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Confronting the Horror and Comedy of Grief in ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’

When Michael Shannon first joined the project, he was very uncomfortable with his character’s reaction to death.
Nine Perfect Strangers Michael Shannon
By  · Published on September 1st, 2021

Entering the Discourse is a thrice-weekly column where we dig into who is saying what about new releases and upcoming projects. Today, we hear from director Jonathan Levine and actor Michael Shannon about the new limited series Nine Perfect Strangers, the bizarre experience of grief, and honoring the pain of the characters.

In the Hulu limited series Nine Perfect Strangers, nine characters come together at the mysterious Tranquillum House for a ten-day healing retreat. Each of them is desperate for some sort of transformative experience as they try to cope with their own traumas. But the longer they spend at the center with its owner, Masha (Nicole Kidman), the more suspicious her methods become.

Jonathan Levine on Nine Perfect Strangers and Grief

Based on Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, this is a show all about weaving through horror, comedy, and drama in order to paint a complicated picture about the individual experience of grief. Jonathan Levine, who directed all eight episodes, wanted to honor all of his characters by portraying their journeys with deep emotional authenticity.

In an interview with The Spool, he says: 

“I felt a great debt and responsibility to capture [each character’s] journey in an authentic and respectful way, especially when it comes to the Marconis, who are dealing with the grief from losing a kid to suicide. Their pain is probably the most profound and specific of all the characters even though everyone is also dealing with their own kind of deep trauma and past as well. It’s easy to relate to what they’re going through because all of us have dealt with the same stuff at some point in our lives.”

Michael Shannon on His Uncomfortable Role

In Nine Perfect Strangers, Michael Shannon plays the patriarch of the Marconi family, Napoleon. He is aggressively positive despite the tragic death of his son. And his positivity is purposefully grating, making him simultaneously annoying, funny, and empathetic. But it wasn’t an easy performance for Shannon.

In an interview with Decider, he reveals that he was actually uncomfortable with the role when the project first started. He says:

“I kept using myself as a point of reference and thinking there’s no way in a million years that this would be my reaction if something like this happened to me. I went online, I did some reading and some research and tried to find people that had actually gone through this and devoured whatever they were willing to share about it with their writings.”

A friend told him about a man he knew who had a similar reaction after the death of his child. Upon hearing that, everything became much clearer to Shannon. He continues:

“Just hearing someone else say [this] actually exists in the world, it was kind of the crack in the wall that I needed. Then I was able to engineer it for myself, in my mind. At a certain point, there was a basic equation that really made a lot of sense to me. When you’re in such an overwhelming state of agony, any glimmer of something that could be considered soothing, you’re just going to devour it, like Pac-Man. You’re just desperate for something that doesn’t feel like pain.”

Mixing Comedy with Grief in Nine Perfect Strangers

Michael Shannon elaborates about the comedy of his Nine Perfect Strangers character in an interview with Slashfilm. He says:

“He’s trying to survive. It’s like if you’re drowning and you can see the surface of the water, do you try and get up there or do you just let yourself sink? And he’s trying. He’s trying to get up to break through the surface and get some air. But in the process of doing that, he’s flailing around every which way and definitely has the capacity to make a spectacle of himself. But there’s a lot of people like that in the world. It’s actually quite common.”

Shannon goes on to explain the importance of using comedy when trying to tell a story about healing:

“Comedy, a lot of times, is a way that human beings deal with pain, trying to get away from pain or extinguish pain or move beyond pain. It’s not like Tommy’s on one end and pain is on the other. It’s almost like a snake eating its own tail.”

Trying to Find Closure

There is no period of sadness, then a period of anger, then a period of happiness. Healing is not linear but rather contains every emotion imaginable. Nine Perfect Strangers reminds us there is no right way to experience grief. Whether you’re mourning the loss of a loved one or the loss of a life you once lived.

In the Spool interview, Levine says:

“Whether you have things in your past that you’re trying to forget or to get past, the main question is always, how do you move on from that and find closure. Or do you ever?”

Nine Perfect Strangers is now streaming on Hulu.

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Mary Beth McAndrews thinks found footage is good and will fight you if you say otherwise. When she's not writing, she's searching for Mothman with her two cats. Follow her on Twitter @mbmcandrews. (She/Her)