Rachel Sennott on Taking Nudes, Hot Girl Comedy, and Making Shiva Baby
Rachel Sennott is bummed out when she appears on Zoom. It's another terrible day on the internet, full of bad news and bad takes. She was doomscrolling up until our call. She takes a moment to un-clench, then perks up and compliments my spice rack.
The 25-year-old actress and comedian has been missing such domestic comforts. As a Virgo, Sennott's astrologically ill-suited to the nomadic, bi-coastal lifestyle she's adopted lately. "Whenever someone is up against a plain background, I'm like, 'You're hiding something,'" she says, nodding to the non-descript Los Angeles AirBnB behind her. She's been living there since September, going back and forth to her parent's house in Connecticut while filming ABC comedy Call Your Mother and promoting her new movie Shiva Baby. "We [Virgos] need our home and our space," Sennott says with passion. "Like, I hate this."
Despite her growing IMDb page, you probably know Sennott from the aforementioned terrible internet. Under the handle @treaclychild she's perfected an enthralling style of social media cringe comedy that mines her insecurities and ingrained consciousness of the male gaze to make her followers laugh. A stone-faced bikini pic captioned, "My breasts are this big to protect my very sensitive heart," a tweet pondering if she should fake-accidentally FaceTime high school classmates to see if they're mad at her, or a stand-up bit about how she's reluctant to sit on guys' faces because "that's the only way for them to really find out how much you weigh" are all exemplary of her ouevre.
Sennott's schtick can be jarring. That's the point. "There's this expectation that women are supposed to be hot, but never aware of it," she says. "So I try to be very purposeful and aware of my sexuality and my image in ways that surprise people."
This strategy has won over the comedy world, starting with New York City's stand-up scene, where Sennott got her start while studying theatre at NYU. Since then, she's produced countless viral Tweets and videos, created a Comedy Central series with her friend, Big Mouth's Ayo Adebri, and guested on HBO's cult comedy High Maintenance. When Call Your Mother, a lighthearted sitcom in which she plays Kyra Sedgewick's exasperated daughter, premiered in January, Sennott took her first steps into the mainstream.
But it's Sennott's latest role as Danielle in Shiva Baby that promises to open up Hollywood to her. The ulcer-inducing dark comedy was written and directed by her best friend Emma Seligman, originally conceptualized as an 8 minute-long senior thesis. After the short caught buzz at SXSW 2018, it was picked up by Utopia and opens in theatres on April 2.
Danielle is a lost NYU senior who finds sugarbabying as a flimsy life raft. When she's called home to attend a suburban shiva (a Jewish funeral), she encounters horror after horror: her high-achieving ex-girlfriend, endless inquiries about her nonexistent post-grad plans, comments about her weight, invasive touching from family friends, and finally, one of her "daddies" who turns out to be a friend of her actual father's, accompanied by his gorgeous wife and screaming baby. Buckling under expectations and embarrassment, Danielle drifts around the shiva, disassociating in between panic attacks, grasping for control by taking nudes in the bathroom, and scraping the food off her paper plate.
"I feel like I was rehearsing for this role before the script was written," Sennott says. She plays Danielle with sullen, frizzy perfection. The character isn't based on her but they're kindred spirits. "It's really a one-day coming of age story. I feel like I've been on that same journey, from making the short, to graduating, to making the feature," Sennott explains. "I found my comedic voice in a really raw way, at a time when I was in relationships where I didn't feel like I had any power. I'd blast guys on Twitter as I walked away from a date. I'd tweet my location and tell guys to come murder me. It helped me feel in control when I felt powerless. And it felt good to have other women relate to me."
Shiva Baby asks questions similar to those in Sennott's comedy. What does being sexually empowered look like? How should women reconcile what they're supposed to want with their actual desires? Where should women source self-worth in a culture that champions feminism but is still traumatizing to grow up in? It offers no answers, only, by its final scenes, a mounting sense that Danielle wants to take control of her life in other ways than having transactional sex and not eating.
In real life, Sennott's a few steps ahead of Danielle. "I've started asking myself, 'How much of my life do I want to share with people? How much distance do I want to keep, how do I separate myself and my work?" she says. "My comedy still comes from a real place. But I feel a lot more control in my relationships and my choices now so there are things that I don't need to share."
Don't worry — Sennott's still posting devastatingly captioned bikini pics. It just means she's got more time to work on her and Seligman's next project, a comedy about two queer teen girls who start a fight club. Read on, for Sennot's thoughts on taking nudes at the function, hot girl comedy discourse, and creating Shiva Baby.
Take me back to your senior year at NYU. How did you end up in Shiva Baby?
Since my freshman year, I acted in pretty much all the thesis films because I was sick of reading poems in theatre class. Literally, if someone needed a girl to smoke a cigarette or look out of a window, I would skip class, I was there. Emma saw me in another student's film and asked me to audition. We just clicked — a Virgo-Taurus thing. After the short did well, we were dead-set on getting it made.
It feels like Danielle is on these two journeys of experimenting with sexuality and feminism. As she says in one scene, she's rejected "the whole girlboss thing." Sugarbabying sort of makes her feel powerful, but she ends up humiliated. Do you think Shiva Baby draws any conclusions about what might actually be empowering for women?
Emma and I thought a lot about women and power in this movie. There are so many things that women think or are told will empower them that don't. The movie shows that. Like with Max [Danielle's sugardaddy] for instance, we crafted in the script who has power in each scene. Sometimes she has power, sometimes he has power. Embarrassing stuff about her is revealed, embarrassing stuff about him is revealed. It's a dance. We wanted to show what it looks like when you think you're in control but you're not. It doesn't make a blanket statement either way, but it shows the confusion.
Danielle's anxiety and ambivalence about her career — I died when she snaps, "feminism's not a career, it's a lens!" — did that hit close to home?
[Laughs] That line was definitely a jab at the NYU school of Gallatin. But definitely. Right now, your career is supposed to be eleven different things tied into a perfect package or brand. It's like, "Be sexually empowered… but also find the love of your life," and "Have a career but also… get married." Trying to have everything creates a lot of confusion. There's so many different paths and you want them all and also don't know what you want.
Danielle is a really intense character. She's either disassociating or having a panic attack pretty much the whole movie. How did you approach that?
It's interesting because Danielle's actually not a very active character. Things happen to her and she internalizes them. Another thing Emma and I did was map out Danielle's anxiety scene-to-scene the same way we mapped power. We mapped out all the levels of Danielle's anxiety so that it didn't feel one note. It's like, "Is she at a 7? Is she at a 5, it she at a 10?" That was really helpful because her objective isn't always super obvious. It's all very subtle.
I feel like the whole movie is spent between 7 and 10. Also marked by the sweat level in each scene.
That was real sweat! [Laughs] We shot in August. So was the frizz and the acne. In the script it was like "She picks at a zit." I was like "No worries, I'm breaking out."
In one scene, Danielle takes a nude in the bathroom. What's the weirdest or least appropriate place you've ever taken a nude?
Oooooh, I've definitely taken nudes at a family function. I want to say also church? There's something about places you're not supposed to do it there that makes you want to. That's the only thing I can think of, because I think taking nudes appropriate pretty much everywhere.
How do you manage being an Extremely Online person when it feels so terrible to be online most of the time?
I've learned to set boundaries for myself. It's been a slow process. I spend less time online overall lately. That's been deliberate. For one thing, over the summer, I was posted on this revenge jerk-off site and then started getting pretty intense rape threats. I used to have my DMs open and I'd message with women who were like, "I relate to you!" But I was like, this is too much, I can't read these. I've found it really important to sent boundaries.
Shiva Baby is a most people's introduction to you as an actress, not just a person with funny tweets. Where do you want to go from here?
I'd like to keep doing comedy. I really want to do stand-up again when it comes back. Then I want to do more roles like Danielle — complicated, funny female characters. Not just comedies, lots of genres. And I definitely want to keep making stuff with Emma.
How would you explain "hot girl comedy" discourse it to someone who's not online or doesn't know much about comedy?
Mainly, I think a lot of hot girls are doing comedy right now [laughs]. Literally, it's all over the feed. I'm like [mimes scrolling] killing it, killing it, stunning, stunning. Just ... female comedians! We're showing up, we're wearing outfits, we're trying. I think it started with critiques on Twitter that go both ways like, "Rachel just talks about how no one wants to date her and she's a loser," or they're like "She just talks about how she loves her boyfriend." Meanwhile, guys post a picture of them eating a sandwich as a joke. So it was kind of a criticism and it's been reclaimed.
In quarantine, you wrote a guide to getting a Covid boyfriend. How did that go?
I went through so many weird FaceTime and text-based relationships. It was weird cause I'd be like [in a baby voice] "Babe" — wait I need to make clear, I don't actually say "babe" like that. But it'd be super intimate, then I'd be like "Wait… we've never met in person." But I do have a boyfriend now, here in LA. So, success! [Laughs] That was all about the magic of a mutual friend and Instagram. He DMed me, and a couple of my friends were like "Go out with him!" In quarantine, you really need the endorsement.
Is there a pop culture moment that sparked your interest in acting/comedy?
Not really a pop culture moment but I had pneumonia for like 3 weeks and I had just gotten a Guys and Dolls CD and also one of those children's vanity mirrors so I would sit in front of it and perform the whole CD from start to finish.
Favorite item of clothing that you own?
This little skirt suit with heart buttons and a ruffle in the back.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
I was deeply in love with Taylor Lautner. I also was in love with the Red Sox baseball team and invited them to my 6 year old birthday party but I'm not sure if they count as celebrities.
How often do you check your Wikipedia page? Have you ever edited it?
When I first got it I looked everyday for a week and then I read something rude about myself and haven't looked since. I have not!
What's the last thing you Googled?
"Burbank Urgent Care" lol.
What did your childhood bedroom look like?
I shared a room with my older sister and my parents painted a garden on the wall and we had floral bedspreads. It's not there anymore and I miss it!
Worst audition story?
Oh my god they sent like seven scenes and they were all five pages and I spent so long on all of them and was really stressed and I got there and they were like oh you only had to pick one. Which is why you read the full email!
Sneak preview of your Oscar/Emmy acceptance speech?
Photographs by Tracy Nguyen, assisted by Taylor Galloway. Styled by Samantha Sutton. Beauty Direction by Kayla Greaves. Hair by Sami Knight. Makeup by Molly Greenwald. Illustrations by Emily Lundin. Creative direction and production by Kelly Chiello.