Molly Shannon Is Game for Anything, from Getting Bruised by Florence Pugh to Returning to Host ‘SNL’

She has proven herself a serious dramatic actor many times, but to a generation of oddballs she'll always be the first lady of comedy.
Molly Shannon
Molly Shannon
G. Flores

It seems there is nothing Molly Shannon cannot do. She can zing in a stylized satire like “The White Lotus” and a broad comedy like “The Other Two.” She also grounds her comedic sensibility with great emotional depth in intimate dramas, as she did in “Private Life” and “Other People.” And it’s no surprise that she brings her unique oddball sensibility to quirky indie comedies like “The Little Hours” and “Year of The Dog.” Her resume reads like a fairly comprehensive roster of interesting comedy and independent film over the last two decades.

Shannon’s latest dramatic outing is Zach Braff’s drama “A Good Person,” in which she plays opposite Florence Pugh in another heavy lift. Despite the loaded circumstances, Shannon finds a way to bring levity to the film’s darker moments.

In the film, she plays Diana, a wine-swilling New Jersey mother who finds herself at loose ends when her daughter Allison (Pugh) develops an opioid addiction. When Braff called Shannon about the role, she said she jumped at the chance to work with Pugh.

“I just think she’s so talented,” Shannon told IndieWire during a recent interview. “She’s incredible. And she’s so young but she has the sophistication of — you feel like you’re talking to a seventy-year-old woman. … She just commands a set and she’s really funny and very wise beyond her years, a very sophisticated girl, a great storyteller.”

Most of Shannon’s scenes occur inside a modest family home in West Orange, where she gets to go head-to-head with the formidable Pugh. Well-intentioned but sadly misguided, she first flushes Allison’s last remaining pills, before later securing some from a friend. In an early scene meant to demonstrate Allison’s dire state, the two women tussle over a pill bottle inside a cramped bathroom. Shannon was impressed by Pugh’s desire to “just go for it” in the scene, and she had the bruises to show for it.

Molly Shannon a good person
Molly Shannon in “A Good Person”©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

“That was wild, because sometimes when you do physical scenes with people, it’s very rehearsed. You have stunt coordinators. Like, ‘OK, you grab her there, then she does this, then she fake slaps you,'” Shannon said. “But Florence and I just went for it. We just go up and I’m like, ‘I’m going to try to get the pills and you’re going to try to keep the pills’ — and action. We were both the same. We’d just go for it, physical, and it was really wild, maybe one my wildest, most physical scenes with another actor. She likes to really be in the moment and she doesn’t care if you kind of slap her. We were both the same with one another, so we were kind of bruised up, but it was fun.”

Pugh isn’t the only draw to the project, however. Though she only shares one scene with him, Shannon got to work with the legend Morgan Freeman. Needless to say, it was a surreal experience.

“I couldn’t believe it. I loved ‘Shawshank Redemption.’ So it was really wild being in a scene with him. When I was in the scene with him, acting with him, I felt like I was on a ride at an amusement park going up, up, like, ‘I can’t believe I’m in a scene with Morgan Freeman,'” she said. “He’s just so prepared, really knows his lines really well. But he’s a cool cat. When he comes on the set, it’s exciting because he’s Morgan Freeman. But then when we were in the middle of shooting, we had a little break. We’re doing our scene, and I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m in scene with you. This is so exciting.'”

But to many people, she is just as legendary in her own regard. She first joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” in 1995, when it was still very much a boys’ club. With the Gilda Radner days long past, suddenly viewers were tuning in just to see Shannon doing Sally O’Malley or Mary Katherine Gallagher. Though these things always come in waves, she represents one of the most significant — and lasting — shifts for women in comedy.

Sometimes Shannon needs reminding of just how influential she is.

“That’s so flattering. I can’t believe it. It’s just sick. It blows my mind,” she said. “I appreciate it, because I think I’ve been in show biz for so long so I appreciate it. And I know how hard show business is, so I think I mostly try to enjoy it. But I get scared sometimes in life in show biz. I think sometimes I feel fear, but I try to remind myself to not be afraid.”

With her involvement in so many popular projects, like “The Other Two” and “I Love That for You,” a return to “Saturday Night Live” seems warranted. Surprisingly, Shannon has only hosted the show once, in 2007 when she was promoting “Year of the Dog.” Shannon is game for anything.

“Oh, my gosh. Well, of course I would. Yes. I would say yes,” she said. “It’s funny, but I forget live variety, it’s exhilarating but it’s also hard. It’s like, five, four, three, two, go. Sometimes when I think about that, I think, ‘Oh my god, you’d have to be kind of crazy.’ You know? It’s like a gymnastics routine or something. It’s just feels like high stakes the way it’s like a mountain climber would feel or some type of adrenaline junkie.”

“A Good Person” is now in theaters.

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