At 48, Molly Shannon is still the kind of woman who turns heads, with her mischievous grin and twinkling blue eyes. And, when she opens her mouth, she’s also the kind of woman who causes you to bust a gut. In short, she’s wildly funny. Shannon is perhaps best known for her six-year run on “Saturday Night Live,” where she brought to life such remarkable characters as 50-year-old Sally O’Malley between 1995 and 2001. But she’s also enjoyed a memorable presence on many other TV shows as well, appearing on everything from “Seinfeld” to “The Middle” to HBO’s “Enlightened.” No doubt she’s stayed incredibly busy. She will soon appear in the Clark Gregg comedy “Trust Me” and is also co-writing a new Disney feature about moms on a road trip. Born in 1964 in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Shannon endured a horrific tragedy early on that would shape the rest of her life. At the age of four, she survived a fatal car accident that killed her mother, younger sister and a cousin. The accident also seriously injured her father, who was forced to wear a leg brace. Instead of wallowing in his sorrows, Jim Shannon raised his two remaining young daughters with a sense of humor and always delighted in their successes. Huff/Post50’s editor-at-large Rita Wilson recently had the pleasure of interviewing Shannon.
Rita: Tell us who the character Sally O’Malley (“I can kick, stretch and kick, I’m fifty!”) was based on. Molly: The character was based on my father. Naturally my father was a huge influence on me. He was very badly injured in a car accident and had to wear braces on his legs and had to learn to walk again. When I was little, I was always like ‘I wish he could walk faster,” and “come on … move faster’. I would do versions of him in many of my characters. My characters were a reaction to growing up with him.. It was a reaction to wanting him to kick off his braces. My mother was killed in that accident and my dad survived. He was driving. My sister survived and I survived. My sister died and a cousin died. There were three deaths and three survivors. Coming up with a character that kicks and moves and has power and physical strength is definitely a reaction to my childhood. Rita: I’m just stunned by that piece of information and that you can take something so tragic and turn it into something so funny. But I know creative things often come out of the most vulnerable parts of our past. You’ve created something so powerful and it gives people so much joy and laughter. The fact it came out of a tragedy is just beautiful to me. Molly: Comedy was always such a relief for me. I did the Mary Katherine (Gallagher) character in my stage show. And people said that character seemed really angry. But I was expressing myself and getting my feelings out. I just did what came naturally. It is interesting that when you really write material from inside yourself … just how many people can relate to that. I’ve also always written stuff that’s fun to say. There are a lot of comedians who love music and rhythm. I write things in a musical way in my head. Rita: I think it’s so great that you were highlighting a character like Sally O’Malley who is so vibrant and so strong and so unapologetic for who she was and what she could do. Molly: I always wanted to play older. I can’t stand ageism. As a woman in comedy you should not have to worry about this. I just think, ‘Oh, God, I want to inspire women and age gracefully and I don’t want to be afraid of that. The older I get the happier I get and the more I learn about myself. I think it’s important for women. I like strong, older characters. I heard a great interview with Meryl Streep on NPR. She was saying that after she turned 50 she only got offered parts of witches. She was like, ‘what’s going on here? Is that how they see women?’ It’s interesting as I was always doing characters who were older. Rita: I hope that this is changing. I feel like it is. The demographics of people with disposable income is definitely people over 50. Sometimes I have inklings that, yes, companies are marketing for us and to us and then sometimes I think they absolutely are not. So tell us what you are doing these days. Molly: Well, I’m in a movie by Clark Gregg with Allison Janney called “Trust Me” that’s about a child prodigy. It’s really fun. I’m also writing a movie right now for Disney. I’m working with Rob Muir, my old comedy partner. We wanted to write something fun that would be a good vehicle for women. There’s no name yet but it’s about moms who take a road trip. I also would love to do another TV show. I just need to find the right thing. Rita: I'd like to do TV if it was like one of those 10-episode shows that shoots somewhere fun … like you get to go to Hawaii for two months. Molly: Exactly. Rita: What actors inspired you growing up? Molly: My dad was into Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell and Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland. They were all strong women and they were big influences in my house. Judy Garland was probably my biggest influence growing up. My dad was very very funny and he loved these women. Rita: It sounds like your dad was a lot of fun. It sounds like he realized he had these girls to raise and he had to show them how to live despite the tragedy. Molly: He was like a big Broadway show. I had these red Keds with holes in them and he would say, ‘That’s good. Keep the holes. That shows you got character.’ He would have loved to have been a performer. He didn’t have the confidence. I kind of lived out his dream. Rita: He must have been so proud of you. Molly: It was so fulfilling that he got to see SNL before he died. He was very feisty and strong. Rita: I think it's amazing you could take your dad and take all these qualities like how feisty he was and still make that into something so funny … like how you used to walk behind him and say ‘kick, kick.’ Molly: I wanted him to kick off those braces. Rita: I just loved turning 50 and being able to say ‘I’m 50 and I just love to kick and stretch and kick.’ Molly: Jodie Foster even did that at the Golden Globes. Rita: It’s just so empowering. Molly: Yes, it is. It’s saying, ‘watch out people, here I come. Watch out. I can kick ass.’ I get asked to go to birthday parties a lot to do this. People just love it. Rita: And we love you, Molly Shannon.