The 10-episode HBO comedy series Divorce, which has already been picked up for a second season, tells the story of Frances (Sarah Jessica Parker) who, after more than a decade of marriage and two children, has suddenly begun to reassess her life and her strained relationship with her husband, Robert (Thomas Haden Church). As he struggles to come to terms with their marriage falling apart, she discovers that making a fresh start is not an easy task, but thankfully she has her two best friends – the high-strung Diane (Molly Shannon), who has a successful husband, a beautiful house and no children, and Dallas (Talia Balsam), who has been both widowed and divorced – to help her navigate through it all.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Molly Shannon talked about why there was absolutely no way to say no to this TV series, why the show and character appealed to her, how much fun it is to play this brash and sassy woman, how much the wardrobe informs her performance, and the great time she’s having working with Sarah Jessica Parker. She also talked about why she considers her comedy to be dramatic comedy, how she came to Saturday Night Live, why she felt so privileged to be a part of the movie Other People, and how making the Wet Hot American Summer TV series is like being at crazy fun acting camp.
Collider: How did this come about for you? Had you been looking for a TV series, or was there just no way to say no to HBO, this cast and this creative team?
MOLLY SHANNON: There was absolutely no way to say no to Sarah Jessica Parker, Sharon Horgan and Paul Simms and their amazing team, and Thomas Haden Church! There was no way to say no. And my dream was cable. I love the schedule. I think it’s a good schedule for a mom, with a shorter season than network television. I just couldn’t pass it up. I was like, “Are you kidding?! This is such a wonderful opportunity!” I’ve just been a fan of Sarah Jessica’s for so long. I think Sharon Horgan is brilliant and Catastrophe is just phenomenal. Paul Simms is an old friend for years, and I think he is a superb comedy writer. And then, with this amazing cast and amazing staff of writers, I just felt so lucky. This is a show I would watch, so It’s amazing that I’m on it. It’s a dream.
Divorce is not necessarily pleasant or happy subject matter to explore, so what was it about the show and the character, specifically, that appealed to you?
SHANNON: I felt like it was really real and such a strong female point of view. I think Sharon Horgan is a real powerhouse. She’s a brave writer, and the stuff that she observes is so smart. Sarah Jessica’s character is unhappy in her marriage, and then she looks at my character’s marriage, which is volatile and a roller coaster, and she’s like, “I don’t want that to ever happen to me.” It makes her look at her own marriage and what she doesn’t want to have happen to her. Basically, I think it forces her to look at her own marriage. That material is so rich to mine, for comedy and drama, frankly. What I love about it is that I feel like the drama is real. I don’t like when, with subject matters like that, stuff gets too silly. I feel like it’s great comedy, but the emotional elements are real. It feels true. I think it’s more relatable that they keep the emotional stuff real, but it’s a comedy. That’s my favorite type of show, personally.
Diane is loud, she’s brash and she can be very dramatic. How much of this character was on the page, the way that we see her, and how much of that was just how you saw her?
SHANNON: That was definitely in the script. In the pilot episode, her husband is having this party and she’s a big personality who drinks and says whatever is on her mind. She can say the wrong things and put her foot in her mouth, and she can be self-centered. She has fun, she can be silly, and she laughs, but then she’s real and can get dark. This character is great. I’ve met women like this and I know women like this, so I felt like I could play it, but Sharon definitely wrote it like that. She’s funny and dark, but she’s also struggling in her volatile roller coaster of a marriage. It goes up and down. Tracy Letts plays my husband, and he’s quiet and stoic and can be an asshole, but she loves him. It’s complicated and real. Sharon has just got her finger on the pulse and she’s good. I just think it’s smart.
Do you think that this woman is sincere?
SHANNON: She can be self-centered and she can deflect, but she’s also sweet and fun to hang out with and wild. It’s a really fun character to play. I’ve had people come up to me that are fans of mine, and they’re big and brassy, but they’re fun. With a character like that, it evolves and you get to know your character better, as you go on and perform it. It’s an organic process, and you hope that the writers can figure it out with you. I understand that these things take time to develop, and it’s fun to create it and figure it out. It doesn’t come instantly, but I think about what she’s like a lot. You try to accommodate the writing and figure out how it’s going to work with all of the other characters.
Do you think that she’s always been as unfiltered as she is now, or has turning 50 affected her, in that sense?
SHANNON: That’s so funny! I think she’s always been like that. But the point that she gets to, where she does something so dramatic like that, is really desperate and dangerous. It’s complicated. I think there can be a time where you’re like, “Is this it? Is this my life? This is what it is?!” When you’re in your 20s, you can make mistakes like that. But when you get to a certain age, you’re like, “This is it. These are the choices I made.” That can feel like you’re trapped and desperate. I think that’s fraught with drama and comic elements. That part has maybe come to her more slowly as she’s going, “Is this fucking it? I have to put up with this forever? Fuck this!” Because people struggle in marriages and more than 55% of people get divorced, I think the character is also relatable. It’s not easy. Marriage can be complicated. Nora Ephron put it best when she said, “How can anybody else know what’s going on in my marriage, when I don’t even know what’s going on in my marriage?”
Some of the best moments on the show come from the scenes with you, Sarah Jessica Parker and Talia Balsam. Did the three of you click, right from the start?
SHANNON: It did just click from the start, I have to say. Talia, I met on the show. Sarah Jessica, I’ve known through the years because Matthew [Broderick] and I worked together. Matthew and I did The Music Man together, with Kristen Chenoweth, so I knew Sarah Jessica from New York City because we lived in the same area, and I met her and saw her through Matthew. So, in all honesty, it was great. With the three of us on the show, it just felt like an instant rapport and an easy chemistry. We really get along and crack up. It’s so nice to work with girls, where you have so much to talk about and we really have so much fun. It was an instant chemistry, I would say, and I’m so grateful for that.
Diane seems like someone who wants to make sure everyone knows that she’s wealthy, and that’s reflected by her clothing, her appearance, and her house. With a character like this, does that really help you inform your performance?
SHANNON: It really does. We shot in an actual beautiful glass house, and Arjun [Bhasin], our amazing clothing designer, gets me fabulous clothes and boots. You feel elegant. It’s not the way I dress in real life, obviously, but the clothes and the shoes really do kick you into the character. She can be a little gaudy and a little bawdy and a little gauche. The clothes, the shoes, the gold belts and the necklaces always click me into the character, for sure. You could not feel the character, and then you put on the shoes and get the walk. She’s free with her body. She’s wild and fun. It’s really fun to figure that out, physically. That’s really important to me, as a physical comedian. I do use my body a lot, to click into a character. In real life, I always look at people and how they walk, or how they carry themselves. I think about the body a lot, in performance. So, the clothes help me, as does shooting in that house. She enjoys money and she’s unapologetic about it. She embraces it.
You became known for your comedy work, but you’ve said that you always saw yourself as a serious dramatic actress. Was comedy the detour until other people could realize what you could do in drama?
SHANNON: That’s so sweet! I went to NYU drama school, so I was a very serious actress. I used to do monologues with a Southern accent, and I was really into drama and drama school. And then, in my last year of drama school, I did a comedy show, and the show became a big hit on campus. I created Mary Katherine Gallagher in that stage show at NYU, and then brought that later to Saturday Night Live and continued to develop it over there, but it was from that show. I ended up building the whole show around Mary Katherine Gallagher. At the time, she wore red pants and she had killed someone. She wasn’t a schoolgirl. She was just a dark, intense girl who wore all red. She became a Catholic school girl when I did her on Saturday Night Live. I continued to develop that character on the show for years, and in my stage show. It wasn’t until I did that stage show at NYU that people were like, “You would be so good on Saturday Night Live!” And I was like, “Really?! You think?” I had never thought of myself that way. I thought of myself as a serious dramatic actress. But, I consider my comedy to be dramatic comedy. I always wanted music underscoring the dramatic monologue. It was always drama with comedy, in my head. And then, I moved to L.A. and did an improv comedy show with a group of people. One of the guys in our show said to me, “You know, comedy is king.” And I was like, “Is it?!” And he said, “Yeah, that’s a good way to get into show business.” So, I focused on that because I thought maybe that would be a good way in. But, I have always loved both drama and comedy.
Does this blending of drama and comedy, where you can find the humor in bleak situations, feel like the right fit for you then?
SHANNON: Yeah. I really credit Mike White with that. He wrote Year of the Dog for me, and then I did Enlightened with him. He’s a close friend of mine and he knew me personally, so he said, “I want you to be in Year of the Dog.” And I did Cracking Up with him, which was a series for Fox, years ago. I really feel Mike helped me so much, by writing those parts for me ‘cause people saw me in a different way. Sometimes when you’re known in one way in town, they think you can only do that. I’m so grateful to Mike that he believed in me enough to give me a chance. Chris Kelly (the writer/director of Other People) really loves Mike White and those movies, and he saw that. I think that’s helped me in getting directors to see I could do both.
Your work in Other People is so tremendous, but when you read a script like that and think about stepping into a role like that, is it a difficult decision, knowing how tough the subject matter is, or is the challenge of that something that’s attractive to you?
SHANNON: The challenge is attractive to me. I felt so lucky that it wasn’t even a decision. I was like, “Are you kidding?! Yes!” I’ve never called anybody so fast as when I called Chris and was like, “I would love to be in Other People!” My heart was pounding. I sobbed when I read that script. It was so moving! It pulled at my heartstrings, and I laughed and cried. Reading it took my breath away. I deeply related to the material and I was so excited, after I read it, that I went running for 40 minutes and listening to music because I had to calm the fuck down. I was like, “I can’t believe I’m going to be in this movie!” It was a gigantic opportunity.
Does it make it easier when you’re working with somebody who’s written a story that’s semi-autobiographical and a clear passion project, or does that make it more nerve-wracking because it’s so personal?
SHANNON: It depends on the person, but with Chris, it made it easier. He’s so great, so easygoing, so communicative and so smart that he made it easy. He made it comfortable and he helped me so much. He said, “Look, it’s not a docu-drama. I’m not going to tell you that my mother wouldn’t do it like that. It’s semi-autobiographical, and I want you to find your own way.” I felt free, and he let me find it my own way, but then gently guided me. And then, he had Adam Scott and Naomi Scott, who are just brilliant producers and such a dynamic duo. They were there on the set, every day. The whole time on the set was amazing. Chris helped me and guided me. I could not have done it without that. He was the greatest, and he helped me so much.
Because characters like the one in Divorce and the one in Other People don’t come along all the time, what do you look for and what gets you interested in a project? Is it just an instinct?
SHANNON: I definitely have loads of respect for writers and the art of writing. With the script for Other People, Chris struck such a beautiful balance between comedy and drama. The script was exquisite. I was like, “Holy shit, this is good! How did this wind up in my lap?!” I’m very driven by writing. Coming from Saturday Night Live, because it’s such a writing job, and we all write our parts on the show and create characters, I’m so respectful of good writing. It’s the blueprint for the movie. You have to have that script there because, if you don’t, you’re going to have problems. It’s very important. It’s also a gut instinct. You really get a feeling, when you’re reading scripts, pretty quickly. Within 20 or 25 pages, you can get a sense of the part. I always think about whether I’m right for it and whether I can do it. If I don’t think I’m right for it, it should go to somebody else. I want to do something I feel like I can do. I’ve definitely read stuff that I’ve been offered, where I’ve been like, “I can’t do this. I think somebody would be better in this than me.” I don’t want to do something, if I don’t feel like I can do a good job serving the material.
So, what’s next for you?
SHANNON: I did this movie, called Fun Mom Dinner, this summer, that was also produced Naomi Scott and Adam Scott. That’s with Toni Collette, Bridget Everett and Katie Aselton. It’s an R-rated comedy about these moms, and it’s written by Julie Rudd (Paul Rudd’s wife), who’s amazing. That should be coming out soon. They’re editing it now. I also did a movie with Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Alison Brie, Jemima Kirke, Kate Micucci and Fred Armisen, called The Little Hours. That takes place in a convent, and it’s a comedy/drama about nuns that’s directed by Jeff Baena. That’s excellent, and I can’t wait for that. And then, I’m gonna do a little bit of Wet Hot American Summer.
What’s it like to be a part of something like Wet Hot American Summer, where it seems more like crazy fun acting camp than a TV show?
SHANNON: It is like crazy fun acting camp because it’s David Wain and Michael Showalter, and the best comedians in town. It’s the most fun! We shot all night, one night, until sunrise. It was just fun. You’re talking to so many talented people. Not everybody works at the same time, but it’s a blast. It’s exactly what you’d think. It’s great. And then, I get to meet people I haven’t worked with before, and that’s super fun. It’s the best!
Divorce airs on Sunday nights on HBO.