When Mike White calls, Molly Shannon says yes. The Saturday Night Live alum first learned this lesson when White cast her as the complex lead in his acclaimed 2007 directorial debut Year of the Dog. The pair were already friends before joining forces on the film; after making it, White paved a new path for Shannon’s career, breaking her out of the post-SNL lane she felt so stuck in.
Between lauded performances in indies like Other People and Wild Nights With Emily, Shannon still checks in with her old friend. She earned an Emmy nomination for her guest role in the second season of White’s beloved, prematurely canceled Enlightened, and as a little surprise, just stopped by his new show The White Lotus, midway through its run on HBO. As meddling Kitty, who’s crashed the rocky honeymoon of her son (Jake Lacy) and daughter-in-law (Alexandra Daddario), Shannon is an instant, delicious scene-stealer—embodying a rich housewife without a care in the world, save her son’s new bride rebuffing her family’s rigid way of doing things.
The character teases an incoming Shannon wave of sorts: Once she checks out of White Lotus, she’ll be back on the HBO Max sitcom The Other Two for its second season later this month, in a brilliantly expanded role. She’s quickly getting to work on yet another show as well: Vanessa Bayer’s QVC-set Showtime comedy (which was ordered to series last month). And in the process, as Shannon tells Vanity Fair over a lovely Zoom conversation, she’s having a whole lot of fun.
Vanity Fair: I’m loving this new Molly Shannon era—between this and The Other Two, admittedly very different roles—of you playing an extremely involved mother.
Molly Shannon: Yay! And exactly right. [Kitty] is very overbearing and very opinionated and meddling and yeah, she’s such a character. I have to say, I know some people like her.
I bet. You’ve had a relationship with Mike White for some time now. And here you got to crash his quarantine bubble. How did it come about?
When he told me about it, he was like, “Yeah, I’ve got a show and I want you to do a part.” I was like, “Please, God.” I just wanted it to work out. I have a couple of TV commitments with different companies, [and] I would be so upset to miss that party. You know what I mean? And I didn’t even see the part. When you hear that Mike White is writing for you, it’s the greatest news ever. It worked out, and we got to go to Maui during such a sad, horrible time, with so many people not being able to see their loved ones. Just one of the most challenging times ever—but to have this silver lining of going to shoot on location in Maui, in a COVID bubble, it was a dream come true.
You filmed last fall, right, during the national surge? But you got to do it at the Four Seasons in Maui!
I got to bring my kids, Stella and Nolan, because they were in remote school. It was a dream job for a mom because we were all staying at the hotel. My kids would go remote at school and then I’d be like, “I have a scene that I’m going to shoot down in the lobby today,” and they were like, “We’re going to go snorkeling.” So they snorkeled, walked by in their flip flops, said “Hi Molly, hi Mike!” and went back to the room. If I had a wardrobe fitting, it was just like, “Oh, can you come down to the lobby for your fitting? I want you to try on bathing suits.” You just go down the elevator! No vans driving from base camp to the location, no driving to work. We would all go out for dinner every night and if we weren’t working, we would all meet on the beach and take sunset swims. I mean, it was really spectacular. We had a ball, let me tell you.
Have you had an experience like that before?
It’s pretty rare…. Mike goes, “I feel like I threw a party that I couldn’t go to,” because he had to work all the time. So he’d be on his balcony like, “It looks like they’re having fun.” We’d all be out. Jennifer Coolidge would be like, “Toast, toast!” We would give the toasts. And I mean, Connie Britton! Eating, drinking margaritas. It was truly the greatest.
Did you have a favorite order?
The cheeseburger. I would order it every single night. It was so good. And then they make the best margaritas there at the Four Seasons. She makes them with only agave, and that is the secret. Just agave. Isn’t that a good trick? And lime and everything, but it’s just agave, none of the other sweeteners. Isn’t that interesting?
You’re making me wish I were in Maui right now.
[Laughs] It’s just the greatest. This is funny: Jessi Klein, she’s the showrunner on this show that just got picked up for Showtime [that] I’m doing with Vanessa Bayer, and she told me a really funny story…. She befriended this guy who worked at one of these fancy hotels on a tropical island, and asked, “What’s the most outlandish thing a guest has ever requested?” And he said there was a guest, I think it was a couple, that complained that the moon was too bright and could the staff do something about it.
This is real. “The moon is too bright.” Isn’t that funny?
You get to show up in The White Lotus midway through, and your reveal is so big and surprising. Did you want to have fun with it?
Yes. I definitely was like, “Mike, can I wear the sunglasses?” And he’s like, “Yes, wear the sunglasses.” I always want to wear the best outfits in the big scenes…so I loved the pink. And I was drowning in real diamonds that they loaned me from the Four Seasons jewelry store. I mean, I’m talking about $100,000 rings and $200,000 earrings. It just really puts you into the character—the purse, how she walks. And I like to really come around the corner and surprise, even if the camera doesn’t need me to do that.
The nightmarish mother-in-law has been done many, many times, but Kitty feels particularly vivid. How did you approach her?
I never want to make fun of them. I always try to think about their point of view. She just wants her son to be happy, so she needs to go get the daughter-in-law to smell the coffee. Mike White gave me a great note, because when I was first doing it, he was like, “Mol…”—I was doing a little bit of an affected character and he’s like, “You don’t have to act rich. You’re just rich. You’ve never known a different life”…. And my character has a lot to say, so I wanted to be very comfortable with the long speeches and really know it inside and out. Then you can really have fun with the character. But they were long monologues.
Mike has been pretty pivotal in your post-SNL career. Do I have it correct that he really went to bat for you back when you two did Year of the Dog, which was a big movie for you?
Well, Mike and I had done [the 2004 Fox sitcom] Cracking Up together. It was not the greatest experience for him, and Mike and I bonded during that. I don’t know how many episodes aired, maybe just two or so. Mike was like, “I’m going to write you a movie,” because we really got so close after that. I was like, “You are?” And I never wanted to pressure him, but then one day he was like, “I have a script for you. Here you go.” Year of the Dog.
He had to really push for me because the financiers were like, “Here’s a list of girls that we will approve of to be in it,” and I was not on that list. Mike said, “No, I only want to do the movie with Molly.” He stuck his neck out for me. I was from Saturday Night Live at that time and people do like you to stay in your lane. I was known as a comedian; Mike knew me really well, so he knew how to write for me and he really believed in me. So I really do credit Mike with turning that all around, showing people that I could do drama.
Did that feel like a major turning point for you as an actor?
I went to NYU drama school, so I was a regular actress. I always just thought of myself as an actress, not a comedian. I got on Saturday Night Live, but I come from a more acting background.
You were waiting for this.
I was! That was real acting. I was doing it word for word. It [felt] very natural and it was just a joy.
And you’ve stuck around for Mike, too.
He leads a really good life. He has a lot of fun. He travels all the time and he has a place in Hawaii and he has the greatest lifestyle, but I think he’s also very disciplined. He can whip scripts up faster than anybody I know. I feel like I want to please him because I just have so much respect for him. I just worship him.
So you’ve got The Other Two coming back later this month—
—I love my character in The Other Two so much. Oh my God. And Chris Kelly is just a dream and the greatest and so, so talented. I just feel so lucky to be working with these people.
And I have to ask you about that Vanessa Bayer show you mentioned, which just got picked up.
I won’t give away the whole story, but my character is the queen of QVC. She’s the top salesperson.
So are you marathoning QVC?
Yes! Vanessa Bayer has been into that for a long time, and she told me who to watch. It’s a weird world, but it’s really fun to watch. They touch the things a lot, I noticed. [Grabs blue mug, and starts demonstrating] Vanessa taught me this, but they’ll really be like, “This cup, the blue is so good.” They have their nails and they’re like, “In the detail,” so they’re always touching it. Then, nice manicures. They’re very feminine. I love characters like that too because my mom died when I was little, so I didn’t have that type of lady in the house. Teachers with nice manicures and matching outfits. Perfume. When I was growing up, I always loved those types of ladies because they were so put together. Who doesn’t like a put together lady?
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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