Molly Bernard on Younger, Writing Sutton Foster Fan Mail, and Playing a Young Shelly on Transparent

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Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Molly Bernard may not be a household name, but she's everywhere these days. The actress is a series regular on TV Land’s Younger, where she plays the pansexual, hysterical Lauren; she had a moving turn on the current season of Transparent playing a younger version of Judith Light’s Shelly; she’ll appear in the finale of High Maintenance; and she shared a scene with Tom Hanks in Sully.

Bernard, 28, earned an MFA in acting from Yale University’s School of Drama. She's the granddaughter of Joseph Bernard, who co-founded the Lee Strasberg Theater and Film Institute in West Hollywood and taught audition techniques and cold reading to celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Robert De Niro. Bernard calls her grandfather, who died ten ago,  her “person." "One of the first scenes he assigned me was from the play The Children's Hour by Lillian Hellman, which is a pretty dark play about some kids that do some really, really bad, gnarly things," she recalls. "My earliest memories are of him shouting from the back of the small theater, which is where he taught class, 'Molly I can't hear you! You're little, but you're fierce! Speak up!'”

Bernard spoke to Vulture about her special childhood with her grandfather, the fan mail she once sent to Younger star Sutton Foster, and why Judith Light greeted her with a “Fuck you!” the first time they met.

What was it like to grow up with your grandfather at his acting studio?
My grandfather was a very, very cool, old-school New York workhorse actor. He worked his entire life, never did anything else but what he loved to do, which was acting. He studied with Stella Adler pretty soon after she had gotten back from Russia and with [Konstantin Stanislavski] and that whole Moscow theater group. My grandfather was very into the group theater. His best friend was Marlon Brando for most of his life. Then he switched to teaching and directing, which he enjoyed more. I learned how to read going to his acting classes.

Was anyone else in the family involved in this way with him and his acting school?
No, it was really just our thing. My grandfather took me under his wing in the most intensely kind way. He was my best friend. He was my person. This is very personal, but it’s also very true. When my grandfather died, I remember feeling sick. It was the week before I turned 18 and I just remember feeling and thinking distinctly, Okay, I'll never have to suffer this kind of loss or heartbreak ever again, just because he was my everything. I have very few pictures up in my house, but the two pictures I have up are of my grandfather.

Do his lessons come back to you as you prepare for your TV auditions?
Oh my gosh, absolutely. He's still with me, especially when I'm doing a play. This sounds so cheesy, but I really feel like I'm in the deepest kind of communion with him when I'm onstage. The deepest thing my grandfather taught me was you have to always be yourself unconditionally and in a rather uncompromising way. Even when you're playing another person, it has to start from who you are. And that requires a knowledge of who you are and a pursuit of who you are.

Do you think he saw in you at a very young age that you have this talent or was he just being a great grandpa and it evolved from there?
This is actually a complicated and really great question. When I was around 8 or 9, I remember him very vividly saying to me, “You know, you're actually really good. At first, it was our bond, but you're really good.” And then when I was a little bit older and he started to see me in plays, he would get really emotional and that same kind of sentiment would continue. Right near the time of his death, he said, “You're gonna go to Yale, you're gonna do really great things in your life as an actress because at first it was our thing, but you really are this unique, extraordinary little person. You have the thing.” He and Lee Strasberg used to have conversations about the fact that you can't actually teach someone how to become an actor. They have to come in with some innate ability or skill. But you can then teach them tools to use to hone it in or to rely on if you're not on that day. That’s what I learned at Yale, too.

When did you know that you really wanted to pursue it, that it wasn't just something fun with your grandpa?
When you audition for Yale, you’re called back a handful of times. When you initially audition, you have an end of day callback. Then you go back for an entire weekend. They call back 30 people and they accept 15. So you have three days where you're taking classes with the teachers, having endless interviews, redoing the monologues, and all of that stuff. And it was during this time I realized I didn't bring up my grandfather, so I wasn't defined by my grandfather's ties to the business. I did that entire audition process as Molly Bernard, which was my first foray independent of my grandpa. I called my grandfather Gaga, so I remember feeling like, Of course this is for Gaga, but on a much deeper level, these are actually my dreams and this is what I want to do with my life and this is the one thing I love to do more than anything else and it's mine. It was  scary. I remember feeling like, Oh shit, I hope Gaga's still like, hanging out with me somewhere in the ether of angel grandparents.

Let’s talk about how busy you've been, and let's start with Younger. Why did you want to play Lauren? It  didn’t start off as a series regular role.
When I first got the audition, it was for a six-line scene in the pilot. I called my agent and my manager at the time, and I said I don't want to go out for this part. Sutton Foster is one of my all-time favorite actresses. She's the only person I ever wrote fan mail to and she wrote back. I didn't want to really play a part where I'm talking about Sutton Foster's bush on national television. I respect her too much! And my agent called me and he was like, “I know you have all of these ethics and all this shit, but this character is hysterical, it's Darren Starr, it's Sutton, it's Hillary Duff. But I also have a feeling you're going to get this part and this is the kind of part that could turn into like a recurring and then potentially even turn into a series regular.” So I did the audition begrudgingly. For six lines, it was like a half-hour audition. I came in with all these ideas about who Lauren was and wasn't. And Darren just gave me one amazing adjustment, and spent half an hour with me on this little tiny part. He was like, I love the idea that you are disgusted by the bush. I think it's really funny. But what if Lauren also has a sense of wonderment about it? That's when I realized, Oh shit, this part could be really, really fun to play. I'm really neurotic and anxious and in my head a lot of the time and brave is something I am maybe on paper, but emotionally and intellectually, I sometimes forget that I'm brave. But Lauren is just the fucking fiercest, most capable woman, and she loves herself so much.

And we just saw in this week’s episode that she’s heading in a new direction so to speak. She’s got a boyfriend now.
Oh my God, I know. Which is, like, the most depriving thing because she's this wild, pansexual, lesbian, gay, straight, we don't know what she is. And then she fucking dates a male doctor. There's this really funny scene, which was my favorite scene to shoot all season, where’s she like, “He's hetero, he's a doctor, oh my God, am I basic?” Lauren's biggest fear is that she's this basic girl.

What's it like playing Kathy Najimy's daughter?
The best thing in the world. She has since become a personal mentor of mine and almost like a New York mother figure. I go over to her house, she gave me boy advice, she gave me life advice. She's an amazing feminist and is one of the most empowered women I know. On set, she's just the funniest. We should all be so lucky to work with Kathy.

You mentioned earlier that you wrote Sutton fan mail. What did you say?
I was 14. I wrote Sutton a handwritten letter addressed to her Thoroughly Modern Millie stage-door dressing room. And I said, “You are my hero and you're so amazing and so talented. “And she autographed and wrote me back on her head shot. And it just says, “Thank you Molly, follow your dreams. XOXO Sutton.”

Let's move on to Transparent. You were in episode eight, “If I Were a Bell,” the heart-wrenching flashback episode. You played a young version of Judith Light’s Shelly. How did you land that?
What. A fucking. Gift. My first job out of grad school was a show called Alpha House, which was Amazon's first original series. The man who green-lit that is the head of comedy at Amazon, Joe Lewis. And Joe and I and the whole cast of Alpha House became friends. I was in L.A. for pilot season two years ago and I was hanging out with Joe and he invited me to go with him to the pilot for a talk show. Jill Soloway was the first guest on it. We hit it off immediately and the next day I got an email from Jill asking if I could read in this movie table read that her friend had written. I agreed. There were all of these great actors that were also on Transparent. And I was like, giddy, and totally amazed. In April, I was doing a play at Soho Rep called Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.  We were in the middle of the run, I get a call from my manager and she's like, they want you for Transparent. And I was like, Excuse me, what? Yeah, they want you to play young Shelly. And then I almost died. So I took two days off from the play, I had a long weekend, flew out to L.A. and just like, worked, shot the episode, and left immediately and that night was onstage again. And then I met Judith, and she just hugged me. She saw me and pointed at me and she was like, “Fuck you! “And I said, “No, fuck you!” And she said, “You're so wonderful Molly, it's such a gift to meet you.” And I of course got emotional and I was like, Oh my God, you are like a national treasure.

What kind of decisions did you make to play young Shelly?
I watched the show many times, but the four days before I shot, I watched seasons one and two each two times. I decided to watch the whole thing a second time because in watching through the first round, I was just watching Judith. Transparent is a show about genetically inherited trauma. And I thought there's no way I can just go and do an impression of Judith Light and like play a "younger version of Shelly " or whatever. So the second time I just watched the kids. The actors on that show have developed a family vocabulary. So when I was playing Shelly in the scene, I tried to play Sarah and Ally and Josh. And you know, the young man who plays young Mort at that time was this guy named [Jimmy Ambrose] and he was great and I tried to really see, well, how it is love at first sight. Something happens for both of them and they need to recognize in each other that they're different and they can see. It's not necessarily love at first sight, it's actually they're able to see each other at first sight. I tried to tune into that and really look at him and keep the kids present. I tried to put in Sarah and Ally as strongly as I could.

It’s such a sad and painful thing we learn about Shelly. What did you think when you read it?
It really surprised me. And I think it's meant to be very surprising I did not play Shelly's childhood trauma. I played her trying to overcome it and just not focus on it because she silences it until the season finale.

Do you have any sense of if you'll be back?
I think I might. I don't have everything confirmed, and I don't actually know, but I have a feeling that young Shelly will want to come back.

You have a silent role in the upcoming season finale of High Maintenance. Can you tell me about that?
I went to the premiere party and they were like, It’s so funny. And I was like, Really? It was the tiniest little pop-up. And they were like, No Molly, be prepared to laugh your little butt off. I think I'm allowed to say I pop up in it and it's gonna be pretty goofy. What's really great is it's a very different character than I've played yet on TV, and that's very exciting for me.

You also appeared in one scene in Sully. What was it like working with Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood?
I've had a really wild year. The Tom Hanks, Clint Eastwood thing was such a wild thing. I was in Edinburgh on a fellowship and I was studying theater and a long-term relationship had just ended. I was really heartbroken, and I just threw my audition on tape. My friend who was also in Europe helped me put it on tape. I did it in one take and I sent it and I got the part. I don't even know how I got this part. I was too heartbroken to see the good in it. And then, suddenly, I was on set being directed by Clint Eastwood and having to act opposite Tom Hanks and kind of come on to Tom Hanks and I was like, This is nuts!

Every set I've been on is so different, and the way Clint Eastwood runs his set, you would have had no idea that it was a giant Hollywood blockbuster movie. It's a very tiny set, very quiet. He films rehearsals, so nothing was left unfilmed. Clint Eastwood was so supportive and gentle. Tom Hanks is just the nicest man alive. It feels like he's everybody's favorite dad. He knew one of my classmates at Yale, his daughter's close friend in high school. So there was that connection. He was just so curious and supportive and jovial. The thing that's funny is the more successful the actor that I've worked with, the nicer, the kinder, the more genuine they are.

Your role was the only fictional character in the movie, right?
That's what the screenwriter told me on set. But then when I met the real-life Sully the night of the premiere, he said, “You were so great it's so nice to meet you. You know, that kind of thing would happen to me a lot. People would just get overcome and I wouldn't know what to do and I would just be left sitting there like, okay.”

Your scene was just you and Tom Hanks. How was that?
I play Katie Couric's makeup artist so I'm the person who puts on and takes off his makeup during that important Katie Couric interview. And as I'm taking it off, he's sweating, and he apologizes. And I end up kissing him and telling him it’s from my mom, she’s single. It's basically the first moment I think he realized what he's done is really heroic and the world is responding and supporting him.

So you put makeup on Tom Hanks?
[Laughs.] I put a little bit on and a put a little bit off, but, yeah, there I was touching America's favorite face. Truly, it was like having an out-of-body experience.

This interview has been edited and condensed.