“Bottoms” director Emma Seligman and Marreesha Sapp-Lynch reveal the personal story behind the former footballer starring in the film
Bottoms (in theaters now) features the 37-year-old former NFL star in a scene-stealing role as Mr. G, a clueless teacher overseeing the feminist after-school club launched by Rachel Sennott’s PJ and Ayo Edebiri’s Josie. Even the film’s director and co-writer, Emma Seligman, admits she initially thought landing Lynch was a long shot.
“It was such a random movie for him to be in that I was so shocked that he even was considering it,” the Shiva Baby filmmaker (who goes by she/they pronouns) tells PEOPLE.
But the real reason for this unlikely casting is altogether more personal: Marshawn Lynch’s queer sister, Marreesha Sapp-Lynch, says he asked her whether to add Bottoms to a growing acting résumé that includes Westworld and Murderville.
“From the beginning when he read the script, he said that I came to mind,” recalls Sapp-Lynch, 34. “I was like, ‘Most definitely you should do it.’ I just told him, ‘It'll get you to understand, get more knowledge about the lesbian community.”
Like the characters of PJ and Josie, Sapp-Lynch has identified as a lesbian since high school. It felt easy coming out to her mother Delisa, she remembers — “She'll tell me to this day, 'I always knew you liked girls!'” — but brothers David, Marshawn and Davonte had a less straightforward reaction.
“They were understanding, but they didn't understand,” Sapp-Lynch tells PEOPLE. “Marshawn had a lot of questions and was thinking it was his fault: ‘What did I do?’ Because growing up he would always say I couldn't have a boyfriend, ‘You can't talk to boys.’ We’d go to a party and he'd be asking everybody, ‘Did you dance with my sister?’ But I wasn't attracted to boys, so I didn't dance with them!”
Her brother has accepted and celebrated her sexual orientation since those teenage years, Sapp-Lynch says. Case in point: Marshawn helped plan her 2021 wedding and walked her down the aisle.
“I asked him to walk me down the aisle because our dad passed away,” says Sapp-Lynch with a smile. “He cried the whole time,” she adds.
“He doesn’t cry — or I don't see him cry. The fact that he did cry and shed some tears, it meant a lot to me.” (Marshawn was so invested in his sister’s wedding, in fact, he urged the pair to reschedule it from 2023 to 2021. “He was very much involved in the whole planning... He called us at 5:00 a.m. talking about the cake designs and party favors.”)
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But with Bottoms, a comedy produced by Amazon’s Orion Pictures and Elizabeth Banks’ Brownstone Productions, Marshawn had a bigger opportunity to honor his sister. Discussing the role of Mr. G with the footballer, Seligman, 28, remembers thinking there must have been “more of a connection here beyond him wanting to be in a funny movie or something.”
“In his words, he said he wasn't amazing about it when Marreesha came out in high school and that he felt like this was the universe giving him a chance to right his wrongs,” she adds. “He made it seem like that was really what was interesting him the most about it.”
Throughout the film’s shoot in New Orleans, Seligman says, “he kept on bringing up Marreesha.” Especially when Sapp-Lynch and her wife visited the set, she recalls, “He kept on being like, ‘That's my sister.’ In a way where it was like a proud parent [of queer kids] — a proud brother.”
And when Orion Pictures president Alana Mayo suggested Marshawn for Mr. G, Seligman says, she realized it might expand the moviegoing audience of Bottoms. “Him believing in these girls and getting to know them and getting to understand them means a lot in the grand scheme of things within the crazy conservative town that they're in.”
Plus, the story’s homophobic characters are obsessed with the high school football team, Seligman points out. “To have a legendary football player like him playing this character that's getting to know this subsection of this town, and see them as real people with valid desires and hormones and feelings — that's pretty cool that Marshawn is representing that kind of straight, male character.”
Sapp-Lynch agrees, and says seeing a movie full of gay characters like Bottoms while coming out in high school “would've helped me make me feel easier, make me feel better about me being who I am.”
“I didn't understand my sexuality in high school, so I actually think it might've freaked me out,” admits Seligman. “It would've excited me. Maybe it would've jumpstarted some things!”
Of co-writing the film with Sennott, she says, “I really just wanted to see my high school self in a stupid comedy.” She recalls a quote from Edebiri: “Being stupid is a political act.”
“Just having queer characters in something so silly and that's not serious feels subversive,” Seligman continues. “I don't think we're trying to prove anything political or have some sort of deeper message or meaning out of the movie. Other than ‘Gay people can be funny, sexy and horny, and that's normal.’ Sometimes just normalizing something is enough.”
“Marshawn in the movie,” she adds, “beyond him being a wonderful actor and improviser and a lovely human being, it is wild that it might be seen by so many more people who wouldn't have otherwise seen it.”
Bottoms is in theaters now.
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