Sipping tea in her tastefully appointed Beverly Hills hotel suite one recent morning, Molly Shannon hardly looked like the kind of woman who would give censors sleepless nights. Dressed in a black pantsuit, the actress, who is best known for playing repressed teenager Mary Katherine Gallagher on "Saturday Night Live," seemed perfectly at home in the chichi surroundings.
But Shannon has what she calls "a wild side." When she puts on Mary Katherine Gallagher's Catholic schoolgirl uniform, she has a tendency to throw caution to the winds.
"Last year, we were doing this skit where I came up with the idea of having Mary Katherine lick Jeff Goldblum from toe to head," says Shannon, 33. "I wanted to get down low and lick, lick, lick all the way up. The censor was, 'Oh my gosh no. You need to stay above the belt.' I said, 'Sure, no problem.'"
Shannon got with the program -- at least during dress rehearsal. "When it came to the live show, I said to myself, 'I can't bear to do it that way!' I went all the way down, and all the way up. I get wild. I hate it when they tell me I can't do something."
For those of you just tuning in, Shannon is in her fifth season as a cast member of "Saturday Night Live." In addition to giving birth to the repressed powder keg MKG, joyologist Helen Madden, and "Goth Talk" hostess Circe Nightshade, the comedian has turned in killer impersonations of Monica Lewinksy, Meredith Viera, Shania Twain, and Courtney Love.
"The only one of my people that I've actually met was Courtney," says Shannon. "At first she was scary. She growled, 'Where's Molly?' She gave me a hard time but then, all of a sudden, she turned sweet. I guess she liked me."
Being liked is something Shannon better get used to. This year, she's making her bid for big-screen stardom, turning in a cameo in "Analyze This," stealing scenes from Drew Barrymore in "Never Been Kissed" (opening Friday), starring as Mary Katherine Gallagher in September's "Superstar," and playing a supporting role opposite Jim Carrey in Ron Howard's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." And tonight, she makes a guest appearance on "Will & Grace" (8:30 p.m., NBC).
If she's nervous about taking the next step in her career, Shannon isn't letting on. "I worked in restaurants a long time as a hostess, and I prefer making movies," she deadpans. "Sure it's a little scary but, please, life is scary."
To hear Barrymore tell it, Shannon doesn't have much to be scared about. It was Barrymore who handpicked the comic for the movie role after the two ran into each other at the Beverly Center Mall's Betsey Johnson boutique.
"Molly just has this incredible zing," says Barrymore, who is the producer as well as the star of "Never Been Kissed." "I love her on 'Saturday Night Live,' but after we met, it was like a bell went off. I knew she'd be perfect for the movie."
Shannon is just as enthusiastic about Barrymore. "Drew is the best," she raves. "When I did a press junket for 'A Night at the Roxbury,' I imitated her because she's so positive. Everything is soooo positive, soooo amazing for Drew. But she's really like that.
"Her secret weapon is that she's a savvy businesswoman, too. She was really involved in every single aspect of the film. To watch her in action right before I went off to do my own movie was great for me. And she's so young. She is an incredible role model."
In the movie, Barrymore plays a Chicago Sun-Times reporter who goes undercover as a high-schooler to get a news scoop. Shannon is her best friend, an editor who offers advice on how to snare members of the opposite sex.
Shannon could identify with the flirty femme she plays in "Never Been Kissed." "I made out a lot in high school," admits the actress, who recently split up with screenwriter Neal Brennan. "I mean, a lot. I was pretty wild. I'd go to parties and drink and make out. But if the boy wanted to get serious, I'd be like, 'No way,' There was no sex because I was very Catholic."
There's no sex for Mary Katherine Gallagher in "Superstar," either. "It's an old-fashioned movie," says Shannon of the upcoming film which co-stars Glynnis Johns and Will Ferrell. "It's sweet. It's clean. It's about touching and kissing and intimacy. The sex is repressed, which is what makes it all the more delicious."
Needless to say, Shannon based aspects of Mary Katherine on herself. "That character is really like an exaggerated version of me during those years," she says. "I was always thinking I was in trouble. I was always very fidgety and nervous all the time."
No one could blame the actress for being high-strung. The Shaker Heights, Ohio, native has endured an enormous amount of tragedy. She was 4 years old when she watched her mother, her cousin, and her younger sister die after a massive Fourth of July car crash.
It was in the weeks following the accident, while she and her older sister were visiting their recovering father in the hospital, that Shannon first discovered her gift for comedy.
"I remember being in the hospital, trying to make the other kids there laugh," she says. "That's where it started. I mean, I come from a sad place -- and I've made my peace with it -- but basically I've always wanted others to laugh so I don't have to feel so sad myself."
As a teenager, Shannon often fantasized about becoming a nun. After graduating from St. Dominic's in Cleveland, however, Shannon headed to New York, where she earned a bachelor's degree from the Tisch School of Arts. For years afterward, she struggled, rarely landing anything more substantial than a walk-on role.
"I auditioned for so many pilots as the best friend, and I just couldn't get arrested," she recalls.
It was only after Shannon and pal Tom Muir decided to write and produce their own two-person show called "The Rob and Molly Show" that the comic's career slowly started taking off. For four long years, Shannon hustled the show, turning up at parties for the sole purpose of collecting names and numbers of prospective ticket-buyers.
"By the end, I had this huge box filled with names and numbers. When I finally got 'Saturday Night Live,' I just threw the box out," she recalls. "And still, to this day, when I do 'SNL' and I see that audience of people, I think, 'Thank God I didn't have to invite them and thank God I didn't have to pay for the band.'"
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