Molly Shannon on Baring All for Her New Memoir and Why ‘The White Lotus’ Was ‘a Dream’

·8-min read

Molly Shannon has never worked with David Mamet, and yet the “Saturday Night Live” alum credits the playwright with her career breakthroughs.

In her new book, “Hello, Molly,” Shannon details the so-called “Mamet scam,” in which she and a friend pretended to work for the “Glengarry Glen Ross” director to secure meetings with Hollywood casting agents. It worked, and ultimately led to Shannon appearing on David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.”

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Shannon parlayed that opportunity into a decades-long career, most recently appearing on “The Other Two,” HBO’s hit anthology series “The White Lotus” and Showtime’s upcoming comedy “I Love That for You.”

For Variety’s annual Power of Women issue, Shannon spoke about breaking into show business, her time on “SNL” and knowing when to ignore the “no.”

What inspired you to write a memoir?

I wanted to share my story and hopefully inspire people. It was very cathartic writing it. And I also wanted people to laugh. I had a tough time when I was a kid, and I wanted to write about how you can get through some of that stuff and have resilience.

Your book begins with a car crash that killed your mother, sister and cousin when you were only 4. What was it like to write about it?

It feels vulnerable. Writing that chapter was hard and almost felt like I was holding my breath when I was writing it. It was almost like, surgery, the precision, I really wanted to get it right how I remember it. I loved and admired my dad. He had to pull himself up after he found out his wife and baby daughter and niece were killed. He raised us and did the best he could.

You grew up in the suburbs, far removed from Hollywood. Did you have an idea of what it was like to break into show business?

I was always doing plays when I was little. I was always performing. It was the ’70s in Cleveland, Ohio, and I was putting a leotard and making up a lot of dances. My school, St. Dominic, did not have a big budget for the arts, but you don’t need a big budget. You could just have some women teaching after school. That’s all we had, but it was enough for me to know, “Oh, I like this.” And then I did Heights Youth Theatre, which was a big children’s theater group in Cleveland, Ohio. We would do these big children’s productions like “The Wizard of Oz.” They were very popular. I got cast playing Dorothy, and I remember talking to little kids after the show, and they’re like, “Can I have your autograph?” I remember my dad and I being at a shoe store, and I got recognized because of Dorothy.

When you were trying to break into the business, you successfully scammed agents by pretending to work with David Mamet. Have you ever met him or talked to him?

I sent him the memoir. He might not have realized that he played a part in getting me started in show business.

Have you heard from him?

Not yet.

With better technology and LinkedIn, do you think something like the “Mamet scam” would work today?

That’s interesting. We knew Mamet wasn’t in Hollywood, he was more in Vermont and New York, and we kind of knew there might not be a cross-check. But I wonder if somebody could do that now. It’s not the easiest…

You worked in a restaurant before making it on TV. What skills did that teach you?

It’s good for everybody to wait tables at some point in their life. It teaches you how hard that is. Once you wait tables with somebody, you’re in the trenches with them. It’s like being on “Saturday Night Live.” There’s this understanding when you’ve done the show that we’ve been through the same thing.

Molly Shannon as Mary Katherine Gallagher on “Saturday Night Live” - Credit: ©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collectio
Molly Shannon as Mary Katherine Gallagher on “Saturday Night Live” - Credit: ©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collectio

©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collectio

In your book, you said an “SNL” talent scout recommended that you should avoid Mary Katherine Gallagher in your audition. When you eventually pitched the sketch, it became a huge hit. What did that teach you?

I kind of knew “I gotta hop over this woman.” It was really not listening to the “no.” I had confidence because I was doing my stage show and developing characters and getting laughs. It made me persistent and not listen to somebody telling [me] “That’s not gonna work. Or, don’t do that character, or you will never get hired.” She did make me nervous, so much so that I ended up not doing it for my audition. But it didn’t stop me from eventually doing that character on the show.

You also talk about not wanting to look at “Saturday Night Live” as a stepping stone to your next job. Why was that important?

Getting on the show far exceeded my expectations for life. I would have been happy being a waitress in Cleveland. I didn’t think I would ever get on “SNL.” So when I finally got there, I was like, “Oh my god, this is crazy.” I grew up watching Bill Murray and Gilda Radner. I could stop right there and been so happy and fulfilled. I still feel that way. When I left, I wasn’t trying to get in the movies. I wanted a personal life, and I wanted to date and have kids.

Do you still watch “Saturday Night Live,” and do you have any recent favorite sketches?

When Kristen Wiig hosted recently, they did that hilarious sketch where the mother was overdosing on Christmas. Oh my God, that is so good. I loved it.

What do you look for in film and television roles?

I have kids, so I don’t want to work too much. I mostly want to enjoy this special time with my kids before they go to college. So it’s more about picking stuff that won’t take too much time. That’s more of a priority. Being a mom and working, it’s a real balancing act. When they’re in college, I can be free to do stuff out of the country.

In “The Other Two,” your character Pat’s hectic work schedule takes a toll on her health. Have you dealt with that?

I remember going through a breakup, and I was bummed. It was when I was on “SNL,” and I was asked to do “Conan” and I was like, “I don’t really want to…” My therapist was like, “You don’t have to.” I was like, “Yeah, I’d kind of like to take a walk.” I was feeling down, and I needed to take care of myself. I’m driven to achieve and work. When you work so hard to get those opportunities, once you get them, you feel guilty [saying no]. But you can’t max yourself out where you’re not taking care of yourself, your mental health and your body. If you’re tired and snappy, then maybe it’s a message to step back. Otherwise, you’re no good to anyone. I love Conan, he’s my friend, but I wanted to go for a walk in New York City, and that’s all I want to do.

Any chance you’d come back to “The White Lotus”?

I would love to. Shooting “The White Lotus” was a dream. My kids were with me. They were doing remote school and we would do a sunset swim every day. We had the whole hotel to ourselves, and I was like, “Guys, this will never happen again.” Whatever Mike [White] wants, I’m there for him.

What has Mike White told you about Season 2?

Mike is my very close friend. They’re shooting in Sicily right now. They’re having a blast. It will be about Americans visiting Italy and the cultural differences. It’s going to be a whole new hotel and new guests, except for Jennifer Coolidge returning. Other than that, I don’t know any details.

In “I Love That for You,” Vanessa Bayer’s character is obsessed with a QVC-style show. Did anything in your childhood captivate you in a similar way?

One thing that comes to mind … at Value City, they sold beanbags chairs. It was so ’70s. My dad bought my sister and I each a beanbag chair. And I was like, “We’re gonna sit in the beanbag chairs and watch ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Life is so good.”

You’ve been a presence in people’s homes for so long. Do strangers tell you they feel like they know you?

They do, as a matter of fact. I did a live event for my book with my dear friend, John C. Reilly. And there were a lot of moms that came to my show and they were like, “Oh my God, you’re exactly like we would expect.”

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