This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes back actress Molly Shannon, who is currently starring in the Showtime series “I Love That for You” and has written a memoir “Hello, Molly!” Shannon, a “Saturday Night Live” alum, has also recently appeared in the HBO series “The White Lotus” and “The Other Two.” Shannon, who lost her mother and sister in a car accident as a young girl, tells The Treatment she began her memoir with the accident because it deeply impacted the direction of her life. She talks about the genesis of her SNL Catholic school girl character Mary Katherine Gallagher. And she says her father was her biggest cheerleader and her first acting teacher.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to the Treatment. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest Molly Shannon, since she was last here, has gone on to be in "The White Lotus” on HBO and her most recent show is now on Showtime "I Love That for You." She also has a new memoir, "Hello, Molly!" I don't know how you culled the stories that you use [in the book] because they all basically build this mosaic of Molly Shannon. Tell the story of connecting with Madeleine Olnek. A very important incident took place with her, didn't it?
Molly Shannon: Yes. Well, years ago, Madeleine Olnek and I met at NYU Drama School. We were both drama students. I was mostly working full time when I was a student there at a squash club called Park Avenue Squash and Fitness. But finally, I think it was my last year at NYU, I thought, Gosh, I should take advantage of NYU and do one of the productions, so I auditioned for this show called “The Follies” that was kind of like a midnight comedy review show where we would make fun of the teachers.
In the rehearsal for that show, Madeline had us do an exercise where she said, I'm going to play a really snotty director, and it's your job to come in, walk through the door and make up a character and try to impress me, try to get my attention. In that exercise, I walked through the door, and I said, Hi, I'm Mary Katherine Gallagher. And Madeline's character just kept being very unimpressed. And I would have to do things to try to get her attention and get her to notice me, and she would continue being unimpressed. Anyhow, Madeleine ended up loving that character, and they ended up building the whole show around that character. The show was a huge hit on campus; there were lines around the block to get into our show.
At that time, at NYU, I thought of myself as a very serious dramatic actress. But after that show, people started coming up to me on campus saying you should be on "Saturday Night Live" because they knew me doing that character, Mary Katherine Gallagher. And I thought: really? I've never thought of comedy before.
KCRW: You say in the book, that character kind of leapt out fully formed in response to the way that Madeleine was dealing with you. And it's so fascinating, because as you say in the book, she's, in some ways, this really intense version of you dealing with a lot of your own anxieties. But it's also interesting, too, that she leapt out of your head and she's got your sisters’ names.
Shannon: Yeah. Oh, my gosh, Elvis, you know, that's so interesting. Nobody has ever pointed that out in all the years I've ever talked about that character. Yes, my sister, Mary, who was my older sister who survived in our car accident, and my sister, Katie, Katherine, who died in the car accident. Yes, but I think that was totally unconscious when I did just make that up.
KCRW: There are so many things that are about your family life, and you're talking about your dad in the book encouraging you to basically live out this wild side and to explore parts of yourself that you might not want to explore. And then in some ways he had a motive for asking you to do that or encouraging that, that he couldn't admit to himself even.
Shannon: Yeah, I think he liked having fun. He had a very silly side. I don't know if he wanted me to be wild because he was hiding a part of himself, but he made parenting fun, like just mundane stuff. Like if we went to a candy store in Shaker Heights, he would just make a game out of everything. He was a single parent, so he would just say, Hey, Molly, when we go into this candy store, do you want to pretend I'm blind? And I was like, OK. Everything was like a game or performance.
My dad was also a frustrated actor. He wished he would have gone to the Cleveland Playhouse and pursued acting, but he didn't have the confidence, so he was doing a lot of acting as a parent, so we'd go into the candy store and he pretended like he was blind, and he would go knock down boxes of chocolate and then take a bite of the candy and say, Is this chocolate? He would just do silly stuff to make me laugh, or he would undress the mannequins in the department store when he took my childhood friend and me shopping, and he would unbutton their shirts and make them look really sexy and very silly. I mean, very mischievous. He liked to have a good time.
KCRW: In a way he was really your first acting coach wasn't he?
Shannon: He really was. I call it the Jim Shannon school of acting. I really first started acting with him because we would do these phone call exercises in our house where we would pretend to answer a fake phone call like, “Hello? Shannon residence. This is Molly.” And then I would have to pretend like I was really listening to someone talking on the other end. And if it seemed at all fake, he would go, Cut. Stop. That seemed fake. And you'd have to start over and make it really real. So genuine, no acting, very natural performance. And I really still use that in my acting now. When I was in "The White Lotus," I tried to make it very natural. He really gave me that gift.
KCRW: It felt almost like it was this thing where, in addition to everything else, we all experienced this really close call together, and I want you to really savor life in a way that you might not have, had this thing not happened.
Shannon: When you lose your parent as a kid, it does give you an appreciation for life on earth and time with loved ones and not taking anything for granted. And I think losing my mom and my sister when I was four years old in a car accident gave me this urgency for life, like: Oh my god, this is it. Wow, we're alive and okay. It just gives you an appreciation. You just don't take anything for granted.
KCRW: What made you decide to write the book?
Shannon: My husband was very encouraging. He was like, You should write a book. But I have to be honest, Elvis. I had to kind of push through my embarrassment because I have a hard critical part of myself that was like, nobody's gonna care. And it made me feel a little embarrassed. But I think I really wanted to push through my fear and do it anyhow. I wanted people to hear my story. I hoped that it would inspire people. Of course, I wanted to be funny. And it was cathartic to write it. A lot of people said, Oh, was it cathartic writing? And at first, I would say No, not really, because I felt like I processed a lot of it already in therapy. But it really was cathartic because you go back and revisit these parts of your life that you might not have wanted to think about what happened, over 50 years ago.
When I was writing the book, for the first time in my life, when I was writing the accident chapter that was very hard to write, I felt like I was holding my breath when I was writing it. And then when I finished it, I could let my breath out in the middle of writing it. For the first time in my life, I googled the address of where my cousin had the graduation party that we left that night, to the point of the accident, where it happened on Dead Man's Curve over there and then our home address. I don't know why I never in my life had done that. I guess I just didn't want to think about that.
It's interesting the way grief and trauma work and how you could just put something away for 50 years. And then for whatever reason this one day, a few months ago, I Mapquested that, and I discovered that my dad had driven for 90 minutes, and we were only 18 minutes from home. We were almost home. And that was heartbreaking to discover.
KCRW: The book is so vivid, Molly, and to start it with that particular incident. I wonder what motivated that for you.
Shannon: It was such a point in my life that had a profound effect, the car accident, losing my mom, Peggy Keating, and my sister, Katie, and my cousin, Fran. My dad was at the wheel, and my sister Mary and I survived. Our whole life changed in an instant. Life, as I knew it, ended that second. And we were going to now begin a new life.
I felt defective. I felt like I must be bad. I felt like: why did my mom and my sister leave without me? It just changed my whole life. So I couldn't not start with that, since it was such a big major incident that happened. I felt like: let's just start with this, then we can move on and get on with the story.
KCRW: It's such an interesting thing to frame the book because like you said, everything is really motivated by that, and we measure everything against that. I found myself thinking about [the movie] "Wild Nights with Emily." But the book is also so much about the way you don't discard things in your life. I mean, all these memories, the book becomes a sort of walk through your life with these objects. You remember these experiences and how one thing led to another and how you've thought a lot about these people in your life, you're still close to.
Shannon: Yes. And it's interesting when you bring up "Wild Nights with Emily" because Emily Dickinson, in our movie, was a lesbian and she had a relationship with her brother's wife, Susan, and she did what she could do for that time, when that was not accepted. She made it work. She was like, This is how we'll be together. We'll live next door.
It's interesting that you bring that up. And with my dad being gay, being born in 1926, it just wasn't an option. He was born a generation or two too early, where it just wasn't so easy to come out of the closet and be yourself. So it's interesting that you draw those parallels.
KCRW: You found a way to bring that part of your life into this story, but also making all these things that are really tough to deal with and dealing with them in very practical ways.
Shannon: That's another reason I wanted to write the book: my dad was such a big personality in my life, a big influence. He was like my Mama Gypsy Rose. He believed in me. He gave me encouraging words in showbusiness. When I said, Oh, Hollywood is so hard, daddy. There's so much rejection. I'm not blonde and beautiful. I'm never gonna make it. He goes, Oh, listen, that attitude will get you nowhere, Molly. He said, You got to put on your high heels and doll yourself up. And you march into those offices of those casting directors and agents and you say to them, hold the phone, I got talent! And use your singing voice. That was his advice.
KCRW: Talk about the David Mamet scam because it's such a wonderful section of the book.
Shannon: Well, my friend Eugene Pack and I were struggling actors in Hollywood. We were trying to get into the doors of these agents. I would walk up and down Sunset Boulevard and pass out my headshots but not get any calls, and we thought we got to do something or else we're never gonna be able to make it. So, one day I thought up the “Mamet scam.”
Gene Pack and I had studied with David Mamet at NYU. We decided one day to make phone calls and pretend to be these fictional characters who worked with David Mamet. So my character was Liz Stockwell. His character was Arnold Katz. We did research at the AFI library on managers and agents and anybody in showbiz we wanted to meet. So we would make these calls Friday at four o'clock because these agents were in a good mood. I would call, and I would say, “This is Liz Stockwell calling from David Mamet's office. Can we please speak to X agent?”
The reason we chose David Mamet, a brilliant playwright, screenwriter, "Glengarry Glen Ross," legendary, amazing talent was because we knew that he was more Vermont, East coast. He wasn't coming to LA that much. We knew there wouldn't be a cross check. And let me tell you, Elvis, these agents were so excited that David Mamet's office was calling them on a Friday. They would put the agent straight through, and I'd be like, Oh my gosh, I'm on with this agent. And they would say, Oh, well, hello, Liz. And I would say to this agent, David speaks so highly of your company, just thinks you're a fabulous agent, and we would love for you to meet this new up and coming kid. We really need to just set up the appointment now.
Eugene Pack and I previously had worked in sales at Park Avenue Squash and Fitness. And when we were selling health club memberships, we always had a rule that you couldn't hang up the sales call until you had the credit card in hand and made the sale. So our rule with the Mamet scam was: don't hang up until you got the appointment in the books. And then Eugene would call for me and get me in to see Bernie Brillstein, and Eugene got me in to meet the casting director, Joanna Ray, who cast "Twin Peaks." And when she met me, she was like, Please give David my best and she was like, Molly, you must meet David Lynch, and I got cast on “Twin Peaks” through the Mamet scam.
KCRW: Tell the story about how you got busted because that's the best part of the story.
Shannon: Yes, well, I wanted to be part of the Brat Pack, so "Arnold Katz" got me in to see the agent of the Brat Pack. I sat down with her. I was so excited, and she was like, Hey, go sit down, and she goes, I just wanted to see what a liar looked like in person. My heart started pounding so fast, Elvis. I said, What? And she said, Yeah, your little friend, Arnold Katz, called with his little scam, saying he works with David Mamet. What a crock of BS that is. I was so nervous. I said, Wait, what? I just used my acting talent from NYU. And I said, I don't know what you're talking about. She goes, Hold on, honey. Let me ask you a question. Are you dating this guy? I played really innocent, like, I was kind of a dumb, naive lady. And even though Eugene Pack and I were not dating in real life, I said, Yes, I am dating him. And then she turned kinda to help me. She was like, Well, let me tell you, like sister to sister, this guy cannot help you. He's a scum bucket. Like he doesn't know anyone. [I said] Oh, my God. Thank you. Thank you! And then I ran out after that meeting, called Eugene Pack on a payphone. I was like, we just got busted!
KCRW: One of the things I think is really touching about the book is this sense of community, and that everything in this way turns into family for you. And one of these big formative experiences for you was when you were a kid, getting into the theater group, which I think gives you something to pursue, but also you're talking about the affection that these kids had and this openness and that clearly sparked something in you that you're still living in some ways.
Shannon: Yes. One of the things I realized having lost my mom when I was four, I missed a woman's touch, that motherly touch, their affection and holding you, and I remember getting cast in "The Little Rascals," a local carnival show. And one of the moms washed my hair one night. And it felt so nice having a mom shampoo my hair.
One of the things that attracted me in the Heights Youth Theater, this children's theater that I became a part of run by Jerry Leonard, was how affectionate these theater kids were. They were always hugging one another, and we would make a massage chain. And we would braid one another's hair. And there was so much affection and love. That is one of the main things that attracted me to show business.
KCRW: A lot of what's happened in your life, in a lot of ways, is echoed in "I Love That for You," [like in] the character that Vanessa Bayer plays. What was your first discussion with her about the part and the character you're playing in the show?
Shannon: Vanessa and I are both from Shaker Heights, Ohio, both from Cleveland. Vanessa is writing about her life when she was overcoming childhood leukemia. And it's interesting, I'm writing a book about my life. And then we're doing a TV show together.
Vanessa really became obsessed with that world of the Home Shopping Network when she was sick in a hospital because she had to watch TV all the time. She was in bed. And so Vanessa loves that world, and it was such an escape for her. So she just told me a lot about it, about what she loved, and how these women sell these things, how they touch the objects they're selling, that somehow whatever they're selling, they can appeal more to the viewer, if they touch it, like: this tape is so cool. It comes in 15 different colors, and they'll touch it, and they stroke it. And then the person at home feels like they're touching it and just the kind of magic of that whole world of fantasy that this product is going to change her life and women connecting with other women who might feel lonely and the comfort of that. Vanessa really knows that world, so she really taught it to me because my character plays the top saleswoman on this home shopping channel.
KCRW: How did she describe the character to you?
Shannon: Basically, my character Jackie is just the queen of a home shopping network. And Vanessa comes out as a newcomer. She gets a job there. And she idolizes my character; she's a star to her. She can't believe she's meeting my character in real life. It would be like meeting Meryl Streep or something.
KCRW: Or Elizabeth Taylor, like your father did?
Shannon: Yes. Or Elizabeth Taylor. Exactly. So my character takes Vanessa's character under her wing and kind of shows her the ropes and they actually form a fast friendship, and it's very sweet.
But yes, Elizabeth Taylor. My dad broke into Elizabeth Taylor's dressing room. He was in Palm Beach. My dad was a recovering alcoholic, but during this period, he was drinking. And he said, I know Miss Taylor. It was like at the Palm Beach Playhouse and so they let him back in her dressing room. And he said she was polite, but she said "Have a drink and get out," like really tough.
KCRW: There's a spirit of complete eagerness in the book that I just love. There's a whole section you're talking about creating a fake Actors Equity card, and how far you got with that.
Shannon: I did. I got so far with that. I created a fake Actors Equity card because it was so hard to break in. When I was at NYU drama school, I auditioned for the show called "Smile," which was about a bunch of young girls and a beauty pageant. But there were a lot of girls my age, 17,18, and so I made it to the final callback. You had to be able to sing and move well, and my singing was really good, but the dancing... I wouldn't call myself a professional dancer. But I made it to the final 15 girls or something. And we had our final callback in front of the famous, legendary choreographer, Miss Debbie Allen.
They brought me into a room at the big Broadway studios, and it was like maybe eight producers and Debbie Allen. She's looking at my resume. You made it this far. Great. Your singing is great. Acting is great. She goes, now the last part is: let's see the dancing. And she said, Okay, Molly Shannon, show me your moves. And I said, You want me to show you my moves? And she said, yes. And I said, Is there music? And she said, No music, just freestyle.
I wish I could demonstrate. So I had to freestyle dance in front of nine people and Debbie Allen, and I did like spins and a few little robot moves and pirouettes. It was not good. And then they were like, thank you. That's all we need. Have a good day, Molly. It did not go well.
KCRW: I'm always impressed by the way you physicalize characters. There's a great moment [in "I Love That for You"] where she gets busted, trying to walk past Joanna's dressing room rather. That physical aspect of her that once she gets caught in something, she just owns it.
Shannon: Exactly. I was saying to Jessi Klein, our amazing, super talented writer, showrunner, There's nothing I like more than a scene if I have to walk away, or an entrance. I like an entrance and an exit. She thinks that is so funny because I had one scene where I'm mad, [and say] "Absolutely not!" And then I march off and I get to walk down the hallway and turn the corner. It's my all time favorite thing. No lines, just pure sass and walking.