What is the most mortifying thing that has ever happened to you? A spectacular pratfall? An accidental reply all? For Danielle, the protagonist of the sublimely uncomfortable Shiva Baby, it has to be the moment when her parents decide to revive – with actions – a lullaby they invented for her as an infant (“Let’s make a baby shake!”) in front of her secret sugar daddy and his beautiful, accomplished wife at an already quite claustrophobic shiva (a Jewish funeral). Having just faced her law school-destined ex-girlfriend, as well as a sustained interrogation about her career (short answer: she has none), Danielle sweats and sways, as if struggling to choose between further humiliation or unconsciousness. Quarter-life crises don’t get more nightmarish than this.
Expertly mediating all this agony, cringe and confusion is Rachel Sennott, a 25-year-old, Connecticut-born comedian and actor whose deadpan, eerily naturalistic performance means we really feel Danielle’s pain. For, despite all its particular horror, Shiva Baby is a deeply relatable film. Danielle is about to graduate, awkwardly straddling the boundary between adolescence and adulthood as her life moves into unscripted territory.
“Up until then, you’re on a track with everyone,” says Sennott, from a New York hotel room. “There are little choices, like: ‘Do you want to do soccer or do you want to do drama club?’ And then it’s like: well, you have free time until you die.”
In Sennott’s case, this free time certainly hasn’t gone to waste. Not only is she starring in a film that can already claim to be the year’s most celebrated indie comedy (Shiva Baby has had a glowing reception in the US, and HBO is developing a TV series called Sugar, inspired by the film), she is also an accomplished standup, maker of satisfyingly daft online sketches, and one of the funniest people on social media, where she posts a combination of archly saucy selfies, slut shamer-baiting observations, and bang-on bon mots about contemporary life. “Reading a book (watching a YouTube video explaining a music video) before bed,” reads one recent example.
Last year, Sennott switched lanes into the mainstream, and landed a lead role in a US network sitcom called Call Your Mother – “It’s definitely different than tweeting about fucking a guy in an Uber,” she admits – which required her to relocate from New York to LA. Now, thanks to other work commitments, she is permanently commuting between coasts, her possessions scattered between friends’ houses and storage units. What is the effect of such a fractured lifestyle on the psyche? “Bad,” says Sennott. “So bad. I literally wake up in the middle of the night like: ‘Fuck, I need that T-shirt and it’s far away!’ I feel discombobulated.”
One constant in Sennott’s life over the past few years has been Shiva Baby itself. It started off as a short made as part of its writer-director Emma Seligman’s film degree at New York University. The pair met when Sennott, who was studying acting at NYU, auditioned for the lead role. They are now “best friends”, with Sennott the driving force behind its adaptation into a feature. “Emma thinks things through,” she says. “She’s so creative and smart. And I’m like: ‘Let’s-go-these-are-our-goals-this-is-our-to-do-list.’ I’m a Virgo, she’s a Taurus.” The film was rejected by “so many different production companies” when they started pitching the idea, but the pair’s dogged persistence paid off: they managed to film it in the August of 2019 and took it on the (virtual) film festival circuit the following spring, where it picked up a slew of awards.
Sennott’s go-getting attitude has super-charged her career. Initially set on becoming an actor, she started doing standup after a guy she was seeing at university took her to an open-mic night (until that point she says she didn’t know “what standup was”). “What I liked about comedy was having agency to move forward,” she says. “If you’re an actor, you audition, then you wait. I can’t do that, I’m really anxious and I need to be doing something.”
When she first began performing at comedy clubs in Manhattan, Sennott remembers the atmosphere being “gross”. She was 18 and usually the only woman on the bill. “There was this one guy [a fellow comedian] who would throw little pieces of paper at my nipples. That’s something I blacked out. It was not fun,” she says. Soon she moved on to the alternative scene in Brooklyn, a starkly different experience. “There’s a lot more women and queer people and people of colour, and it’s just a more supportive environment. If I’m telling a joke about getting fingered in a room of 30 guys who all would be down to finger me, it feels weird. Versus a room of women, who are like: ‘Oh my God, I was dry-fingered, too.’” That specific bit of material was drawn from a disastrous date with a man who took her to a college cafeteria, chastised her for eating cookies, and then fingered her in a lift, an experience Sennott describes as “literally like getting an examination”.
It wasn’t just live comedy that provided a creative – and cathartic – outlet for Sennott in the early days. At university, she used Twitter to share “really personal, raw jokes” as a way to “take control over my life. Because I was miserable: I was really insecure, I was not having success in love.” If a joke about a low point went viral “then I would feel like at least something came of how sad I was”. It is fair to say her parents were not instantly on board, “because I went to school to be in a play, and then I’m sitting there tweeting about my boobs every day”. (In case it isn’t obvious by this point, Sennott is the type of comedian who is extremely funny in person, zoning in on the most ridiculous, self-effacing angle at every opportunity.) “They were like: ‘How is this going to get you a job?’ To them, it’s the opposite of getting a job. And I’m like: ‘I know that this is worth something.’”
She was right. Sennott says her social media presence (she has 157k followers on Twitter) got her booked for more real-world gigs. But it is more than a means to an end; it is still a crucial component of her career, her humour and her life. On Instagram, her sexy selfies come with captions that satirise the ridiculous levels of artifice involved in the way people use the platform (a recent photo of Sennott posing next to a platter of sushi in an extremely low-cut crop top is captioned: “Pic of me enjoying a meal”). And just like her tweets that metabolised rejection into affirmation, Sennott says posting overtly saucy pictures allows her to feel in control of her sexuality. “If you say to yourself: ‘You’re hot and you’re being sexual and it feels good,’ then it feels that way.” Society sexualises young women regardless; Sennott’s aim is to move from being a passive to an active participant in that reality.
In Shiva Baby, the relationship between sex and power is similarly complicated. When we first meet Danielle she is having sex with her sugar daddy; a transaction that concludes when he gives her a wodge of cash. Later, however, it is revealed that she doesn’t really need the money – her parents fund her lifestyle – rather, she feels “validated” by the relationship, says Sennott. “It’s like: ‘No one wants to commit to me. Well, my sugar daddy is so fucking obsessed with me, I have all the power in this relationship,’” she says. During the course of the film, that dynamic is revealed to be fiction: coddled by her parents, rejected by her sugar daddy and grilled by his “girlboss” wife (who seems to earn all the money anyway), Danielle is left feeling positively embryonic.
Sennott wants to be clear that the film is portraying “one really specific example of sugaring. Danielle is super-privileged.” At her university, this kind of arrangement – which usually involves a wealthy older man funding a younger woman’s lifestyle in exchange for sex – was popular (“I think NYU has the highest number of registered sugar babies on SeekingArrangement, which is a really popular sugar baby website,” she says). But, as Sennott discovered from those involved, it exists on a spectrum: from a form of financial survival to something approaching a genuine romantic liaison. One thing Shiva Baby strove to do was “to tell a story about a sex worker that was nuanced and wasn’t either ‘it’s hot, sexy and fun’ all the time or ‘it’s evil, it’s bad’; I feel like sometimes it’s represented one way or the other in the media.”
Sex is not the only prism used by Shiva Baby to explore control – or the lack of it. Danielle spends a lot of time at the buffet piling up a paper plate before hastily taking food off it, a neat outward invocation of the way women are encouraged to second-guess their eating habits. During an emotional nadir, she finally submits and stuffs a bagel into her mouth. “There’s no way she’s eating because she’s hungry,” says Sennott. “She’s eating because she’s freaking the fuck out.”
Bagels, cream cheese, lox, rugelach: the world of Shiva Baby is, as per the title, a very Jewish one. Sennott herself is not Jewish (Seligman is), but she found much common ground with Danielle. “I come from a big Italian family and we felt like there was a lot of crossover,” she says.
The symbiotic partnership between Sennott and Seligman is only just getting started. Their next project is a comedy they have co-written called Bottoms, about two queer girls (Seligman is bisexual) competing to have sex before the end of high school. It marks a step-change from the lifelike cringe-comedy of Shiva Baby. “It’s very campy like Jennifer’s Body and Wet Hot American Summer. I just want to do a wacky comedy, especially after the pandemic,” says Sennott. “Let’s just have fun and go crazy because it’s been a really sad year.”
Sennott is embracing the fact her comedy has so many different dimensions. “What’s cool about the industry these days is that you can be multifaceted,” she says. In fact, she sees her success as being entirely bound up with the way comedy operates in the 21st century, spilling from the internet into the mainstream. “I feel really lucky because I don’t think anyone would look at me on the street and be like: ‘She’s special.’ That would never happen. I had to put my voice out there and see that it resonated with people.”
Between her self-starter tendencies, boundary-pushing social media presence and spine-tingling performance in Shiva Baby, it is hard to imagine anybody who takes a chance on Rachel Sennott being the slightest bit disappointed.
Shiva Baby is in select cinemas with a special Q&A on 9 June, and on Mubi from 11 June