INTERVIEW: Actress Odessa Young on Shirley, Elisabeth Moss & More

Conversation includes doing interviews in pyjamas and what madness can mean for creativity.

I sat down to speak to Odessa Young about her upcoming movie Shirley, which she stars in with Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg and Logan Lerman. Shirley, directed by Josephine Decker, is an adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name. Young plays a young pregnant woman named Rose, and she and her husband Fred (Lerman) move in with famed suspense author Shirley Jackson (Moss) and her husband Stanley (Stuhlbarg). Gradually, she finds herself entangled in the complicated drama that is Shirley’s life.

Young shared her experiences of working with actors like Moss and Stuhlbarg, what attracted her to the project, and we discussed what a film like Shirley shows us about womanhood, creativity and art.

Young’s previous films include last year’s Sundance hit Assassination Nation directed by Sam Levinson, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s A Million Little Pieces opposite Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and The Professor opposite Johnny Depp.

Hi!
How you doing?
I’m good. How are you?
I’m good.

Has it been a long day of doing these zoom interviews?
I mean it’s not so bad. It’s actually kinda nice to do it just in a quiet bedroom and not have to leave your house and get ready and get your make-up on and all that sort of stuff. It’s pretty relaxed.

Yeah same. My husband is like sleeping on the bed already, and I’m here secretly in one corner doing this interview.
Yeah that’s funny. I’m still in my pyjamas, it’s fine.

Thank you so much for speaking to me about the film. You were wonderful in it, I really enjoyed it – the gothic elements, the surreal otherworldly aspects of the film were really quite compelling.
Thank you.

In the film, your character, Rose, mentions she read Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’. She called it, “Thrillingly horrible”. In your preparation for the role, did you read any of Jackson’s works? Did you binge watch ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ on Netflix or something like that to prepare?
Yeah, yeah sure. I think everybody that I know or at least everybody I’ve talked to about it has had some memory of reading ‘The Lottery’ as part of school and stuff so I definitely had read ‘The Lottery’. I didn’t read any of the novels, but I read a bunch of short stories and I think that her style of writing–I mean you can understand why Rose as a character is so…almost apprehensive or nervous, kind of, to meet Shirley. Because the way that she writes is so authoritative but similarly very simple and she has just an incredible command of language that you really do imagine this kind of imposing genius behind her work. It was helpful to kind of enter into that psyche of anticipation about meeting a character like Shirley.

I think at one point, at the party, I think, one of guests actually says to her he was reading one of her works and it felt like he wanted to bash his head in or something like that.
Exactly! Exactly, yeah, she inspires this kind of self-examination of how all powerful our minds are, you know, and able to send us crazy which you can only imagine is someone who has actually grappled at that fact, so as to be able to write about it, so you do wonder what she is capable of.

Speaking of the great Shirley Jackson, working with actors like Elisabeth Moss, who plays Shirley in this film, and Michael Stuhlbarg – what was it like? Were you excited or was it like oh my god, it’s so intimidating.
Yeah, it was intimidating, it absolutely was. They have a certain notoriety about them and not notoriety in a bad way, just they are revered in the industry because they do such incredible work and so of course leading into that film, I was simultaneously excited but also like, it’s really time to do the work and to pull your socks up and get down to it. You know that they are gonna come in, that Lizzy and Michael are gonna come in, knowing exactly what they’re doing and there’s no time to waste. There is a short shooting schedule, we couldn’t be messing around too much so it’s just, “Let’s get in there, let’s do the work and let’s do the best thing we possibly can.” And they made it easy, they made it so easy because they’re such professionals and it was a pleasure to work with them.

So were actors like Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg the reason why you were attracted to this project? Or was it the director, Josephine Decker? Or maybe the narrative? What made you want to be in a film like Shirley?
I mean, really, it was all three. I was watching Josie’s Madeline’s Madeline quite soon before I read the script and I loved Josie’s vision, it was kind of those moments of, “How did she do that?” I was really intrigued to see how she did that in person and to be a part of it. And also the narrative of the film, as you said. This was such amazing characters and such incredible writing and it felt like these fragments of a play and it’s just so exciting to kind of get to work on it and unpack. And yeah, absolutely as well with the actors involved. There is mastery in the film at every level and it was definitely a big draw to do it, to think that how much can I learn from this experience. So working with a director like Josie and actors like Michael and Lizzy and Logan didn’t disappoint. I learned a lot and it was a pleasure to be a part of.

While watching the film, I felt like initially there was this contrast built between Rose and Shirley. Rose is seen to embody the role of the caretaker, so most of your initial scenes are cooking, you’re cleaning, while Shirley is compared to like Lady Macbeth.
Yeah, that’s a good way of describing it.

So do you feel that this is how society kind of views women, like they embody very distinct spaces – either they’re conforming or they’re transgressive or they’re nurturing or destructive? And do you feel that Rose proves that we can exist in both these spaces at the same time?
I think that Rose and Shirley both prove it and I think you’re right that there is this attitude towards women as people and women as creators that is definitely a boxing attitude, like you have to subscribe to a certain genre, let’s say? It’s like when Stanley says that Shirley shouldn’t pursue the book that is a mystery instead, that she should stick to what she knows which is short horror stories and she obviously feels very boxed in by that limitation and seeks to prove him wrong. There are these attitudes about the fact that women have to either be nice or mean, or either completely stable and caretakers, or completely unstable and need to be taken care of. The beautiful thing about these two women is they each, they show each other the other side of it and they welcome–Shirley welcomes the kind of dark messiness in Rose. In fact, she draws it out of her, and in doing so Rose, by perhaps breaking down and needing help, makes Shirley her caretaker in the last moments of the movie. And so you can have this duality and you can have this complexity and it doesn’t detract from the strength of the character.

Shirley mentions that at that one point, “All lost girls go mad.” Do you think that madness needs to be embraced for women to tell their stories, so that they don’t get lost?
That’s a very interesting interpretation. I think that you know madness within limitations or madness at least experienced in a safe space and that could also just be you know reformed to be…let the child in, let the id in or let the free imagination in. These are things that were called madness as recently as the 1940s when women were suffering depressive episodes, which by all means was understandable considering that their lives really posed no end to them except for being housewives, and they were locked up because of these depressive episodes. So the idea of what madness means to a women and to creativity is brought into question here and yes, it needs to be embraced and that’s the beauty of art. You put your madness into a format that is digestible and maybe someone will see or read that or look at that picture or painting or that movie or whatever it is you’ve decided to put that into and see part of themselves in it and thus feel validated and feel less alone.

Yes absolutely. I mean, correct me if I’m wrong but I felt that the conclusion of the film was like a moment of rebirth for Rose, like there was this refusal to accept the status quo anymore. But then given the scene that plays out between Shirley and Stanley at the end, which seems to suggest that just the rebellion is only temporary, do you feel Rose managed to no longer be a lost girl? What do you envision happened to her after she left that space?
Whoa, that’s very…that’s a really interesting interpretation of it and yeah I think that, I think that we could interpret it as Rose has completely removed all of her shackles. She kind of becomes Shirley in that moment and you’re proud of her for it and then you see this scene in which it does seem like the madness is temporary but I actually think that the scene, the last scene of the movie with Stanley and Shirley is this kind of…this understanding that it’s not necessarily that madness is temporary but it’s that madness can work in conjunction with your life and with your goals and your relationships. Shirley and Stanley are in this relationship that clearly has its flaws and issues and infidelities and, you know, terrible emotional and manipulative abuse but they can also have this moment where they are allowing each other to become better through their transgressions and you know welcoming in those darknesses, and I think the movie might be posing that the fully evolved form of the madness of creativity is when it’s able to live alongside yourself and your life.

Thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
It was a pleasure speaking with you.

Thanks so much. Last question – do you feel a clean house is a sign of mental inferiority?
[We laugh] It’s not for me to say.

Shirley will be released June 5th, 2020.

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