SXSW Queen ‘Bottoms’ Star Rachel Sennott Feels the ‘Pressure’

As Parker Posey was at Sundance in the ’90s and Greta Gerwig at SXSW in the mid-decade, no one embodies the current South by Southwest Film & TV Festival sensibility like Rachel Sennott. With a persona that is divided but aware, somehow frankly cynical, attuned but elegant, she is 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” co-star Emma Seligman. Its premiere on Saturday night is one of the most anticipated events of the festival. “I Used to Be Funny,” written and directed by Ally Pankiw and in the narrative feature competition, is the story of a young woman dealing with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder and shows a previously unknown dramatic side of Sennott’s talents .

Having gone to the 2018 festival with the short film version of the anxiety-inducing comedy “Shiva Baby” — the feature version played the 2020 festival, which canceled his own version in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — Sennott was also there last year with her impressive performance of “Bodies Bodies Bodies”.

For a phone interview ahead of the festival, Sennott was in, as she put it, “Tennessee, randomly,” where she’s filming the upcoming “Holland, Michigan,” directed by Mimi Cave and co-starring the formidable trio. by Nicole Kidman, Gael García Bernal and Matthew Macfadyen

She was very excited to be back at SXSW.

“It honestly means so much,” Sennott said. “When I first got there, I think it just opened my eyes so much to indie filmmaking and I also realized that filmmakers were just people who wanted to do something with their friends. It was really encouraging for Emma and me and a lot of motivation to write “Bottoms”.

“And I felt that last year for ‘Bodies’ where I was like, ‘Oh my God. I only want to see any movie ever with this room of people,” Sennott said. “It completely changed the experience where everyone wanted to see a movie and laugh and cheer. Energy, it’s something I’ve really missed in the last couple of years. I love seeing 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 its own festival premiere, the feature version of “Shiva Baby” went on to become a pandemic-era hit, earning Sennott a Gotham Award nomination for breakthrough performer and winning the Spirit Awards’ John Cassavetes Award. which recognizes low-budget films.

Rachel Sennott stars as PJ and Ayo Edebiri as Josie in ‘Bottoms’.

(Orion Pictures Inc.)

While “Shiva Baby” and “Bodies Bodies Bodies” firmly established her comedic persona, Sennott is excited, if a little anxious, to showcase other aspects of her talent at this year’s festival, starting with sharing writing credit on “down.”

“This is the first movie I’ve written that has been filmed,” Sennott said. “There’s an added pressure because suddenly you’re not only worried about how people think of your performance, about every line you say, ‘Did they like that? Did they like that?’

“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 serious subject matter and, not that I haven’t done that, but I think about this particular level or that the issue, I haven’t done it.”

In “I Used to Be Funny,” which opens Monday, Sennott plays Sam, an aspiring stand-up comedian who shuts down after a traumatic incident and the young girl Brooke (Olga Petsa) who used to babysit because disappeared. . Told with a bold, clipped storytelling sensibility, the film draws on Sennott’s comedic persona while finding her exploring new emotional depths.

A woman looks out from her bed

Rachel Sennott in ‘I used to be funny’.

(South by Southwest Film & TV Festival)

“I wanted to show what is being taken away from women. Their sense of humor, their connection to the world, their joy, has been stripped away, and nobody starts out like that,” Pankiw said. “People make them like that.

“Often when you meet people with PTSD or who have been traumatized, that’s the version you come across first, like the first iteration of Rachel in the movie,” Pankiw said. “And it’s such a shame that most people don’t know the person they were before their trauma. Rachel does such a good job of bringing so much life to the character and such a charm and such an inherent sweetness and you see all of that and that she was all of those things and that she was pure potential. It’s like a reverse kind of sympathy.”

Pankiw, who is making her film debut, has directed episodes of series like ‘Shrill’ and ‘The Great’, as well as several music videos, including Muna’s ‘Silk Chiffon’ with Phoebe Bridgers. She first saw Sennott do stand-up and remembers thinking, “This girl is so funny and brilliant and charming. I just put it in my head for future reference.”

A woman stands outside a comedy club and looks at the marquee.

Rachel Sennott in ‘I used to be funny’.

(South by Southwest Film & TV Festival)

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 both she and Sennott were represented by the same agency, WME.

“I think I had written the character a little harder, and Rachel has this sweetness about her, she can just melt your heart,” Pankiw said. “It was such a miracle that we got her and she also brought a lot of that character element to the fore that I think was really needed. I often joke that she made this movie for me and now I’d get hit by a bus for her.”

Sennott’s character in “I Used to Be Funny” is an aspiring stand-up comedian who struggles to perform after her traumatic event. Sennott and Pankiw collaborated on stand-up routines in the film. Pankiw recalled that Sennott rehearsed in the kitchen of her Toronto apartment for the production, using a spatula as a microphone as she worked on the material.

For Sennott it was a new challenge to do a stand-up character.

“Honestly, it was so wild,” he said. “I write jokes about my job as a nanny 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 were like “Are you Canadian?” after the show. And I said, “No, I’m a liar. I’m just a liar.’ “

A director instructs two actors on a classroom set.

Actor Ayo Edebiri, left, writer-director Emma Seligman and actress-writer Rachel Sennott on the set of “Bottoms.”

(Patti Perret / Orion Pictures)

“Bottoms” found Sennott working not only with her “Shiva Baby” co-star Seligman, but also with her co-star Ayo Edebiri, with whom she had a short-lived Comedy Central series, “Ayo and Rachel Are Single.” Seligman and Sennott wrote the part in “Bottoms” with Edebiri in mind and cast her in it before they even finished a draft of the script.

“To finally get to the place where we were all pulling together was like, ‘Wow,'” Sennott said. “Ayo and I did so many little skits together at school and we did this little Comedy Central series with no money and we did stand-up in basements and stuff to get back together but actually in a budget movie where we fight each other and the stunts were really cool.

“Not to sound mean, but I was like, ‘We did it! Was here!’ Sennott said. “We were in New Orleans with the stunt coordinator kicking each other in the face. We did it.”

For Pankiw, Sennott’s truest gift is how she makes it seem like she’s doing absolutely nothing, the naturalistic company she brings to a role.

“What she does is she tricks people into thinking that what she does is effortless, but she’s an incredibly talented technician as an actress,” Pankiw said. “And I think because people have seen her mostly in comedic roles, unfortunately sometimes the misconception is that it’s too easy if you’re like your character. But I think he’s more of a chameleon than people know.”

Originally from Connecticut, Sennott went to college in New York, started her career there, and finds that she’s still very much a New Yorker even though she lives in Los Angeles.

“I feel like I’m leaving New York,” Sennott said. “I really like Los Angeles. It grows on me and I have to tell you the experience of grocery shopping in Los Angeles, second to none. Sorry, New York, but the shopping in Los Angeles is incredible.”

Sennott is trying to make sense of 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,” excitedly – to the prediction the answer to both “I used to be funny” and “Down”.

“Honestly I’ve been feeling like COVID for the last couple of years, my emotions are kind of retarded,” Sennott said. “Because so much of it happened in a way that you don’t realize on a day-to-day basis. And then it happens in these random little bursts where I feel it in those moments.

“I feel grateful [“Shiva Baby”] I had to have this online background of this community of mostly young women who were supporting the film,” Sennott said. “If I ever see a 25-year-old girl with a Twitter account who says, ‘I liked your movie,’ I’m going to say, ‘You’re the reason someone saw it, so thank you.’ “

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