Odessa Young’s on-screen personae are not for the faint of heart. In a few short years, the 20-year-old actress has played a suicidal teen, a young woman suffering from bipolar disorder, and an acid-tongued high schooler caught at the center of a grisly hacking scandal. Yet, when asked where she finds her happy place in the midst of tackling such psychologically taxing roles, Young emits a high-spirited laugh.
“That is my happy place,” she says. “I’ve never liked exercise. I don’t like pushing my body. But I do like pushing my emotions. It’s like a really, really good gym workout, coming home after a tough day of shooting.”
Tough shoots and emotionally aerobic performances comprise the bulk of Young’s busy calendar these days, as the actress darts from movie sets to theater rehearsals to interviews, which consistently peg her as the indie It girl to watch. It’s the kind of coveted status that an up-and-coming actress doesn’t just luck into. In Young’s world, hard work can be just as important as a discerning palate, and she’s the first to admit that she’s picky—not just about the roles she takes on, but also the movies she watches (“I have a narrow window of things that I like”); the directors she works with (“It’s important I respond very intuitively to that person”); and even the children’s books she read growing up in Australia (in her opinion, no young-adult series beats Max Remy Superspy, girl detective).
Before committing to a script, Young has an ironclad rule: The woman she plays must be layered and challenging. “Look at any woman around you and you’ll see a complex network of psychology,” Young says. “I want to honor that. I get drawn to characters that aren’t two-dimensional, because no woman I know is two-dimensional.”
In 2015, at the age of 17, Young appeared in two films that first put her on the map: Looking for Grace and The Daughter, where she joined cinematic luminaries Sam Neill and Geoffrey Rush—and earned herself Australia’s equivalent of an Academy Award in the process. Since then, Young has maintained her streak of taking on complex, gritty roles. Last fall, she appeared in the Black Mirror–esque thriller Assassination Nation, while navigating a marathon shooting streak of other buzz-worthy films: an adaptation of the controversial addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces featuring Billy Bob Thornton, the dark comedy Richard Says Goodbye starring Johnny Depp, and the forthcoming Shirley, where Young shares the screen with Elisabeth Moss.
If Young is ever daunted by this star-studded trajectory, she refuses to let it affect her performances. “I wouldn’t call myself a naturally confident person,” she admits. “I do tend to overthink things and get far too heady. But, at the end of the day, the thing that works for me is to go in with a bit of blind naiveté. If you think about it too much, about the consequence of what you’re about to do, nobody would ever do it.”
Despite her proclivity for inhabiting young women with dark psyches and thorny secrets, Young is no one-trick pony. Last November, she stepped away from the film set to make her Off Broadway debut in Days of Rage by the Tony Award–winning writer of Dear Evan Hansen. The opportunity came at exactly the right time.
“It feels really fucking good to stretch another muscle,” Young says. “I had gotten to a place where I was having strange dramatic fever dreams about the camera. It’s important for me to miss things.”
The experience helped Young prepare to tackle the camera again, perhaps even with some producing down the line. “One of my goals in doing this is to get enough respect in the industry to have the power and leeway to choose the films that get made,” Young says. “The baton is being passed on. People are so much more interested in a female perspective.”