Like Parker Posey at Sundance in the ’90s and Greta Gerwig at SXSW in the mid-’00s, no one embodies today’s South by Southwest Film & TV Festival sensibilities quite like Rachel Sennott. With a personality that is silly but wise, somehow sincerely cynical, tuned in but unconventional, she’s at the festival this year with two new films.
“Bottoms,” described as the story of two queer high school girls who start a fight club to attract cheerleaders, was co-written by Sennott and her “Shiva Baby” collaborator Emma Seligman. Its premiere on Saturday night is one of the most anticipated events of the festival. Written and directed by Ally Pankiw and performed in the Narrative Feature Competition, “I Used to Be Funny” is the story of a young woman dealing with trauma and PTSD, showing a never-before-seen dramatic side of the Sennott’s talent.
Having been at the 2018 festival with the short film version of the anxiety-inducing comedy “Shiva Baby” (the main version played at the 2020 festival, the in-person edition of which was canceled in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic), Sennott was also there last year with her scene-stealing performance in “Bodies Bodies Bodies.”
For a phone interview before the festival, Sennott was online from, as she put it, “Tennessee, randomly,” where she’s filming the upcoming movie “Holland, Michigan,” directed by Mimi Cave and co-starring the formidable trio. by Nicole Kidman, Gael Garcia Bernal and Matthew Macfadyen
I was very excited to return to SXSW.
“Honestly, it means a lot,” Sennott said. “When I first went there, I think it opened my eyes a lot to independent film and also realized that the filmmakers were just people who wanted to do something with their friends. It was really inspiring for Emma and me and very motivating to write ‘Bottoms’.
“And I felt it last year for ‘Bodies’ where I was like, ‘Oh my God. I just want to watch any movie with this room full of people,’” Sennott said. “It completely changed the experience where everyone wanted to watch a movie, laugh and cheer. The energy, it’s something I’ve really missed in the last two years. I love watching movies that way and I feel like both ‘Bottoms’ and ‘I Used to Be Funny’ are meant to be experienced that way with other people.”
Despite missing out on an in-person festival premiere, the mainstream version of “Shiva Baby” became a pandemic-era art house hit, earning Sennott a Gotham Award nomination as Breakthrough Artist and won the John Cassavetes Award at the Spirit Awards. that recognizes low-budget movies.
While “Shiva Baby” and “Bodies Bodies Bodies” have firmly established her comedic persona, Sennott is energized, if a little eager, to showcase other aspects of her talents at this year’s festival, starting with the fact that she shares credits for writing in “Funds.
“This is the first movie I’ve ever written that’s been made,” Sennott said. “There’s added pressure because all of a sudden you’re not just worried about what people think of your performance, but every line you’re like, ‘Did they like that? Did you like this?
“For ‘I Used to Be Funny,’ there are really funny moments in that script, but there are also more dramatic moments and I think it deals with a serious subject and, not that it hasn’t, but I think on this specific level or this topic. , I have not done it”.
In “I Used to Be Funny,” which opens Monday, Sennott plays Sam, an aspiring comedian who shuts down after a traumatic incident and the young Brooke (Olga Petsa) he used to babysit for her disappearance. . Told with a bold and cut narrative sensibility, the film builds on Sennott’s comedic persona as he finds her exploring new emotional depths.
“I wanted to show what is taken from women. Their sense of humor, their connection to the world, their joy, is taken away from them and no one starts out that way,” Pankiw said. “The world just makes them that way.
“Often when you meet people with PTSD or who have been traumatized, that’s the version you meet first, like the first version of Rachel in the movie,” Pankiw said. “And it’s a shame that most people don’t get to know the person they were before their trauma. Rachel does a good job of bringing such vitality to the character and such charm and such inherent sweetness and you see all of that and that she was all of these things and that she was pure potential. She’s like a reverse type of likability.”
Making her film debut with the film, Pankiw has directed episodes on shows like “Shrill” and “The Great” as well as many music videos, including Muna’s “Silk Chiffon” with Phoebe Bridgers. He first saw Sennott stand-up and remembers thinking, “This girl is so funny and bright and charming. I just filed it away in my head for future reference.”
After seeing “Shiva Baby” at Outfest while trying to get the project that became “I Used to Be Funny” off the ground, Pankiw discovered that she and Sennott were both represented by the same agency, WME.
“I think I had written the character a little tougher, and Rachel has that sweetness that just melts your heart,” Pankiw said. “It was a miracle that we got her and she also brought a lot of that character element to the forefront that I think she really needed. I often joke that she made this movie for me and now I’d get hit by a bus for it.”
Sennott’s character in “I Used to Be Funny” is an aspiring comedian who has found acting difficult since her traumatic event. Sennott and Pankiw collaborated on the film’s stand-up routines. Pankiw recalled Sennott rehearsing in the kitchen of the apartment she was staying in in Toronto for the production, using a spatula as a microphone as she worked on the material.
For Sennott it was a new challenge to stand-up in character.
“Honestly, it was so wild,” he said. “I’m writing jokes about my babysitting job and living in Toronto or being from Canada or whatever. And I did it in front of real people. There were these two girls who knew who I was and they said, ‘Are you Canadian?’ after the show. And I was like, ‘No, I’m a liar. I’m just a liar. ”
“Bottoms” found Sennott working not only with his “Shiva Baby” collaborator in Seligman, but also with co-star Ayo Edebiri, with whom he had a short-lived Comedy Central series, “Ayo and Rachel Are Single.” Seligman and Sennott wrote the role in “Bottoms” with Edebiri in mind and approached him before they had even completed a draft of the script.
“Finally getting to the place where we were all doing it together was like, ‘Wow,’” Sennott said. “Ayo and I did so many little sketches together in school and we did this little Comedy Central series with no money and we did stand-up in basements and to get back into acting together, but actually on a movie on a budget that they’re on. fighting with each other and there stunts was really cool.
“I don’t want to sound corny, but I was like, ‘We did it! They were here!’ Sennott said. “We were in New Orleans with the stunt coordinator kicking us in the face. We did it.”
For Pankiw, Sennott’s real gift is how he makes it seem like he’s not doing anything at all, the naturalistic hang-out vibes he brings to a role.
“What she’s doing is fooling people into thinking that what she’s doing is effortless, but as an actress she’s an incredibly talented technician,” Pankiw said. “And I think because people have mostly seen her in comedic roles, unfortunately sometimes the misconception is that it’s too easy if she’s someone like her character. But I think she’s more of a chameleon than people realize.”
Originally from Connecticut, Sennott went to college in New York City, began her career there, and finds that she still identifies very much as a New Yorker, even though she has been living in Los Angeles.
“I feel like I detach New York,” Sennott said. “I really like LA. I’m really enjoying it and I have to tell you about the experience of buying groceries in Los Angeles, second to none. Sorry, New York, but grocery shopping in LA is awesome.”
Sennott is trying to come to terms with how much has happened to her and her career in recent years, from the success of “Shiva Baby” to filming her first scene with Nicole Kidman—“A f— legend,” she enthused—to anticipating the response. to both “I Used to Be Funny” and “Bottoms”.
“Honestly, I feel like COVID for the last couple of years, my emotions are kind of on hold,” Sennott said. “Because a lot of it happened in a way that you don’t realize on a day-to-day basis. And then it happens in these little random bursts where I feel it in those moments.
“I feel grateful (“Shiva Baby”) had this surge online from this community of mostly young women who were supportive of the film,” Sennott said. “If I ever see a 25-year-old girl with a Twitter account saying, ‘I loved your movie,’ I say, ‘You’re the reason someone watched it, so thank you.’ ”