As far as Australian actress Odessa Young (The Daughter, Celeste) is concerned, acting alongside The Handmaid’s Tale lead Elisabeth Moss was akin to a “god moment”. Young and Moss co-star in Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker’s Shirley, a semi-fictional biopic of American horror writer Shirley Jackson.
“Aside from being a personal delight to work with, because she’s such a cool chick, it was incredible to get an insight into that thing that makes her so great,” Young says from her current base in New York. “Like the rest of us, I’ve been blown away by her work. There’s always something about everything that she does, every decision that she makes, that is a little bit left of centre, and that is why she is so renowned.”
Recalling a moment they blocked out a scene together in the taut psychological drama, Young says of Moss, “She was silent for a while, looking around the room, and then she just said, ‘well, what’s the most interesting thing to do?’ That was such an insight into the way she works, because she doesn’t settle for the normal or the easy. And I don’t think it’s grandiosity. It’s not for glory or anything but entertaining the people that she is in this line of work. It’s the most selfless mark of an actor, because every actor knows when it feels a little awkward to walk over there in the middle of that line, but she gives herself up to just do it.”
Moss plays the reclusive author ensconced within an oppressively Gothic house, which Young describes as a character in its own right. Young’s character is a fictional insertion who moves in with her husband, as played by Logan Lerman. He’s a teaching assistant to Jackson’s philandering husband Stanley Hyman (Call Me By Your Name’s brilliant Michael Stuhlbarg, rocking a devilish beard here) at Vermont’s Bennington College.
“It’s funny doing these interviews in the middle of isolation lockdown, because everybody is so familiar with that feeling of being afraid to leave your house,” Young notes. “Shirley’s fear was not per se about a physical illness. She was afraid to leave because she thought the illness of the world itself would somehow seep into her. And, you know, I think every one of us can attest to the feeling that our house is either becoming our best friend or our enemy right now.”
Adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name, Shirley injects this imagined imposition while also embracing Jackson’s uncanny knack for scaring the bejeebus out of folks, most notably with 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House, adapted for Netflix by Mike Flanagan, and short story ‘The Lottery’, first published to unsettling effect in The New Yorker in 1948.
“It actually gave us quite a large amount of freedom, as actors, and for Josie also as a filmmaker, because the story that we were making has been removed kind of threefold from reality,” Young says of the real life to novel to movie pathway. “Unfortunately, the biopic structure can be really unforgiving to a cinematic explanation, and can often get bogged down in detail or an invisible necessity to put decades and decades of a person’s life into 90 minutes.”
Something of a chamber piece, there’s an inherently theatrical feel to Shirley’s meta-textual dance that reminds me of Young’s breakthrough role in The Daughter, playwright Simon Stone’s loose reworking of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck which he then adapted into his 2015 directorial feature debut.
“I learned something from Simon in shooting that film and in an answer that he gave to an interview question while we were doing the press junket for it back when people could talk to each other face to face,” Young says. “He said adaptation is an art form, because as the medium changes, the intention behind things changes. So to really honour Ibsen or Shirley Jackson herself, you have to recontextualise them.”
And that can rub some folks up the wrong way. “Simon was battling against the theatrical purists who consider The Daughter this massive transgression, and it’s like, ‘no,’ I mean, the heroes of theatre always re-told stories. Brecht would have chopped up the shit out of it.”
While we’re getting meta-textual, the New York Times writer David Richards once compared Ibsen’s The Master Builder to the work of that other great American horror writer – alongside Jackson – Stephen King. Young will appear in a new adaptation of King’s epic pandemic saga The Stand. Or at least she will once our real-life pandemic allows filming to begin again in the US.
“It’s quite bizarre,” she says of the parallel. “I will forever say yes to Stephen King. That man, despite being so prolific, doesn’t wager the quality of his stories on the desire to get them out for money. They’re always so fascinating, so much about his internal workings.”
Internal workings is a good way at looking at Young’s layered turns in Shirley, The Daughter, and meaty roles alongside Radha Mitchell in Looking for Grace and Celeste. I wonder aloud if she, like Moss, is particularly drawn to knotty characters, immediately realising I have to spell that word out, eliciting much laughter from the star.
“No, no, if naughty means kind mischievous, well yeah,” she chuckles, well, mischievously. “That goes hand-in-hand with, if you get a good creator and a good script and the right intention behind it, then you’re always going to get a nuanced role.”
On the right path, she praises Moss and Mitchell for guiding her. “The prized experience of any actor’s life is when you get to work with that actor who is better than you, and who elevates you to be the best you can possibly be.”
Shirley releases in cinemas nationally from July 9.
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