If you are a fan of horror and literature, the name Shirley Jackson should ring a bell. Having penned such novels as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley not only positioned herself as one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century, but one of the greatest horror writers of all time. In Josephine Decker’s latest film, SHIRLEY, which takes a fictional look into the life of Shirley Jackson, we meet Rose, played by Australian actress Odessa Young (Assassination Nation), who moves in with Shirley and her husband Stanely after her husband begins working at the same University as Stanley.
For the release of the film, I had the opportunity to chat with Odessa Young. During the interview, we discussed everything from researching the 1940s time period in which the film is set to working alongside Elisabeth Moss to form the relationship and complexities present between Shirley and Rose.
Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Odessa! To start things off, can you tell us a little bit about your character, Rose?
Odessa Young: Sure, she’s kind of the character that you would probably expect to exist within the 1940s. She’s this woman who has been married young, she’s had a baby, and on paper, she’s quite easy to understand for that time period. The first time you see her she’s reading one of Shirley Jackson’s stories on the train and gets turned on by it and immediately has to go and have sex with her husband in a train bathroom. There are these little things about her that kind of break free of this assumption of what a 1940s housewife looks like. It is revealed that she’s pregnant and was pregnant at the time that she and her husband got married, so it was a bit of a shot-gun wedding. There are these brief illusions to a kind of scandalous past that she’s had. She ends up moving in with Shirley Jackson because her husband starts working for the University there and they [Rose and Shirley] kind of start this very complex, and perhaps love/hate relationship over the next year or so. She goes through a lot.
Was there any type of specific research that [Director] Josephine Decker gave you or that you did on your own to better understand your character and/or the time period?
Odessa Young: There’s definitely research that we all kind of took part in to get to know the time period better. I got to know the accent – the standard American accent that was used back then. Even the quality of the voice was very different, so we were working hard to inhabit that. Certain social decencies of the time… it was important to understand them. A lot of them were written into the script which was very gracious of Sarah Gubbins because it was really helpful to understand. I also read an etiquette book that was written in the 1930s and was apparently taught at Eloquence Schools around that time. It’s pretty limited to the kind of freedom you can have as a person in public life. It was really helpful to understand how that limitation could make someone feel so completely trapped to the point that they needed to break free creatively or just lock themselves in their house never to be seen in public because they cannot possibly handle faking it for another moment. These moments of research, though we all kind of participated in them, were really enlightening to the things that the characters were thinking about. Also, it’s important to understand how different those expectations were for men and for women. It’s very apparent how much men could get away with during that time that women couldn’t. Then also there are these little moments in the script that I love, like Rose is 8-month pregnant and she’s smoking a cigarette and having a drink. These things that are so horrifying to see because obviously we know better now, but at the time, it was done and those details, I think, are really satisfying to look out for.
Your character does go through quite a transformation from the time that she gets to Shirley’s house to the end of the film. How was it preparing for your character to go through all of that?
Odessa Young: There’s only so much you can prepare, I think, for things like that. This thing that happens frequently when I’m on set for anything, where you get to the last day of shooting and all of sudden you’re like, “Oh my God, I’ve figured it out. I wish I could go back and do it all again!”. As you go on, you learn and there’s only so much you can prepare for because that’s always going to happen. You’re always going to have an epiphany on the last day of shooting when you realize what you have been doing wrong the whole time (laughs). That’s kind of a curse and a blessing – the blessing is that you know by the time you get to the last day, you’re going to have all the tools that you need and you’re going to learn them. It’s part of the process of the character to learn that. You have to rely on the moments when life imitates art, or vice versa, to let you know what you need to know for each moment. Do the work, read the script over and over and over again, and know it as best you can; however, sometimes you’ll just have to give yourself up to the wind. I was lucky enough to have such incredible scene partners. I was lucky enough to be a part of that and to watch them work and to be welcomed into their processes. A lot of my job was simply just observing what they did and doing my best not to step on their toes and to fit into it and just do my bit. Just doing your bit to bring the most amount of vitality to a character on paper.
My last question for you has to do with the complexity surrounding Rose’s relationship with Shirley. Both you and Elisabeth Moss give phenomenal performances that are incredibly intense. What was it like working alongside one another, especially during those more intense scenes?
Odessa Young: It was a joy, it was a real joy. It is so fun to act with someone like Lizzie because she is so fucking good at what she does. It was a joy to get to set each day and specifically on those scenes where they might have been a little more emotionally challenging, such as the dark or angry scenes. Those were the scenes that were actually the most fun to do because you get to go for it. Working with someone like Elisabeth Moss really gives you permission to go for it because she is absolutely fearless. It was a pleasure, it was a real pleasure. I’d be lucky to do it again. I hope I get to.