"Lost Girls" star Miriam Shor: "I was enraged about how these women had been treated"

The actress and "Younger" costar on representation, statement necklaces, and why she's a hot man

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 16, 2020 3:00PM (EDT)

Amy Ryan and Miriam Shor in "Lost Girls" (Netflix)
Amy Ryan and Miriam Shor in "Lost Girls" (Netflix)

You might not recognize Miriam Shor when she first appears in Netflix's new true crime drama, "Lost Girls." Playing the grieving mother of a victim of the Long Island Serial Killer, she's a far cry from her salty, statement necklace-wearing character Diana Trout on "Younger," and even further from her breakthrough role as the put-upon Yitzhak in "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

The versatile Broadway and television veteran joined us recently for a "Salon Talks" conversation on her new film, the jewelry that makes her bleed, and why she thinks she's hotter as a man.

The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I want to ask how you came to be involved in this. Did you know this story already coming into it? Is that what drew you to it?

I did know the story. I read the script and auditioned and knew that [director] Liz Garbus would be directing it. I was already a fan of her documentaries.

She's prolific and brilliant. Her documentary on Nina Simone is one of my favorite movies of all time. And I knew that Amy Ryan was in it, who is a friend of mine, but also elevates every project because of her immense talent. And then when I was done reading the script, I was furious. I was enraged about how these women had been treated. So then I auditioned but also felt like I'd really like to lend my voice to this on some level. On any level.

And did you read the book?

I had not read the book until after I got the part. Robert Kolker's investigation into it and his writing is just incredible. To have that as a source, as an actor, you just don't have that usually.

The fact that the original New York magazine story is about the families and about the women sets the tone for this whole entire story. So tell me a little bit about who your character is, because she comes in within a group, and then it's a transformative moment in the story.

The story is mostly told from the point of view of Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan), whose daughter Shannan disappeared. I play Lorraine, whose daughter Megan also disappeared, and is then subsequently found while they're looking for Mari's daughter. All of these women whose loved ones are found or missing and are tied to this, they formed a group in real life and are still very, very close. They could keep each other up, and their voices could be heard when they were in unison, because it was so much louder.

Lorraine had a lot of struggles in her life, as we all do. Her relationship with her daughter was pretty fraught. The state took her and she spent time with her grandmother instead of her mother. There was a lot of pain in that relationship. She had to go through the pain of losing your child again after that, then the further dehumanizing pain of the way that she was treated and all of these women were treated by the police department. The people who were supposed to help basically told them, "Not only are we not going to help, but we're pretty much going to blame you and your daughters. We're going to treat them with as little humanity as possible. In fact, none." It was so painful to me reading the script. She ends up being a really incredibly strong person. All of these women were to have to go through this and to forge forward and say, "I won't be shut up."

You've not done a lot of characters who were based on real people, and now this year, in one month you're doing two. I want to ask about Lorraine and about what you have coming up in FX's "Mrs. America," as well. How do you play someone who's a real character?

I had Bob Kolker's book to have some insight into Lorraine's world. But for me, I look at what the writers have given you in the script and I look at what the director's going to do and I say, "I'm going to do my work and figure out who this is to me. And then tell me where you need me to go so we can make this project what it needs to be." You have to trust in your collaborators and in the directors and the writers and bring what you can to it.

It's a challenge. I knew that I could reach out to Lorraine and I chose not to before I portrayed her because I wanted to give her privacy. I feel like she was so mistreated by people who didn't know her world or her life. I wanted to make sure that I was doing it right, and Liz would tell me if I was doing it right or wrong. I'm hoping to reach out to her afterwards to tell her what playing her meant to me. I don't want to ask anything of her. She's been through enough, you know? But I want her to know how important she is to this project and how important her voice is.

"Mrs. America" is a very different story. But also it's about a group of women and the collective power for good — or not. Tell me a little bit about that.

Tracey Ullman plays Betty Friedan, and I got to play her best friend, [Natalie Gittelson]. I didn't know much about this woman so I had almost nothing to go on. She was a great writer, so I got that, but it wasn't about herself. At that point you're like, I'm going to trust that the people who are telling the story are going to tell it. I have the words in front of me. I have the relationship with Tracey Ullman playing Betty Friedan. It was a dream come true to work with Tracey Ullman. I adore her. I think she's so monumentally talented, and to get to play in something as important as women trying to pass the ERA, that was a dream. There are so many women in that project, like Cate Blanchett. [Blanchett stars as the galvanizing conservative author Phyllis Schlafly.] The list just goes on and on and on of people who you cared about in history and actresses who you care about as someone who likes to watch stories and movies and TV. For that one, it really was just trusting in your directors, and trusting in the people around you to say, "Great," or "Really not great. Do something different."

You are a director yourself now; you've directed a couple of episodes of "Younger." I read an interview with you where you said, "I had seen many of my male costars move into directing and some of my female costars." And the way you phrased that, Miriam, I thought was very telling, because you were aware that this is something that men felt. What inspired you to do it and what was it like then taking that on?

Part of it was where we were in the general global conversation about the role that women have in making things, or in being told they can or cannot participate in things. That was obviously on my mind. I just started thinking, why have I not asked to do this before? I have more and more friends who were doing it and I would ask them, "Tell me about it, and tell me what's difficult. Tell me what's challenging." It was very annoying to all my friends who are directors. I wouldn't stop asking them every question I can think of about directing. They were mostly men.

You had seen precedent on "The Americans."

That was so helpful when Matthew Rhys directed me in an episode. I was shortly thereafter going to be directing for the first time and I was like, "Matthew, give me everything. What have you got?" He said, "Don't do what I did." Which was not true, because he was a great director. But there were other people, too, who had started out in the industry in other roles. Maybe not actors, some as actors, but also other roles who came to directing. I just was asking everyone, and it was just clear that there were more men than women. There were some friends of mine who said, "Oh well, I was asked by so-and-so, do I want to direct?" I was like, "Whoa, I have a lot of friends right now who are asking, who are being told no, who are female. So you're just asked to be one?"

That was an interesting moment. That was one of those moments where I thought, "Oh, that's a different experience." I just thought, what do I have to lose? I might as well ask. I was really interested in it and it was scary, and you should definitely do things you're interested and scared of.

So I asked Darren [Star, the show's creator] and he immediately said yes. And then he said, "Why are you interested? Tell me why you want to." I was like, I obviously love telling stories. This is what I do with my life. I can see what a director does. I can see the amount of control. I'm interested in that. I just go back in time thinking the number of times someone has been like, "You're not the director." Clearly I've been directing without actually having that role. And being told to step back. So wouldn't it be nice to have people forced to listen to me?

I want to ask about Diana Trout, because she's a breakthrough character in your career. But she's also a breakthrough character because when you meet her in the very beginning of Season 1, you think she's one thing. And then she turns out to be so much more nuanced. People adore her. When did you know?

First of all, that's a testament to the writers. They wrote a three-dimensional character. She has more to her. Why is she like that? She's funny but she's vulnerable. Her friendship with Liza is one of the most important things to her. There was a moment [in Season 1] when Diana gives Liza a check for some money that she needs for her daughter that I thought, "Well, this is an opportunity to show that this person has a life underneath this armor that is interesting and human." I was really excited by that. I felt a little turning point there. There are a lot of moments like that, and a lot of them have to do with her relationships.

When you talk about armor, you know ...

Literal, literal armor. I had a necklace that was like, "This feels like a chest plate. Did we get this from one of the museums downtown?" One of the reasons that Diana is a little prickly is because she is not comfortable.

I like to wear something that feels like pajamas, but they might pass as clothes. That's where I live. Not even in her pajamas does Diana feel like that. I feel like her armor is there to support her and protect her, and project strength, but also project personality. But it is not comfortable. Walking through the world when you're uncomfortable, you're not a warm, fuzzy person. That's helpful. The costuming of this character is really helpful in helping me find her. The jewelry I've gotten to wear in this has bruised me, I've bled. There's been a lot of pain involved. I feel a little bit like what it must've felt like to in "Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight," going off to fight and vanquish some kind of foe. This is actual armor.

Like when women would have to wear the corsets.

I mean, what is a corset? Why did we constrict ourselves like that? I'm constricting myself to project something to the world that someone told me I have to project. It's an armor, it's a prison. It's an expression. It's all of those things at once.

My relationship with jewelry is interesting. I don't even wear a wedding ring because I'm not a jewelry person. I lose things. Don't give me a symbol of our eternal love because I'm going to lose it. I just emblematically don't want that on me. So it's been interesting to come to understand why people might be in discomfort and wear these things, and how your relationship can be somewhat positive to those things. I've always been like, "Well just get it off. It's too much." But she would never. She's like, "Put this on and I will reign."

I can't talk about identity and what we put on and how we present ourselves to the world without mentioning that you were n one of the most influential, game-changing musicals of all time, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch."

I met an agent and they were like, 'We'll send you out on some stuff. We'll see how it goes." And the first thing they sent me on was for a workshop of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." They're like, "You're playing a man, and he's an ex-drag queen." I have the slip of paper still that I wrote it down on. I don't know why I knew to keep that.

That was very seminal for me, too, because I often wonder, if that didn't happen to me as an actor where would I have gone? Being able to understand that you can fully change your identity and your gender by just pretending it in front of people who are five feet away from you, is a really powerful thing to know in your life as a human. It changes your relationship to identity and your relationship to gender as an actor and also as a human. There were so many interesting conversations that came up for me with myself and with the world, and with my art from that. And I think for a lot of people.

The movie is almost 20 years old and it feels so, so fresh and vibrant right now.

We're finally talking about identity and gender in a way that isn't hidden, or coded, or behind closed doors, or only in these bars. Or only with this group of people. It's exploding outwards and outwards and outwards in a fantastic way. The language is changing daily. It's really exciting, because it means that we're continually grappling with things and continually looking at them and peeling away further and further layers.

And what people see and what they believe. What people will believe if you present yourself and say, "This is who I am."

When people were like, "I don't know. Would people believe Liza [on "Younger'] is in her 20s? I stood five feet from people with a little stipple on my face and they thought I was a man. I'm not saying I'm the most feminine person, but people got lives. They've got things. They've got an internal life that's going on.

Also, Yitzhak's smoking hot.

I'm not going to lie. I do believe that Yitzhak is a hot man. I'm a little iffy about my own beauty as a woman. But as a man I'm not. I am very good-looking man. What does that say about what the world says about how women have to look at themselves, though? I live as a woman but the thing that I'd never been before and just put on, I was like, "This is good, this fits me."

Also, what does it mean to be masculine? What does it mean to be feminine? What kind of power did I feel in my body when I was a man, and why didn't I feel that power when I was a woman if it's the same body? Those are interesting questions. I would walk behind people sometimes and just be like, "I like how that guy's walking." Why is that a guy? Why is his walk making me think man? What is he doing physically? You're getting a little insight into my weird life. I get to play interesting roles.

And you get on your show, to do a little bit of singing. [Last season, the three leads did a showstopping "9 to 5" that became an instant fan favorite.] Are we going to see more of that?

You could just tell that Darren Star thought, "I have Sutton Foster on my show. Two-time Tony Award winner." And she was like, "I don't want to sing. I'll sing as long as my character's not a good singer." But he found this perfect place in Marie's Crisis, which is a perfect place anyway. And he found a beautiful storyline for someone like Diana to let loose. I was like, "Diana sings. Diana doesn't have a problem. Diana believes she can sing. Like, listen, if I hadn't been in publishing it would have been opera, maybe a mezzo at the Met."  

My favorite thing was Hilary Duff, where she said it's quaint that there was a time when people worked 9 to 5.

Oh my God, people used to really work 9 to 5? Also, can we just take a moment to just . . . Dolly Parton.

Did you listen to the podcast, "Dolly Parton's America"? Just listen to the podcast.

She's a sage of our time. And also a brilliant musician.

And that song. But also that movie. I have a lot of ties to that song. If we're going to talk about sages and our spirit animals, Lily Tomlin is another performer who has meant a lot to me, and a lot to many different communities for good reason. Why are these women so resonant to these different communities, and what is it about how they present themselves and they present their identities and why do we like respond to them?

"9 to 5," it's the holy trinity.

It is, it is. It was also such a feminist moment. Got to love that Dabney Coleman, too, in the movie when they literally had him tied up. It's this fantasy and it just explores something in a really amazing way.

It's a proto #MeToo movie. It's like "Hedwig." We didn't know then how much we were going to need it. And it very much comes out of the era that "Mrs. America" takes place in.

Women and feminism, we know from disappointment. We know getting close to things, and then not getting them. And it feels unfortunately very familiar. Something like the Equal Rights Amendment. Equal rights for women. We got this, right? And everyone's like, yeah . . .  but no.

Let's see, maybe we can revisit this in literally 40 years.

And every time, it's so hard to be dismissed. Getting back to "Lost Girls," people are often marginalized and dismissed because they are seen as weaker or less important. It just depends on what our society is holding up as important at that moment. Being wealthy is important. Being male is important, being white is important. Watching people who are marginalized by that, that's an uphill battle. And then to be told, "No it's not, it's flat," you just start to feel a little crazy.

That really ties it all together. I look at your body of work, I look at things like "Lost Girls" and "Mrs. America" and "Younger." There is this recurring theme that I see of groups of people who maybe are underrepresented kind of coming together. Is that a conscious thing?

It's a conscious thing of what I like. A lot of times you take the jobs you can take. It's the luck you get. There's so many fabulous actors out there who don't get work. That's just true. There's so many fabulous artists out there. I sometimes sit and mourn the loss of the writers I'll never know and the actors and the artists I'll never know, because it's about what the luck that you get in front of you.

I really have been lucky. But I am also drawn to that. I also think that we're hearing more and more stories. But you're never going to never going to challenge the patriarchy and have the patriarchy and be like, "Oh absolutely, you want to try?" It's not going to happen with anybody who's in power and to expect that is set yourself up for disappointment. But I do I think it's been luck, and what stories are sort of beginning to be told. We're lucky to be in a time when as hard as it can feel and as uphill as this battle feels, the stories are changing. We have more platforms to hear more stories. And it's an exciting time because of that.

"Lost Girls" is currently streaming on Netflix.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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