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Molly Shannon: Hollywood Can Make You Feel Less-Than. You Have to Say ‘I’m Enough’

The beloved SNL alum talks about the pressure to always "be on," the lessons she's unlearning in her 50s, and why she hopes a return to The White Lotus is in her future.

Molly Shannon walks onto the stage of Jimmy Kimmel Live, every muscle in her face radiating excitement as she waves her hands in the air. It’s an infectious spirit, one that Kimmel himself can’t help but comment on. “When you walk out, it’s like a ray of…rainbows, a ray of sunshine altogether,” he says.

Shannon blushes and thanks him before turning the focus around, congratulating his recent duties as Oscar host. “You make it look so easy,” she tells Kimmel. 

The same can be said of Shannon herself. There’s an effervescent charm that surrounds the 58-year-old, who has the ability to elevate any project she lends her talents to. From Saturday Night Live to The White Lotus, good luck naming any show or film that isn’t immediately funnier or more nuanced thanks to her skills. By all accounts, she is a ray of light, immediately making those who meet her feel better about themselves. 

From SNL to I Love That for You to Cord & Tish, Shannon is the undisputed superstar of everything she does.

Showtime/Getty Images/Everett Collection

It’s one of the many reasons fans of the comedian and actor were stunned to learn the details of the tragedy that shaped her in her 2022 New York Times best-selling memoir, Hello, Molly. In 1969 her father was at the wheel when their family car crashed, resulting in the death of her mother, her younger sister, and her cousin. (Shannon, who was four at the time, survived along with her dad and older sister.) 

While Shannon credits her father, who passed away in 2002, with nurturing her talents and being there for her during her formative years, there was no replacing her mother. It’s why Shannon—with all of her professional accomplishments—says there’s no greater or more important role for her than that of mom. (She has a son and a daughter with husband Fritz Chesnut.) Perhaps it’s also why being nurturing and comforting to others is second nature, though she says she is learning to set more boundaries. 

But it all comes from a place of gratitude for the actor, who says she still dreams that she’s waiting tables or driving around looking for jobs. “I struggled so hard to get here, so I really appreciate the opportunities that I’ve been given,” she says. “I know what it’s like to not have any money and be bouncing checks.”

Forget that Shannon plays Florence Pugh’s mom in Zach Braff’s powerful new film A Good Person, in theaters nationwide on March 31, or that the second season of her HBO Max comedy The Other Two premieres next month. Or that she’s just been tapped to host the April 8 episode of Saturday Night Live with musical guests the Jonas Brothers. Shannon still can’t believe she’s in this much demand. 

“I appreciate everything because I worked so hard to get it, but no, I’ve never thought about [being an icon] too much,” she tells Glamour when we interview her for this feature, which is called Icons Only. “That’s a very big compliment. It’s so sweet. It makes me blush.”

Besides, the three-time Emmy-nominee—for SNL, Enlightened, and Will & Grace—would rather shift the focus back to someone else, like her favorite reality show personalities. “This season of Vanderpump Rules is riveting,” she says. “Divorce, cheating, custody. It’s got everything.”

But who is the real Molly Shannon when the cameras are off and she’s at home watching reality TV? Here, she opens up about where she feels most comfortable, embracing healthy guilt, and returning to The White Lotus

Tommaso Boddi/WireImage

Glamour: Tell me how you ended up playing Florence Pugh’s mom in A Good Person.

Molly Shannon: Zach Braff just called me. I had worked with him 20 years ago on Scrubs, when he directed the episode I was on. He was just such a wonderful guy. He said, “Molly, do you want to play Florence Pugh’s mom in my movie?” I was like, “Yes.” It was really that simple. I read the script and loved it. Also, finding out Morgan Freeman is in it was a no-brainer. And Florence is just such a doll. We had such a good time.

It’s a beautiful film, but also really heavy. What resonated with you about the script?

Things are going so well for Florence’s character—she’s in love and about to get married when this really bad thing happens and her life turns in one split second. She has to deal with the aftermath, the grief, the blaming herself. She doesn’t really want to live. My character sometimes tries tough love, because she’s trying to get her off pills. Sometimes I’m an enabler. You can really understand the mother’s struggle. At the end of the day, they are good people who make mistakes, and they have to forgive themselves. The whole thing was so layered and beautiful.

From leeft: Florence Pugh as Allison and Molly Shannon as Diane in A Good Person

Jeong Park / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Did you and Florence bond over anything during filming? 

Well, right now she’s really into Real Housewives of Miami, so we talked about that right away. She doesn’t watch Vanderpump Rules, though. I asked her. I was like, “You have to watch.”

Knowing how much you love your Housewives, would you ever go on the show if they asked you?

I mean, maybe. Jamie Lee Curtis did. She was in Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. She did an episode where she talked about a foundation she was working with. She was so great. She came to Kyle’s house. Then she just won an Oscar. So I can mix those worlds. I think there are some celebrities whose publicists tell them not to take pictures with reality stars. I don’t follow that rule at all. I get so excited. You sometimes feel more excited to see them than big movie stars. I bumped into Shannon Beador from Real Housewives of Orange County. I saw her at the LAX airport lounge, and I was like, “It’s as if I’m seeing a super movie star.” I was so excited.

If I can offer a suggestion, you need to do another installment of Cord & Tish [the fictional talk show with Will Ferrell] but as commentary on Vanderpump Rules.

That’s actually a really good idea. Ooh, I really like that. I am an unapologetic fan for life. It’s so good. But I’ll tell Will. That’s great.

From left: Molly Shannon, Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, Andy Cohen, Ana Gasteyer, Rachel Dratch, Cheri Oteri, and Kristen Wiig in an SNL skit in 2010 spoofing The Real Housewives

NBC/Dana Edelson

What makes you say yes to a new project? What’s your process before you commit? 

It’s really all about my children, my family, because I love being a mother. Show business is very, very secondary to them for me. I have to make money, of course, and work and take care of my family and everything. But it’s really all about the kids and my family. And then, do I like the project? Does it seem fun or not fun? It’s very simple. If it doesn’t seem fun or if the people don’t seem great, I don’t do it. I’d rather be with my kids. I’ve seen some actors who’ve been in the business for a long time where they get miserable and they’re snapping at people. I don’t want that. 

But also, I know some people don’t have a choice and don’t have that freedom to not work. I feel very fortunate. It’s sometimes hard to talk about because I know some people are just trying to put bread on the table. 

Have you ever been made to feel guilty for putting your family first, even by well-meaning agents or managers or people in the industry? Even when I visit my parents, I’ll often hear, “You go home a lot,” as if it’s wrong or weird, even though I’m still working while I’m there. 

I know exactly what you mean. It’s almost like I feel like that’s not enough of an excuse. It’s ridiculous. It’s my own guilt on myself. I actually just got asked to do something this summer, and I don’t want to do it. My son is a senior, and it’s his last year at home. This is my time with him. We’re going to go on family vacation. I’ll sometimes feel like that’s not enough of a reason for some people, but lately I’ve just been pushing through it. I think there’s healthy guilt and then there’s toxic guilt, a kind of old guilt that’s really not fair and that you shouldn’t put on yourself. To me, family’s everything. You will never regret that time.

In fact, Sharon Osbourne gave me the greatest bit of advice when I guest-hosted on The Talk. She said her one regret was that she worked too much when her kids were little. She was like, “Molly, you will never get that time back, so you must grab it now.” You could only get that advice from a woman. I was getting advice from somebody her age, so it was really good advice. I lost my mom when I was four, so I really treasure the time. I feel like you can never take that for granted. I have a very different mindset. I really feel the urgency of life and time and your loved ones. That’s my number one. Yes, sometimes you are made to feel a little guilty, but it’s guilt that I’ve put on myself. I just forge ahead and tell my truth. I’m like, “If you don’t like it, that’s the truth. I want to be with my family. I’m not available.”

I appreciate that. We don’t normalize that it’s okay to want to work hard and be ambitious but also need to take a break as well. 

It’s interesting when you’re a celebrity. A lot of people ask favors, like, “Can you do this? Can you host this?” It’s nonstop. I’ve learned from superstars I look up to, like Sarah Jessica Parker and Will Ferrell, how they say no, what they do, and how they handle themselves. So I feel fortunate that I got to work with them. I just feel like you have to be good at understanding that “no” is a complete sentence. It’s okay. Sometimes you don’t have to give any reason at all. “Sadly, I’m unable to do it. Thank you for asking. Good luck with your thing.”

I used to do all these things for other people. “Okay. I’ll do that video. I’ll do that favor. I’ll host that event.” But you just have to know your own limits and what makes you happy. I know I don’t like to work that much. I’ll work a little, but I really like downtime. That’s me. People who want to work themselves to the bone, knock yourselves out. I know it wouldn’t make me happy.

I think a lot about the lessons I’m unlearning now, whether it’s people pleasing or saying yes; things that I thought showed my commitment, my drive, but weren’t serving anybody, especially myself. What about you?

I have a great story about that. Years ago when I was on Saturday Night Live, I went through a breakup. I was really down in the dumps and heartbroken. I was depressed. I have a wonderful therapist, and I remember I was asked to do Conan O’Brien’s show to promote something. I love Conan. He’s a friend for years. But I was like, “Ugh. I just am not in the mood to be ‘on.’” But I felt guilty.

My therapist said, “Well, why don’t you just say no?” I was like, “I know, but I should do it.” Again, this is nothing. It’s Conan. I’ve done his show for years and loved it. It was just the time of my life where I was burned out and having a hard time. I said, “I’d rather just take a walk or something.” She was like, “That’s okay. Just say no, then. Just go for a walk instead.” I built from there.

Sometimes I think you can compare and despair. Sometimes you can look at people that actually have work addiction, or they don’t want to feel. It’s important to not compare to those people or people who just want power. This town can make you feel like you’re not measuring up. There can be a lot of fear. But you have to be like, “It’s okay. I’m enough. Working more is not going to make me feel better.” I just think it’s not the solution if you’re feeling less-than.

You brought up an interesting point, which is feeling like you have to be on all the time. How much pressure do you put on yourself when fans approach you, and you're just not feeling on?

I try to be really nice. Sometimes it’s hard when I’m flying across country, and I’m working and tired, but I do always try to be friendly. I worry about that. I never want to leave someone hanging or be too quick with someone. That would make me feel bad if it was a fan and didn’t have enough time. I would feel guilty. So that can be a little overwhelming.

I’m more of a one-on-one person. Talking like this is more my thing. A small dinner. Parties can make me feel crazy because I feel like I have to take care of everyone, which is hard. I’m trying to get better. I think that skill is also what made me a good live performer, but then you see in some ways it doesn’t serve you anymore. It’s okay to calm down. You don’t have to be everything for everyone. 

You’ve been called a national treasure. Here, you’re part of our Icons Only feature. How does that make you feel when you hear that?

Oh, my God. That’s so sweet. And embarrassing. [Laughs.] No, I can’t believe that. I still have dreams where I’m driving around looking at Help Wanted signs. Or I have a dream that I have a secret job waiting tables. So I don’t feel that way at all. I still think, Oh, I should apply to that restaurant as a hostess. I struggled so hard to get here, so I really appreciate the opportunities that I’ve been given. I know what it’s like to not have any money and be bouncing checks. I appreciate everything because I worked so hard to get it, but no, I’ve never thought about [being an icon] too much. That’s a very big compliment. It’s so sweet. It makes me blush.

Is there a role or project you have yet to do that you would like to work on? What excites you?

That’s the last thing on my mind. I’m more thinking about my kids, I guess, because my mom died when I was little. That’s all I’m thinking about. I can’t believe my son’s going to go to college. My daughter’s in college. That’s really at the forefront of everything. When they’re more settled in school or whatever, then maybe I’ll start thinking about that. But that’s not on my mind at right now.

It’s like how you feel about your family. That’s everything to me. I am proud of myself that I’ve managed to have kids and a family and also maintain my career. That’s not easy. It’s really hard balancing everything, so I feel really proud that I did that.

Molly Shannon with kids Nolan and Stella Chesnut in 2007

Donato Sardella/WireImage

As you should. You brought up your mom. I loved how open you were in your memoir because it was so raw and honest, but also hopeful. How did that experience change you, namely the press tour where you were asked to talk about it all of the time? 

Well, I feel like if you’re going to write a memoir, people need to share stories. You might as well go deep. Otherwise, what’s the point? I didn’t want to do some surfacing, “Hey, girls, let's talk about….” Because I went deep, so many people reached out to me with personal stories, telling me about their own fathers. 

It was interesting because somebody on my team had said, “The press tour is going to be exhausting. You’re going to be talking about this emotional stuff. You’re going to get so tired.” I never felt tired. I feel like it’s much harder to have to go and be on and tell little comedy anecdotes. I found that harder. This was more me. I felt that the conversations were almost like group therapy. It’s scary, yes, because you’re afraid you’re going to be judged, but I really enjoyed the process. It was really cathartic.

I will say, my one regret was years ago when I got nominated for an Emmy Award. I took my husband, who was my boyfriend then, instead of my dad. My husband ended up being able to come to tons of awards later, but I wish I would’ve brought my dad because he was the one. He was like my mom, a gypsy rose. He really was so involved in my career. I was very close to my dad, which actually made the grieving easier when he passed because we were so close. There was no stone unturned. Does that make sense?

Yes. My mom was in a terrible car accident when I was 13 and was in the hospital for a few weeks. The doctors were concerned about long-term brain damage, and she had to relearn so many basics. Even though she recovered, it fundamentally changed me. It’s why I value my time with my parents as much as I do. I’ve seen very quickly how fast that can go away. 

Oh, my God. See, isn’t that interesting? You were 13. It’s actually very similar to my story. When you go through something like that where you realize life is so precious, it changes your whole perspective, doesn’t it?

Kids at the time were like, “I just want to party, I want to go out.” I had no interest in any of that. I just wanted to be with my parents. You feel like you’re in a different world compared with everyone else because you’ve been through something so life-changing.

To me, family is always number one. You would never have to explain that to me. Put it that way. It is what I was saying before—there’s healthy guilt and toxic guilt. 

Before we wrap up, this is such a 180, but you are good friends with Mike White, who created our national obsession with The White Lotus. You played Jake Lacy’s mom, Kitty, in season one. Would you come back and revisit her in another season? I feel like she’s the type that visits all the White Lotus resorts.

Yes, I would absolutely revisit. Of course. Mike White is so talented. Mike and I are very, very close. So yes, we talk about that. Mike can do whatever he wants, but just understand, I trust Mike. If he feels the need to bring me back, he will do that. He’s my good friend. He knows what he needs to do as he writes these episodes. I think he could bring anyone back whenever he wants to. But yes, I would love to go back. It would be interesting to check in on my son’s marriage, [played by] Jake and Alexandra [Daddario]. I’d be very curious what’s happened to Rachel. Did she settle into that life? I’m curious myself. And Kitty is so self-centered. She just sees her own world. She’s like, “Why would you want to do that? Why would you want to work?” She was such a fun character to play. 

Molly Shannon The White Lotus HBO Max

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Jessica Radloff is the Glamour senior West Coast editor and author of the New York Times best-selling book The Big Bang Theory: The Definitive, Inside Story of the Epic Hit Series. You can follow her on Instagram at @jessicaradloff14.