Spoilers for The Bear season 2 below.
Molly Gordon knows about heartache. Before she played Triple A, the sexual, Yale-bound student in Booksmart who’s slut-shamed by her classmates; before she played Maya, the overachieving, wry, but pining ex-girlfriend in the beloved indie Shiva Baby; and before she played Claire, the kind and disarming childhood friend who makes a teary exit in the second season of The Bear, Gordon was a 6-year-old community theater star, scared she lost the love of her life.
“Ben [Platt] and I were doing Damn Yankees, and he asked me to be his girlfriend,” she tells me over Zoom, thinking back to the most potent memories from her early theater days. “I was like, I’m not ready for this. This is too much for me. I can’t commit. The next day, he gave this bracelet that he was going to give me to a different girl, who was lovely, but fuck her. At the time, I was very upset. His mom made him get me something, because I was so sad. He gave me a picture frame, and I was like, a picture frame? This means nothing to me! For years, I thought I blew it. Then he, of course, came out to me, but still sometimes I’m like, I should have accepted it at six.”
As history has proven, Gordon, now 27, didn’t blow it. Romance wasn’t in their future—Gordon introduced Platt, best known for his Tony-award winning performance in Dear Evan Hansen, to his fiancé, actor Noah Galvin—but the two stayed best friends. They’ve worn coordinating Halloween costumes together, posted dreamy covers of Kacey Musgraves songs together, appeared in photos from their mutual BFF Beanie Feldstein’s wedding together, and this summer, for the first time, they’ll be starring in a movie together: Theater Camp, a mockumentary about a failing upstate New York camp, which hits theaters July 14.
“We just did our [press] junket, and Ben was like, this is so crazy,” Gordon mentions just weeks before the premiere. “We used to dance around in his living room and make little home movies.”
For Gordon, who’s built her resume playing scene-stealing side characters, Theater Camp is a moment to step squarely into the spotlight—with her friends standing right beside her. Aside from starring in the film, Gordon and Platt also wrote the screenplay along with Galvin and Nick Lieberman, who Platt first met in high school. Gordon and Lieberman also took the reins as co-directors, marking Gordon’s directorial debut. The group started the project as a short film and fought hard to turn it into a feature. They eventually shot it in 19 days, and after it premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival, Searchlight acquired it for $8 million.
In the film, Gordon plays Rebecca-Diane, the crochet vest-wearing, energy-healing head of music who moves, with a swish of her maxi skirt, from leading vocal warm ups to uncovering the campers’ past lives. Her partner in codependent crime is Platt’s Amos Klobuchar, head of drama. When the camp’s founder (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma, her wannabe tech-bro son (Jimmy Tatro) attempts to keep the camp from falling into financial ruin. All the while, Rebecca-Diane, Amos, and the other counselors are focused on their own high-stakes mission: putting on a fully-realized original musical with the young campers. The result is an improv-heavy, jazz-handed tightrope walk of a movie, which pokes fun at the theater community while never punching down. Theater Camp knows that, all of this? Well, it’s kind of ridiculous—but that’s why people love it so much.
“Theater is such an absurd thing. It should be made fun of,” Gordon says. “But it’s also produced some of the most beautiful things in the entire world and has made so many people feel safe. We can hold both things at the same time.”
Growing up, performing wasn’t so much Gordon’s choice as something she seemed born to do. “My mom always says I slithered out of the womb—like a shimmy. I didn’t come out crying. She was like, you were dancing.”
In response to her “wild, silly energy,” Gordon says her parents, writer-director Jessie Nelson (I Am Sam) and director Bryan Gordon (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Party Down), put her in community theater. “I was 3 years old, and they put me with all the older kids. So it would be 15-year-olds doing a play, and then I would be in the back, in the chorus, unable to keep up, but just wanting to be a part of it,” she says. “That fully changed my life.” (In Theater Camp, audiences will catch archival footage of Gordon and Platt in childhood productions.)
While school could be difficult for Gordon, who’s dyslexic, theater was the place where she could explore her intelligence. “I could try my best, and even if it wasn’t right, and I didn’t nail the number, or I didn’t make the right choice in the scene, it was still a choice,” she says. “I love creativity, where there just isn’t one right answer.”
She’d sometimes pop up in her parents’ work, but Gordon didn’t start auditioning in earnest until after high school. She moved to New York to enroll at New York University, but dropped out after two weeks, telling The New York Times she was as unhappy as the school was expensive. Eventually, she landed a recurring role on the television drama Animal Kingdom, and in recent years, Gordon has charmed Hollywood by playing what can only be described as the resident Cool Girl. (Cue her instantly-classic Booksmart line read: “I’m incredible at hand jobs, but I also got a 1560 on the SATs.”) On the show Ramy, she guest-starred as a rabbi’s granddaughter who throws parties and takes ecstasy. In the 2019 comedy Good Boys, she played a neighbor who’s trying to get her drugs back from a group of pre-teen boys. As Gordon told Vulture in 2021: “I definitely feel I keep playing people who are not interested in theater.”
Even so, throughout each project, Gordon’s creative troupe grew stronger. On the first day making Shiva Baby, her co-star Rachel Sennott (Bodies Bodies Bodies, The Idol) told her she had to meet her friend Ayo Edebiri. The two clicked, and Edebiri, who also stars in The Bear, appears in Theater Camp as Janet, a new counselor trying to fib her way through the summer.
“Rachel brought in all of these incredible, intelligent, comedic women into my life,” Gordon says. “Really ambitious, just very kind people.” Another actor in the Sennott-to-Theater Camp pipeline is Patti Harrison, who plays Caroline, a representative from the neighboring rich camp, and who Gordon counts as one of her closest friends.
“Rachel is like a rocket ship, and the minute you’re around her, you want to go on that ride,” Gordon says. “She’s so unbelievably in herself, and that was really inspiring to me…This is such a painful, heartbreaking career sometimes, so I think in the beginning, I just felt so grateful to have a seat at the table. In the last few years, right around the time I met Rachel and all them, I had written all this stuff that I just wasn’t showing anybody.”
She continues, “That’s what was so inspiring about Shiva—they just made a movie. They didn’t wait around for people to give them permission. I’ve always wanted to direct. That’s something that’s been a forever dream. I felt like, I’ve collected my toolbox from working with all these amazing directors, but now all I have to do is push myself to be brave enough to try it.”
The result of that bravery is Theater Camp, a movie that pulls from all aspects of Gordon’s life. There’s the past: “I remember kissing a boy at camp and him immediately saying, ‘Oh my God. I’m gay.’ I was so sad about that. [In the movie] I definitely wanted to make fun of the one straight boy at camp.” And there’s the present: Reflecting on Rebecca-Diane and Amos, Gordon says she’s grateful to be able to show a friendship between a gay man and a straight woman where they’re not bitchy to one another or hyper-focused on their sex lives. “I’m excited that’s the main love affair of our film: a friendship love.”
But finishing the movie was its own meta beast. While playing a counselor who has three weeks to assemble an entirely original production, Gordon, as co-director, had nearly the same amount of time to film the feature. “It was so: the show must go on. We’re going to put this together with a piece of tape and a tutu,” she says. “Even in the mistakes, or if something went wrong, we had to use it, and that’s the most beautiful thing about live theater. You’ve got to just keep going.” Every moment had to be utilized, so when there was an unexpected hour without any of the kid actors, Gordon and Platt got in a room and fully improvised scenes of them songwriting, some of which made their way into the final cut, and some of which they plan to drop as deleted scenes.
Watching her friends—another one of the counselors, Gigi, is played by Owen Thiele, who Gordon’s known since childhood—rise to the occasion made Gordon feel like a proud parent, amazed to be in the presence of so much talent. “I was practicing gratitude every day, trying to hold onto all these memories, while I was like, we don’t have time. I’m the most anxious I’ve ever been in my life.”
It’s a very Rebecca-Diane perspective, which is probably why Gordon cites her and Claire, her character in the latest season of The Bear, as a “beautiful combination” of her real-life personalities. “A lot of people have made fun of me that some of my earlier jobs were always the mean girl,” she says. “I’m so kooky, and I’m not a very cool person. I’m silly and whimsical, spiritual. Then Claire—I’m sensitive. I really care about my work. I feel like it has this special combination of what I’ve been trying to showcase for a long time.”
With Claire, an emergency room resident and the first main love interest on the show, Gordon was given a tall order (no pun intended): become the girlfriend to the internet’s biggest crush, chef Carmy, played by Jeremy Allen White. After sweeping him off his feet, Claire takes off in the last episode after accidentally overhearing Carmy say that pursuing his own happiness is a waste of time. “I like that she left in that moment,” Gordon says of the devastating scene. “I thought that was a really beautiful thing that [The Bear creator] Chris [Storer] wrote. But I also felt so sad for Carmy…it was very human.”
Though it’s unclear yet if Gordon will return for a future season, she says being on The Bear and working with Storer was one of the best experiences of her life. “I wish [Chris] could teach a class on how to lead,” she says. “He finds a way to be unbelievably calm and present within the chaos. I’m ultimately a Jewish woman with more anxiety than him, but I’m like, I’m going to try to get into that a bit. He also does fewer takes than normal. The fact that he can go, ‘I got it,’ and trust himself…that confidence inside of him, I’m really going to try to take two percent of that if I can.”
As for where exactly she’s taking that energy, Gordon says she has another movie she wants to direct. She’d also love to return to theater one day or fulfill her “absolute dream” of hosting Saturday Night Live. “I feel more in myself than I’ve ever felt and so excited to keep pushing myself and going for things I want, even if I’m still afraid.”
But first, this summer, Gordon and her friends are taking their bows. In addition to Theater Camp, Sennott and Edebiri have their own movie, Bottoms, coming out in August, directed by Shiva Baby creator Emma Seligman.