A Conversation with Rachel Sennott

Originally published in Issue 21

Photos by Annie Millman
Interview by Asher Penn

Rachel Sennott is a funny, hot, and talented actress, who seems equally committed to being extra responsible and chaotic as fuck. Beyond the popularity of her Twitter and stand-up comedy, she is best known as the star of 2020’s Shiva Baby, the anxiety-inducing Semitic social horror comedy in which she channeled an unravelling college-grad-sex-worker trying to get through a family event without losing her mind. Directed by the prodigious Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby is an insane accomplishment of a film: a low budget first feature, a single-location story that is riveting from start to finish, with Rachel’s enmeshed performance destroying every boundary that crosses her path. It’s clear that Shiva Baby was just the beginning and that Rachel is standing at the onset of an exciting, dramatic, and hilarious career.

You’re from Connecticut? What’s it like there?

It’s very pretty. The town that I grew up in is like a lot of farms. Country clubs, pools, golf courses. Very preppy. I remember the most popular girl in my high school literally would wear three Abercrombie polos, popped at the collar and the back one said “popular” in glitter.

I think I read somewhere you had protective parents?

It’s so funny. There’s five kids in my family. My younger siblings tell me I was raised by different parents. My parents were really strict when I was growing up but they’re a lot more relaxed on my younger siblings. I couldn’t watch PG-13 movies. My parents did not want me watching sex stuff. I was really religious. I wasn’t going to have sex until I was married. I remember my high school boyfriend trying to feel my boobs in a car and yelling at him to stop and later thinking ”I’m going to hell for this.” I really believed that.  I really took it to heart the things that were said, like in CCD…

What’s CCD?

It’s religious education on the weekends. You go to a class and they tell you how to be good. My sisters and I found our old CCD books and they’re so fun. Like little cartoons of a girl in a bikini and she’s a sinner. I just read that and was like, “This is true.”

Were you a theater kid? 

Yes. When I think back to being in theater in high school, I think I was just loud. That’s all it takes. If you shout when you talk, they put you in the play. I just loved making people laugh, performing. I loved comedy, but didn’t know what stand-up was. I feel like I was always playing the ugly witch that was funny. I was never the ingenue.

What’s an ingenue?

It’s the lead of the musical. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. They sing soprano and everyone falls in love with them. I was always the witch or a random character on the side that had fleas. This is really humiliating, but I actually wrote my college application essay about how I was never the ingenue because I wasn’t pretty enough and that challenged me to be different and made me stronger. Imagine reading that and deciding you wanted that person in your school.

But you got in. Why NYU, though?

I really wanted to be in New York. I think that the main thing that I got from the experience was being in New York and meeting people. I feel like sometimes you are told that it’s so important to be trained or whatever. But all the things that they were doing at school were like trying to smooth everybody out so they are the same, so we all deliver this monologue the same way.

When the entire point is to differentiate yourself.

I feel like the only thing that’s interesting about me is that I’m not stunningly beautiful. I would rather have the things that make me me, and get a role. I didn’t really love the acting program there. I ended up skipping class to do all the film student’s projects and write sketches.

But you just knew 100% you wanted to get into acting?

I wanted to do everything, to push it all forward and then see what happened first. So I started doing stand-up when I was a freshman. I was writing my own sketches and tweeting. I wrote all these funny articles. I said yes to anything and just wanted to see how it played out.

Were you modeling your career off of anyone?

I did this thing my freshman year where I looked up people who did things that I respected—Jenny Slate and Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza—and searched for things that they had done and wrote them in backwards order trying to figure out how they started. Then I wrote out a specific plan of what I wanted to do, breaking down my goals. By the time I graduated I wanted to have representation. How do I do that? What do I have to do in one year to lead up to three years? Because when you look at a goal from far away, it’s so impossible. But when you break it down into little, bite-size things that you do on a daily basis it makes it more doable. Does that make me sound like a loser?

Not at all. I should try that. How did you discover your voice in stand-up?

I think that when I first started, I was more self-deprecating. I still am, but when I first started I had issues with eating disorders. My skin was really bad. I felt very insecure. I didn’t feel confident in my body. I didn’t feel good about myself. I went through so many little non-relationship things and that made me feel sad about myself. I think that I really found control over that feeling by writing jokes about it. So when someone was treating me badly, in my head I was like, “This is awesome because I’m going to write a sick joke about it.” So I found a way to feel more in control. When people were laughing at the things that were causing me pain I felt like I was running my life. Like, you can treat me however you want, but I’m going to take it and put it into something where I feel good. It felt really cathartic.

How did you get the role for Shiva Baby?

So Emma’s project was a thesis film, one of those student films that I auditioned for. I read that the character was anxious. And I’m a very anxious person. I’m anxious in a different way than Danielle is but I related to the anxiety and I related to Emma. In the first session she was like, “Every aspect of your life is like closing in on you.”

Was that how you felt at the time?

In college I was living many different versions of myself. When I left home I was a musical theater girl. I’m not going to have sex. I’m a good girl. Then I got to college and started doing my fingering jokes, trying to have sex, trying to feel empowered, tweeting about stuff. And my family was like, “I thought you wanted to do plays.” So I felt that conflicting pressure that Danielle feels.

And you got the role. What was the rehearsal process like?

Half of me rehearsing for the movie was just the conversations that we had as friends about our lives. I was in this long on-again/off-again thing where you start in this place where you really like this person and think you’re going to be together. And then they don’t want to be with you. Sometimes you have to go through a relationship like that, where you are learning your worth and what to respect in yourself. I think that as the time between the short and the feature, those things really helped me understand Danielle.

So how much of Danielle was you and how much was Emma?

It was a blending where we both have shared experiences and individual experiences that contributed to Danielle’s arc. We both have felt that feeling of being powerless. And when you think that you have power as a young woman, and then it’s taken away, or you had less power than you thought, it’s a horrible feeling. We wanted to capture that age, when you’re a young woman and you just feel out of control and there’s all this pressure and expectation from your family and society and friends, what you’re supposed to want, and what you actually want.

What’s incredible is that you both really captured that.

I was so lucky because Emma is such a talented writer, such a talented director and my best friend. We really were able to craft the arc together. We basically went through the script and we created a chart of anxiety. What are her fears? What are her intrusive thoughts? And then we went through and we charted the power. We wanted to make sure we knew who had the power in each scene and what Danielle does to get back the power and then how she loses it.

What kinds of roles are you looking to play now? What kind of stories do you want to tell?

Shiva Baby was a dream role in that it’s a complicated, messy female character. The role I’m working on now for Bodies, Bodies, Bodies is super fun and complicated too. I really want to play real women who are fucked up, but you like them anyway. I think sometimes people want women to be likable and then that makes it less funny. In the script we’re working on now, we want the characters to be very flawed and get the comedy from that. Emma and I both have a shared interest in representing the feelings of being a young woman at our age. After Shivah Baby, a lot of young women reached out to me saying, “Oh my God, like I was in this thing for like two and a half years and I felt horrible, and this made me feel less alone.” That is what I want to do.