“It’s rare that you find a female character who is so challenging,” Elisabeth Moss says of her role as writer Shirley Jackson in the deeply fictional Shirley. “Challenging as to me as an actor and challenging to the other characters in the film and has so much vulnerability and so many soft spots, but is also so strong, so vocal and sometimes not very nice.
Holding little back and joined by director Josephine Decker, The Handmaid’s Tale star was speaking during Deadline’s Contenders Film awards-season virtual event.
A prize-winning hit at the Sundance Film Festival last year and released by Neon on June 5, 2020, the Decker-helmed drama from a script by Sarah Gubbins is based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel. Chilling on a psychological and physical level, Shirley spotlights the often-scary ways and means of real-life author Jackson, played by multiple Emmy winner Moss.
With one novel already to her name, Jackson exploded in in 1948 with her New Yorker story “The Lottery” and went on to write acclaimed novels such as the horror of 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House and 1951’s Hangsaman. The writing of the latter provides the sharp narrative spine of Shirley.
In that vein, the movie co-stars Michael Stuhlbarg Odessa Young and Logan Lerman. Blurring more fact and fiction, the Stuhlbarg portrays Jackson’s supportive but philandering and dominating husband and literary critic, Stanley Edgar Hyman.
Fraught with threat and manipulation and executive produced by Martin Scorsese, the Bennington College-set Shirley melds more than a bit of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with the ethos of The Shining.
“Something we worked in the edit to bring out, to bring out even more was to bring out how unpredictable Shirley was,” Decker reveals. “One minute you would feel that she would lure you in and you were her most intimate friend. And then the last minute, she could like discard you from her house like you’re trash.”
Check out the panel video above.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.