Rachel Sennott’s story about shooting the poster for Shiva Baby is almost as chaotic as the movie itself. The promotional image shows Sennott perched in a strangely seductive position, dressed in a gown made of cream cheese and accessorized with bagels and lox. It’s hilarious, strangely compelling, and by all accounts, more difficult to pull off than you’d think.
“I was naked on a little stool, while the art designer is covering me in shaving cream,” Sennott told Refinery29 about the experience over Zoom. “The bagels kept sliding, and I couldn’t touch [anything] because I would mess it up, so someone was literally on bagel duty. [When] the bagels would slide and between takes, they would pick them up and put new ones on.”
“It was great.”
Put that same energy into a movie, and you get Sennott’s boldly charismatic performance as Danielle, a New York University student who moonlights as a sugar baby. Her foray into sex work doesn’t come out of dire financial necessity — her liberal Jewish parents, Joel (Fred Melamed) and Debbie (Polly Draper), still pay her bills. Danielle is searching for herself. At home, she’s a little spoiled and fairly aimless, confused about what the future will hold and what she wants out of life. Her only serious romantic relationship, with her best friend Maya (Molly Gordon), was dismissed as a phase. But with Max (Danny Deferrari), Danielle can be the kind of woman she thinks she should be: sexually empowered, ambitious and in control. That is, until she finds herself standing in front of his sleek, accomplished wife Kim (Dianna Agron) with a run in her stocking and the stain of someone else’s wine on her lips. Oh, and Maya’s there too. Did you hear she got into law school? So smart!
Written and directed by Emma Seligman, Shiva Baby is at once granularly specific and surprisingly universal. Its setting and overall vibe are undeniably Jewish — think Uncut Gems, with less gambling, more lox, and even more guilt — but its themes about struggling to find one’s identity and path, while feeling pressured to perform one for others, is relatable to all faiths. Sennott should know — she grew up in a Catholic Italian-Irish family, eating baked ziti and meatballs at wakes rather than rugelach at shivas. But the feeling of being one person at home and another out in the world is one that immediately resonated. To illustrate, Sennott shares a personal anecdote about her first time giving oral sex.
“I grew up Catholic and very religious,” she told Refinery29 over Zoom. “Then I went to NYU, and I tried to be a different person. In my head I wasn’t going to have sex until I was married. [So, of course everyone on] my freshman floor was like, ‘You need to suck a dick, right now.’ I found this guy on Tinder, and picked him because he was an intern for Seth Meyers — literally — and I went over there just to give him a blowjob. After, I was like, Do I feel empowered, or do I feel bad? I couldn’t tell — how much of it is your personal desires versus what you feel like you should be doing?”
If her Shiva Baby character searches for the answer through sex with older men, Sennott has found another outlet for her angst: comedy. Sennot says she always felt like a performer, but she didn’t discover stand-up until she attended an open-mic night in college with a guy she was dating. They came for his performance; she left with a dream of her own. Still, it wasn’t until she gave up trying to appeal to a mainstream — read: white, male and straight — audience and found New York’s alt scene that she really found her voice.
“When I first started stand-up I was in the mainstream scene, and that’s a very old white male space. When I would tell these jokes about my sex life, it was almost like they were laughing at me. It was like...Ok, you’re not laughing at the funny part, you’re laughing that I had sex one time. They were not relating to the joke in the way that I want them to. Once I started performing in the alt scene, I felt like my jokes were resonating way more with this audience of younger women.”
With quarantine forcing comedians off the stage and onto social media, Sennott has continued to workshop material for more than 144,000 followers on Twitter. There she shares her dream post-pandemic life (“‘Ugh I’m being so socially awkward!’ -me doing cocaine off someone’s dick at the first post-pandemic rager”), pop culture insights (“My favourite Lana songs are 60% horny, 40% sad as opposed to her other songs which are 60% sad, 40% horny”), and awkward dating thoughts (“Why is it that every guy that didn’t want to date me texts me once a month for the rest of my life”). It’s where she tests out jokes, but also where she finds closure and catharsis.
“If I could describe this year, it’s that it’s been really vulnerable for people,” Sennott said. “Watching the awards shows and watching celebrities Zoom in — wow. You learn so much from the back wall. It’s very vulnerable, and in many cases, humiliating.”
Her own willingness to lay it all out there has borne fruit. Sennott has appeared in HBO’s High Maintenance and recently landed a Comedy Central web series and special with Ayo Edibiri. (Full disclosure: Refinery29 is a partner on the project.) Currently, she’s starring alongside Kyra Sedgewick in ABC’s Call Your Mother. Her projects have one thing in common: They’re frank, funny, and centre flawed — and sometimes unlikeable — women.
That, more than anything, is what drew her to Seligman’s script. “Danielle is complicated,” Sennott said. “You’re rooting for her, but not every decision she makes is great — I love that.”
The two met as students at NYU. Seligman was shooting the short that would eventually become Shiva Baby as her thesis project, and asked Sennott to audition. It was, as they say in the movies, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. “I had been on a million NYU film sets with little male directors screaming, ‘Are we good on time?,’ and yelling at everyone,” Sennott wryly noted. “Emma is such a great director — she’s so calm and grounded.”
Since then, Sennott has made a conscious effort to work with women, a deceptively simple goal that’s not always easy to pull off in comedy, or Hollywood. Once, she recalls, she and Seligman took a meeting in Los Angeles and were mistaken for interns. “But I feel like I have a good core group,” she added. “Even if we’re meeting in the bastion of men, we have a strong base.”
Ultimately, Shiva Baby is a movie about women — how they relate to each other, compete with each other, annoy, love, and support each other. Though Danielle’s relationship with a man is the catalyst for much of the drama, it’s her interactions with her mother, Maya, and Kim that drive her growth. “I want young women to see themselves in it, and see the challenge of balancing society’s expectations, their family’s expectations, their friends’ expectations, and the things that they want for themselves,” Sennott said. “It’s a story that speaks to the complications of being a woman and all your different identities.”
Danielle dwells in those uncomfortable grey areas. She’s messy and petulant, but she’s never boring. Her story will make you sweat and wince and curse, but you will watch. And that’s just how Sennott likes it.