If your movie calls for a woman on the verge of — or completely in the throes of — a breakdown, Elisabeth Moss is the one for the job. With “Shirley,” Moss continues to flex her affinity for the mad, disheveled, unraveling, and messy, as already well-documented in films including “The Invisible Man,” “Her Smell,” “Queen of Earth,” and “Us.” In Josephine Decker’s new film, Moss stars as gothic fiction writer Shirley Jackson, opposite Michael Stuhlbarg as Jackson’s husband, the literary critic Stanley Hyman. Together, these two actors work at the peak of their powers to turn marriage into demented theater, coiling a young couple (played by Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) into their sick orbit and twisting the story into “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” territory, but with a hallucinatory edge.
And it’s this character, who only sees emptiness beneath the face powder of polite society and openly mocks decorum, that the actress believes to be most like herself. “Inside, she and I are very similar,” Moss said in an interview with IndieWire. “Actually, I’ve had close friends watch the film, and they almost don’t want to say it to me. But eventually it comes out.”
That’s surprising, because in person, Moss comes across as warm and grounded. Shirley Jackson, who died in 1965 following a career most notable for the harrowing short story “The Lottery” and the novel “The Haunting of Hill House,” was not so tethered. The author endured a life sodden with excess and mental illness. Despite the existing biography, Moss, along with filmmaker Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, chose to etch their own vision of who Jackson was rather than stage a recreation with the slavish loyalty of a bonafide biopic.
“The challenge for me for this one was [that] I’ve never played a real person who everybody knew. The hair, the makeup, the costumes, the padding under the costumes, looking a little bit older,” said Moss, whose Jackson is a frumpy, boozing shut-in you wouldn’t want to take to a party. “Usually I can just make it up and say ‘that’s the character and everyone has to believe me,'” Moss said of her past work, which has so far been made up of fictional characters. “This one was interesting because I had to adhere more to facts, and to who she was.”
Even so, the actress brings to “Shirley” her singular idiosyncrasies, first established in her immortal turn as Peggy Olson in “Mad Men,” and definitive of her fearless, all-in performances ever since. Moss has found her way to a range of singular directors, from Jordan Peele (“Us”) to Jane Campion (“Top of the Lake”), who tend to get out of the way and let her experiment. In classic Moss fashion, her Jackson has an arsenal of off-putting tics and mannerisms that are pure id. One scene, where she empties a bottle of red wine onto her host’s couch and then stares at the poor woman — brimming with demonic glee — is already an iconic Moss moment.
“I don’t know where I came up with this shit,” Moss said. “There was stuff that was factual, there was stuff that we discussed. Michael [Stuhlbarg] and I, and Sarah [Gibbons], and Jo [Decker], and then there was just stuff that I made up. It just came out, and I felt like it was right. I followed that instinct with her physicality. There are photos, but there’s nothing really that says anything about her physicality.”
Contorted expressions and off-kilter physical carriage are nothing new for Moss, whose face was described by The New York Times as “extraordinarily supple.” “I’ve already got plenty of funny faces,” Moss said. “I can do weird things with my face sometimes.” (That moment in “Us” where Moss’ murderous doppelgänger, flashing a rictus grin, applies lipstick like a ’50s housewife on too much Valium? Totally her creation.)
Encouraging to Moss’ go-for-broke on “Shirley” was the destabilizing atmosphere conjured by director Josephine Decker, whose previous films “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” and “Madeline’s Madeline” radiate a tactile sensuality, sweaty and in-your-face. The Jackson/Hyman home in “Shirley,” cluttered and lived-in thanks to production designer Sue Chan, is straight out of George and Martha’s house of hell in “Virginia Woolf.” Watching the film, you get the feeling that actors Moss, Stuhlbarg, Young, and Lerman all lived there, and that’s thanks to Decker’s rehearsal process.
“We went through a lot together,” Stuhlbarg said of the day and a half they spent rehearsing before the shoot. Decker broke the ice with questionnaires and acting exercises that forced the quartet to tap into a deeper current.
Stuhlbarg said Decker pushed the actors to unpack “the emotions, the life, the character, the spirit behind what these people might be. What kinds of animals they might be. All kinds of silliness to get us out of our heads and into the spirit of making something that could be definitely quite fictional, bursts of inspiration here and there,” he said. “It shook us up in a really good way. It opened our hearts and minds to the possibility that anything goes.”
He added that being in the room with Moss and watching her become this unhinged person, “you don’t see any seams there.” That apt turn of phrase is a testament to Moss’ ability to shapeshift, because her characters, whether an emotionally deranged horror writer in “Shirley” or a broken woman whose lights are mentally burning out in films like “Her Smell” and “Queen of Earth,” are all torn seams and jagged edges.
Moss has made a personal brand out of that. Even as she hurls herself into pain, she never quite disappears. In her case, that’s an asset, because you always know that you’re observing an Elisabeth Moss Performance, and while you may think you know what you’re in for, she never ceases to surprise and unsettle. Much like Shirley Jackson, Moss is clearly not keen on selling out, despite the catapult of exposure offered by “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “The Invisible Man.” She wants to keep mining for the truth, in all its messiness.
“Shirley” opens from distributor Neon on Hulu and VOD and in select drive-ins on Friday, June 5.