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Interview: Odessa Young on the Intuitiveness That Fuels Shirley

Young discusses Josephine Decker’s unconventional processes and what she will take from the film to future projects.

Marshall Shaffer

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Odessa Young
Photo: Neon

Odessa Young’s character, Rose, in Josephine Decker’s Shirley functions crucially as both a foil to Elisabeth Moss’s eponymous character and as an entry point to understand the erratic presence of Shirley Jackson in the film. The doe-eyed wife of a new Bennington postgraduate fellow, Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), Rose arrives to her new Vermont environs with the intent to enroll in classes herself, only to wind up tending less to her studies and more to traditionally domestic matters in the home of Fred’s mentor and Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Placating Moss’s Shirley proves just as grueling as the upkeep on their creaky dwelling, all of which Rose must manage alongside her unexpected pregnancy. Though the clash of Rose’s innocent outlook with the harsh reality of her circumstances provides fodder for Shirley’s latest work, Young never allows her character to slip into the role of wallflower or passive muse. One of the film’s chief pleasures stems from watching Rose evolve from a spectator to Shirley’s process to a co-conspirator—and even mirror—of it.

When talking to Young about her work in Shirley, there’s a playfulness with which she describes her collaboration with Decker and Moss, who Young calls “Josie” and “Lizzie,” respectively, that stands in sharp contrast to her anything-but-casual performance in the film itself. At just 22, she already knows how to hold her own opposite a titanic screen presence, nimbly navigating her own relationship to the director’s free-roving camera. Our conversation touched on how Young relied on her intuition to bring her performance to life within Decker’s unconventional processes and what she will take from the film to future projects.

The film’s cinematography is such a forceful presence. How do you go about your process when the camera is moving about so freely and often getting quite close to you?

I was a big fan of Sturla [Brandth Grøvlen, director of photography] before we started working together on Shirley. I loved Victoria, which he shot. It was also a testament to how far he was willing to go, and to how curious he was about the limitations of cinematography and pushing those boundaries. I was really welcoming to the experimental attitude that he and Josie took to shooting this because the perspective of the camera becomes another character.

As an actor, you try to keep your “third eye” on the camera, understand where it is at any moment and just be generally aware of it. But I was struck by moments that I saw in the movie where I thought one thing was happening but a totally different thing was happening, and the camera had drifted off to another room or something. It’s an incredible testament to how their minds work together. I think that Josie and Sturla are a bit of a match made in heaven creatively because they’re both just willing to be completely intuitive with camera and movement. They disregard, in a really good way, the rules of how a scene is meant to be put together, which sometimes can be a little frustrating for actors. But, ultimately, you have to give up your trust into their vision, and I think it really paid off.

The illusion of spontaneity often comes as the product of meticulous planning. Were you all blocking things in advance? How aware were you of where the camera would go, and how you would move around in the space in relation to it?

It was, similar to Victoria, pretty meticulously planned. Or, at least, the dinner table scenes. Those scenes where you have pretty big and important chunks of dialogue were quite meticulously planned because the dialogue in the story itself is so theatrical. We decided to approach it as though it were little fragments of a play. The challenge, obviously, from an acting perspective was to keep up the grand trick of spontaneity in film.

I think that it was pretty easy to do, particularly because Lizzie Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg are such incredible actors that they can do different things with their performances one second to the next, and it’s just incredible to watch. You don’t know where they’re going next, and that kind of spontaneity married with Sturla and Josie’s penchant for just going with their gut and doing something different with the camera in each take.

And I think that Josie in particular was pretty clear from the start that a lot of her process happens in the edit. She likes to collect material, and she doesn’t shoot to edit. She will build moments in the editing room, and you can see evidence of that where there are these exciting nonlinear moments where you don’t know which part of the scene is occurring. Somehow, it all comes together in this beautiful braid of story. There were these little moments of grace that happened throughout the movie to create this feeling of [spontaneity] because it’s a trick. Everything’s rehearsed, everything’s planned, but you have those kind of God moments.

Josephine and Sturla shared their visual lookbook in a session at the Berlinale this year. Were you privy to how they were designing the look and feel of the movie? Is it helpful as an actor to tune into that frequency of something that’s superseding you in terms of how the movie is coming together and being made?

I was aware of Josie’s style having watched her prior work. I was let into that mood board, or that concept of subverting a traditional image of the ‘40s lifestyle, with that darkness or the blurriness at the edges of the frame where you don’t really know what’s lying there. I was let into that as much as I could have been being an actor. But, at some point, you do have to just do your job, and it was just really helpful that I knew that I was in good hands and [could] just tune that out. But in saying that, the camera itself and its perspective become a character. That character was very present in the room. And that character, that camera, would be eating at the table with us. And it would be dancing with us. And then it would also be wandering into the other room to get some food. And it would be directly in our faces, or maybe we’d even be holding it. I remember one scene that we shot where Josie operated the camera, and we had the lens baby on—the little kind of blurry tiny lens—and she was operating the lens while I was holding her as the camera, but also as Lizzie. The character of the camera was extremely present. And it was hard to ignore that presence in the room. We were also watching monitors all the time, and we could see what was going on and were definitely aware of those blurry bits, the darkness and the unknown seeping in. It was really exciting to watch it all come together.

Michael Stuhlbarg has said there were times where Josephine suggested throwing out the language of the script and a scene altogether and trying to find it physically. Were there moments where you found your way into a scene in such a roundabout fashion?

Any scene, for example, where Rose is alone or just with Fred—all those scenes were entered really physically. I remember there was one scene—it occurs toward the beginning of the movie—where Shirley insults Rose at the dinner table by asking about her shotgun pregnancy, and we cut to Rose and Fred upstairs. Rose is writhing around on the bed in frustration, and I remember that came out of my general frustration that I couldn’t figure something out in my mind. I couldn’t reconcile something. The scene wasn’t coming easily to me, and I just kind of put my body down on the bed and writhed around a little bit in frustration. And Josie was like, “Well, you’re doing it, that’s it, just do that!” Exploring the physicality of what frustration is, not just the language of it. Because the language is so powerful, it’s tempting to just simply rely on it. But for Josie, she’s extremely visual and symbolic. If you’ve seen Madeline’s Madeline, you know her process of coaching as a director, coaching the animalistic tendencies out of the character. And there were very often these moments where she really encouraged us to just be completely fearless with our physicality in it, and it really paid off.

How did you calibrate opposite Elisabeth Moss given that so much of your performance is relational to the level that she’s going to go for in a given scene? Would you be aware of how she was going to play something beforehand, or were you in the same situation as Rose, reacting to her every whim in real time, uncertain of where she would go?

I really love the word “calibration” to describe that because it does feel like that. Lizzie will do something different every take, which is extremely exciting. And it very much played into the Rose’s purpose at the start of the film: to simply observe and let the audience in through her observation. It was pretty self-explanatory. When you get into the room with Lizzie, you simply want to watch her. It was definitely leaning into that awestruck observation of what she was going to do. You don’t know what Lizzie’s going to do next as an actor, and you didn’t know what Shirley was going to do next as a writer or as a disruptive person.

Using that curiosity as an entry point into the character was really helpful. There’s this mood throughout the film where you’re pretty sure—or, at least I see it this way—that if you say the wrong thing to Shirley in any way, she might just go upstairs and kill herself. Or kill you. There’s that trepidation that the characters have to take around her. Relying on the optics of what that looks like as a young and bushy-tailed, bright-eyed character coming into this dark world is self-explanatory. They just fold into that.

Josephine has mentioned that Shirley and Rose are somewhat akin to kind of two sides of the same personality. Were you and Elisabeth working in tandem or collaborating to explore your characters, or were you all more siloed in developing them?

When Lizzie was there, she was there. But when she wasn’t, she was working on something else. She had just come off Handmaid’s Tale and was shooting Jordan Peele’s Us at the same time. Lizzie and I talked as much as we needed to, but I think both of us work primarily through intuition. And I think that was really helpful for the situation because sometimes we didn’t have complete access to one another. We’d just get on set, and I knew she’s brilliant. She was gonna come in and know exactly what she was doing and just fucking do it, and that was it. You just had to be ready for it, pull up your bootstraps and give it your all so as not to waste anyone’s time. I’m really lucky that it seems like our intuitions just hit a really similar wavelength, and we were able to just fall into stride with each other. It just felt supernatural.

You’ve said that you learn by osmosis rather than through formal training. What did you take away from working with Elisabeth, Michael, Logan, or any actor in Shirley?

Each of them has very different backgrounds, upbringings, philosophies, and methods—whatever you want to call it. With Lizzie, because she was going back and forth doing all these jobs at once, I remember asking her one day, “How do you do it?” And she just said, “I dunno, you just do it.” And that was a nice thing to hear because, yeah, you do just do it. It doesn’t matter what happens, you just have to trust yourself to get through it and do it.

As for Michael, he’s had a lot of training. He really came in approaching the project like a play, being very meticulous with rehearsal. I remember him mentioning that he would rehearse the dinner table scene by himself around his living room table, laying it all out like it was going to be in the movie. He would rehearse and put imaginary people at each chair. It was the first time that I’d ever seen such a theatrical process on film, and it was really inspiring because you watch it in the film and he’s so pitch-perfect. He doesn’t drop a beat. His performance is so tight and sleek. You can see the work that he’s put in, but it’s not overbearing. It feels natural, so lived in. To see something like that and the process of it made me want to work harder and take it seriously because you can get comfortable with your intuition. Intuition can get you far, but it can only get you so far. At some point, you have to start putting some blood, sweat, and tears into it. Watching Michael work through his process, it’s like, “Oh, that shit does work!” You can really use that training, and it was a joy to watch.

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