Wonderland.

RACHEL SENNOTT

A word with the internet’s messiest comedian on her role in Shiva Baby, complex female characters, and telling jokes as a path to enlightenment (and empowerment).

Rachel Sennott interview with Wonderland photographed by Sela Shiloni

Photography by Sela Shiloni

Rachel Sennott interview with Wonderland photographed by Sela Shiloni
Photography by Sela Shiloni

When she’s not tweeting about the horny-sad ratio of Lana Del Rey songs, bemoaning disastrous dating scenarios via her stand-up sets (everything from “locally sourced dick” to the perils of face-sitting), or penning sardonic guides on how to snag a quarantine boyfriend (“if you make the horrible but forgivable decision to quarantine with your ex, just make sure you’re talking to at least 3 other guys to balance it out”) – all pillars of her chaotic brand of internet millennial comedy – Rachel Sennott moonlights as a sugar baby.

Well, kind of. In Emma Seligman’s squirmingly funny and incredibly stressful debut feature Shiva Baby, the comedian, writer and indie rising star plays Danielle, an anxious college student who runs into her secret sugar daddy while with her parents at a shiva, a Jewish funeral service. It’s predictably pretty hellish stuff. And to add fuel to the fire, Danielle’s bisexuality is put in trial, her ex-girlfriend is somewhere in the crowd, she’s being prodded from all angles about her future, and, oh – she’s just spotted her sugar daddy’s impossibly immaculate “girl boss” wife and newborn baby in tow too. It’s equal parts cringe encounters, intrusive conversations, claustrophobia, familial tension, half-eaten bagels and brow sweat. So much brow sweat.

Rachel Sennott interview with Wonderland photographed by Sela Shiloni closeup

Photography by Sela Shiloni

Rachel Sennott interview with Wonderland photographed by Sela Shiloni closeup
Photography by Sela Shiloni

Shot over 14 days in the summer of 2019 in Brooklyn, the low-budget short-film-turned-feature owes its delirious palm-sweating brilliance as much to Emma Seligman’s whip-smart script as it does to Sennott’s exceptional comedic timing, which feels like a natural extension of her online persona. The film has been lauded for its representation of young queer women from traditional backgrounds, and explores the age-old question of whether it’s possible to have it all – you know – true love, sexual empowerment, a career, money, independence, keys to a property, freedom, direction and happiness. It’s a film about being seen, being loved, and making our way in the world, albeit through the hellfires of an incredibly stressful family event.

We caught up with Sennott and talked about coming up in New York’s open mic scene, complex female characters, and telling jokes as a path to enlightenment (and empowerment)…

Congratulations on Shiva Baby – which is unbelievably stressful, chaotic and hilarious. How did you first get involved with Emma Seligman’s film?
I first got involved when I auditioned for the short. I was at NYU, so was Emma, and we did a lot of these thesis films which are like the senior film projects. I guess Emma had seen me in another student thesis, so she reached out to me to audition, and then after the short we became best friends and started working on this other project together, so I felt like I was able to read all these different drafts of the feature Emma was working on. It just kind of happened naturally.

Danielle is this messy, emotional and awkward character, how much did you relate to her?
I really related to her. I feel like I was going through that journey that Danielle goes through in one day over the course of when we filmed the short to when we filmed the feature. Because I was finishing school, I had that kind of anxiety and confusion about knowing what you want to do but not really knowing how, and feeling this pressure to have proof that you can do it, for your family. I was also dealing with the journey that Danielle was on sexually, where it’s like sometimes you feel really empowered but then at the same time you don’t. And then I was going through a couple of different relationships where I felt like I was trying to stay in control by proving that I didn’t care or that I cared less than the other person.

The film explores how we consolidate all these different sides of ourselves and the pressure of wanting to feel sexually empowered, have a great career, snag a husband, be independent. Be free, but also have direction. What message do you hope it brings young women?
I hope young women can see themselves in the film and relate. Our generation is that struggle of “be empowered, have a job, have sex with anyone, but find your true love!” And then there is a lot of “be skinny, but not too skinny!” I think that Emma has a nuanced script that has all of that in there, so I really hope that young women see themselves in it and can relate to it.

The film is an amazing step forward for bisexual representation and the rhetoric around it. Why do you think films like this are so important, especially for teenagers or young women coming-of age who are watching it?
I think that it’s such a nuanced portrayal. Emma really writes that in, where you see Danielle’s family who is supposedly progressive and the mom says “I am supportive”, but they are also dismissing her sexuality as a phase. I think that the film shows the complications of that and the complexity of being bisexual and her family’s response.

Rachel Sennott in SHIVA BABY
Molly Gordon and Rachel Sennott in SHIVA BABY
Rachel Sennott in SHIVA BABY
Photography by Sela Shiloni
Molly Gordon and Rachel Sennott in SHIVA BABY

The bathroom scene at the shiva is pretty hectic. Can you relate to Danielle’s ill-advised impulses here, you know – to do the thing that is definitely the thing you should not be doing in that moment?
Oh my god, yes. There also is something about a situation where you are like “oh, well I am not supposed to feel horny right now so I am gonna be horny!”

The character of Kim – the sugar daddy’s wife – is also really interesting. She’s this sleek, successful entrepreneur, not a hair out of place, kind of like the foil to your character. At the same time both of you are these incredibly complex female characters, is that something that drew you to the script and the film?
I think what is so amazing about Emma’s writing and direction is that you have so many complicated female characters. All of them are flawed and so interesting and unique, and I feel like you care for all of them. And she also has like three generations of women, and we see the mother’s relationship with Danielle, and Kim, and [Danielle’s ex-girlfriend] Maya.

On how you got into comedy, I read that it was via this boy you were dating or you were on a date with him. Is that true?
Yes, it was a guy I was seeing but he wasn’t my boyfriend. I actually remember him talking to me about his high school girlfriend like “I was so in love with her.” That was the beginning of my journey. He was going to open mics, and so went with him to one and I just had so much fun I kept doing it.

You’ve gathered so much traction on social media, and your tweets cover everything from dating to awkward sexual encounters, to emotional drunken escapades. Do you use Twitter as a way of figuring out what an audience would find funny, or is it more of a cathartic thing for yourself?
I think it’s a combination of both. I definitely use Twitter to try out jokes, especially because there is no stand-up right now. But I think I first started really being messy and open when I was graduating school or at the end of college, and I just felt like a mess and I was in all of these messy relationships. I was like, “why doesn’t anybody want me?”. I was just so open about everything that I felt and I would tweet stuff in real time, and now, I think it’s a mix of the two where some things I am just doing for jokes, and other times I’m just having fun. It’s that messy openness. But it is really cathartic, especially when a guy is like, “I wanna be in a relationship, I’m kidding I don’t, I do, no!” Well, at least I went viral. I have something from this.

SHIVA BABY Poster

Photography by Paris Helena

SHIVA BABY Poster
Photography by Paris Helena

Historically, female comedians receive a lot less than their male counterparts when it comes to money and exposure; and you’ve been really vocal about amplifying female perspectives and voices. What’s been your experience of it?
I think that the comedy scene has come so far with welcoming women. When I first started, I was doing open mics in places in Manhattan, and I would be the only girl and the youngest, and everybody else would be this older guy doing “classic comedy.” I didn’t really feel comfortable there. People were being creepy to me, and when I would tell jokes about sex it was almost like they were laughing at me as opposed to with me. But then I started performing in the alt scene, because I got booked on a show at It’s A Guy Thing, and I was like, oh my god, there is this amazing scene of young women and queer people and people of colour, who were really supportive and fun, and the audiences are people who are like us. I love doing a show where the audience is just a bunch of women. I think that I felt welcomed into that scene by people who were just either my age or a little bit older. It’s really important to me to try and do the same thing for younger female comedians.

With lockdown and the rise of social media – in particular with TikTok – it seems to have strengthened this kind of front-camera-facing type comedy – what’s your take about the way it’s going?
I think it’s great because it evens the playing field a bit where you don’t have to be in New York or LA to get your voice out there, you just need a phone and you can make a video. I think I found so many really funny people and watched them literally take off in a year where everybody sees their videos, and they get a job! It opens the door to more people for opportunity.

I read your guide to getting a quarantine boyfriend. It feels like you’re this messy millennial oracle. Do you feel like talking about dating so openly in stand-up and social media makes it harder to date?
I actually had the opposite experience. I think it got easier with time. I had such a hard time in college where I just felt really insecure in myself. I didn’t really feel like anybody wanted to date me, or if they wanted to date me no one really wanted to be in a relationship with me, and I feel like talking about it made me feel more in control. Telling jokes about it, getting laughs, it made me feel better about myself.

What are you excited about in 2021?
I want to keep making stuff with Emma [Seligman]. I love being with her, she is my best friend and we are working on another feature that’s definitely more comedy as opposed to Shiva Baby, which is a dark comedy.

Finally, why is your Instagram called @treaclychild?
Have you ever heard of the term ‘sticky child’? It’s someone who is always sucking on the top of their shirt, or they have a little bit of their food on their face, or a little bit of jelly somewhere. I was a sticky child, and so wanted to make that my Instagram, but it was taken! And so I just looked up synonyms for sticky, and treacly was one of them. So there we go!

Utopia will release Shiva Baby in select theatres and VOD on 2 April.

RACHEL SENNOTT

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