Anyone who saw the adored offbeat comedy Booksmart will know Molly Gordon. She played the sexually promiscuous and Yale-bound Triple A – real name Annabelle – who tore down the old high-school “slut” cliché with sass and style. In Emma Seligman’s brilliant new indie comedy Shiva Baby, about a twenty-something not even trying to live up to her traditional Jewish family’s expectations, she delivers another perfectly realised supporting role, as the lead character’s much more ambitious ex-girlfriend.
Though the bulk of the 25-year-old’s CV is currently made up of side characters, Gordon does have a habit of stealing nearly every scene she’s in. As Triple A, Gordon slyly delivers one-liners like “I’m in-credible at hand jobs, but I also got a 1560 on the SATs.” As Maya in Shiva Baby, she nimbly hops from being annoyingly inquisitive about what’s bugging Danielle (sugar-daddy problems) to offering Nice Jewish Girl hugs to elder shiva attendees, to, in a pivotal moment, admitting hidden feelings. (Shiva is the period of mourning in Judaism, when friends and family visit the bereaved at home.)
“[Seligman’s] script was just so good,” Gordon says, calling from her new apartment in Los Angeles. “I couldn’t believe that someone her age had written it. It felt like someone who had lived a thousand lives in every, like, Jewish, larger gathering. Like she had been taking notes.”
In real life, Gordon is nothing like either the overachieving Maya or Triple A. In fact, it was Danielle’s character that Gordon really related to when she read the script. She’d been in that kind of claustrophobic setting before, being peppered with endless questions from family friends about what she planned to do with her life, after she dropped out of New York University at 18: “I felt like no one quite understood what I was doing.”
“My parents were very supportive,” she adds. (They’re both from the showbiz world – Freaks and Geeks director Bryan Gordon and writer-director Jessie Nelson.) “They just said, if you’re not going to go to college, you have to still be curious in your life. But I would go to a family gathering, and it’d be like, ‘What are you doing? What do you do all day? If this acting thing doesn’t work out, what are you going to do? How are you going to make any money?’”
Looking back, she sees it as one of the loneliest times in her life. Like most millennials, Gordon grew up thinking that attending university was of the utmost importance. But after just a few weeks, she realised that a four-year course just wasn’t right for her. It was a scary notion, one that quickly divided her from her peers, most of whom had begun their own journeys in higher education. “I was this 18-year-old that didn’t have a lot of friends in New York,” Gordon says. “But it also was a very exciting time.”
Seven years later, Gordon’s decision has paid off. Not only has she found her way forward in standout roles in Booksmart, Shiva Baby, and as Melissa McCarthy’s daughter in Life of the Party (2018), she’s rapidly becoming one of the most in-demand actors working today.
In person, Gordon is well spoken and professional, yet undeniably passionate about her work. Wearing a crisp, casual white blouse, she speaks animatedly about her current role in an untitled HBO series about the LA Lakers, and waves her hands around a lot, revealing light lavender nail polish. Her long brown hair is not quite wavy, not quite straight – a welcome departure from the lacquered, camera-ready Los Angeles film debutants you are used to seeing in Hollywood. Even what I can see of her apartment looks grounded. Raised in Venice, California, Gordon has very recently moved to east Los Angeles from New York; in the background is a modest living room set-up with a couch, coffee table, and big-screen TV.
Her early years in New York were a portent of her enterprising approach. After dropping out of college, Gordon stuck around New York, taking night classes at NYU and immersing herself in the theatre world, an environment that was already familiar to her (Gordon did community theatre as a child, and even starred in a production of Fiddler on the Roof with Pitch Perfect and Dear Evan Hansen star Ben Platt at age four). She also juggled hosting gigs, and made short films and web series with Platt, plus other up-and-comers Beanie Feldstein and Noah Galvin, among other things. “I spent a lot of time doing my first few jobs in New York, just doing workshops of musicals. That’s the best part of living in New York: when you’re an out-of-work actor, that’s the job that you have.”
Also – unlike her Booksmart character – Gordon, who is dyslexic, struggled with school as a teenager. She notes how she spent her NYU dropout years “finding my intelligence and reframing my view on myself”. As she auditioned, shopped around for agents and eventually booked her first adult roles (as a kid, she popped up a few times in films her parents directed, such as I Am Sam and Bewitched), Gordon realised that her lack of academic success did not have to determine the rest of her life. “I realised, ‘you can’t do any form of math, but you are good at this,’” she says. “It was just a beautiful time of exploration, but definitely like a clunky time as well.”
Though her career has since stabilised – OK, taken off considerably – Gordon is level-headed enough to know that just because she’s currently experiencing a wave of recognition, especially from the critically beloved Shiva Baby, that doesn’t mean there are any guarantees. There never are in her industry. She credits her parents for instilling in her the need to curate “a really full, beautiful life” beyond just booking the next acting gig.
“All of this stuff goes away. It’s not consistent,” she acknowledges, stressing the need for actors to develop a well-rounded identity. “You have to have an eye beyond this. If not, you’re just waiting for other people to go, ‘Oh, you’re worthy of a job right now.’ You can have an insanely amazing job and then not work [for] six years.”
She continues: “I think growing up and watching my parents succeed, then not succeed, watching their friends succeed and not succeed, it was like, ‘Oh, this is like such a beautiful, wildly insane career that can bring so much fun and glamour and amazingness.’ But also it’s like, ‘Oh, this is a really hard job.’ Unless you have really thick skin, which me and my family do not have.”
Gordon’s parents were similarly flexible about the way their daughter engaged with Judaism. When she voiced discomfort in religious settings from an early age, calling attending temple services “sterile”, Gordon’s parents explored alternative options. “We started to go to things like Shabbat services on the beach,” she laughs. “They asked me if I wanted a ‘B’ Mitzvah. And I was like, I think I’d rather not spend that money and take a hike. It was a very progressive situation.”
Likewise, one of the benefits of growing up with west coast industry parents was spending time with none other than writer-director Nora Ephron, who was a mentor to Gordon’s mother. Before Ephron passed away from leukaemia in 2012, she and her younger sister Delia were frequent guests at Thanksgiving dinner. As an aspiring writer herself (Gordon recently co-published a humour column in McSweeney’s with Allie Levitan), she openly takes inspiration from the way Ephron “used her heartbreak and turned it into such a beautiful human art... that it’s so self-deprecating and honest”.
What else did she learn from a presence like Ephron’s? “Over-ordering at restaurants,” she jokes. “Nora just paved the way for so many other female filmmakers. I just feel very lucky to not only have my mom as someone to look up to that does this [work], but also [Nora] and Delia.”
It’s easy to see how Gordon’s industry nous, not to mention a sneaky talent for playing eye-catching supporting characters, will net her some meaty lead roles before long. Either way, her main priority is to grow – whether as a part of someone else’s project or in one of her own. Right now, devoting time to writing her own scripts has been fuelling her ambitions, helping her prepare for when she lands a gig as well as when – as inevitably happens in Hollywood – she’s passed over.
“We just have to be brave in our life,” she says. “Because who knows what will happen tomorrow? I’m not waiting for someone else to give me permission.”
‘Shiva Baby’ is now available exclusively on MUBI