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Molly Shannon opens up about heartbreaking childhood tragedy in candid interview

Shannon said that the accident, which killed three family members, helped lead her to a career in acting.
Molly Shannon
"I was very heartbroken and very sad and just trying to hold it all together as a kid," former "SNL" star Molly Shannon said of the deaths of her mother, sister and cousin when she was a child.HBO / Kobal via Shutterstock
/ Source: TODAY

Molly Shannon opened up about a family tragedy that shaped much of her life and career in a wide-ranging interview with the Los Angeles Times.

When she was 4 years old, her mother, younger sister and cousin were killed in a car accident, and her father, who had been driving under the influence, was severely injured.

The comedian and actor, who recently appeared on HBO's dark comedy "The White Lotus," said that as a child she struggled to cope.

"I was very heartbroken and very sad and just trying to hold it all together as a kid," Shannon told the L.A. Times. "There's no way you could feel that type of deep pain about your mother and your sister being dead, so you just hold it all in, and it comes up later in life."

After the accident, Shannon and her surviving sister went to live with an aunt while her father recovered. While there, she dealt with some of the emotions of losing her family members.

"The life that we left was not the same life we were moving back into," Shannon said. "It just felt like everything was different, and I wanted my aunt to do stuff like my mom. ... We would learn to do fun stuff, like tie our shoes, and I felt like, 'Katie, my little sister, should be here learning. She would have loved this. Katie would have loved doing the rabbits and tying her shoe.'"

Shannon said that the accident led her to the stage. When she was in fifth grade, she began performing in professional children's theater, starring as Dorothy in a production of "The Wizard of Oz." The friendliness and camaraderie of the other performers helped draw her in.

"They were different than Catholic kids — more affectionate," said Shannon. "That was what first attracted me. How sweet they were. They would hug you, and I missed some of that from not having a mom."

Shannon continued performing and eventually enrolled at New York University, where she created her popular "Saturday Night Live" character Mary Katherine Gallagher while working on an improvisational exercise for a comedy show.

"I just exaggerated everything I felt as a little girl and turned it into a character," said Shannon, who said that she included traits like being "really nervous, accident-prone, wanting to please, f---ed up but full of hope."

After a decade of advancing through the comedy world, Shannon finally was invited onto "SNL," where she stayed for seven seasons. She played several characters during her time on the show, but she was so committed to Mary Katherine Gallagher that she cast herself into objects without fear of getting hurt.

"I didn't care if I cut myself or I made myself bleed," said Shannon when reflecting on that era. "I did not give a s---. I looked at it like punk rock. I was reckless, and because of what I went through, I just didn’t care about anything."

Now, 20 years after she left "SNL," Shannon has made a name for herself in other comedies, usually playing characters that explore difficult themes. Shannon said that she hopes speaking out about her experiences will help others who might be struggling.

"You feel like you put your heart right there on the table, but I hope that my story can help other people," she said.

Shannon, now a mom of two with husband Fritz Chestnut, said that she's thankful now for the life that she has.

"I look at life differently, losing my mom, and living beyond years that she ever got to live," Shannon said. "And I feel gratitude."