, creating their own scripts, and getting the right stories they want to tell. I don’t think there are enough women that do that. Sofia is one of the best and I can’t even believe that I know her.
Shut up and Sing is a low budget movie and I have another movie called Gray Matters. That I did with Heather Graham, Bridget Moynahan, and Tom Cavanagh. This woman named Sue Kramer wrote and directed it. I did two low budget features this summer and it was so much fun because I hadn’t done that. Those are labors of love, people put up their own money, and shoot these whole movies in thirty days. I personally like it because the schedule is so fast so with kids it’s great. You can do a giant part in two weeks and do a whole movie in thirty days.
CCB: What are your plans for the future?
MS: To me it’s about great writing. I think there is great writing in television and movies. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other. I think TV is a great fit for women if you can find your vehicle. Last year I developed a pilot for Fox that didn’t end up working out. The way I look at it is you just have to keep plugging away. You have things that might let you down or not work out, but don’t get too upset. Keep trudging along. You can learn from it. If you hear people’s stories who finally found their thing, it was a long process. I try to look at the big picture. If something doesn’t work out it can lead you to something better. In my many years of being in the business I feel it’s a very small business and you meet a lot of people. You may have met this person and they lead you to this person. It’s this very little puzzle. I always look back and am amazed how it all fit together. You can trust that sometimes it’s not working out in the time that you want it to, but it will work out as it should if you have faith. You want the results immediately and it really doesn’t work out that way.
CCB: It’s like in your story where five years later you were on SNL because you didn’t give up.
MS: I wanted to give up. I was really sad. I’d audition and get rejected. Ultimately it does make you stronger. It’s realizing that you might make a connection that might pay off later and not right away. I did Cracking Up with Mike White and through Mike White I met Jason Schwartzman and through Jason I met Sofia. At the time I was not thinking about that and then I end up working on Sofia’s movie. It’s amazing.