For anyone who’s been to a shiva, a Jewish mourning ritual, the anxiety-laced comedy “Shiva Baby” feels instantly recognizable: the lox, bagels and rugelach are as plentiful as the overly inquisitive relatives.
“Shiva Baby” takes the mishegas up a notch. The film follows Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college senior accompanying her parents to a shiva. In the crammed house, she isn’t just forced to schmooze with aunts and family friends who prod for her post-graduation plans (spoiler alert: she doesn’t have any). Danielle also encounters her ambitious ex-girlfriend, as well as her sugar daddy — and his shiksa wife. One would forgive Danielle for feeling verklempt.
Writer and director Emma Seligman originally made “Shiva Baby” as a short film while studying at New York University, drawing inspiration from fellow NYU students who were sugar babies. Danielle, who is still on her parent’s payroll, doesn’t sugar for the money. Instead, she considers it a form of female empowerment.
It was important to Sennott that her character’s decision to sugar — date in exchange for money or other support — was represented authentically.
“I feel like so often, TV or movies [portray] it as this glamorous, fucking hot, thing — or it’s bad and scary and evil. I think this is a more realistic depiction,” the 25-year-old Sennott tells Variety.
That’s not to say Danielle’s personal situation is entirely relatable to others who have turned to dating for money. “Danielle is super privileged,” she clarifies with a laugh. “I wanted to be clear that it’s one person’s experience.”
“Shiva Baby” is the first major film role for Sennott, an internet personality known for the TV series “Call Your Mother.” Following the release of the movie, which is currently available on demand, she spoke to Variety about filming in Brooklyn and why “Shiva Baby” plays like a thriller.
I will admit, I was surprised to find out you weren’t Jewish.
I think that a lot of people have been surprised. When I first auditioned for the short film, Emma thought that I was Jewish and said I seemed like someone she’d run into at a shiva. I come from a big Italian Catholic family. Obviously it’s not the same, but there’s a lot of crossover between my family and Danielle’s family.
What’s the key to capturing neurotic Jewish energy?
I’m a very anxious person, so I really channeled my own anxiety. My anxiety manifests in a different way. It’s a little more outward — quick talking or being like, “Are you mad?” over and over and over. For Danielle, it was more inward, whether it’s her sweating or playing with her hair. That’s something Emma and I talked about a lot: “What level of anxiety is Danielle at?”
Had you been to a shiva before?
I went to a shiva when I was in high school for my friend’s family. I don’t want to say it was fun, maybe it’s because I didn’t know the person, but it’s a very nice release. It’s not just all sad. You’re transitioning out of the period [of mourning] together. It felt really nice. It reminded me a lot of my family, except we’re having lasagna.
When you were graduating from college, did you feel a similar pressure to Danielle as everyone is asking her what she’s planning to do with her life?
100%. I went to school for acting, so we’re starting off on a bad foot. While I was in school, I started doing stand-up and tweeting a lot. I was really being open about my sexuality. That’s my comedy. I was raised to be, I don’t know if prude is the right word, but I wasn’t going to have sex until I was married. I think my family thought I wanted to go to school to do plays. And then I’m sitting there tweeting [sex jokes]. They were like, ‘What is this?” And I was like, “This is my career.” And they were like, “What? Why!” It comes from a place of love. They just want to make sure you’re OK.
How did you find your comedic voice?
I didn’t know what stand-up was in high school. I did theater growing up. When I got to New York, my vision of what you could do as a career expanded. And then my comedic voice, I think I felt very powerless in college. I struggled in my relationships. I was not confident in myself. I was struggling with a lot of eating stuff. I went on birth control, and it was a nightmare for many reasons. I did not feel good about myself. And no one that I liked ever liked me. There were so many times where I’d be dating someone, and I would think we were going to be together, and they were like, ‘No.” I just like started tweeting so honestly, maybe even too honestly, about all of it. It made me feel way more in control.
People have been comparing the anxious energy of “Shiva Baby” to “Uncut Gems.” Do you agree?
I loved “Uncut Gems,” so that’s a huge compliment. This movie shows that being a young woman is a horror movie. Nobody else at the shiva is in a horror movie. When you’re a young woman, there’s all this pressure to be independent and sexually adventurous, but also to have a boyfriend, soon. There’s pressure to be skinny, but not too skinny. All these pressures come from different places, your family, society, your friends. You never even listen to what you want. But Danielle is in this situation where all of these things are butting heads. It’s terrifying.
Did you have to decompress after filming tense scenes?
I feel so lucky because Emma and I are best friends, so she really knows me. Every morning, Emma would come up to my dressing room, which was a child’s bedroom, and sit on the floor and be like, “What is Danielle going through today?” She just knew how to take me in and out of the scene and give me space if I needed it. [We were] on the same page. She would check in and being like, “What do you need? Do you need a minute? Do we want to talk about this, or do you want to like sit alone?” That helped me a lot.
Did you learn any Yiddish while filming? Do you have a favorite word?
I think verklempt. We were sweating in the house, it had no air conditioning, 100 people and the smell of cream cheese and fish. Emma would say it a lot on set, and I honestly really felt it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.