sundance 2016

Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons on His Sad Sex Scene, Star Wars Rumors, and the Funny Things About Dying

Photo: Brian Burgoyne DP

One of the joys of Sundance is watching sweet, low-budget movies that bring together nice people whom you might never have thought to pair up. Such is the case with Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons, who play dying mother and gay son in Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly’s first feature, Other People, an oftentimes funny look at a family dealing with cancer that earned the festival’s prestigious opening-night slot.

The movie opens with Shannon having just died at home, with her family, including Plemons, Bradley Whitford as her husband, and Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty as her daughters, weeping on the bed, when a friend calls the answering machine to check in — while ordering fast food at a drive-in. From there it rewinds nearly a year, to the moment when Plemons’s character, David, a comedy writer fresh out of work who has just broken up with his longtime boyfriend (Zach Woods), moved home to Sacramento from New York to take care of his mother. Kelly has an eye and ear for little absurdities and human moments, like the hamburger-shop employee David spots masturbating on Grindr, the flamboyant friend’s kid who’s obsessed with fake-marble interior decorating (a sensational J.J. Totah, a.k.a. the 14-year-old Who Won Sundance), the sad sex you have with your ex right before finally accepting your relationship is over, and the simple joys of lying in bed with your mom, who has cancer, when she lets loose a silent-but-deadly and you both have what may be your last good laugh.

We spoke with the delightful duo about farting, Plemons’s dashed Star Wars dreams, and the funny things about death.

You guys had such a good rapport, especially in the farting scene.
Molly Shannon: Oh my God, that was so funny.
Jesse Plemons: So much fun. We got lucky. I think Chris maybe just figured that we would be a good pair.
MS: We were cracking up because we had the most intimate scene in bed the first day.
JP: Day one. The farting scene!
MS: We had only had one long lunch together, coffee, and then we jumped into that scene, but it was like, it was so easy and beautiful. I love that scene.

These feel like parts both of you might never have been offered before. Jesse, you’re playing a very three-dimensional gay character, which you don’t always seen onscreen. 
JP: I’m happy you think so, because I was nervous at times. I knew very well the pressure of taking that on.
MS: I felt that way, too. I felt like I’ve never had a role like this. It was just so great to have Chris [Kelly] right there. It’s a fictional film based on his family and experiences, so it was just so great having him right there guiding me, saying, “Maybe do it like this.” I talked to his mom’s best friend a lot about what she was like as a person, just to get a sense of her essence and her values and what she thought about cancer. Not that Chris wanted us to do impressions, but it really helped to get a sense of her heart and what was important to her.

Correct me if I’m wrong, Jesse, but wasn’t your scene with Zach Woods was your first male-on-male sex scene?
JP: Yeah.

My co-worker is gay, and he was like, “I never knew that Gabe from The Office and Landry from Friday Night Lights making out was something that I’d always wanted to see!”
JP: [Claps and laughs.] That’s really funny.
MS: I had a friend who came to the premiere and he said, “I’ve never seen such a real gay character onscreen before, and the dialogue was so real.” He just really loved it.
JP: Aside from even gay characters, it was such a specific moment in both of their lives, and there’s this sort of underlying sadness, where you know it’s not going to work out but you still love the person, and you’re going through a lot. Can we just please shut everything out and, like, get down for a second?

I feel like it’s something that people can relate to because the sex wasn’t that good either.
JP: No, but it helped a little bit. The cuddling at the end probably helped more than anything else.

Was it the shirtlessness of it all intimidating for you?
JP: I’ve been pretty close to being completely naked a few other times, so I wasn’t that intimidated by that. I just really wanted to make sure that people bought it and bought that relationship, too. I was more nervous about that than making people see my gut.

For Fargo, you had to be a beefy guy, and then a lot of this movie is people making fun of your weight. Were you going into this movie carrying weight from some other project, and just had to go with it?
JP: Chris told me early on that he wanted a little bit of a gut, but I came in with a little more of a gut, which he was okay with. Honestly, it started with Black Mass. I got offered this crazy part that I’d never done before, and the guy was a brick house, he was huge. So, it was like, “If you can gain the weight, I want you to play this part.” Then [Fargo creator] Noah [Hawley] wanted me to keep the weight. So I had no idea that it was going to be like a two-year-long heavy gut—

But it kind of works for believing he’s a comedy writer who sits around all the time.
JP: Oh, it totally does.

Have either of you had an experience of going back home and being stuck in your old life?
JP: Not for that long. I feel like everyone when they go home — there’s a mix of it’s really nice and there’s something odd about it. You see how things have either changed or not changed at all, and also how much you’ve changed since you’ve been back.
MS: I haven’t had that, really, but I loved the scene at the party where all the relatives know he’s a comedy writer, so they’re like, “I have a funny skit for you. You should put that in your show!” I felt that way when I did Saturday Night Live and I would go home and you’d have everyone telling you they had a funny idea. But then I also had the experience when I first went to New York City and was trying to be an actress, and struggling and working at restaurants as a waitress, and I remember going back home to Cleveland, and so many people gave up on what they really wanted to do. They went to school, but then moved back home, and I felt like, Actually, this is great. At least I’m going for what I really want. I felt like even if I died trying, at least I’m going for what I want and living a meaningful life.

What about the experience of being back in a small pond where everyone knows your business? In this movie, they all know that David is writing this ABC spec script, and then it doesn’t happen. Didn’t that happen to you recently, Jesse, where people knew you were up for a job and you didn’t get it? What’s that like living that out in public?
JP: Oh, the Star Wars thing!
MS: I don’t even know about this.
JP: Even after the movie was filmed, I would get calls from people like, “Heard about Star Wars, congratulations!” It’s like, “You heard some different information …”
MS: That’s so funny, I don’t even know anything about this. I’ll ask you later.
JP: I had gone in and read, and then I was going to meet J.J. Abrams, and then, all of a sudden, it was released that I was going to do it.
MS: Whoa!
JP: I’d only auditioned once, and I hadn’t even met him yet. So that was bizarre because I heard from everyone. I’m like, “No. No, no, no. Stop it.”

What was the experience for you after it didn’t happen and that was out there?
JP: It’s supportive. But the thing is, I was never a huge Star Wars fan. I watched them, but not religiously, like a lot of people do. And you don’t get a full script, you get a couple pages of sides with no context. The first two or three days, I just couldn’t get over the image of me holding a lightsaber. I just cracked up every time I thought about it.

That kid J.J. Totah is amazing. Has he taught you anything about interior decorating or twerking?
JP: Definitely twerking.
MS: The part was originally a little bit different, but then he came in to read for the part, and in real life, for the audition, he was like, “I’m so sorry I’m late. I’m marbelizing my—” and he talked all about what he was decorating. And Chris, being the amazing comedy writer that he is from SNL, was like, “Ooh, I’m going to write that into the script.” So he wrote to his real personality and how he really was.

David has adventures on Grindr and OKCupid. Have either of you done online dating?
MS: I’ve never done that.
JP: I’ve taken a little spin on my friends’ before, but then I just end up feeling, Ugh.

This might be a downer way to end an interview, but have you learned anything interesting about death from doing this?
JP: I don’t know if I’d say I learned anything, but I feel like the whole time, we were just trying to make peace with it. There was that scene where we’re all gathered around Molly on her deathbed, when she cracked up. After we did it again, there was something sort of therapeutic, or cathartic. There was kind of a release almost, which was really interesting. But I don’t know what you can learn about it other than it’s inevitable and it sucks.
MS: There are always funny things, too. Like, you think it’s so serious and sad, but in families there are really funny things that happen, fights that break out. When my dad was dying, he was giving his last bits of advice, and he was like [wheezes], giving my sister and I advice, but we could barely hear him. So, we were like, “What?” And he had to say something to me, and he was talking about show business, and he was like [wheezes], “Small parts.” We were like, [leaning in, listening and nodding intently] “Small parts.”
JP: [Laughs.]
MS: Oh, I have to set it up. I had just done a small part in this movie, Analyze This, and my dad really liked that. So, he was like, “Small parts,” and we were like, “Small parts,” and he was like [wheezes], “in movies …” And we were like, “In movies.” And he was like [wheezes], “like Analyze This.” We were like, “Like Analyze This!” And then he died. [Falls back on couch and pretends to be dead.] That was his last piece of advice: “Don’t ever underestimate an excellent small part in a movie.” Isn’t that great?
JP: Wow! That’s an amazing!
MS: And there was a woman in the room who brought up an ex-boyfriend of mine, and she was like, “Who was that boyfriend you had?” And my dad was dead, but then heard it and then woke up, put his hand up in the air like the end of Carrie, like, “Arrrggggh!” Like, “Curse this guy!” And then died.

This is a true story?
MS: It’s a true story! Leave it to the Irish!

Molly Shannon and Jesse Plemons on Other People