Michael Stuhlbarg follows up his slew of 2017 performances in “The Shape of Water,” “The Post,” and “Call Me by Your Name” with a ravenous turn in Josephine Decker’s anti-biopic “Shirley” as Stanley Hyman, prolific literary critic and husband to horror/mystery writer Shirley Jackson (played by Elisabeth Moss). I recently spoke to Stuhlbarg about the challenges of blending fact and fiction in character construction and why Stanley and Shirley were a twisted match made in heaven.
DS: First off, I wanted to congratulate you on “Shirley.” It was my favorite movie I saw at Sundance this year and I thought you were terrific in it.
MS: Thank you so much.
How did you become involved with the film?
I got a call from Josephine [Decker], asking if I would mind getting together to talk about the possibility of collaborating on it. And I read [the script] and I liked it. The idea of getting to work with both Josephine and Elisabeth sounded really fun, combined with his material. I liked the character very much and I was interested in the world of Shirley Jackson, even though I didn’t know very much about it. So I just jumped in and and it was really fun and very challenging. I’m glad they asked me to be a part of it.
I thought you and Elizabeth had such a really strong, volatile kind of chemistry together.
It really reminded me of Martha and George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
How did you develop such an intimate connection with one another? What was the rehearsal process like?
It wasn’t much of a rehearsal process. It was more of a, “Let’s accumulate as much information about these people as we can.” “Let’s make some decisions as we go.” My learning curve was fascinating. It was unlike any other kind of experience I’ve ever had in that I initially thought it was meant to be the real people, then I later learned it was sort of two degrees removed fictionally from who the real people were. I started deeply steeped in, you know, their lives — in particular Shirley’s and Stanley’s, then discovered from there. I read the novel the script’s based on and then tried to take Josephine’s ideas about how we might approach this in a very kind of, I don’t know, in some ways animalistic or physical way.
I think part of the fun of this particular adventure was combining Josephine’s instinctual filmmaking with a very literary text and seeing what might come of it. So Elisabeth and I, particularly, when we would learn something about these people, we would just send it off to each other and say, you know, “Here’s a list of music I found online about music that apparently Shirley and Stanley loved.” We would listen to that. Then we received a huge package of their correspondences. Letters, love letters, and such, that they wrote back and forth to when they were originally courting in college. All these things informed who we thought these people were. Then we, in one way or another, tried to apply them to what was given in the script’s text and then just played together. I think in some ways, once I learned that it was more of a fiction that we were creating, it opened the door of creativity up to do anything. As opposed to feeling somewhat closed in terms of representing who these people really were. Who Stanley really was.
What was it like working with Josephine?
Interesting. Particularly because of her own experience as a performance artist and as an actor, she knows what it’s like to get up in front of people and flail about and try to find your way within something that could be taken in one particular fashion. I think she really was interested in our, at least in the process of of rehearsing it beforehand, kind of, I don’t know, cracking open some nature of who these people were. Particularly Shirley and Stanley, and trying to apply a different quality to them. A dreamier quality or a more poetic quality. She would have us do all kinds of exercises of getting out of our heads and more into our bodies and try to, on occasion, throw some of the language out. Where a scene might be highly verbal, we would try to do it without the language and see how our instincts, our physical lives, guided us without having to use words. Stuff like that.
The cinematography in “Shirley” is reminiscent of Josephine’s previous film, “Madeleine’s Madeline.”
Very much so.
It seems almost like there were times where the actors racing after the camera to keep up. What was it like working with that sort of aesthetic?
It wasn’t so much chasing after the camera as opposed to the camera having a life of its own right. I know that I learned midway through the process that Josephine was very passionate about having the film occur from Rose’s perspective of taking that world in. So I think the camera, in some cases, provided a dreamier quality. It took what we thought was a realistic moment and let it dissolve into something else. In some ways, I always feel a responsibility to stay in whatever the story is that we’re taking. And if the camera captures it, then it’s captured. And if it’s not, it was not meant to be capture, I guess. But it was unusual in that way because the camera had a mind of its own. And I don’t think Josephine and Sturla [Brandth Grøvlen] had worked together before, so in some ways, I think she wanted to bring some of that “Madeleine’s Madeline” sensibility to what she was creating with “Shirley,” but with a new cinematographer. Someone who didn’t necessarily understand her language or what she wanted. I remember reading something in particular about how usually as a cinematographer, you’re establishing the language of the film as you’re starting to shoot it. And that that language, the vocabulary of the visual vocabulary, stays the same mostly, hopefully through the film. But in this case, [Sturla] said it changed with every single scene that he worked on, which made that shifting ground quite complicated. He didn’t necessarily know how to capture what it was we were trying to capture until they got to that scene and gave it a go. It was challenging.
How long was production?
It’s a good question. I don’t remember exactly. I want to say something in the neighborhood of five to six weeks at the most.
Now that you’ve had some distance from the research process, production, release, and everything, what’s your take-away about Shirley and Stanley’s marriage? There seems to be a mutual enjoyment of torturing people. Some of their warmest moments in the film are when they make Rose and Fred squirm. What do you what of that relationship and why did they last so long together?
I think, in some ways, they had different gifts individually. And in some ways, the artist in Shirley fed off of the vulnerable. She happened upon Rose at a time when Paula Weldon’s murder preoccupied her mind. She kind of melded their existences into one and devoured both of them in some ways. I think they were relentless with themselves and, as such, were relentless with each other. As much as each was an obstacle and part of their lives, they desperately needed each other, too. I think Stanley could appreciate Shirley’s gifts in a way that nobody else could and could help her in a way that perhaps nobody else could. She desperately needed his perspective to help her create what she was creating. Apparently, he read everything before it was published and helped her with whatever it was that she thought she may have needed help with. There was a mutual respect. A mutual passion to create and to learn. And an appreciation for each other’s intellect and gifts. They kind of set themselves up in that world, which we get a little bit of insight into. As complicated as it was, it was something that they wished to maintain, even though I think it brought Shirley much sadness. I think at some point I’ve heard that there was some speculation about the fact that she might be leaving Stanley, but I don’t know how true that may have been. They had made certain agreements like his infidelity within their relationship, as long as they didn’t come in the house. It was known about. So I think they thought themselves to be somewhat elevated above other people and that perhaps they looked down upon social mores that way. That they could exist both as artists in an intellectual community while choosing to live together within the bonds of marriage, but also to accept each other for the animals that they were.
After this performance and your performance as Mr. Perlman in “Call Me By Your Name,” you have tackled the complete spectrum of The Academic.
[Laughing] We shall see.
What draws you to these academic roles?
The opportunity to be a part of them. I mean, in this instance, it’s a wealth of a world that someone thought I might be right for. In Mr. Hyman’s life, he was steeped deeply in myth and folklore and in music and in literary criticism. In the case of “Call Me By Your Name,” there’s a whole world of Latin and Greek scholarship and archeology. These are things I know very little about, personally, and things I love to learn about. It gives me an opportunity to try to take what I’m given and work backwards from it and try to construct a viable life of the person who might speak these words. It’s a great challenge and I love language plays. I’ve worked in the theater for many, many years. I love story and I love creative ways of expressing. How people communicate. So I love highly verbal texts. And I also love the opposite of that. Then trying to find the reasonable way to create the people who might speak these thoughts. I don’t know, I’m not really being articulate about it, but I love the challenge. And that’s been fun. I mean, I guess there is a common theme of my own love of learning. Maybe somebody picks up on that. That I have a passion about that, and these worlds have provided me new things to learn. So, there are new things to be passionate about, too.
Shirley is available to stream on Hulu and purchase on VOD and Virtual Cinemas here: https://neonrated.com/films/shirley#virtual-cinema
Donny Sheldon is a Philadelphia-raised, Los Angeles-based, WGA-award-winning writer. He studied Film & Cinema Studies in college at American University and earned his MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He’s followed the Academy Awards race since he was 10 years-old when his (once) beloved Titanic swept the Oscars that year — although now he’s of the opinion that Boogie Nights probably should have done that. You can find Donny on Twitter and Instagram at @dtfinla