Playing a cancer-stricken mother in Chris Kelly’s semiautobiographical “Other People” is one of four new roles that Molly Shannon has committed to.
A self-described “dramatic comedian,” in recent years Shannon has distanced herself from her “Saturday Night Live” days with more sobering roles. This fall, Shannon will headline the new HBO show “Divorce” with Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church. Another one of her flicks, “Miles,” will be shown at Outfest LA on July 16, followed by an “Other People” screening on July 17. In addition to a minor role in “The Layover,” with William H. Macy, Shannon just started shooting Julie Rudd’s “Fun Mom Dinner,” with Toni Collette, in Los Angeles.
On Nantucket for last weekend’s film festival there, Shannon ran through her latest projects and how her own personal losses filter through. She is also toying with an idea for a second children’s book, with her author friend Sean Wilsey and her 11-year-old daughter, Stella. A Los Angeles transplant for nine years running, Shannon is still pining for New York and hasn’t ruled out a summer return to Broadway.
Transforming herself into a terminally ill woman for “Other People,” Shannon said she asked Kelly a lot of questions about his mother, got to know his mother’s best friend and drew from her own life — including losing “a really close Mom friend to cancer. My Dad died of cancer, and my Mom died when I was really little, so I pull from my own life and [having to deal] with death. And as a mother, I pull from myself, too, so it’s all sort of mixed together.” (Shannon lost her own mother, younger sister and cousin in a fatal car accident that she was involved in at the age of four.)
The recent spate of family-related roles seems to be happenstance more than anything. “I feel like I have experience with death — well, who hasn’t? But I feel that sometimes you can attract roles wherever you are in your life,” she said.
Wearing a neon-pink sleeveless dress she biked to Lilly Pulitzer to buy earlier in the day, Shannon said she doesn’t work with any designers but would certainly like to. Asked whether the public’s obsession with red-carpet attire deters too much from the actual acting, she said, “It’s really not my world. But it’s not good if people feel like they can’t make a mistake or something. Then it takes away all the fun. In the same way, I never like it when comedy gets too cool, if it’s, like, all cool people. The whole reason I got into comedy was because I felt like an outsider. I never like it when it gets too cool for school.”
She continued, “The reason I got into it was because I felt outside the cool group. I think fashion should be the same way. There should be mistakes made. You should embrace the mistakes or the flaws. I do admire people who don’t care and who kind of do their own thing. It is also fun and like a business, and we all enjoy looking at it. But I don’t like it when it gets too mean or snarky, because that’s not how I see women. I think I am more accepting and [interested in] enjoying people. It’s about feeling good about yourself.”
Explaining why she felt like an outsider, Shannon said, “I stuttered a lot in my childhood, so I had a hard time. I think I always felt that things that maybe came easier to other people, I really struggled to catch up to be normal. Losing my Mom when I was little was really hard. Some things that people were just handed or took for granted, I really had a harder time. So I always felt a little different than some kids who had it a little easier. But also some of those things can be a gift in life because they give you an appreciation for things that people might take for granted.”
A heavy work schedule eventually gives way to “lots of time off,” mostly for hanging out with her kids and their friends, taking pictures, seeing movies and going swimming. Her husband, Fritz Chesnut, is an artist who makes poured-acrylic works on canvas that explore cosmic phenomena, geological formations and topographical issues. “He is so visually oriented. For me, photography is more of a Mom hobby. I make iPhoto books, but I am really into it. I go to Apple a lot, and they teach me. The courses they offer at Apple are amazing,” she said. “You know how they have those people who can teach you things on the computer? I’m always at Apple. I do that when my kids are in school. It’s like a university. You could learn how to edit a movie at Apple. Those guys are unbelievable.”
Shannon still has her West Village apartment — nine years after exiting the city. She said of New York, “I miss it a lot. I love it. I actually love when I get to go back there. It’s such an exciting city. I miss the restaurants, the people, the pace, Brooklyn. I love the High Line park. It feels like it’s always changing. If you haven’t been there for two years, a whole block can completely change. It’s like seeing a child who has grown. You’ve gotten so big all of a sudden. It’s always changing and growing. I went to NYU, so my heart’s really in New York. I just love it.”