In ‘The Bear,’ Molly Gordon Is More Than the Girl Next Door

A new addition to the cast for Season 2, the actress plays Chef Carmy’s love interest — “a human woman,” she said, “not just this sweet, sweet girl.”

By Alexis Soloski

On a recent Monday afternoon, the actress Molly Gordon ambled through Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. Gordon, a wry and sprightly presence in movies like “Booksmart,” “Good Boys” and “Shiva Baby,” wore chunky sneakers, a schoolgirl skirt and sunglasses that made her look like a cat with an active Vogue subscription.

Plenty of actresses on the come-up might have chosen a walk around these streets — and maybe a look-in at a few of the fashion flagships — as an afternoon activity. But Gordon, who stars in Season 2 of the FX series “The Bear,” which arrived last week on Hulu, had a less glamorous motivation. The stress of organizing a thriving acting career while also co-writing and co-directing her first feature, “Theater Camp,” which opens in theaters on July 14, had led her to grind her teeth. She was on her way to her dentist to be measured for a new night guard.

“It’s amazing, it’s sexy, it’s all the things,” she said of the dental appliance. “This will not be my last mouth guard.”

I had been told that Gordon, 27, was a woman of unusual personal charm. “Charming and disarming,” was how Jeremy Allen White, the star of “The Bear,” put it. And this was abundantly true. I had also heard her described as a girl-next-door type. This rang less true. Gordon has too much savvy for that, too much drive. She is more like the girl who knows exactly where you hide your spare key and can break into your house at will.

In “The Bear,” she plays Claire, an emergency room resident and a love interest for White’s jittery chef, Carmy. When Season 1 landed last summer, Carmy became a social media pinup. (Italian beef, but pouty with it.) And yet early episodes of “The Bear” had deliberately avoided any suggestion of sex or romance. In this season, Claire offers both. Which means that Gordon has been set the not exactly enviable task of playing the new girlfriend of the internet’s boyfriend.

Gordon knows that the internet can be a scary place, but on that afternoon, about two weeks before Season 2 dropped, she appeared mostly undaunted. (Mostly, not entirely: “I hope people don’t not like me. That’s all I can say.”) Claire mattered more. In her ambition and her candor and her warmth, Claire has felt closer to Gordon than any part she has played. It has made Gordon hungry for more.

“She’s not the girl next door, because I don’t know what that is,” Gordon said. “I feel so grateful that I’m able to have this role where I get to be a human woman and not just this sweet, sweet girl.”

A career on camera — and more recently, behind it — is Gordon’s birthright, more or less. The only child of the director Bryan Gordon and the writer and director Jessie Nelson, she grew up in Los Angeles, a precocious presence on her parents’ sets and at their dinner parties. She began acting as a toddler, participating in a neighborhood children’s studio, the Adderley School, where she met the actor Ben Platt.

Platt, speaking by telephone, recalled those early performances. Props would malfunction. Costumes would come loose. But Gordon always pushed right through it, if a step or two behind the beat. She struggled in school, but theater was a place where she could shine, where she could play.

Gordon had a few small parts in her parents’ projects, but otherwise she stuck to school and camp and community shows, intuiting that she could not yet handle the rejection that auditioning would bring. At 18, she enrolled at New York University. She dropped out two weeks later. “It was really expensive,” she explained. “And I couldn’t sit with how unhappy I was.”

Having found a small apartment, she took acting classes, secured representation and began to land the occasional television role. Eventually, a Gordon type emerged: poised young women who could also express some kindness, some vulnerability. She seems to have come by that poise honestly, though as Platt said, the offscreen Gordon is more self-effacing and silly and neurotic.

“She often plays very cool characters,” Platt said. “She is a lot more funny and Jewish than that.”

Christopher Storer, the creator of “The Bear,” had worked with Gordon on the Hulu series “Ramy” and immediately thought of her for Claire. Though Season 1 had assiduously ignored the personal lives of the restaurant workers, Storer and his fellow showrunner, Joanna Calo, wanted to see what would happen if Carmy attempted a relationship outside work.

“We really wanted to get to what would it be like for Carmy to actually try to experience some form of happiness in his life,” he said.

He and Calo decided on a character who had known Carmy for most of his life, someone who saw him for who he was and loved him anyway. On “Ramy,” Storer had found Gordon inherently lovable. “She’s so sweet,” he said. “And she’s so smart. And she’s funny as hell.” He knew she could lend all of that to Claire.

Claire and Carmy meet again in the second episode, in the freezer aisle of a grocery, over a carton of veal stock. Claire looks at Carmy, and as a ballad by R.E.M. plays, that look seems to hold history and love and hunger. Carmy has armored himself against feeling, but opposite Gordon’s Claire that armor is useless.

“She sees right through, in a really beautiful way, to the core of Carmy,” White said by phone.

Ayo Edebiri, a star of both “The Bear” and “Theater Camp” and a longtime friend of Gordon’s, said that Gordon, for all her coolness and penchant for comedy, has a “deep well of emotion” that she can access. “There’s this deep reservoir of desire and feeling,” Edebiri said.

But desire and feeling can’t sustain a relationship, especially if the man involved has a walk-in fridge’s worth of unresolved trauma to work through. For Gordon, the scenes opposite Carmy — the sweet, morning-after ones, the anguished ones — felt uniquely personal, mirroring her experiences with past partners. “I’ve been with men and we were so happy together,” she said. “But the happiness made them so angry and sad.”

And as someone who struggles with work-life balance — in the past year or so, Gordon has shot “The Bear,” shot and sold “Theater Camp” and tried to get a series pitch and a feature script greenlighted, which is to say that her balance skews all work — she has often asked herself the same questions the show forces Carmy to interrogate.

“I get to explore things that are really near and dear to my heart,” she said. “Can we accept love? Can we have a work life and a romantic life?”

For now, she isn’t sure of the answers.

Gordon has never minded playing friends and girlfriends. If a girl next door is what’s required, she knows the address. But in her mid-20s, she has become more comfortable with her own ambition, scope and range.

“I would love to lead a project, I would love to stretch myself,” she said just before she departed for her dental appointment. “I can be naïve, I can be twisted, I can be dark. I just haven’t always been given those opportunities.

“I’m very grateful for what I have. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t want more.”

Alexis Soloski has written for The Times since 2006. As a culture reporter, she covers television, theater, movies, podcasts and new media. @Asoloski

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