Odessa Young was confident enough to relocate from Sydney to Los Angeles just two days after she turned 18, and then, two years later, to pull up stumps and move to the opposite coast because “New York is just more my kind of town”. But when she first read the screenplay for Shirley – in which she stars opposite Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg and Logan Lerman – she thought she had little chance of landing a role that was widely considered one of the hottest parts in Hollywood for an actress of her generation.
“Everybody was getting sent it and there was a lot of talk about how great the role was,” the 22-year-old says from her home in Williamsburg, the Brooklyn suburb that has become home to many expat Australians.
She was 20 at the time, which was about right for the character of Rose, a young wife in the late 1940s whose plans to continue her college education are disrupted by pregnancy and a complex relationship with novelist Shirley Jackson (Moss) and her lecturer husband Stanley Hyman (Stuhlbarg), who invite her and her budding academic husband Fred (Lerman) to share their rambling house.
But because the role demanded a certain maturity, Young says, “I was told they were talking about actresses a few years older than me, and I was thinking, ‘I’ll never get this’. I mean, I was still playing high schoolers, so it was a leap of faith to let me graduate from that sort of role into a woman who is pregnant and trying to start a family and be a wife and, you know, wrestle with her intellectuality.”
No one could say Young has been padding out the CV with standard teen fare. Her Australian work includes breakout performances in Simon Stone’s Ibsen-inspired The Daughter and Sue Brooks’ dark family dramedy Looking For Grace. But those were girls rather than women. Rose, she concedes, is really her first “grown-up” role, and it was an opportunity she was more than ready for.
“I think some of the most important fiction is from the perspective of teenagers,” Young says. “But when you’re in a ‘high-school drama’ your classmates are the same age as you. And that’s obviously amazing and fun, and quite often you are working with some of the best actors of your generation, but I’ve always loved feeling like the young one on set purely for the reason that I can look up to actors who have lived my life before me, and who can imbue a sense of wisdom. I just think it’s the most incredible schooling.”
She readily admits the fact she did not go to drama school might be a factor in this. “It’s the perpetual shame,” she jokes.
Surely you must be shaking it by now? “Just barely. You never grow out of the imposter syndrome.”
Shirley director Josephine Decker says they considered “a ton of really incredible actresses” for Rose, but were swayed by Young’s audition “because it was so feral”.
“She’s a wild Rose, not a pretty, nice, carefully pruned Rose in a garden,” says Decker. “She is thorny and unconquerable in a way. She brought a lot of resistance into the audition and that felt honestly different from almost every other tape. I feel grateful we got to work with her.”
Shirley is a strange beast of a film. Rose and Fred are fictional characters, but Shirley and Stanely are real – or, at any rate, based on real people. The screenplay, by Sarah Gubbins, is adapted from the book of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell: a novel that blends biography, elements of Jackson’s own writing style – her forte was a kind of gothic horror with a particular focus on power dynamics between women – and an entirely invented storyline.
The film starts out straightforwardly enough with Rose and Fred on a train bound for the college town of Bennington. He’s excited to meet his PhD supervisor (Stanley); she’s excited to meet the author of the buzzy New Yorker short story The Lottery. But as soon as they step inside Shirley’s world, things become far less transparent.
At times, Shirley feels like a haunted-house movie, with the building seeming to suck the colour and life out of Rose. At others, it nudges at the edges of a lesbian romance. By the end, with a newly assured Rose finally able to move out of Shirley’s orbit, the film offers up multiple possible readings – at least one of which might involve Rose and Shirley being aspects of the same character.
That open ending, says Young, was deliberate. “It poses the question of what if the story you were looking at folded in on itself, kind of the way a wormhole works in the universe, and you were experiencing, you know, the story of one woman at two different times of her life, and the graduation from that younger woman into what she becomes.”
‘I like to be challenged as an actor and it’s very apparent when you first read a script whether you will be or not.’
“Their relationship is so exciting because it mirrors what Shirley does in her writing,” adds Decker of the cat-and-mouse dynamic between the pair. “She usually has one female character who’s a bit more misanthropic but is really hilarious, and then a character who’s great at baking and gets along well with men and with other beings, and is kind of lovely and generous. And yet these two people are really close friends in a lot of her work.
“Are they the same person, are these two sides of a consciousness, two sides of Shirley that she’s always kind of working out, working out, working out? We wanted those questions to be inside the film.”
It’s complex stuff, and sure to further cement Young’s reputation as a serious talent on the rise – and one whose choices speak volumes about both her instincts and her intellect.
She’s not deliberately eschewing what you might call “accessible” stories, but she concedes she is drawn to the meatier end of the spectrum. She made an out-and-out high-school movie last year in Assassination Nation – but it was a luridly bloody critique of the age of social media and the pressure kids feel to maintain some sort of filtered and curated version of what they imagine is expected of them.
Earlier this year she shot The Stand – a TV series based on a Stephen King novel about a global pandemic: written in the 1970s, updated in the 1990s, and now, suddenly, scarily apposite. It might be the most timely thing she’s ever made, for better or worse.
“We had four days to shoot before lockdown happened in Vancouver, but I think they were able to finagle some things around and not end up having to shoot more,” she says. “Either people are going to really enjoy it, or they’re going to want to have nothing to do with it because they’ve just lived it.”
What you won’t find on her credit list – so far, at least – is a romance or a comedy.
“I see that maybe there is a pattern emerging, this thread of the darker roles,” Young says. “I like to be challenged as an actor and it’s very apparent when you first read a script whether you will be or not.
“I also think that it very much depends on the intention of the piece itself, whether that has solid ground. Because whether or not you think anything I’ve done is a good movie or a bad movie, I would say that each piece of work I’ve been a part of has a very distinct intent. And I think that’s just one of the most important things about the creation of art and cinema – that it intends either to enlighten or inform or change.
“There just has to be that kind of passionate desire behind why filmmakers want to create something, and that mood, that energy, bleeds out to everybody on the set. That’s when you can be sure that what you’re doing is meaningful.”
Perhaps because of her lack of formal training, a movie set, or a theatre rehearsal room, isn’t just a workplace to Young. It’s a place of learning, of collaboration, of growth. A place where, she says, “you work together as a community, and it is school, and you don’t just show up and do the thing that you wanted to do. You need to learn how to work with others, and how to be malleable, and how to read a room and how to fit into that room.”
The creative process itself was the subject of Decker’s previous feature, Madeline’s Madeline, a remarkable piece of hybrid dance/physical theatre/narrative drama that focused on the relationship between the leader of a New York experimental theatre troupe (Molly Parker) and the brilliant but clearly troubled teenager (Helena Howard) whose personal story becomes the fuel for the company’s new production. It’s a self-excoriating work that paints the director as a vampiric exploiter of her young star.
There are echoes of this dynamic in Shirley too, with the writer “stealing” moments from the life of her young house guest, as well as putting her to work as a de facto housekeeper, in exchange for the chance to be in the presence of “greatness”.
Is this what it was like, then, to work for Decker, who is seen as one of the brightest new talents in the business (and whose next project, a young adult film for Apple called The Sky is Everywhere, is likely to put her much more firmly in the mainstream)?
“She is one of those directors who likes to push boundaries and blur the lines between the public and the private, especially in terms of performance,” says Young.
She was comfortable with Decker’s working method, but as a rule, she adds, “I wouldn’t say I necessarily trust those actors who use acting primarily as therapy. It is obviously a great strength of an actor to pull the personal out and make it public when it’s necessary, but you need to have the self-awareness and the human knowledge to understand what the limits are to that.
“That’s kind of the whole endeavour, to find that really thin line between ‘good for you’ and ‘good for the character’.”
Young isn’t one of those actors busily polishing their social media profile. She’s on Instagram, but has said in the past that she agonises over whether or not to participate at all in that space.
Part of the reason she moved from LA to New York two years ago was to have a life that wasn’t all about the industry. “It feels easier to just be a person here. New York is just a place where you can get more interaction with the city itself as opposed to kind of hovering above it as everyone seems to do in LA.”
But life in isolation has made the distance from her family back in Australia feel all too real.
“It’s been pretty difficult,” she says. “I never thought it could feel as far away as it does now.”
Still, New York is beginning to feel like home. And as it tentatively edges towards a re-emergence, there’s a push to relax rules against drinking in public, to make the city more bike and pedestrian friendly – in general, to open it up to its people.
“It’s like despite the virus keeping everyone indoors, and these political upheavals, it’s actually unifying people. There are people I know who’ve lived here for more than a decade, and they are saying it finally feels like they’re arriving into the New York City they always wanted to move to. I think that is really beautiful.”
Shirley is in cinemas from July 9.
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.