Chris Kelly is having a big week; he’s starting up his sixth season on “Saturday Night Live,” having just been named co-head-writer with Sarah Schneider – the pair is responsible for the Larry David-as-Bernie-Sanders sketches that highlighted last season, including the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” hybrid “Bern Your Enthusiasm.” And this Friday, his feature film debut as writer-director, “Other People,” hits theaters.
The film, which premiered at Sundance this year, tells the story of David (Jesse Plemons), a gay writer who moves home to Sacramento to care for his ailing mother Joanne (Molly Shannon) in the final stages of her cancer. In addition to Shannon, whose stellar performance has earned awards buzz, the impressive ensemble cast features Bradley Whitford as David’s conservative father and Zach Woods as his ex-boyfriend. The film itself has been praised for expertly blending comedy and tragedy, finding laughs in unexpected places – particularly impressive considering it’s Kelly’s first film.
People assume you knew Molly from “Saturday Night Live” but you had actually never met?
No, we didn’t know each other at all, it’s kind of a fun coincidence we both came from “SNL.” I had this idea I would reach out to her to play the part and then she said yes!
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How did you know she could pull off this performance?
I didn’t even really have remote concerns about that. I never thought, “I wonder if she can do this.” I just knew. I’d been such a fan of her as a comedienne and the role calls for someone who lights up a room and is naturally charismatic and I knew Molly had that. But I’d seen her in a lot of other things, a lot of Mike White stuff like “Year of the Dog” and “Enlightened,” and seen her do some quieter more dramatic work. I’ve always been drawn to her, she’s wonderful and the real deal. I knew she could pull off the dramatic work but I also needed someone who could pull off that It Factor. Someone you’d want to be around and want to be your friend. It makes the movie all the more tragic to lose her. It was such a no-brainer to me.
It feels like you got your first choice in pretty much every role.
Yes; I feel sort of embarrassed! Every time I would send the script to somebody and they’d say, “I’m in!” I’d be like, “Really?” I really, really lucked out.
You’ve probably had experiences on “SNL” where you meet someone you admire and they’re not what you hoped–
I can’t confirm or deny that that’s happened. (Laughs.)
But with Molly, she really seems to be a great person and a joy to work with.
Absolutely. When Molly first signed on, we had a lovely phone call and you could tell she was sweet and genuine and a normal, down-to-earth person. She invited me to a taco party at her house when I was in L.A. I was so nervous, I showed up comically early. There was like 100 people there, friends and neighbors and people she’d worked with. And every single person I met said, “You’re so lucky to have Molly in your movie because not only is she incredibly talented, she’s the nicest, most genuine person you’ll ever meet.” I remember driving home and calling my sisters and saying, “The woman cast to play our mom is really nice.” It was meaningful; she could have just been a great actor and done a great job in the movie and that would have been great. But spending time with her has been an added bonus.
So you refer to Molly as playing your mom, but how autobiographical is the film overall?
I go back and forth on that. The whole movie is loosely autobiographical but the big picture stuff is there. Scenes are invented, the way people in the movie behave can be invented. I don’t watch the movie and necessarily see my sisters on screen. I took a lot of liberties. That being said, the main jumping off point of this movie is my mother and the time I spent with her. So I do see my mother up there.
I think you said your father is a big Bradley Whitford fan?
Well everyone’s a Bradley Whitford fan. He was pretty excited to hear Bradley would be playing the father in the film. He loves “The West Wing.”
You have this amazing cast and it’s your feature film debut; was it ever intimidating?
Oh, absolutely, it was intimidating. We had a family dinner a couple nights before we started shooting with a lot of the main family. I remember thinking, “God, I really hope I don’t let these people down.” But you just have to do it; you can’t let it scare you too much. You have to trust in your script and assume you’re not the first person to feel intimidated in a situation like this before.
Who’s been your favorite host in your time at “SNL”?
Oh, Larry David. Come on. He was so great. Sarah Schneider, who I wrote with a lot, we turned to each other mid-week and said, “This is our favorite week that we’ve been on the show.” We worked with Larry all season on the Bernie Sanders sketches and got to k now him and when he hosted the whole show it was so great.
Who had the idea to do the “Bern Your Enthusiam” sketch?
I don’t even remember, honestly. It must have been him. But me and Sarah wrote it and we knew it would be something parodying “Curb.” It was a weird thing where—and I might get the timeline wrong—there was a huge primary that week on Tuesday. We weren’t sure if he would win or not and we couldn’t really write it until we knew what the joke was. The best possible thing happened, which is, he lost by 0.2 percent of the vote. So we came up with the idea that you got to see how he lost by just a few people and how he had wronged those people throughout the day and was personally responsible for them changing their vote to Hillary. It was fun because we were literally responding to what was happening in the world that minute.