According to a study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's series, Writing Critics' Wrongs, our woman movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
Early in August, I found myself streaming A Knight’s Tale on Netflix, wondering, “Whatever happened to Shannyn Sossamon?” Turns out I’m not the only one asking. There are countless articles devoted to this very question, probably because someone like me Googles it every time they catch a glimpse of Sossamon in something. A quick perusal of her IMDb page will get you up to speed on her projects, and her Instagram might give you a glimpse at her everyday public persona. But what does she think of her Hollywood story? And what does it say about an industry that tends to treat women as disposable and replaceable commodities?
Over the years, a sort of myth has developed around Sossamon’s career. At just 20 years old, she was cast as Jocelyn in A Knight’s Tale opposite Heath Ledger, who had reached instant heartthrob status two years earlier thanks to 10 Things I Hate About You. Execs were thirsting to give Ledger a leading role, and the actor who played opposite him was guaranteed exposure and an automatic mystique. Almost overnight, Sossamon became Hollywood’s latest sensation, going on to star alongside other marquee hunks of the time like Josh Hartnett in 40 Days and 40 Nights, and James Van Der Beek in Rules of Attraction.
And then, she suddenly disappeared.
Like all legends, this one is based on kernels of truth. Sossamon’s meteoric rise to fame echoes the Old Hollywood stories of stars discovered while sitting at the counter at Schwabs, and certainly, she hasn’t held a leading role in some time. But to describe her trajectory as simply the It-Girl flavour of the month, whizzing uphill and then down is missing the point. Sossamon never disappeared — she’s been here this whole time, figuring out her next move in a business that never quite knew what to do with her.
“I didn't feel like what they wanted me to be,” Sossamon told Refinery29 over the phone from Los Angeles. “I didn't feel like the person that was being projected onto me. That was very uncomfortable.”
You know the person she’s talking about: The manic pixie dream girl with red dip-dyed hair, a carefree smile, and sprite-like grace that Sossamon embodied for much of her early career.
The Hollywood Reporter called her a “cheeky fair maiden,” in its review for A Knight’s Tale. Erica, Sossamon’s character 40 Days and 40 Nights was summed up by Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers simply as “a hottie,” while Roger Ebert, one of the rare critics to enjoy the movie, called her “Laundromat Girl.” But her on-screen persona is perhaps best summed up by Jack Black’s character Miles in 2006’s The Holiday. Introducing Maggie (Sossamon) to Kate Winslet’s Iris, he proudly says, “This is my Maggie.” Basically, she was the quirky cool girl, independent enough to attract a man, but happy to surrender to his ardor in the end. (Although to Miles’ dismay, his breezy indie girlfriend later cheats on him.)
At 22, Sossamon got pregnant with, and then gave birth to, her first son, Audio. As a young mother, she no longer fit the image Hollywood wanted to push for her. But the truth is, she never really had. She’d never wanted to.
Still, she now had a family to provide for, and continued to act in what she calls “survival mode,” working enough to pay the bills, and to try and pursue projects she felt fit her worldview. She appeared in a steady stream of forgettable horror movies, punctuated with stints on TV shows like How To Make It In America, Sleepy Hollow, and Wayward Pines. She founded a band, Warpaint, with sister Jenny Lee Lindberg, and served as the original drummer. And still, Sossamon didn’t feel like she’d found her niche. Until now.
In the summer of 2019, Sossamon launched a Kickstarter campaign for The Maude Room, a series of short visual, audio, and performance acts that would live together as a variety show anthology of sorts. The whole thing would be available through an app that she’d develop, called Picture Show City. She raised just over $66,000 (£50,700) and has been spending the last year putting her passion project together. Finally, behind the lens, in the editing bay, and overseeing production and development, she’s found her little piece of Hollywood.
Refinery29: Hollywood lore has it that you were cast in A Knight’s Tale after a casting director saw you deejaying. Is that true?
Shannyn Sossamon: “It’s true. I was DJing. My friend at the time was hired to deejay a birthday party for Gwyneth Paltrow and her brother, and he asked me to come along. I was sort of deejaying casually around town at the time, just once or twice a week. And when I say deejay, I use it very loosely. I was just playing records that I liked, one after the other, I'm introverted and I wasn't good at small talk and hanging out with people, but I liked to be out and get free drinks and being able to choose the music. So I went, and I think [casting director] Francine Maisler was there. I'm not sure about that part. All I know is that I got a call from my friend — the actual DJ — and he said, ‘Can I give your number out? Someone's asking.’
“I was called in for A Knight's Tale I think a month or two later. I actually read with Octavia Spencer, because [she] was working for Francine at the time. Then I did a screen test with Heath and ended up getting the job. I remember driving to the Sony lot, and I'm like, ‘What's going on? Is this really happening?’ When I look back on it, sometimes I try to remember that feeling, because in the years since I've often done terrible auditions and been incredibly nervous. Once I understood what system I was participating in, I had a very hard time.”
"I wouldn't wish a red carpet experience on my worst enemy."
When you say the system you were participating in, what do you mean by that?
“I realised this is actually a big machine and a game. And I didn't feel comfortable in it. I don't know why I kept doing it. Maybe it was the money. Maybe it was that I really did think I could do it. I actually did love acting, and I loved playing pretend, and I love moving pictures, and I love art. Maybe that was it.
“One thing that I think is super uncomfortable is you're expected to sell yourself, but pretend that you're not selling yourself. That’s really strange for me. I think there are people who genuinely like that because maybe it's like walking a tightrope, or it's dangerous. So if you win at this kind of game, you've won at something very difficult, and maybe that feels good. I'm not sure why people are attracted to this particular game. I would much rather sell myself and own it. I wasn't ready for the system.”
You were almost immediately pegged as this quirky ingenue. Was some of your discomfort in part due to that image?
“Absolutely. I didn't feel like what they wanted me to be. I didn't feel like the same person that I think was being projected onto me. That was very uncomfortable. But I had a lot of opportunities. There were so many opportunities to win. There were so many wonderful auditions and it really was kind of like an ill-fitting hat situation.”
Why do you think you haven't gotten many of the kinds of roles that you really connect with? Did having a child so early turn the industry against you, or was it more of a personal choice to take a step back?
“It's a little bit of both. I think having the kid was like, ‘Okay, she's not serious.’ But after I had Audio, there were opportunities. Sometimes my anxiety took hold or I wasn't prepared enough or I wasn't in the right headspace. There is no fault, you know? It's actually maybe just fate and sort of meant to be the way it currently is.”
But that's also part of the game you refer to, no? Since you're not playing by the rules Hollywood sets out, you don't exist.
“That's true. I say sometimes to my family, ‘I'm almost anonymous, pretty much, walking on the street,’ W’. Pretty much, walking on the street and I love that. That was another thing that was really tough about the business, how much they encourage networking and events and red carpets and all these things. I mean, I wouldn't wish a red carpet experience on my worst enemy. There's got to be other ways to do it. This ‘stand’ and ‘step and repeat’ and ‘give us a turn’... All those things were always very uncomfortable for me. And you can tell.”
Have you rewatched A Knight’s Tale over the years?
“I have not watched it in so long. I have fond memories from that experience. I met a lot of wonderful people. I'm still really close with the director, Brian Helgeland. I remember really kind of just being taken along on a ride because I hadn't done any movies up until that point. I don't know what kind of force allowed me to believe that I could just do this movie.”
What do you remember about working with Heath Ledger?
“Anybody that's ever worked with him or was friends with him [will tell you] he was an incredible spirit. The whole space around you kind of lit up. With him, I felt a very sibling-like dynamic. I was very comfortable around him to truly be myself. It never was about the business. It was just being human and I felt like he saw me and it was true. But I think everybody that knew him and loved him felt like that. That's what was so special about him.”
How do you think your character of Jocelyn has held up? Was there something that you felt connected to there?
“I liked that character. I think this is normal for a lot of actors, but you wish you could go back and play it again. I think I would have done it so much better if I was able to do it now.”
What would you have done differently?
“So much. I just would have loved to have felt more secure in it and more free. That's why I think it's hard for me to watch it, just because I'm like, ‘Oh shoot.’”
“I realized this is actually a big machine and a game. And I didn't feel comfortable in it. I don't know why I kept doing it."
Do you think that you’d be able to have more control over your own space and identity if you entered the industry today?
“That's what I think I'm trying to do in this second chapter of my career. It was very clear I was unhappy in this business for a long time, and I kept doing it because I had my first child pretty young — at 22. I was in survival mode. But I was clearly unhappy; anybody that knew me, anybody that was ever in a room with me in an audition, or even on a set with me...I wasn't thriving. Two years ago, I received a script that was so offensively bad. And I was like, ‘This might be the worst one.’ I came to realise, ‘These are getting worse and worse. This is a sign that I can't do this anymore. This is no life.’
“When I really look back, the reason why it was so hard for me to just pull the trigger and leave or quit, or change career paths, was because I was so confused. I love moving pictures. I love arts and entertainment. When I'm not working and my kids were in school, I would go see movies by myself once or twice a week. And the few movies I have done that I felt were helmed by artists or were made for the right reasons, I've absolutely loved. I've disappeared into it. I was like, ‘I am in the right job though. Why is this not working?’ I don't know what else I would do. I can't switch. I'm not going to go be a chef or an architect. That's when I realised I had to figure something else out.
“I love holding the camera. I love colouring and cropping and doing editing and coming up with the music with the composer. I love working with actors, and I really do love directing, too. I get asked a lot if I'm still acting, and I don't ever want to say, ‘Oh, I quit.’ But the truth is I think I had to be honest with myself and say that I am only good and proud of my work when I connect with the material. That's only happened a handful of times. Really great actors who really love what they do and are really passionate about it can elevate any material. And because I can't do that, I had to admit to myself that it was a hobby and that you can't make a living from a hobby. It breaks my heart because I really would have loved to have done wonderful things. It's hard to not want to watch anything.”
Is that where The Maude Room comes in?
“Yes. Over the years, I'd used my own personal money and kind of made these experimental little shorts. When I received that terrible script I mentioned, I said, ‘Now that we have the tools, I think you need to try this seriously.’ What I wanted to do is to create a space that’s like film school in a way. I'm doing mostly everything myself, holding the camera and doing all the post [production], and I'm loving it. It’s about creating a variety show space where I don’t have to play by the rules of the other system and get through doors and say, ‘Hey, will you read this? Can you believe in me?’ I believe in myself. I'm just going to create this space. I [decided to call it] a variety show because it allows for range. These shorts can be dramatic or they can be comedic, or I can have musical performances, or I can have conversations about tough subjects.”
You’re also developing your own app called Picture Show City where all of this content will live. Why did you feel that was important?
“It’s not that different from a YouTube channel, but that didn't feel right to me. The reason Hollywood is a force rather than just a city and has so much power is because they understand the delivery system and what people want in those theatres. If you can create your own little theatre, if you can create your own delivery system, then it can survive by itself. I was finding YouTube and Instagram to be so busy, like visual vomit. I needed a whole new space.
“Last summer, I did a Kickstarter campaign because I had used too much of my personal money, and because I didn't take that terrible movie in 2018. Up until that point, I had always taken just enough jobs to get by. Like one or two a year, as long as it wasn't offensive, and as long as I felt I could do something, tell some kind of truth. So financially also it's been a struggle. But also I had to hold myself accountable. Doing something public like that meant I had to actually follow through. It’s been a trip trying to do it when the pandemic hit, to try to actually stay locked into that original joy for it through this has also been an interesting challenge.”
How are you creating the content for The Maude Room?
“It's just me, the sound recordist and the performer or performers. We invite improvisation, but we're on the same page about the tone of the day, and I film, which is heaven — we just use a phone or an iPad. Then I go home and try to put it all together and find the stories. For the musical performances, that's really about them. I shoot and let them sing or let them play music. And then the interview section, because of the pandemic, has turned into more of an audio experience [like] a podcast, although it doesn't really feel like one. That's what we've got for the first season, and we'll see if anybody even wants to see a second season. Hopefully the app will take on a life of its own.”
Two years ago, I received a script that was so offensively bad. I was like, ‘This might be the worst one.’ I came to realise, ‘These are getting worse and worse. This is a sign that I can't do this anymore. This is no life.’
This almost sounds like the moving picture shows they used to tour around at the very beginning of film. You’d look into a lens, and there’d be a short vignette.
“You just gave me goosebumps. When I fell in love with Instagram in 2013, I remember thinking, This feels like a picture show theatre. I've been doing some film school reading and trying to catch up on all the things I never really learned. I never properly had a film education, or studied film history. And when I read about kind of the early days, it feels like the same spirit. It’s new and exciting!
Is it freeing to be your own boss now?
“It's a very strange kind of project as far as the rules. Because I'm creating them, right? I'm enjoying that very much — it’s what I had wanted. But I [also] dream now about directing a regular script. Maybe I'll go to Europe and shoot it. So I'm really excited about that, too. I'm talking a lot about this new kind of way, but my love for a traditional movie experience is still very much intact. “
Is directing a feature the next step for you?
“I definitely want to do that. I just have to do [The Maude Room] first. I guess for some directors their first step would have been a short film, or music videos. This is my that.
“There were great examples around me of people [over the years] who were making [things] happen. You know, actresses were writing their own stuff, starring in their own stuff, directing in their own stuff. It was inspiring, yes, but they were still doing it within the system. What I wanted was to leave. Like, ‘I'm going to create my own little Hollywood over here.’”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.