With a Rebel Yell, Molly Shannon Claims Collusion

Love did not come easy for Molly Shannon and Emily Dickinson.

“In all honesty,” said Shannon, “I had the image of her that was presented to the public” — an apparition in white, shuttered in her bedroom in 19th-century Amherst, Mass., and loath to share her talents with the world. “She sounded so dark and dreary.”

Then she was offered the lead in “Wild Nights With Emily,” and suddenly her passions flared.

Written and directed by Madeleine Olnek, the dramatic comedy presents Dickinson as a lesbian who minced no words expressing her desire for her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson. And who desperately longed to see her nearly 1,800 poems in print, stymied by men at every step.

“It’s like, wow, we were fed a story about a spinster recluse who apparently didn’t want to be published and was rocking in her chair, peeking out her window at funerals, when really it’s the opposite,” Shannon said. “She’s a trailblazer rebel artist who pushed the envelope with a poetic form.”

Shannon is something of a rebel herself. From 1995 to 2001 on “Saturday Night Live,” she rivaled the physical humor — and influence — of her male co-stars with characters like Mary Katherine Gallagher, a Catholic schoolgirl with superstar dreams, and Sally O’Malley, a high-kicking 50-year-old dancer (impersonated by Hugh Jackman on Twitter in October when he hit the milestone birthday).

In 2017, she won an Independent Spirit Award as a dying mother in Chris Kelly’s “Other People” — then recently joined him and Sarah Schneider, former “S.N.L.” co-head writers, to play the momager of a Bieber-esque pop star in Comedy Central’s “The Other Two.” And later this year she’ll return as Diane, the high-strung confidante of Sarah Jessica Parker’s uncoupled Frances, in HBO’s “Divorce.”

On a call from Tokyo, where Shannon, 54, and her husband, the painter Fritz Chesnut, were spending spring break with their teenagers, Stella and Nolan, she spoke about Emily Dickinson as an unlikely L.G.B.T.Q. hero and the collusion that tried to silence her.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Madeleine has said that casting you was extremely important to her — that with Emily Dickinson she knew that she finally had a part worthy of your stature.

Madeleine and I met at N.Y.U. drama school. She directed this show called “The Follies,” which was scripted comedy in a black box theater at midnight, and Adam Sandler was in it and we would do impersonations. I created the character of Mary Katherine Gallagher in that show, so early on I just thought Madeleine was amazing. And she knows how hard I struggled to make it in comedy, so I think that’s why she thought I would be great to play Emily Dickinson.

After Emily’s death, Susan’s name was erased from their correspondence. How did their relationship come to light?

Through spectrographic technology, we were able to examine erasures in Emily’s letters. And I think the presence of shame around the feelings that Emily expressed in her letters of love would not just be there in a friendship. This was Puritan New England, where there was no way that they could talk about this. We have this story that she wanted her poems burned upon death when in reality she’s an L.G.B.T.Q. hero. She’s a model for new wave feminism, which talks about equality for all. [Screams] It makes me want to start a riot.

The poems as you read them in the movie feel fresh.

You’re understanding that she’s writing about her romantic life, which she was scared about initially when she was younger because she’s writing erotic poems about a woman she loves. When you read them with that lens, you are hearing them differently. I think [her editors] were worried when she became so successful after her death that if the reading public found out that she was in love with a woman it might not be as interested in her. So there was collusion.

Emily got a lot of pushback from male mentors and editors, who seemed not quite to understand her writing. Have you experienced the same?

When I did first start “Saturday Night Live,” I was trying to get Mary Katherine Gallagher on television. I had done the character in my stage show for years and I knew — this works. But I went to different writers — men — and I said, “I have this character,” and I wrote up a sketch and — I don’t want to say who it was — people would look at it on paper and go, “That will never work.” I’d use my frustration and anger to fuel me forward. And then finally I did go to one guy, Steve Koren, who said, “O.K., tell me what you do.” He basically typed up a version that I did in my stage show and that was the first sketch.

I remember I was like, “I’m going to be physical, I want to be like those boys, I want to be like Chris Farley and I’m going to fall into chairs and I’m going to make my heart bleed and make them understand this.” And when [the sketch] got on the air it was huge. And I was like, Yes!

“The Other Two” has an “S.N.L.” pedigree, with Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider as the creators and Lorne Michaels as an executive producer. Is that why you signed on?

I’m very close to Lorne. He is truly the greatest, and he completely changed my life. And Chris Kelly is very special, and because we did “Other People” together, I just jumped at the chance to get to work with Chris again and to meet Sarah Schneider, his partner. So when I read the pilot, I had a feeling about it. They’re one-of-a-kind writers.

What drew you to play the character Pat Dubek?

I love that she is having a Chapter 2. It was revealed that her husband was a terrible alcoholic who died with his penis frozen to the roof of the house. She moved to New York City with her son, so she’s experiencing a whole new kind of reinvention. She’s going to get her own talk show. She’s not cynical at all about showbiz, so I relate to that part of her and her family values.

Mary Katherine Gallagher had that school uniform. Pat has that funky hair. Do you come up with your own costumes?

[With Mary Katherine Gallagher] Lorne came right into the dressing room and he goes, “I think you should make the skirt a little shorter because that will be funny when you lift your leg up to sing a song and it will show your underwear.” [With Pat] they said, “We want a Kate Gosselin kind of Ohio-comes-to-New York City look with a certain type of coloring that would be done in the Midwest but maybe not as cool as somebody who’s lived in New York City for a while.” I love changing myself. As a matter of fact, I always felt less self-conscious when I was playing a character. I just look at the character and don’t see myself in it.

Before you go, can you recite your favorite Emily Dickinson poem?

You must let me
go first, Sue, because
I live in the Sea
always and know
the Road —
I would have drowned
twice to save
you sinking, dear,
If I could only
have covered your
Eyes so you would’nt
have seen the Water —

Oh, I love it. Isn’t it gorgeous? Ahh, I can’t get enough.

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