Molly Shannon’s post-“Saturday Night Live” career is a diverse one: supporting turns in festival favorites like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and “Life After Beth,” memorable roles in studio comedies like “Talladega Nights” and “Evan Almighty” and plenty of off-beat television for small screen fans. Later this year, she’ll co-star in the much-hyped HBO comedy “Divorce,” starring Sarah Jessica Parker. If it seems like she’s casting her net all over the place, it’s at least partly by design. For Shannon, the key to both Hollywood success and creative fulfillment is simple: Working hard and always looking for something different.
Every now and then, the industry takes notice. At the recent Nantucket Film Festival, Shannon accepted the Compass Rose Acting Award. While there, she also supported first-time filmmaker’s Chris Kelly’s Audience Award winner, “Other People,” which opened the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and features Shannon in a stirring performance as a wife and mother coming to grips with her terminal cancer diagnosis.
It’s the kind of role that seems tailor-made for racking up acting accolades, but that’s not what grabbed Shannon’s attention when she got sent the script. It was that Kelly (who, incidentally enough, is currently a writer on “Saturday Night Live”) had based his feature debut on the death of his own mother.
Shannon, the mother of two young kids who also lost her own father to cancer at a relatively young age, said she was touched by the honesty that Kelly wrote into the screenplay, his first. “I really related to the material as a mother, what a mother would do for her children, how she would go to the end of the earth for her kids and it’s all she worries about,” Shannon said. “She’s fighting for her life, but also coming to terms with that her life is going to be cut short.”
Kelly was also drawn to working with an “SNL” writer. “The fact that he wrote this amazing, vulnerable movie from his heart, that is a very rare thing for comedy writers,” she said. “He did something completely different.”
And that’s the root of the actress’ own sensibilities. “Although it’s still so funny, it’s dramatic and funny,” she said. “You really don’t see that that much.”
When “Other People” debuted at Sundance, it was Shannon’s performance that was singled out as one to keep an eye on for the year, and yes, even into awards time. But it’s hardly the first time she’s experimented with darker material. She credits Mike White’s 2007 dramedy, “Year of the Dog,” which cast the actress as a lonely secretary whose life is upended when her beloved dog dies, as her big dramatic breakout.
“I have received offered a lot of movies from that because I think people saw that I could do drama,” she said. “I really do credit Mike with giving me that first break…I felt like that helped me a lot, because sometimes it is hard to transition.”
The actress, however, always thought of her work as being rooted in tougher stuff. “People might just see you one way, which never bothered me,” she said. “I love comedy, but I did always consider myself a dramatic comedian.”
Her most “SNL” popular character – the ever-striving “superstar” Mary Katherine Gallagher – was a product of that kind of thinking. “I would approach it almost as if I was doing a dramatic scene,” she said of the character. “I never like when people make fun of the characters, or distance themselves from the characters. I always want to think, ‘What does this character want?'”
It’s “Saturday Night Live”!
While “SNL” is famously described as a “launching pad” for acting careers, Shannon downplayed that perspective. “I never thought of it as some launching pad,” she said. “I knew that it was so special, so I always knew what it was, and I always appreciated it. There’s nothing that exists like ‘Saturday Night Live.'”
That doesn’t mean that her tenure on the show was an easy one. Although she came up during a period when the previously male-dominated program was leaning towards more breakout female talents – including Shannon, Cheri Oteri, Ana Gasteyer, Rachel Dratch and Maya Rudolph – Shannon still struggled to get her work on air.
“I did have a hard time when I first got hired,” she said. “It’s like the best of the best, and I remember feeling like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m in over my head. How am I going to survive?”
Shannon had to adjust her creative process to include writing her characters and sketches, which had already included characters like Mary Katherine Gallagher and Sally O’Malley. It was an ongoing process to find air time for her creations. “To get into the show, you have to write yourself on,” she explained. “‘SNL’ is the hardest. People don’t know that.”
When Shannon decided to leave the show in 2001, she didn’t think of it as a springboard to a bigger career. In fact, she was afraid the best of her work was already behind her.
“I was like, ‘This is it. This may be the peak,'” she said. Unlike a lot of “SNL” alumni, she didn’t have a specific plan. “I was more leaving to create more of a personal life for myself,” she said. “I was very work-oriented for so long. [I wanted] to just leave the show with a good feeling. I wanted to leave at a great point when I still loved it, and when I was still so happy and not overstaying my welcome.”
The Art of Hustling
Post-“SNL,” Shannon embraced the challenge of expanding her repertoire beyond the boundaries of the show she had loved for so long. The best way to do that? In her own words: Hustling.
“Sometimes you have to develop material for yourself, or establish relationships with writers, and hustle and try to get your own stuff produced, write your own stuff,” she said. “There’s all different ways of kind of getting in. I think I was always one to try everything.” She sold a screenplay about modern motherhood to Disney (written alongside veteran screenwriters Rob Muir and Bob Hilgenberg) that never got produced and developed another unrealized project with HBO. At one point, she collaborated with comedy writer Tim Long on the idea for a series about a nun that leaves a convent to find love.
“I’m always hustling,” she said. “I think I’m a really hard worker, and I feel like my attitude is to just enjoy the process of being creative, and developing, and just throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and see what sticks.”
That attitude has even paid off for Shannon in her personal life. “My daughter just gave me a Mother’s Day card and she wrote all the qualities she liked about me,” Shannon said. “‘You’re easygoing, you’re funny,’ and she wrote, ‘hustler.’ She said that I’m a hustler. What a great compliment.”
But the hustling might be coming to an end soon. Over the years, Shannon has built up enough of a group of filmmakers she enjoys working with, and sees no reason to change that.
“I feel like I have enough of a group of people now, that I hope I can work with them again. I hope I can work with Chris again. I hope I can work with Mike White again. I hope I can work with [‘Me, Earl and the Dying Girl’ director] Alfonso Gomez-Rejon,” she said. “I just feel like I know enough people where I’m like, ‘Oh, God, if I could only work with them again.'”
“Other People” will be in limited release on September 9 and will be available on Netflix soon after. “Divorce” debuts on HBO this fall.