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Monday, June 29, 2020

Typewriters and Duck Shirts: Elisabeth Moss on Shirley Jackson, ‘Shirley’ and the Future of ‘The Invisible Man’

“Can I tell you a secret?” Elisabeth Moss asks.

“I don’t know how to type.”

That’s a bit of a revelation from the star of Mad Men and the critically acclaimed new film Shirley, a fictionalized account of how horror author Shirley Jackson wrote the psychological thriller Hangsaman. Elisabeth Moss plays the title role in Josephine Decker’s incredible new film, and just like in Mad Men, she spends a lot of her screen time convincingly hammering out words on a typewriter.

Needless to say, the award-winning actor fakes it well.

“Thank you!” Moss says in response to the compliment. “Thank you so much, and I’ll take it one fucking step further. As you may remember I played Peggy Olson on a show for many years, who was many, many times behind a typewriter, including in the last scene of Mad Men. Her last scene of Mad Men. Nine years, I never learned how to type. It was all fake.”

“I felt like it was working. I felt like it was working for me, and I was like, if it ain’t broke why fix it?” Moss adds, when Bloody-Disgusting asks if she ever thought about taking lessons. “I thought about it, I was like, maybe I should learn how to type. And then I just, I don’t know, maybe I was just lazy and I just gave [up] and said, ‘Eh, I’m fine.’”

“But I am conscious of it!” the actor laughs. “I am conscious of making sure, I think from playing Peggy, making sure that it does look right. And that typewriter was different than the ones that we had on Mad Men, obviously, because it was in the 1950s instead of the 1960s. And it kept breaking, which was annoying, but thank you! I appreciate you thinking I did it! And you can tell everybody, don’t worry. It’s not a secret. You can tell people: ‘Elisabeth Moss is NOT a Typist! Breaking News!’”

It may seem like a tiny detail, but Shirley – which is now available on Hulu and On Demand – is a film of many details. The film doesn’t just tell a fictionalized version of Jackson’s life, it creates a whole world for her to inhabit, centered around her cluttered home in the 1950s.

“That house is incredible. It was upstate New York, and obviously we shot most of the movie there. I will say that the only thing that wasn’t incredible was it was very, very hot. We shot it in August. But I’m not going to be one of those actors that complains about the heat, or complains about the cold,” Elisabeth Moss says in a self-deprecating tone.

“It was beautifully done. The production design of it was incredible, and we were able to pretty much move from room to room, downstairs to upstairs. We had the whole house to use. The entire house was ready, the entire house was decorated, every single room,” she describes. “So you were really able to use that space and it kind of felt claustrophobic, in the best way. You know, it felt very, very real. Just all those books and the papers and her desk and everything just had this reality to it I that I think was really important, and I think, I hope, you can feel [it] in the movie.”

It’s not just the environments that stand out. Shirley Jackson’s wardrobe pops off the screen as well, in particular a shirt she wears multiple times, which is covered in friendly-looking ducks. A striking image, especially since it’s being worn by an author in the process of writing a terrifying novel, who is also psychologically manipulating her new tenant to help inspire the material.

Needless to say, the duck shirt is such a standout piece of costuming that we assumed there must be a story behind it.

“That is also one of my favorite pieces of wardrobe I have ever worn, in [my] career. It was spectacular,” Moss recalls. “It was an incredible find on the part of our amazing costume designer. It was, I believe, actually vintage, so it went back to wherever it went, whence it came.”

“The writer and I, Sarah Gubbins, loved that shirt so much that we basically were like, how many times can I wear it and still be okay? How many times? I just want to wear the duck shirt,” Moss says.

It’s an approach to costuming that makes sense, since in real life people repeat their wardrobe all the time, and in films it’s decidedly less common.

“That was actually really important to us too and it’s always something important to me on every project,” Moss adds. “I love repeating things because, as you said, it’s completely unrealistic. I’ve worn the same thing for, probably, you know, three days? I mean I’ve showered in between but I’ve worn the same thing. So I think that, yeah, you have a favorite shirt. You might rock that for a week! I dunno.”

All these details about Shirley Jackson’s surroundings and wardrobe are key components in a film that looks and feels like a biopic, but actually tells a fictional version of Jackson’s life story, through they eyes of a fictional character. It’s an approach that could have freed Elisabeth Moss from the restrictions of historical accuracy, but the actor says she felt it was important to portray the author as “accurately as possible.”

“But I think that I focused, because of our particular story, on a couple of facets of her,” Moss clarifies. “You know, as opposed to the whole picture. She was a wonderful mother, took very good care of her kids, despite the fact that she was obviously with a lot of mental issues and addiction issues. And she is by all accounts, including having spoken to her son, a wonderful mother. So we didn’t get to show that part of the story.”

“But I tried to focus on her honesty, her sense of humor, her intelligence, and her completely 100% to the point of almost insanity dedication to her work. And I felt like if I could get those parts right I was honoring her in a way that she, if she saw the movie, she wouldn’t want me murdered,” Moss laughs. “Although she might anyway and I wouldn’t blame her!”

One of the less than flattering aspects of the film is Shirley Jackson’s relationship with her college professor husband, Stanley, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. In addition to infidelities, the married couple seem to take delight in psychologically manipulating and needling their two tenants in the film, a young couple played by Odessa Young and Logan Lerman.

“I think that some artists, life bleeds into the work and the work bleeds into the life and they get all mixed up. From the research that we did and from reading their letters, they had these great letters that they wrote to each other, we really discovered their passion in life, their passion for each other, and their passion for storytelling,” Moss explains.

“And they were also so funny. They were quite… there are some dirty bits in these letters! They were quite sexual, this couple. And then they also had this obviously incredibly toxic wrinkle about Stanley’s affairs, which he would tell Shirley about,” Moss says. “She asked that he tell her. It’s all very interesting.”

“I think that we took that spirit, of the reality of their relationship, and used that with the younger couple and this cat and mouse thing. It’s almost like they’re living their life as a potential for another great story, which I think is true for some artists. I think they’re looking for inspiration all the time and if they can have a little fun with these two kids,” Moss muses, “I think their intelligence is so daunting. They were so smart, this couple, and it’s impossible I think when you’re that smart to not play with two people who they think are not as smart.”

“It’s not nice!” Moss laughs. “I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody.”

In addition to those revealing letters, Moss also had access to all of Shirley Jackson’s writings, which had a significant influence on how the actor portrayed the author in her “real” life.

“It was part of the research. I had read The Lottery and Haunting of Hill House, but I hadn’t read anything else really. So I got to read all of her stories, which is just [incredible],” Moss says. “I can’t believe that that’s something I have to do as, like, ‘work.’ Like, it’s kind of silly. And then there was this great biography written by Ruth Franklin called A Rather Haunted Life that was extremely helpful. But yeah, I got to read all of Shirley Jackson and it was just wonderful.”

“I think her voice is in her work. She was so connected to her work, it was her life’s passion, it was her first love. I think you can see her incredible intelligence in her work and I think you can see her sense of humor, and it’s a very slicing sense of humor,” Moss observes. “It is not the friendliest but it is really very much there, and I can see it in her work and in her observations of people in her work. You know, Margaret Atwood has a similar kind of tone sometimes when she writes, and she’s also an incredibly intelligent and very funny person.”

Shirley is, of course, the second acclaimed film with ties to the horror genre that Elisabeth Moss headlined in 2020. At the beginning of the year she starred in the hit reboot The Invisible Man as a woman stalked by a villainous ex-boyfriend who can’t be seen with the naked eye. Both films are about manipulation, and both films have an element of moral ambiguity to their conclusions.

The connections between her recent horror films, including the blockbuster Jordan Peele thriller Us, are not lost on Elisabeth Moss.

“It’s funny because I was actually making Us at the same time as I was making this movie [Shirley],” Moss recalls. “So that was kind of an interesting experience because I felt like I was going between somebody that inspired the kind of work that Stephen King and Jordan Peele and so many others have done since then.”

“I see a similarity I suppose in the darkness next to it, the humor, if that makes any sense. I see a similarity in a woman who, with Shirley she’s really wrapped up in her demons and her imagination, and obviously with The Invisible Man she is as well, except it’s real!” Moss says.

“So you can almost see a version where I would have almost liked to have seen Shirley Jackson’s version of The Invisible Man. Like, you know, I think Leigh [Whannell] captured it very, very well, I think there’s a similarity in tone to her work and the work of Invisible Man and also Jordan Peele’s work. I don’t know if that makes any sense or if I’m crazy to see that, but I do,” Moss adds.

As for the future of The Invisible Man, and where her character could go next, Moss is excited but aware that what really matters is the demand for a sequel in the first place.

“Look, if people want it that’s kind of a big part of what we need in order to do it. So put the word out there that YOU want it and then I’ll help!” the actor laughs.


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