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    Thursday, September 28, 2023

    With 'Theater Camp,' Molly Gordon bets on herself - and doubles down

    Talk to Molly Gordon's collaborators and they'll eagerly rattle off the cascading qualities that make the 27-year-old actress shimmer on-screen. She's witty and warm. Beautiful and approachable. Charismatic and kooky.

    "It's incredibly difficult to not fall in love with her," says Christopher Storer, the creator of the FX series "The Bear." As actor Noah Galvin puts it, "I have been charmed by Molly's utter magnetism."

    Yet the filmmakers behind the mockumentary "Theater Camp" had to learn the hard way not to underestimate Gordon's radiance. When they played an early cut of the movie for a test screening this past fall, the audience reaction made it clear: There needed to be more of Gordon's character, Rebecca-Diane, an off-kilter musical theater teacher whose role had been largely excised.

    Molly Gordon the co-director, it turns out, could've used a little more reverence for Molly Gordon the actress.

    "I definitely wanted to cut myself down," Gordon says during a recent video chat from New York, leaning toward the camera with earnest attentiveness. "It was a funny thing that I directed it. Everyone was like, 'What did you do to yourself?' But I was just so obsessed with everyone else's performances."

    Nick Lieberman, her directing partner, confirms Gordon's recollection. "It was definitely a wake-up call for us that we can't just go off of what Molly thinks is good of Molly's work," he says. "We have to go off of what other people are going to enjoy — which is probably a lot more."

    Gordon may not have recognized her allure, but Hollywood has known for quite some time. Consider Gordon's memorable turns as a misjudged mean girl in the high school comedy "Booksmart," an ecstasy-chasing neighbor in the tween romp "Good Boys" and a longing ex in the micro-budget pressure cooker "Shiva Baby."

    Now, Gordon is growing beyond her character actress reputation. With her recurring role in Season 2 of "The Bear," as the casually confident love interest Claire, Gordon concocted chemistry with star Jeremy Allen White on one of television's buzziest shows. Earlier this month, her directorial debut hit theaters after Searchlight Pictures acquired "Theater Camp" for $8 million out of January's Sundance Film Festival — where Gordon's Rebecca-Diane was, mercifully, restored to the lead role that was originally intended.

    "Everybody wants some of Molly," says Jessica Elbaum, a producer on "Booksmart" and "Theater Camp." "On-screen, off-screen — all of it."

    The West Los Angeles-raised child of directors Jessie Nelson and Bryan Gordon, Molly Gordon was first cast in the world of community theater as an overexuberant 3-year-old. "Everyone called me Shirley Temple," she says, "because I had really curly hair and I could not stop dancing around."

    It was then that she met the 5-year-old Ben Platt, whom she proceeded to perform alongside in myriad local productions before he grew into a Broadway darling and one of her "Theater Camp" co-writers and co-stars. Around the time she was 12, Gordon founded a group called the Theater Geeks of America and recruited Platt's friend Lieberman to the cause. Galvin, another "Theater Camp" co-writer who appears in the film, crossed paths with her several years later when they were workshopping an off-Broadway musical, "Alice by Heart," directed by Gordon's mother.

    "Molly was the first person I had met in my professional adult life that felt like my people," Galvin recalls. "I immediately realized that I wanted to weasel my way into every part of her life and her friendships and her world that I just thought was so magical."

    With Gordon as the glue connecting that quartet — she takes credit for introducing Platt and Galvin, who are now engaged — Gordon, Platt, Galvin and Lieberman began working together, first on a comedic web series that never saw the light of day, then on a short film version of "Theater Camp" that was released in early 2020. When the pandemic put show business on pause, the group connected over Zoom and hashed out a "scriptment" — a loosely written script designed to tee up on-set improvisation — for a feature-length adaptation of that short.

    As Elbaum and other producers lined up behind the project, Gordon and Lieberman raised their hands to co-direct. Despite being the daughter of filmmakers, Gordon says she hadn't seriously considered directing until she got lunch with Elbaum after they worked together on 2019's "Booksmart." But Elbaum, Will Ferrell's producing partner and the head of Gloria Sanchez Productions, had gleaned a creative spirit and on-set curiosity in Gordon that hinted at a burgeoning visionary.

    "I knew I wanted to sit down with her," Elbaum says, "and talk about if my instinct was correct."

    Gordon suddenly felt seen. Working with "Booksmart" director Olivia Wilde had, in fact, ignited Gordon's dormant filmmaking desires. Following up that movie with another female-fronted project — Emma Seligman's "Shiva Baby"—- and "meeting women being openly ambitious in this beautiful way" further entrenched Gordon's creative impulses.

    "I was raised by a female director, and it's really interesting to sit with the fact that I still couldn't really own that I really wanted this," Gordon says. "I think it's unfortunate that women being in control is seen as being difficult or, 'She sounds like my mom nagging me.' I hear those voices and I've just heard so much rhetoric like that, and I couldn't be brave enough to say that I really wanted that."

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