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Actress Gives Lessons in Life and Comedy

Her movie was called “Superstar.” And, in the view of the 30-some youngsters who gathered to hear her last weekend, Molly Shannon was exactly that.

The occasion was a session of Pros and Kids, an acting workshop for children and teens run by local acting teacher Dale Rehfeld. Like other of her ilk, Rehfeld offers instruction in cold reading, improvisation and other skills needed by young industry hopefuls.

But Rehfeld, who holds many of her classes at the Oakwood Apartments in Toluca Lake, also offers her youthful charges the opportunity to interact with industry professionals.

Meeting with the class the day before the Academy Awards, Shannon, a regular on “Saturday Night Live” whose films include “Analyze This” and “Never Been Kissed,” invites the young participants to ask any questions that pop into their heads.

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These are not kids from Peoria. Actually, some of them may be from Peoria, but if they are, they are youngsters who are considering careers in the entertainment industry even before they graduate from high school. This particular Oakwood--one of a nationwide chain of apartment complexes that offers furnished digs to people passing through on their way to their destinies--is a favorite bunking place for young actors in town to try out for television’s pilot season.

That is why 17-year-old Jenna Menking is here. A resident of Geronimo, Texas, Jenna is spending two months at the Oakwood trying out for TV shows. She has already nabbed a bit part on “Days of Our Lives,” and she is eager to hear what Shannon has to reveal about the intricacies of the industry she desperately wants to crack into.

Shannon, Jenna says, has been a favorite of hers “ever since eighth grade when our teacher showed us the forbidden ‘Saturday Night Live’s’ our parents wouldn’t let us watch at home.” Jenna explains that her parents thought the live comedy show was too raw for her and her siblings, but her teacher would tape the shows and play them for the class the next week. A stunning young blond, Jenna is eternally grateful.

Shannon, who is a college friend of Rehfeld’s writer-boyfriend, shows up looking more like the nice young woman next door than like a superstar. She wears slides, a hot pink sun dress, and a headband and matching sweater. Her purse is her only superstar accessory--a black beaded bag adorned with red beaded roses.

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The kids get right to it.

“What was the fun-est thing you’ve done so far?” asks one youngster.

Shannon, who recently completed making “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” with Jim Carrey, ponders the question and decides that her fun-est project to date was the Drew Barrymore film “Never Been Kissed.” Shannon says she appreciated working on a project for which she didn’t have most of the responsibility, as she did on “Superstar,” and that she loved working with Barrymore.

Coping With Criticism

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Many of the children in the audience are experienced performers. One asks Shannon how she deals with criticism from agents and other professionals one inevitably encounters in the business. Shannon admits those interactions can be painful.

She had an agent, she recalls, who told her she wore too much makeup. Her torment over the agent’s remarks is reflected in her wonderfully mobile face. Shannon says she decided to follow her own instincts instead of capitulating to the agent’s counsel by thinking about courageous independent spirits like fellow female comic Janeane Garofalo.

“I wanted to do characters,” Shannon recalls. “I wanted to flip my skirt up. I didn’t want to worry about my hair so much . . . you just have to be yourself,” Shannon advises the roomful of nodding youngsters.

The students have lots of questions about “Superstar,” in which the former Catholic school girl plays a Catholic school girl named Mary Catherine Gallagher. One little boy in the class was so taken with her performance that he began querying his mother about the Catholic Church (he wanted to know why all the kids in the school had to line up for lunch--in fact, they were lining up to take Communion). The child is now taking instruction in the Catholic faith.

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The same boy asks Shannon if he can do an homage to her character. With her encouragement, he sniffs his armpits as her character does in the movie.

“That’s good,” Shannon assures him, with an encouraging smile.

When she plays Gallagher, Shannon is an extremely physical performer. “It’s exhausting,” she says. “It’s like a little tumbling act.”

When Risks Are Rewarded With Laughs

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Shannon says that she has backed off somewhat from the banzai humor that she once reveled in. “I was very committed,” she says of the days when she would do comedy routines that left her bleeding. “I just didn’t care. It was like punk-rock comedy.”

One of the mothers who has accompanied her child to the class admits that she used to be concerned about Shannon’s willingness to shed blood for her art.

“As a mother, when we’re watching you, we worry,” the mother says.

Shannon lost her mother and a sister when she was a child. Her life, in other words, has not been a rest cure. But she considers herself blessed and says she does events such as this class because she thinks it is important to give back.

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“It’s easy to be too involved in yourself,” she tells the students when they ask about fame. “You have to be careful of that.”

What is the really rewarding part of her work, she is asked.

“When you try something new, and take a risk, and people respond--that’s really good,” she says.

Even Leo Is a Fan

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Shannon has had the singular pleasure of having had Leo DiCaprio come up to her and tell her how much he likes her work. Leo is elsewhere on this occasion, but an aspiring young actress, Beckie Fitzpatrick, takes the opportunity to say: “How do you like being an idol--because you are mine.”

Fitzpatrick, who is a student at Burbank High School, has been asked to profile Shannon for a forthcoming article in Teen People magazine, and Shannon seems genuinely touched by the young woman’s admiration.

“I feel privileged to be in that position,” Shannon says.

Spotlight appears every Friday. Patricia Ward Biederman can be reached at valley.news@latimes.com.

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