HomeWorld NewsRachel Sennott talks comedy, acting ahead of ‘Bottoms’ movie release – The Washington Post
Rachel Sennott talks comedy, acting ahead of ‘Bottoms’ movie release – The Washington Post
August 25, 2023
August 25, 2023 at 7:00 a.m. EDT
LOS ANGELES — Rachel Sennott thought there would be a regular bar around the corner, but it turns out to be the kind that sells juice. She rolls with it. It’s a sunny day in Los Feliz, so we sit outside at a lone sidewalk table with views of a medical spa. With fresh beet and carrot-turmeric beverages in hand, we dissect her methodical approach to finding work in Hollywood as an actress, writer-producer and aspiring feature director. She suggests that she owes some of her discipline to being a Virgo. The whole scene is so Los Angeles that Sennott, who got her start in comedy, could have written it as parody.
In 2019, before she became an indie darling, Sennott gained notoriety online for an 18-second video mocking tropes of movie trailers set in the city. “Come on, it’s L.A.,” she says in the clip, twirling around in a crop top and trendy sunglasses. “I’m addicted to drugs. We all are. If you don’t have an eating disorder, get one, b—-.”
Sennott, 27, belongs to a burgeoning class of comedic performers bringing her generation’s stories to Hollywood. Propelled by internet clout and film festival buzz, her brazen silliness and self-awareness set her apart. She knows firsthand how strangers sexualize young women online, so she beats them to the punch. A bikini photo might carry the caption, “Congrats to my little brother on graduating,” testing the boundaries of Instagram thirst traps. Another might push back on how social media impacts body image: “If you don’t have anything nice to say about my happy trail DON’T say anything at all!!!”
These exaggerations are grounded in shrewd observations, a trademark of Sennott’s on-screen work as well. Even in a show as outlandish as HBO’s “The Idol,” the critically panned series in which she plays a pop star’s oft-mocked assistant, you get the feeling she is in on the joke.
She began laying the groundwork while attending New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and still seems to live by that city’s quickpace after moving to the more laid-back coast, where a carefully plotted schedule carries her from one engagement to the next. When we chat on a late June afternoon — roughly two weeks before the Screen Actors Guild joined Hollywood screenwriters on strike — she mentions a marketing meeting planned later that evening for her latest film, “Bottoms,” which opens in select theaters Friday and nationwide next week.
Frenetic energy courses through “Bottoms,” a sex-positive entry to the pantheon of raunchy teen comedies about two unpopular lesbians who start an after-school fight club so they can get closer to their crushes. Sennott co-wrote and produced the film alongside director and former NYU classmate Emma Seligman, who describes Sennott as a treasured partner in navigating an “overwhelming” industry. The two broke out together with their 2021 film “Shiva Baby,” which combines comedy with elements of horror to capture the anxieties of being a modern young woman.
Seligman worked on the “Shiva Baby” screenplay while co-writing “Bottoms” with Sennott, pulling double duty thanks to what she refers to as Sennott’s “children’s agenda.” The actress would consult the whimsical day planner to determine which days they would meet to discuss each project. According to Seligman, Sennott also toted around a printed copy of her “monthly goals and, on another page, her one-year, three-year and five-year goals.”
“I learned a lot from Rachel’s Virgo skills,” Seligman says.
Sennott moved to Los Angeles after booking a network sitcom called “Call Your Mother,” which lasted a season. Before the juice bar, I meet her at a nearby vintage store where a friend used to work. The store offers a solid selection of clothing, though she wonders why there are so many child-size tops sold in the adults section.
When I approach her, she is already holding a pale-pink slip dress in one hand and an iced coffee in the other. This is her second iced coffee of the day, she says, even though her doctor warned her it is bad for her digestion.
One stray comment on Sennott’s gut health and you no longer feel like a stranger — an effect of her internet presence as well. In college and afterward, she earned a social media following with tongue-in-cheek posts about her everyday life: “Going on a date tonight with $11 in my bank account let’s hope he’s not a feminist lol,” she wrote in 2018. Other tweets were more risqué. While sifting through skirts, she explains that her attraction to social media came down to “the same thing as discovering stand-up: wanting to find an outlet, or somewhere to be heard.”
“And you get to see immediately if the joke is funny or not,” she adds.
Sennott grew up in suburban Connecticut as the second of five children in an Irish-Italian family, which encouraged her to “learn how to talk really loud.” She used her voice to direct her siblings in productions at home, be it a reenactment of the 1997 film “Anastasia” or her brother as a news anchor trying to host a segment during a storm. The rain came courtesy of Sennott, who poured water on his head.
After moving to New York, she enrolled in a drama program that didn’t feel like the most natural fit. Then she went on a date to an open mic night and it clicked: Maybe she could try this instead of fighting for a role in a Shakespeare play. (“No hate to Shakespeare,” she says. “I really love him.”)
The adrenaline kicked in during Sennott’s first comedy set; she was so sure she killed it. “And then you do your second night and you suck,” she says.
But failure, however devastating, can double as a form of security: If you’re already at the bottom, why not try something new? Sennott, who was raised Catholic and arrived at college without any sexual experience, found that joking about her dating life gave her “a sense of control.” And so came to be the bawdier side of her humor.
A pile of clothes has accumulated in Sennott’s arms, so she steps into a fitting room to try them on. A stretchy blue top doesn’t stretch enough. A sweater isn’t even worth commenting on. The pink slip dress, she can’t quite decide on. She steps out of the room and looks back toward the mirror, examining how the straps sit on her shoulders. She tilts her head to the side.
“Does it look too virgin-y?” she asks.
There was never a question that Sennott would play the lead in “Shiva Baby,” Seligman’s thesis project about a directionless college student who runs into her sugar daddy at a Jewish mourning ritual. It was clear from the moment the actress auditioned for the part. With an established interest in the power dynamics of sex, Sennott was “very dropped in and really understood the character,” according to the director.
Seligman admits it can sound “silly and pretentious” to talk about a student film this way, but they took their work seriously even then. Sennott was one of the few people at NYU who “asked me about my goals in a way that was genuinely curious and excited,” Seligman says.
The feature adaptation of “Shiva Baby” expandson the premise with a new strings-heavy horror score, the addition of the protagonist’s ex-girlfriend (played by Molly Gordon) and a larger focus on — surprise! — the sugar daddy’s wife (Dianna Agron) and actual baby. Sennott anchors the claustrophobic film with a performance that bubbles beneath the surface, but cuts the tension every once in a while with deadpan line delivery. “I don’t really want to be, like, a girlboss … that’s not my thing,” her character says when the unknowing wife offers her a job.
Sennott says she draws on personal experiences for most of her work. As in “Shiva Baby,” she was once a college student nervous about the future and could relate to the character’s creeping insecurities.
They shot the film in 2019 and released it during the pandemic, when its heightened anxiety and sense of dread spoke directly to the moment. The hyper-fixation on internet discourse didn’t hurt: “Literally I feel like the movie did well because of 20-year-old girls tweeting about it,” Sennott says. The film’s official website quotes multiple tweets, including one describing it as “Uncut Gems for hot Jewish sluts.”
“Bottoms” was a new experience for Sennott on almost every level; not only was she more invested in the screenplay this time around, but she was also an executive producer on a project with a considerably larger budget and scale.
The film reunited Sennott with fellow comedian Ayo Edebiri (FX’s “The Bear”), her co-star in the 2020 Comedy Central web series “Ayo and Rachel Are Single.” The show critiqued modern dating culture without letting their characters off the hook. “Bottoms” also resists giving its protagonists an out. The teenagers are foils to one another, the hotheaded PJ (Sennott) balanced by her shy best friend, Josie (Edebiri). They create a fight club for more selfish reasons than female empowerment. That they each wind up with bloodied faces in their quests to woo popular girls shouldn’t surprise fans of Sennott’s work. She wouldn’t dare pull a punch.
Sennott is who you want on set when “s— hits the fan,” according to Seligman, who says the actress was “really good at being a camp counselor” to the rest of the 20-somethings pretending to be high-schoolers. She was as integral to the ensemble cast of last year’s “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” a comedic slasher featuring co-stars such as Amandla Stenberg and Pete Davidson that made waves with its bold satire of internet-addled Gen Zers.
The film takes place at a mansion party that goes awry when a hurricane causes the power (and WiFi connection) to go out. What happens to petty, self-obsessed rich kids when they lose their lifeblood? Sennott contributes the sharpest comedic performance, playing the chatty friend with a podcast nobody likes. As the tension ramps up, one character reveals that another hate-listens to the show. Sennott begins to sputter, then screams like her life depends on it: “First of all, a podcast takes a lot of work, OKAY? You have to organize the guests, you have to do a Google Calendar and, and, and — you build a following. IT TAKES A LONG F—ING TIME. And I’ve been working on it for a while.”
According to “Bodies” director Halina Reijn, Sennott has “no vanity in what she does.”
“No vanity, no ego, none,” Reijn says. “Just insane intelligence. She’s way more than an actress. She’s a total creator. … But at the same time, she’s just a wild animal, you know?”
In mid-August, a user on X, formerly known as Twitter, called “best of rachel sennott” shares some devastating news: The comedian’s account has been deactivated. Someone else requests everyone “keep me and my girls in your thoughts as we mourn the account of our prophet.” A post with more than 16,000 likes notes that Sennott’s and Edebiri’s accounts were both deactivated, pairing this observation with a clip of a woman being driven away in an ambulance.
Could Sennott have been worried about social media aging poorly?
“I definitely feel like we’re going to have to reckon with that as a society, at some point,” she had said in June, immediately poking fun at herself for making a statement with such gravitas.
She seems more concerned with the present. While she remains “grateful” that Twitter helped jump-start her career, she has been “separating myself from it a little because I think I’m really sensitive and it’s hard to see people saying stuff about you that is mean. I’m trying to give myself a little space.”
Sennott recently said in Interview magazine that she was thinking of directing a feature about “the lowest I ever was, [which] was when I was tweeting during sex,” and clarifies to me that this is “not necessarily a biopic.” It sounds like an extension of her approach to stand-up, funneled through fiction: If a memory makes her anxious or uncomfortable, she can reclaim it by finding the humor in it.
Sitting outside the juice bar, with her new slip dress in a bag at her feet, she tells me what her father taught her to help set her priorities straight.
There are three circles, she says.
In the first circle is what you can control; the second, what you can influence; and the third, what you have no power over. Focusing on the first two circles is fair game.