When asked whether women can “have it all”—a prosperous career, a vibrant sex life, a home in which to live, a husband, boyfriend, or partner at said home—the actress and comedian Rachel Sennott answers by describing her first experience with oral sex.
“This is not what you asked,” Sennott laughs, her face, visible over Zoom, widening with a smile. But this kind of open-book, no-holds-barred conversation is one of the central pillars of Sennott’s personal brand of comedy—one which began with open mic nights in New York City and has led her to roles in HBO’s High Maintenance and ABC’s Call Your Mother, as well as a recurring web series and Comedy Central special with fellow comedienne Ayo Edebiri.
But before all that, Sennott was a student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts—a time she describes as one for exploration, and specifically, where she set out to find answers about her own sexuality.
“That was when I was trying to revolt from my upbringing,” explains Sennott, who was raised Catholic and is of Italian descent. “I grew up swearing I wouldn’t give a blowjob, even after I was married, because it was a sin. But my friend, who lived in my dorm, told me I had to, because as time went on, I would be worse at it if I didn't.
“So much of my life has been more focused on what I feel like I should be doing, what outside voices are telling me, instead of focusing on what I actually want.”
This idea is at the crux of Shiva Baby, Sennott’s feature film debut. Directed by Sennott’s friend and frequent collaborator Emma Seligman—who created a short film called Shiva Baby Short in 2018 upon which the full-length movie is based—Shiva Baby debuted at South by Southwest and the Toronto Film Festival to much acclaim in 2020. Now, it's getting a wide release on Video on Demand, in select theaters, and on streaming platforms April 2. Sennott plays Danielle, a college student on the verge of graduating with no real direction, sense of purpose, and some seriously deep insecurities. Meanwhile, she's on the hunt for answers in terms of her sexuality and her autonomy over it. These conflicting emotions boil to the surface during a shiva, the Jewish ceremony performed when mourning a death, where Sennott-as-Danielle encounters overbearing family members, her ex-girlfriend, and a secret sugar daddy who just so happened to show up to the function.
In one of the final scenes of the film, Sennott walks down a suburban, tree-lined street with her aforementioned ex, played by Molly Gordon, who inquires about her new vocation as a sugar baby. “Why do you do it?” she says. “It felt nice to have power, and be appreciated,” Sennott answers. It's a feeling many people—especially women—can understand, Sennott included. The quest for being seen and loved is at the center of much of her Millennial-focused comedy, which touches upon self-consciousness, dating, and finding oneself in the age of the Internet.
These themes directly coincide with Shiva Baby, which Sennott began working on with Seligman during her NYU days, when the film was still in its nascent short phase. The 25-year-old actress auditioned for Seligman's thesis film after performing in a number of plays in the university's theater program and deciding the stage wasn't for her. (“The last play I did, I died in the first two minutes—and then I had to stand on stage for the rest of the play as a ghost,” Sennott explains. “I had to stay awake and couldn't even go pee.”) In Seligman, Sennott found a creative collaborator who just got her. Where Sennott was footloose, throwing jokes out left and right, Seligman was grounded. When Sennott became anxious during the process of writing, Seligman would remain calm. They often met in coffee shops around New York City to put their thoughts down on paper; it was during one of these writing sessions that the idea for Shiva Baby, the full-length film, was born.
"We got coffee and walked around this one block, like, 20 times as she described to me everything that was going to happen in the feature,” Sennott recalls. “She knew everything she wanted to happen in it.”
They began filming the dark comedy during the summer of 2019, alongside costars Polly Draper and Fred Melamed, who play Sennott’s mother and father, respectively.
“I was there to listen to Emma and talk through each of her drafts of the script, reading different versions, and watching her work on it so much,” Sennott says. “By the time we were shooting, I felt like I really knew the character and so much about her.”
Danielle is by no means exactly like Sennott, who is a planner by nature (“I'm a Virgo—I write a breakdown of my goals in month-by-month and three-year-long terms,”) and who feels a distinct sense of direction in terms of where she’ll go with her comedy work. But one thing she can fully connect with is Danielle’s need to feel like she’s pleasing everyone, serving roles as the daughter, the sexually empowered woman, the obedient girlfriend, and a loving, whip-smart, and, (most importantly, to the various aunties who pinch her waist and comment on how she’s not eating anything at the shiva,) thin picture of perfection.
"I also feel this pressure in my own life. People tell you, ‘Be free. Fuck everybody. Like, seriously—don't stop fucking everyone. Come on, you're loving it.’” Sennott says. Despite the pandemic throwing a wrench in her tendency to plan out her life, the comedian has found peace in honoring her own desires. Even if she still feels outside pressure, she’s becoming more comfortable with undeniable needs she will fulfill in time. “I found a little bit more of a balance in terms finding a routine,” she says. “Now I feel more in control of dating and balancing work. I'm a little bit better about listening to my inner wants.”