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Elisabeth Moss: ‘As women, we’re expected to not be that unpleasant’

The star and producer of Shirley on the enticements of strong, complex female characters.

Somewhere between arthouse and studio picture, Shirley feels like a natural fit for Elisabeth Moss, who was catapulted to stardom on the back of performances on the small screen in Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale. In film she has tended to skew more indie: she’s a mainstay of Alex Ross Perry’s filmography, and delivered a blistering performance as a musician battling multiple demons in 2019’s Her Smell.

Her penchant for playing complex, unpredictable women has made her one of the most interesting actors working today, and her wonderfully wicked performance as the objectionable, enchanting Shirley Jackson allows her to demonstrate a unique talent for being achingly vulnerable and unexpectedly acerbic in a single breath.

LWLies: What was it about Sarah Gubbins’ script for Shirley that drew you in?

Moss: How do you describe a good script? It was just brilliant. This was a unique, brilliant way of looking at her story, and it felt more like a Shirley Jackson novel than a Shirley Jackson biopic, which I thought was really intriguing. It felt very different from anything I’d ever played – but I think it was all those factors, not really just one thing.

How familiar were you with Shirley Jackson at that point? Had you read a lot of her work?

No, not really. I’d read ‘The Lottery’, but that was it. I knew who she was, but I wasn’t that familiar with her work. I think that’s true for a lot of people,‘The Lottery’ is this story everyone reads in school, and ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ is her most famous work.

Traditionally male authors – like Kerouac or Bukowski or Hemingway – have been given free rein to be difficult and unpleasant in the name of genius. It feels like this is one of the first times I’ve seen a female author given the same licence to be that complex.

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I will say that the portrayal of her in the film is based on a work of fiction so it’s kind of an anti-biopic. In real life Shirley was definitely not as unpleasant, and she was a great mom and she was a great homemaker. But I do think it’s interesting that it’s much more unusual to have a female character that is an anti-hero or an anti-heroine or is considered abrasive or difficult. And I think that’s also just true of life – as women, it’s expected of us to not be that unpleasant.

“If you look at the kind of movies that are coming out, there is this gigantic movement towards complicated, interesting female characters.”

It’s so refreshing that Shirley and Rose delight in being objectionable, particularly in the oppressive, very male-dominated world that they live in.

And even though Shirley was a bit more pleasant in real life, she was definitely a trailblazer and a woman who really was doing it all: she was a mom; she had a house; and then she was also a prolific writer churning out a lot of material in a short amount of time. She was very much alone as a woman in that field. It was so fun for me to play somebody who is that abrasive and difficult and honest. And to get to really just see what the character meant and not hold back. If she was in a bad mood, she was in a bad mood and it didn’t feel like you had to put a smile on your face and be pleasant.

It reminded me a lot of your performance in Her Smell. I feel like there’s a line between Becky and Shirley, in that they’re both these extremely talented women who are also incredibly difficult. Have you noticed any connections in the roles that you choose?

Yeah, I think there is a connection but it’s random because I don’t try for there to be a connection. I think I just like playing strong, complicated people. I guess it’s not a conscious thing on my part – that’s what I enjoy. Acting is complicated, but I guess these interesting women do become a through-line in my work.

Given that you’ve been acting for a long time, have you seen a change in the kind of scripts you get given and the kind of parts you’re asked to read for?

I definitely think that in the past decade, there have been more and more complicated, interesting characters who are women, and that it is more on a par with what the men have gotten for a very long time. I do think that’s something which has come to the forefront. If you look at the kind of movies that are coming out, whether it’s big Marvel movies or whether it’s smaller films like Promising Young Woman or Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I do think that from big to small films, and on television as well, there is this gigantic movement towards complicated, interesting female characters.

When you came together for pre-production, what kind of conversations were you having with Josephine and Michael about the kind of characters you were about to leap into?

My pre-production was long on this because I’m a producer as well so it started with casting and it started with crewing-up and everything. I worked on it for nine months before we started filming. Michael came on really early, he was our first and only choice. A lot of our process was reading her stories, reading any biographical material that we could get our hands on, reading letters that we got from the Library of Congress between Stanley and Shirley, and between Shirley and her friends and between Stanley and his friends. We pored over that material together for the week before we started because that’s just how the scheduling worked out, and we just kind of dove in. There were a lot of conversations previously and there was a lot of research done, but in the end we just had this incredible script that Sarah Gubbins wrote, and that was our map. It was all there.

Like you say, the script really does feel like a Shirley Jackson novel. It’s very dark but there’s this biting wit which really can’t be undersold. It’s such a funny film.

And Shirley and Stanley were such funny people. You can see from their letters and what I’ve heard from one of their sons, Laurence, that they both had a great sense of humour and I do think that that is reflected in the film, even though there are things that are fictional and there are things that are not true. But there are elements of who they really were that are really strong: their passion for each other; their humour; their dedication to their work and writing.

You mentioned you spoke to Laurence about his mother. Did you feel any kind of pressure to get your portrayal right, because even though it is fictionalised, it’s still a real person?

Yeah, we did kind of feel pressure in the beginning. But I said to Michael, ‘You know what we have to do now? We have to let that go. We have to play our version of Shirley and Stanley, and we have to have faith in that and we have to have faith in the work that we’ve done, and do the movie that’s in front of us.’ So we did get over it.

Shirley is released 30 October. Read more in LWLies 86: The Shirley issue.

Published 27 Oct 2020

Tags: Elisabeth Moss Josephine Decker Michael Stuhlbarg Shirley Shirley Jackson

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