A Conversation with Molly Ringwald about Introversion on Set and at Home
Why the iconic star attributes her career’s longevity to introversion
Hollywood, with its love of self-promotion, seems an unlikely place for a shy, introverted girl to find fame, but Molly Ringwald has never done things like other people. As the star of the John Hughes’ hits Pretty in Pink, 16 Candles, and The Breakfast Club, Molly made being a quiet teen not only acceptable – she made it cool.
Now she stars in another role that is far more demanding: parenting her own quiet kids.
Molly Ringwald: I really do feel like most of the characters that I’ve played, particularly when I was younger, were introverts. A lot of people ask me why I think those movies touched so many people, and I think it’s because of that. So many people related to those characters because that’s the way that they felt.
Susan Cain: Why do you think it is that either you were drawn to those roles, or people were casting you in those roles?
Molly: It’s hard to say exactly why I was cast, because I didn’t audition for the movies. John Hughes plucked my headshot, literally, out of a stack of photos. Never met me, but there was something in my face that he saw.
John was also an introvert. He felt most comfortable by himself with no one around, just with his records, his computer, and I feel like he met a kindred spirit in me. Not to get all woo woo here, but I feel that very often you can see an introvert in their eyes. You can see something that’s going on. I actually think that a lot of actors are introverts.
Susan: Yes! I have heard this from so many actors and whenever I tell this to people, they’re always shocked to hear it. How do those two things possibly go together, because you’re on all the time?
Molly: For me, performing was an outlet. Introverted people feel as much, if not more, than extroverted people, but because of the shyness and the anxiety, it’s hard to get all of that creativity out. When I was younger, people didn’t really say introverted. They just said shy.
I was a really shy kid. The only time I didn’t feel shy was when I was in front of a lot of people, and generally if there was a light barrier, so I didn’t actually have to see their faces. But I knew they were there. I felt the energy of the crowd, but I didn’t feel that shyness. My parents, sometimes, would want me to do a little concert, just in the living room, in front of five people. That, to me, was torture. I couldn’t really remember the lines. I fumbled. I felt awkward, because that, to me, was too close.
Everything that I’m attracted to as a writer is the same thing that I have always been attracted to in acting, which is character and why people do what they do
I feel very comfortable in front of an audience in character, singing a song where I have lyrics. Speaking would make me sick to my stomach. It’s something that I’ve had to do quite a bit of over the years, particularly when I took up music again and I started touring and performing. I really wanted to just sing the songs, and that was it.
Susan: You have to do the patter between the songs.
Molly: Yeah. And I was told again and again that people are coming to see you and to hear what you have to say, and it’s part of the performance. I had to get more comfortable with it, and it’s a skill that I’ve learned and I continue to learn. It’s something that doesn’t come naturally to me.
Susan: I don’t think it’s an accident that you chose to spend time writing. I’m guessing that a lot of your acting comes out of your quieter or more shy or more reflective place. What that’s like for you?
Molly: Everything that I’m attracted to as a writer is the same thing that I have always been attracted to in acting, which is character and why people do what they do. I don’t think that I could have done any of that without my observational skills. As a kid I was always looking around and mimicking people and reading faces and doing that thing that most writers and actors do.
It’s something that I recognize in my children as well, particularly our youngest girl. We have three kids in our family. A 12 year-old and six year-old twins. One twin is really shy, and the other is completely extroverted. It’s really interesting to see the two of them and how they interact together and how they interact with the world.
Even though I was a shy introverted kid, and even though I still feel those traits, I have that reflexive, “I’m a bad parent, I’m not teaching my child to have good manners.”
Adele, our little girl, is shy. She is introverted, but she’s so observant and so emotionally mature. Of all my kids, she’s the one that walks into a room and can tell you what everyone is feeling, where the tension is. To me, it’s like a superpower.
Susan: I agree, and shyness is often correlated with all those traits because it’s usually coming from a temperament that’s just sensitive in general. Sensitive to what other people think, as well as to just what is happening all around you and caring.
Molly: For me it’s beautiful to watch. However, when we’re in public and someone wants to compliment her, it’s very hard for her to look at the person and to accept the compliment. Or just to engage in conversation until she gets to know someone. She literally will not look at them and walk by. And even though I was a shy introverted kid, and even though I still feel those traits, I have that reflexive, “I’m a bad parent, I’m not teaching my child to have good manners.”
Susan: So many parents feel this way — I hear this all the time. What do you do with Adele?
Molly: I usually make her acknowledge when somebody speaks to her. I say, “You don’t have to spend a long time with them. You don’t have to shake hands or curtsy or do anything, but say thank you if it’s a compliment.” Then when we’re away from it, I talk to her about it. “How did you feel when this person said this?” She just says, “I’m shy. I’m shy. I try Mommy, I really try, I’m just so shy.” In fact, I want to ask you about that. I’ve noticed you differentiate between shy and introverted. It seems to me you believe shy to be a derogatory word in a way?
Susan: Well, yes and no. I believe the word shy is used derogatorily in this culture, but I don’t think of it as something negative. It’s important to understand what the difference is just so that you know what’s going on inside the child’s mind, but I actually love shyness. I think of shyness as a kind of civilizing force in a culture where everyone is otherwise too much about themselves and what they think.
Molly: I think so too.
Susan: The one downside of children labeling themselves as shy is that they can then start to experience it as a fixed trait, that it’s just who they are and they’re never going to overcome it.
I wonder if you ever talk to her and say, “Oh, I used to feel that way, but now I really don’t. I just gave myself a push. It was hard at the beginning, and now I don’t notice it.”
Molly: I don’t know that I have, but I think it’s a great idea. I have this thing where I try to do things that scare me. Deliberately. Because if I don’t push myself to do it, I’ll never do it because I find most things scary. Traveling I find scary, meeting new people I find scary, speaking in front of an audience I find scary; there’s not a lot that I don’t find scary.
It’s funny because my husband thought I wasn’t scared of anything. We talked about this once and I said, “Are you kidding? I’m afraid of everything, but I do it.”
I still feel like I have an introverted nature, but I’ve learned certain skills where I can sort of go in and out of it a bit. Which is something that I wanted to ask you – do you feel like people can change their nature? Or do you feel that introverts can learn the skills and play the part?
I feel like it’s important, no matter what your personality is, to exercise the muscle that you’re not as comfortable with.
Susan: It’s a good question. I think it’s much more the latter. People do exactly what you’re describing – they push themselves and acquire all kinds of skills they wouldn’t have had before.
Think of a shy child who is clinging to their mother’s knee. You don’t really see grown ups clinging to their parents knees, and that’s because we learn over time to deal.
But I don’t think the underlying nature changes, and that’s what most people tell me when they’re talking really honestly about their experiences. At the same time, you can acquire so many skills and improve your comfort level so much that it almost becomes a difference in kind, just because the skills can catapult you into a completely new place.
Molly: It’s the same thing with our kids, particularly with our twins. I feel like it’s important, no matter what your personality is, to exercise the muscle that you’re not as comfortable with.
Susan: I agree with that, and it’s probably important for your more extroverted twin to exercise the muscle of not talking as much.
Molly: Yeah. We call my son Filibuster. That’s actually his nickname because he just will talk and talk and talk. It’s very charming and people are automatically drawn to that because he seems to be so comfortable. But it’s important to have a balance, too, because sometimes he can miss what’s going on.
Susan: While some shy children are introverts, it’s important to remember that not all introverts are shy. Your older daughter, Mathilda, is a good example of that, right?
Molly: She’s an iconoclast. She has a brilliant subversive sense of humor, which she’s always had. From the time that she could talk she has a sense of humor that’s beyond her years, and a little bit of a mischievous streak. I call her an extroverted introvert.
She has big opinions. She likes to put those opinions out there, but she also really needs time by herself to recharge. If she doesn’t get the time that she needs to recharge, it affects her in a big way.
Susan: I was listening the other day to a story that you told at The Moth [about your daughter’s troubles at school]. The Moth is this venue where people get up on stage and tell a story.
Molly: I can tell you, I had never in my life been inside of a principal’s office. Only in a movie, in fact. There was a scene in a principal’s office in Pretty in Pink. The same with my husband. We were both such goodie two-shoes.
It was one of those situations where, at the beginning of the year, the teacher didn’t understand my daughter, didn’t understand her jokes. She was a little bit hysterical. And the more that happened, the more Mathilda felt like there was something wrong. And the more Mathilda acted out, the more I was called in to the principal’s office, the more … It was this spiral of misunderstandings and miscommunications. Mathilda kept getting more and more unhappy, to where I thought, “What am I going to do?” I started to take her everywhere to find out what was going on.
I took her to a social skills class, which she found insulting. I said, “Why did you resist it so much?” She said, “Because I have social skills. Why did I have to go and learn these things that I already know?” She never ever had trouble making friends, because she’s funny and charismatic, and she has an interesting mind.
Susan: She was picking up the message that people thought there was something wrong with her.
Molly: I felt like Alice going down the rabbit hole of figuring out the best thing to do for her. Part of me wanted to pull her out of the situation, pull her out of the school, but I didn’t want her to feel like she couldn’t grow and learn in a situation.
An [education specialist] I spoke to said, “She’s incredibly bored in this situation.” I had this epiphany when we were driving somewhere together; I was listening to a podcast called RadioLab. They were interviewing somebody who was very instrumental in developing the first gorilla habitats in the United States. They used to put gorillas in concrete cages, basically, in zoos, and the gorillas were going out of their mind because they weren’t in the habitat that was right for them.
As they were describing the gorilla going into the habitat that was right for him for the first time, I was looking at Mathilda listening in the rear view mirror, and she was mimicking everything that this gorilla was doing. She was feeling the air on her face, she was touching, she was imagining. A light went off in my head, I realized that if I couldn’t take her out of this environment, I had to figure out a way to make this environment work for her.
Susan: So that she would be in the right habitat?
Molly: What ended up working for us was I had somebody come in twice a week to pull her out of class and to read poetry and different bits of prose, and help her write her own poetry. It was just one-on-one, and at the end of the year, there was a book that she had written that was published with her art and with her poetry.
Molly: We only did that for a year. Then she built from there. She just kept getting better and better until by the time she left the school, she ran for student council and won. This is a kid whose school spirit was absolutely crushed in the second grade. It’s just been getting better and better every year.
Susan: I’m so struck that the fix for her wasn’t social at all, it had nothing to do with that. The fix was going to write poetry and being engaged and stimulated.
Molly: It was really kind of being in a quiet space. She is somebody that has always been better one-on-one, which isn’t surprising because I’ve always felt more confident one-on-one, and same with her father.
Susan: You said that during this dark second grade year, the school was suggesting that Mathilda was a bully, and you knew she wasn’t really a bully, but that was how she was being characterized as one. Can you talk about what that meant for you personally, to hear that word applied to your child?
Molly: Yes. I was bullied. I was genuinely bullied as a seventh grader. I had a girl who picked me out. I don’t know how she noticed me, because I was shy and quiet and really didn’t talk that much. She was an older girl and she picked me out and basically terrorized me. She made life very uncomfortable for me. She was aggressive and threatening and just really frightening.
Then I went on from there to play characters that were bullied, but also were strong, and persevered. So, for me to have a child who could be perceived as a bully, it just didn’t make sense.
Susan: When you played those roles, these characters who were bullied but successfully fought back, was that a kind of catharsis for you since you had had this experience in your own life?
Molly: Yeah. The part that comes to my mind the most is in Pretty in Pink where I have these mean girls that are taunting me in class.
Molly: I remember shooting that scene, I could feel my cheeks getting redder and just the memory of that was so strong. It’s a terrible feeling to be bullied in school. I think it’s a terrible feeling to be bullied in life, because it’s not like when school ends that goes away. I do feel like introverts can be bullied more than extroverts.
Susan: I think they’re often singled out because they’re more quiet and more on their own.
Molly: Well, I feel like Mathilda is a little bit also like me in that she has all of this emotion and creativity inside of her, and her journey has been a lot about finding how to get that out. She has found that through art, through writing, that’s been a big part of her self-expression.
Also acting, Mathilda really looks up to me because I’m an actress and she’s a little bit frustrated that her parents won’t let her be a professional. But even though we don’t want her to be a professional child actor, I think that acting is a wonderful exercise for kids. I just don’t want any of our children to be professional when they’re kids.
Susan: Why is that, after you had your own experience as a child actor?
Molly: Statistically, putting your kids in show business just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do if you want to give your kids all of the advantages that they can have in life. Talent doesn’t go away and learning other skills as a young person, along with acting, will only make you a better actor when you’re older. I don’t feel like kids need to experience that business side of things, and the rejection.
I’m a bit of an anomaly, but if you look at all of the child actors out there, there aren’t that many of us that are able to continue on and to flourish as adult human beings.
Susan: What do you think it was that allowed you to be this anomaly?
Molly: Actually, I think that being an introvert helped with that. Very often extroverts crave other people and that stimulation that goes with fame — being invited to every party, being out all the time, not having any moments of self reflection.
I feel like my introverted nature made me want to be more observant and made me want to get out of the limelight a little bit and become a more integrated human being.