From director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, the indie drama Shirley tells a story about renowned horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) that blurs fact and fiction. When the arrival of newlyweds (Odessa Young, Logan Lerman) shakes up her writing routine and raises the tension between Shirley and her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), they begin to toy with the couple and push their limits in a way that could have a lasting effect on their relationship.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Aussie actress Odessa Young talked about what drew her to this project, the challenges in playing a character like Rose, her experience working with co-star Elisabeth Moss, why this role was a turning point for her, and her theories about her character’s journey. She also talked about her character in the upcoming Stephen King series The Stand and how relevant the story is to what we’re experiencing today, as well as waiting to get into production on the HBO Max series Tokyo Vice.
COLLIDER: This is such a fascinating story. When you read this script, what as your immediate reaction to it?
ODESSA YOUNG: Sarah Gubbins, our writer, has a background in playwriting, and I believe that this is her first film screenplay. Her writing is incredibly theatrical, and there was lots of ideas being thrown around, towards the start of rehearsals for the film like, “We should all watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” There were these tie-ins to these extremely theatrical stories of a disintegrating marriage, or a couple who stays together because they’re actually the only two people who are smart enough to understand each other. And so, from the start of it all, that material was the crux of it. As editing goes, and with working on things on the day of shooting, things change, but Sarah Gubbins really was there, the entire time, to lead us because she had such a really well-rounded understanding of these characters and how they were meant to speak to each other, and the plot points that would make the most sense to the characters, but also keep you entertained. I think this story is very entertaining, as well as everything else that it is. So, it was pretty solid, from the get-go. The script had a really clear identity about it.
Actors talk about wanting to play characters that feel challenging. How do you feel that this character most challenged you, and what excited you about playing her?
YOUNG: That’s a great question. The main challenging thing about the character, to me, is that Rose’s function in the movie is to offer a window of normality, particularly at the start of the movie. Rose is the newcomer into this family, where Shirley and Stanley are at each other’s throats, and almost every part of that dynamic is witnessed through Rose, at the start of the film. The real challenge to that is that, as the film progresses and Rose starts to fall more and more under Shirley’s spell, and starts to create this sense of comradery with her, to then transfer that feeling of wide-eyed observation of Shirley and her world, into becoming wrapped up in it and no longer necessarily being a conduit for the audience into the film, and just be a part of the film and the story itself. That was a challenge. And then, also, I’m not gonna pretend like it wasn’t daunting to work with the cast that we were working with, specifically Elisabeth Moss. Her character is a scary character, and it really helped to be a little intimidated by her. Not that I had any reason to. She’s fantastic and lovely. But to have that wide-eyed observation of someone with such notoriety as Shirley Jackson, it was definitely a challenge to keep myself in the character. It also may have done me a favor to be so enamored with Elisabeth Moss, anyway.
What was it like to work with Elisabeth Moss? Did you guys spend a lot of time working on this relationship dynamic or talking about these characters, or was it more about being in the moment, during the scenes?
YOUNG: I guess a little bit of both. We had a few weeks to rehearse, which was quite lovely. [Elisabeth] was coming straight from the whatever scene of The Handmaid’s Tale she had just finished, and had three weeks to shoot the film and had to split up the shooting schedule because she was filming Jordan Peele’s movie. She was really putting all of her energy into it, when she was there, but then had to go and do another job. So, while we had her, it was very much like, “Well, let’s really go for it.” We tried to talk as much as possible, but also because of that circumstance and her shooting schedule, there was a lot of, “Let’s just figure it out, on the fly,” and having to trust ourselves, as actors, and the other person that we were in the scene with and really pull up their bootstraps. That’s how I saw it. [Elisabeth] Moss has a limited amount of time on set, and I couldn’t be the weak link or the one messing around. It was really about pulling up my bootstraps to give her the respect that she deserved, in that brief shooting schedule, which meant that sometimes we had to work on the fly. Luckily, for me, that’s how I’m the most comfortable working. There’s only so much conversation that you can have, and then, the rest of it is just the magic that happens, on the day. That was probably the best case scenario for the way that we were working.
There’s a lot of very difficult and intense material in this. Were there any scenes that felt particularly challenging, or did it all feel like its own challenge?
YOUNG: Gosh, it’s hard to say. When you look back at shooting, it feels a little bit like how coronavirus is feeling now like, what week was that? What day was it that we did that? When did I last shower? Time just melts into one block. Every day brought its own challenges, which was the joy of it. For me, the movie has quite a sexual storyline for Rose Nemser, and it was the first time that I’d ever done anything quite so explicit. Focusing on my character’s sexual development throughout the movie, it’s not that it was more challenging than any other thing, but it was definitely a bit of a turning point for me, as an actor, where I had to factor in the preparation for that work, alongside the preparation for the character. That was quite memorable about it. But everybody was amazing, and it never felt uncomfortable.
With where this film ends, we don’t necessarily know what became of your character, their relationship, or their future together. What do you think might have happened with them, after they drove away?
YOUNG: I have my own theories about which parts of this movie is a dreamscape, which parts are symbolic, and which parts are literal or narrative. Part of me wants to believe that Shirley might be seeing herself, as a young woman, and she meets Rose. If you consider these three pretty large female characters in the movie, one being Paula because, as ghostly as she is, she’s still this invisible third woman, the characters maybe show the timeline of how Shirley Jackson became who she is. And I think that Rose graduates from Paula to Shirley, in the last moments of this movie. I do want to believe that she goes off and starts a writing career of her own, and she might leave Fred, or she stays with him and subjects him to her intellectual cruelty, for the rest of their lives. I wanna believe that there’s a future for her, where she’s a bit more difficult to handle.
You’re also a part of The Stand, which seems even more frightening now, considering the world that we’re currently living in. Will we see many parallels between the world of the show and the story that you’re telling, and what we’re currently living, in the real world?
YOUNG: It’s interesting, there is this fantastical quality to the disease, in the show and the pre-existing story in the book. The main difference is that the disease in The Stand killed 99.99999% of the people. With the society that we’re living in now, the death toll is not enough to feel like we have to rebuild society, from the ground up. However, Stephen King is definitely a little bit psychic. There are symptoms that he describes for Captain Trips, which is the disease in the story, that are pretty much word for word what some people go through with coronavirus. There is this social uprising that’s happening right now, specifically with people ignoring the restrictions and the guidelines and social distancing that he was writing about, back in 1978, when the first iteration of it came out. Before everybody dies in the story, he gets it pretty bang on, with the governmental response to the disease breaking out and how there’s this lack of information, and you don’t know whether it’s because they know something that they don’t want us to know, or because they know nothing, or they’re just trying to calm us down. There are these questions that have been posed, in the last few months in our lives, that he somehow predicted pretty accurately, way back then.
What did you most enjoy about the character that you play in that and exploring what she goes through?
YOUNG: The book was written in the ‘70s, and then ‘90s, and Stephen King will admit, himself, that there are certain archetypes and symbolism used to tell the story that might not transfer so accurately to a retelling of it, in the present day. It’s pretty clear that The Stand would be set sometime in 2020 or 2021, so while keeping the core of Frannie Goldsmith and the real crux of her character being this moral pillar for the community that they’ve started to rebuild, after everybody has died, we stay very true to that. We stay very true to her morals and her beliefs, while also allowing her to make mistakes and be messy. She is in the book, anyway. She has these weaknesses, like her judgment for Harold, or her inability to be open-minded to him. We’ve adapted these things that are the really beautiful parts of her, into something that can serve in a 21st century retelling of it.
You had also signed on for the Tokyo Vice TV series for HBO Max. Have you had any conversations about when and how you can go into production on that?
YOUNG: It’s hard to say. Everybody’s having conversations. I’ll tune into them, occasionally, just to get updates, but basically, everybody is waiting for the day. I know that Japan has recently reopened its bars and restaurants, and things like that, but everybody’s waiting for the day when we can be 100% sure that we’re not putting people in danger by starting production. Everybody’s heard the term unprecedented times, but these are unprecedented times. There’s no rule book that we’re following. Even disease specialists have never seen anything like this, and they can’t tell us when it will be safe, but one day, it will be. We’re just waiting for that moment when we can be sure that we’re going back for the right reason.
You even came up against it, with the end of production on The Stand, didn’t you?
YOUNG: Yeah, we did. I had wrapped by that time, but I’m pretty sure that they had to cancel a few days of shooting.
It’s hard to know just when you can start production again safely.
YOUNG: Yeah, sure. It’s easy enough for me to say that I’m okay with completely quarantining myself, when we we go back to shooting anything in the world. People are talking about a two-week quarantine before, and then completely isolating yourself, unless you’re on set. I’m okay with that, but I can’t imagine that’s a fair thing to put upon crew members or cast members who have families. It’s pretty hard to quarantine yourself with the people that you’re working with, for six weeks of shooting a film.
There are so many interesting themes in Shirley. What do you hope audiences take from seeing the film?
YOUNG: To me, there’s a theme of creative freedom, within reason, for Shirley. The story being told in the 1940s exists in time when women were not taken seriously for their creative endeavors, and if they were, they had to be the most aggressive about it. Part of what this story talks about is that, in order to finish this book, Shirley needs to open herself up to the possibility of a friendship and this collaboration with a younger woman, who she may not have taken seriously before. That’s a really powerful theme. Especially in a world where female creators have to feel so aggressive about their endeavors, just to prove that they can be taken seriously, it’s just really helpful to see camaraderie within a story of creativity.
Shirley is available at Hulu and on VOD.