“I love Zoom because I always get a little peek of everyone’s home,” says Shiva Baby star Rachell Sennott at the start of our recent video interview, gesturing to the wall behind her. “It’s, like, bland — just wall. I feel like it’s so much weirder when it’s literally what I have right now, where it’s just neutral, because then it’s like, ‘What are you hiding? What’s over there?’” Within just a few seconds of Zoom chatting, Sennott’s wry, razor-sharp but also delightfully self-deprecating personality as both an actor and comedian comes through. That personality has helped make her a legitimate star on Instagram and Twitter, and now onscreen, as well.
Writer-director Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby was one of the most buzzed-about titles at September 2020’s Toronto International Film Festival, and its lead actor was heralded as a breakout performer. This was not hyperbole, as my TIFF review attests to. And for Sennott, it was another step in a career that has already been unique and memorable. A popular standup comedian, Sennott has also earned acclaim for her work on TV (HBO’s High Maintenance) and onscreen in the acclaimed indie Tahara and, most notably, in Shiva Baby.
In Shiva, Sennott plays Danielle, a young Jewish woman and student at Columbia whose life is complex, to say the least. During one chaotic day, in one house in Brooklyn, Danielle comes face to face with her ex, Maya (played by Molly Gordon); the married man she is sleeping with, Max (Danny Deferrari) — as well as his wife and baby; and a house full of family. (A Serious Man’s great Fred Melamed and Thirtysomething’s Polly Draper play her ever-concerned parents.) For Danielle, it is an unforgettable, life-altering experience––and for audiences it is a hilariously compelling film.
Based on Seligman’s short, which also starred Sennott, Shiva Baby debuts on VOD and in select theaters on April 2. We talked with the actress about her close collaboration with Seligman, the unique opportunity to star in both the short and the feature, and the film’s long road from festival sensation to national release. “You’re full of surprises,” Max tells Danielle during Shiva—and so is the stunningly talented Sennott.
The Film Stage: Let’s start with the 2017 short film, which was shot when you and Seligman were both students at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. How did you get involved?
Rachel Sennott: I met Emma when I auditioned for the short, which was her thesis film. I did a ton of those when I was in school. Emma saw me in another thesis film, and then one of her producers reached out and asked me to audition. After the short, we became really good friends. We went to South by Southwest for the short in 2018 and it was so fun. Then we started working on this feature together. So, it felt like this very natural process where as she was writing the feature version of Shiva, she would send it to me, and we would talk about the character. I felt really lucky to have this unique experience of being in the short and then watching it grow into a feature version.
What was it like to recreate that character in a feature, and to watch the script develop over the course of a few years?
Well, I feel like I was kind of growing. I sort of was on the journey that Danielle went on––in one day––in my life from when we shot the short to the feature. It was around the time that I was graduating. My family was kind of, “What’s going on, you’re tweeting about your whole life? This is so much.” [I was] doing stand up. I was also in a couple of different relationships where I was feeling power dynamics. I was going on a similar arc that Danielle goes through in the feature.
One of the things I love about the film is that it really captures chaos––the chaos of a big family- and friend-filled event. How did you and the cast keep up that vibe on the set? Was it well-orchestrated by Emma?
Emma worked with me on kind of charting a path of anxiety for Danielle, because she’s anxious through a lot of the movie but we don’t want it to be the same level. So, Emma would come up to me and say, “You’re at like a seven, now you’re at like a four, now you’re at a six.” And we would kind of chart that, which was really fun. And then, I mean, the set was already like a million people in a house in Brooklyn in the summer, and it was hot. There were so many people. The smell of cream cheese was prominent throughout the home, so that felt real to me. Emma is so grounded and calm that it never felt like, “This is crazy!” But I did feel surrounded by people, and it was warm, so that was helpful.
Shiva is classified as a comedy, but there are psychological horror elements, especially with the score. Is it straight comedy to you, or something in-between?
I think it’s in-between; I think it’s comedy and horror. It’s kind of the horror of being a young woman and having all these different parts of your identity collide. Ariel Marx, who did the score, did such a great job with it. I mean, the score is [makes a scared face and sound] horrifying! And Emma did such a great job writing that into the script, where it’s so funny but at the same time you’re nervous for Danielle; you are sort of like, “Don’t do that!” Or, “Oh my god, are you gonna do that?” And so I think she really struck a good balance where it’s both of those things back and forth.
Something I felt and have heard from other people is that it’s a stressful watch––in a good way––but you feel it as a viewer. How do you feel watching it? Does it have that effect on you?
You know, I had the most stress watching it when I saw it with my family together for the first time, which was right after South by Southwest was cancelled. I was sad, and so my family was like, “We’re going to do a premiere ourselves.” So, we all put on little outfits. But watching the movie with my family, it was like the whole time everyone kept saying [to me], “Is she going to go upstairs? Is she going to do that?” And so then I was having anxiety: “Everyone, watch the movie! She’s gonna do what she’s gonna do!” It [feels] vulnerable to be with your family watching the movie. That was probably my most stressful watch.
Your performance feels so lived-in and unique, but were there any specific actors or comedians that influenced your performance, or any films you watched for inspiration?
Emma sent me some film references before. One of them was Black Swan and I feel like in that movie, Natalie Portman has this similar [vibe], like you-can’t-really-tell. It’s very different, but it is that sort of horror film in your mind. So, that was a really interesting reference for me. I think a lot of it, too, came from Emma and I just talking about the character, having walks and conversations about Danielle. And so I felt very connected with her by the time that we were filming the feature.
How much rehearsal was there?
We had some rehearsal before shooting. What I would term my rehearsal was discussions with Emma. Most mornings she would come up to my dressing room, and we would just talk about what Danielle was going through that day. Those little conversations were really helpful. Emma just knows what to say. She always locks in on the thing that makes you be like, “Oh, it’s that.” So, it was a combination of rehearsal and then just conversations.
Does your work as a comedian play into your acting at all? Is there some crossover?
I want to play complicated female characters who are flawed, who are open about their sexuality. Maybe Danielle herself isn’t, but [I’m interested in] characters who explore female sexuality. Obviously it’s a very different tone. But Emma gave me some opportunities to improv on set, too. I always want to bring my voice. Of course it’s a character, but I think there is some crossover.
You mentioned improvising; did you do that with other actors, as well?
Yeah, Molly Gordon and I would. The scene where Maya first comes up to Danielle, we did it a bunch of different ways. Sometimes we would just do it where Emma would say, “You’re mad, and you’re flirty.” And then we would improvise some lines. I think my favorite improvisational moments are when Danielle, Maya, and Danny are all talking and it’s the “Like a good sister fucks her sister?!” scene. I improvised the “girlboss” line; I had to get the word girlboss into the movie! And then Fred Melamed and Polly Draper; they went to school together, and they were so funny, not even just in the scene but in regular life. I literally would be like, “Stop laughing at what they’re saying and have your breakdown that you’re supposed to be having in this scene,” because they’re so good, and so hilarious.
What do you think is next for Danielle? This feels like one chapter in the life of a character who we could see again.
Yeah, I feel like it is one moment in her life. It’s like a coming-of-age story in one day. The events of the day had to happen for Danielle to grow. But I do think you’re right in that it’s a moment. Same with the short, where hopefully it’s something where it leaves people wanting more.
You also starred in Tahara, another film in which you play a young Jewish woman. Did you do any research before playing that character, or before playing Danielle? And do you see any similarities between the two roles?
I think the characters themselves are very different, because Hannah [from Tahara] is more of an instigator. In that film I see her as someone who is like the way the other characters are to Danielle [in Shiva Baby], kind of going at her. I did talk to Emma and I also talked to Jess Zeidman, who’s the writer of Tahara, because I feel like there is a lot of crossovers. I was raised Catholic in a big Italian family and I feel like there are a lot of similarities between my family and Danielle’s family. But there are specific things, like for example when the prayer books fall off the table, and Danielle kisses them and puts them back––those kinds of things, I talked to Emma or Jess about just to make sure I understood how significant the moment was.
What are you feeling now that the film is being released? It’s been quite a journey from the premiere at SXSW that did not happen to its release.
I’m so excited. I think the pandemic and delay of everything has made me more grateful and happy to share it with everybody. I’m also really excited that I’ll be able to see Emma for the first time in person in over a year. I think us being together, it’ll feel like everything that happened in the last year is real. I’m so excited.
Shiva Baby opens in theaters and digitally this Friday, April 2.