Aristotle Athari spent a decade building a diverse resume of stand-up comedy and small-screen projects on both sides of the camera.
But for his first cinematic leading role, the Plano native and former Saturday Night Live regular knew he had to find the right project. The indie satire Molli and Max in the Future fit his offbeat comic sensibilities while enabling him to broaden his background.
The science-fiction romantic comedy will screen on Saturday as part of an eclectic lineup for the Oak Cliff Film Festival at the Texas Theatre.
“The script was very unique. Right away, I knew the director was a visionary and I wanted to be involved,” Athari said during the recent the South by Southwest Film & TV Festival. “He allowed me to make it my own. It was a great experience.”
The feature debut of director Michael Lukk Litwak is a futuristic twist on When Harry Met Sally set in an intergalactic world where Max (Athari) and Molli (Zosia Mamet) keep meeting by chance over the course of several years and various dimensions, trying to survive their harsh surroundings while wondering if there are sparks between them.
“Everything I work on gives me a chance to expand on what I’ve already done,” Athari said. “I’m always looking for projects that put me in a situation where I’ve got to sink or swim. I feel like I operate best that way.”
The film was shot in New York last summer, just after Athari wrapped his only season as a featured player on SNL.
Athari, 31, grew up in the North Texas suburbs with his mother, who owned an alteration shop across the street from the old Prestonwood Town Center shopping mall. That jokingly came to mind when he recalled the extensive green-screen work on the effects-heavy Molli and Max.
“I spent a lot of time in fitting rooms after school, talking to nobody,” Athari said. “So talking to nothing is not that weird to me, unfortunately.”
He was more into the visual arts at a young age, but remembers seeing stand-up comedy for the first time. George Lopez was playing the Addison Improv, a venue at which Athari has since performed multiple times.
He relocated to Los Angeles before graduating from high school, then attended USC, where a classmate encouraged him to try stand-up. That launched a career that has included numerous sketch shows as an actor and director before breaking through on SNL during the 2021-22 season.
Upcoming projects include the independent film The French Italian and a recurring role on the third season of the MAX series Hacks. His connections to Dallas these days are mostly of the gastrointestinal variety — fond memories of trips to Colter’s, Luby’s, Taco Bueno, or Shipley’s Donuts.
“There’s certain things about Dallas that will never leave my body,” Athari said. “I’m guided by my stomach, is what my mom used to say. The Great Outdoors is the best sandwich shop on the planet.”
OCFF has several feature projects and short films with local ties on its schedule, which opens on Thursday and runs through Sunday at multiple screening locations. Highlights include:
100 Ways to Cross the Border — This documentary directed by SMU film professor Amber Bernak profiles the life and work of queer Latinx artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena.
Quantum Cowboys — The latest from filmmaker Geoff Marslett (Loves Her Gun), a Dallas native, is a time-travel Western incorporating various animation styles.
Somewhere Quiet — Dallas-based Last Rodeo Studios is behind this buzzy horror film about a young woman trying to adjust to normalcy after a kidnapping.