As one of the stars of critically acclaimed Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which opened in theaters on Friday, Molly Shannon believes there are few things more satisfying than a movie that makes you laugh and cry. Listening to her explain the experience of watching the film for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival (where it took top honors), she sounds as giddy as a kid who just got off a roller coaster. “I was like just sobbing, because it just hits you in this sad way and I was like, ‘Oh my god! I want to cry.’”
Fans of the 50-year-old Saturday Night Live alum may be surprised to see her as Denise Kushner, the mom of the “dying girl” played by Olivia Cooke in the film. Though the film really centers on the friendship between the three lead teens, all the adults in the film—especially Shannon’s slightly tipsy, holding-it-together maternal figure—are perfectly complete and completely relatable.
Once your eyes have dried from the film, you can brace yourself for some restorative laughs by way of Shannon’s next project, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. Shot with the same hilarious cast as the 2001 film—including Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, and Jon Hamm—the hit returns as a Netflix series on July 17. Even though it was made nearly 15 years later, First Day takes place before the original movie, during the summer before the camp session begins.
I recently chatted with Shannon about making Me and Earl, being a mom on screen and off, and whether or not her kids have ever seen her famous SNL character, Mary Catherine Gallagher.
This movie, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, is so wonderful. Congratulations!
Thank you. It was really fun. The character was going through such a hard time and really trying her best. It was just really a fun role to play.
I heard you saw the film for the first time at Sundance.
I did. I could have seen it before, but I really wanted to wait and see it with a big audience and I’m so glad I waited because it was just so special. I sat next to Olivia for the screening. She had seen it before, but I had never saw it and I was like just sobbing, because it just hits you in this sad way and I was like, ‘Oh my god! I want to cry.’ I think people will see this drama story and people will experience it in different ways, but it’s really the truth. What you think about it and what you go through watching it is going to be one’s own personal experience.
Will you let your own children—Stella, 11 and Nolan, 10—see this movie?
Good question. I asked our producer Nora the same thing. She has little kids. I think there’s only kind of the one dirty joke. I would like for them to see it, but it gets really sad at the end and that can be a little overwhelming. But you know what? I don’t know the answer yet. I’m not going to bring them to the premiere because that’s kind of too late of a night for them, but I’m going to think about it.
I think my daughter can see it. I saw The Fault in Our Stars with her and it was the first grown-up movie that we ever saw together. She was 11, I guess; maybe she had just turned 11, but it way really special because it was this big live real action movie with my daughter.
Did being a mom to tween make it easier or harder to play this role?
It makes it easier, because I’ve had roles where I’ve played mothers before I had kids. I played mother and my mom died when I was really young, so I didn’t really know because her life was cut so short. So, now that I am a mother I have a greater depth of understanding. So, being a mother really helps I feel.
Did you have a special relationship with Olivia on set?
It was just so great to work with her and Thomas, and really everybody. But Olivia and I, we like truly get along great. She made me laugh so hard. She is the funniest actress I’ve ever worked with. She’s so smart and so funny and such a good story teller. She would just tell me stories about her and her mother and would have me laughing. I just adore her.
Are your children aware of your other characters, like the famous Mary Catherine Gallagher from Saturday Night Live?
No! They have never seen that. I don’t like it to be all about me and I keep it low key. Like, they know that I’m an actress and I get money and have fun, but I don’t like to show them all of that, because this is their time. I explain that people recognize me from television and they know I do comedy and it makes them want to come up to me and give me a hug. But I’m never like, ‘Oh, this is my work!’ I’m not that interesting. I want to talk about my daughter and her friends and the play they are doing, Rapunzel. I want to talk about my son getting up in front of his school and singing “Uptown Funk.” I want to put the focus on that.
How important are clothes to your roles? They all have such distinct styles, like the polo shirts and the funny hair Gail von Kleinenstein has in Wet Hot American Summer?
The clothes can help you get into the character. Like, my character [in Me and Earl] comes home from work. She’s dressed elegantly, but not too expensive. You know J. Crew. She takes off her shoe. She has a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. She rolls up on the couch. It really helps me to know this is her skirt. How does she walk?
On American Summer she’s a dork (below). She wears these dorky sandals. Her hair is kind of dorky. It makes me feel like a dork. If I stand a certain way I feel like the character. I stand differently than the way that I stand when I’m playing Gail or then when I’m playing Denise. I think their bodies are different. So, I really just think of the body and the shoes a lot.
So, for the Wet Hot American Summer show, you just did a prequel—even though it’s been 15 years since the original was made. It’s like time traveling! How fun was that?
Yeah it was like a reunion, because it’s all the same actors and everybody is around the same age. That doesn’t happen often. It’s like a party, but you’re working. The cast is all really intelligent, fun, comedy people. So, it’s super social. You’re like, ‘Oh my god, how’s New York City?’ It’s the most fun. Like, it doesn’t even feel like work.