Steven: Thank you for joining me. Your husband, Joseph Paul Stachura, not only directed “Scream at the Devil” but also wrote and produced the film. Did he intentionally write the lead role of Mirium Jones with you in mind? Beyond that, was working together on this project something planned together far in advance of filming?
Shari: Joseph had a very clear idea of the story for this film before he decided he would like to have me in it. When we decided to shoot partially in Venice, Italy, it made much more sense. Of course, we knew for a long time before we started production that I would be taking the lead role. As one of the producers, I had to okay the talent!
Robert Ferrone Photography
Steven: You gave a strong performance in the film as a woman suffering with schizophrenia. Your wide range as an actress is highly impressive. How much research did you do in advance of filming? Portraying a character suffering with this type of condition must have been extremely challenging.
Shari: “Scream at the Devil” was not the first time I’ve played someone with mental illness. The first was in the play “Detective Story” many years ago, when I played a lady who thought that someone was shooting electricity at her from the Empire State building. It was hard to find the real “craziness” because it’s a very frightening yet possible part of everyone. But like all great roles, no matter how deep or disturbing, there should always be a conscious part of you thinking, “This is fun.” Once I tapped into that part of myself, it was freeing. I have done a great deal of research on this affliction for both books and film roles. My main sources were biographies of people who have been through it. One piece in particular, “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness” by Elyn R. Saks, is excellent. It should be required reading for anyone who has to deal with this illness in their family. I also watched many documentaries, and interviewed doctors and psychologists. It was challenging but worth it to get it right. I have so much more respect now for people who have to deal with mental illness of any kind. Schizophrenia is a blanket term for many kinds of psychosis, so I had to customize the symptoms and the effects.
Steven: I sympathized with your character’s situation. Miscarriages, a cheating husband – her heart was broken. You excelled in displaying not only her deep-rooted pain but her inner rage as well. How did you prepare in advance for all of those emotionally intense moments in the film?
Shari: I used my basic research, of course. But I also use a handy acting tool called history. I write a history of the character from when she is little and include emotional hot points that led up to this point today. Then, before each scene, I go through that history and the script up to that point emotionally, and then let it flow from there! This works very well for justifying all kinds of actions that you as a person might not be open to. Having played quite a few psychopaths and murderers, it’s important to justify why a character would behave the way they are written! This is particularly handy when you are shooting on a tight schedule. It means you prepare in the weeks ahead, not the day of.
Steven: Speaking of intense moments, you had many of them with Eric Etebari, who portrayed your husband in the film. What was it like working with him?
Shari: Eric came in and gave a hell of a cold reading. He really found the emotion that Joseph was looking for. I think things got a little off on the set, as they often do when you’re working on a tough schedule, but Eric has so much energy and enthusiasm for acting that it kept me on my toes!
Steven: The opening scenes of the film are exquisite. They really capture the atmosphere of the film and set it all up very nicely. I specifically liked the scene on the boat with the falling snow. What was it like filming those opening moments of the film?
Shari: So wonderful! First of all to be in Venice during the snow and rain was a gift. Those scenes where I walk and think were wonderful opportunities for me to do inner work. Just to let my brain flow and lead me to the coming scenes. At that point, Mirium is dealing more with real demons in the form of her husband’s betrayal and the loss of a child, but I interspersed the whispers of insanity into it. Just the beginnings; but they were the first layers.
Steven: The priest seen early on in the film was played by your husband. Was the opportunity to have a scene together planned in advance? What was that moment like for you?
Shari: Joseph would have much preferred to direct and not jump in, but the cost of bringing another actor to Italy, or hiring one there, for such a small role made it smart to do it himself. At that time, we were working with a B camera team, very small, so we all did many things ourselves. I even did my own hair and makeup, etc., while we were there. The costume designer had sent me with everything I needed, tagged and numbered. My biggest concern was Joseph wearing a priest’s outfit in Italy! I was sure he’d be arrested for impersonating a member of the church. They take that stuff seriously there! Joseph and I have worked on many projects together. I produced his last film “Redemption” which I did not act in. He has directed me on stage multiple times, including as Lady Macbeth and as Sally Bowles in a hit production of “Cabaret.” I have directed shows he produced at the theatre, and we have acted together on stage many times. I loved doing “Much Ado about Nothing” with him. Beatrice and Benedict suit us! We have also done “Taming of the Shrew” as well as others, so we have a great deal of respect for each other and our processes. I love working with someone as professional and as committed as he is.
Steven: Despite the beautiful surroundings during the opening moments of the film, the atmosphere felt foreboding. This was a great approach Joseph took to set the tone of the film. As mentioned earlier, your character not only suffers from emotional pain but also a devastating medical condition. Do you feel it was important for the audience to sympathize with Mirium?
Shari: I hope that they did. It’s much harder to sympathize with anger and fear than sadness or loss, but I tried to keep it within the realm of a woman dealing with too many things at once. The crucial moment, of course, is when she dumps her medication. Without those strong anti-hallucinogenics, her behavior left normality and moved into uncontrolled. As I said before, I have much more respect and empathy now for people who deal with schizophrenia. It is a truly terrifying affliction.
Steven: When your character returns to the States it isn’t long before her delusions become manifested in horrifying manners. Yet, there are moments when one might start to wonder if these delusions are in fact a reality? This keeps the audience guessing. You displayed her fears in convincing ways. What was it like filming Mirium’s moments of terror as she desperately tried to resist her inner torments?
Shari: This is where the research came in, especially the first person narratives I read. I felt I had a good grasp on that balance between being assaulted by visions and voices, and being conscious that other people will lock you up if you show it too much. That is a very real fear. It becomes impossible to tell the truth about what you are going through without family and professionals reacting by restricting or drugging you. Part of my unseen history was recalling being strapped into a bed for hours and hours. She did not want to go back to that, no matter what! It’s a terrible choice.
Steven: There are also some unexpected moments of humor. The three girls asking to see your artwork was very funny but quickly became horrifying. Your character also had some humorous moments such as when she was feeling fed up with her neighbors. She even got a little bit snappy. Did you enjoy the light-hearted moments?
Shari: It’s who I am. I’m usually the first person to crack a joke. Humor is a very real part of a complete character development, especially for intelligent people. Mirium, like a huge percentage of schizophrenics, is quite smart, and that makes it all so much more acute. I have found that often there is nothing more “in character” than doing something completely out of character, because that makes us real human beings. No one is completely one dimensional.
Steven: There is a world of deep sadness that can be seen in Mirium’s eyes. If it was not for her paranoid delusions and struggles, what kind of person do you think Mirium might’ve become?
Shari: A loving mother, which is her greatest wish, and also a very independent woman. She shows that by going off to Europe by herself to try to recover her strength and her life. Her greatest sadness is not being able to have children and repeatedly losing pregnancies. That sadness has its own debilitating issues which exacerbate the mental illness with very real depression from life situations.
Steven: I also think of Mirium as being a strong woman. This is shown by her battle against her own mind. However, why do you think she stopped taking her medication?
Shari: Research again. A huge percentage of people who take these intense psychoactive drugs want nothing more than to get off of them. On top of many scary and dangerous side-effects, most of the medication leaves people feeling murky and stupid. For a smart, aware person, that is a death sentence. In every single case study I looked at, the patients expressed a desire, or acted on the desire, to stop taking the drugs. This is intensified when there are other complications, such as real life trauma.
Steven: Do you feel there is more story to be told? Do you feel there will be a sequel?
Shari: Joseph planned this as a three part story. And yes, the sequel is planned but not yet written. I’ll give you a clue. Tony Todd will be back in a more major role! He is amazing to work with!
Steven: What was it like to have your husband direct you in this film?
Shari: For the most part, good. Since I was executive producing as well, I had to switch in and out of hats. I love Joseph’s direction for acting and camera, he has a clear idea of what he wants on that, and my job is to service the part, so we get along great there. But if there were problems on the set, or the crew was unhappy for some reason, I often had to step in. It’s interesting to switch back and forth, and only being completely rehearsed and prepared before we started filming allowed me to do that. One night, when we were filming the scene where I have it out with Eric in the garage, another one of the producers came to me while I was preparing and starting asking me a bunch of production related questions. I looked at him with tears streaming down my face and my brain leaping from thought to thought and emotion to emotion and said, “I’ll be right with you, just let me finish this scene.” And Joseph called action. Fun stuff!
Steven: In addition to being an outstanding actress, you are also an author. Your “Invisible Ellen” books have received high praise from readers and critics alike. When did you first become interested in writing?
Shari: Always have been, always will be. Most authors love to read, and I’m no different. Literature is my favorite art form, and that includes theatre and film. I have written stories since I was a child and had my first book published in 2003: “Loaded,” which was chosen by Publisher’s weekly as one of the best of that year. I have written in dressing rooms, hotel rooms, and in the dark sitting next to a baby’s crib. It’s something I have to do, and time flies when I am lost in my stories.
Steven: Will there be more follow up books to “Invisible Ellen”?
Shari: I hope so. I actually wrote a third novel for the series, but it’s more about Temerity and Justice, the twins, and less about Ellen. The editor wanted to explore the relationship between siblings when one of them is visually disabled. It was another wonderful journey of research and bonding. We’ll see what happens with that. Right now I am just finishing up a new novel, so far titled, “My Best Dead Friend.” It’s loosely based on the death experience of a friend of mine and combines many of the interesting spiritual experiences that either I or close friends have had. It’s a comedy, with a huge focus on friendship and the relative perspective of sanity.
Steven: What brings you joy and fulfillment as an actor? Likewise, what brings you joy and fulfilment as an author?
Shari: It’s the same. Connecting. If I can find something real, something unique and pass it on in a way that means it’s received and felt, then I’ve been successful. There is nothing better than getting a letter from someone telling me how much the Ellen books touched their lives and meant to them. It’s the same in acting, though easier to experience in theatre. There are moments on stage when you have the audience with you, and you can feel them leaning in and breathing together. Can’t beat it. Connection.
Steven: Thank you for this wonderful interview, Shari. You gave a sensational performance in “Scream at the Devil.”
Shari: Thank you! I enjoyed making the movie very much and your questions were insightful and original. How refreshing!
Actress, author, producer – these are some of the ways to describe Shari Shattuck. Mom and wife, are also ways to describe her. To be able to wear so many hats and do it all with such excellence, makes it clear that Shari Shattuck is a true artist in ev
ery sense of the word. Not to mention, a loving mother and wife. You can learn more about Shari at her official website: