Shannyn Sossamon Likes To Disappear

Shannyn Sossamon knows you’ve Googled “Whatever happened to Shannyn Sossamon?”

I brought this up with the actor toward the end of our free-flowing, one-hour phone conversation ahead of the release of her next film, “Backspot.” And unsurprisingly, considering an earlier admission to me that she loves to disappear, she had already known people were asking this question ― and she was pretty chill about it. 

“Because I’m just living my life,” Sossamon said. “But it also does make sense, too, when I really thought about it, because I was starting to feel anonymous again. I really loved that feeling. I love it so much. I love to just be like, ‘No one’s paying attention to you.’ It’s freedom.”

In today’s fame-obsessed world, it’s not every day that you hear an actor — particularly someone who became a household name after starring in cult hits like “A Knight’s Tale” and “The Rules of Attraction” in the early aughts — express that actually, she’s cool not being noticed at all. 

It’s not that she’s gone totally off the grid. Prior to our interview, what started as a quick scan of her Instagram page led me down a portal of selfiesart curation, depictions of being a mom, messages about social justice and silly videos of herself. (One caption reads: “Finally got around to making a video of me eating a carrot. Thank you for your patience.”)

On one hand, her Instagram is “an inspiration corkboard,” Sossamon said. On the other? It’s a window into her truth, her own humanity at a given time. It matches how she was throughout our conversation: an aesthete, thoughtful, engaged and able to laugh at herself about anything.

“I feel no pressure, and never have, to paint a picture that isn’t actually me,” she explained. “And that changes sometimes.”

"I'm just living my life," the actor Shannyn Sossamon said in a recent interview. <span class="copyright">Mia Kirby</span>
"I'm just living my life," the actor Shannyn Sossamon said in a recent interview. Mia Kirby

While Instagram can sometimes be Sossamon’s “little picture show theater,” as she put it, disconnecting from the internet and social media in particular has also proven healthy for her.

“I’ve been trying just to turn the WiFi off and, like, the air is different,” she told me. “My son thinks it’s just in my head: ‘It’s the placebo effect.’ But I’m like, ‘No, no, it’s different.’ It got quiet, and I’m really sensitive to sound, and I’m like, ‘The air is different, I promise.’”

The point is, she’s been out living and being present amid intermittent roles in a number of projects like 2006’s “The Holiday,” Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” and now the D.W. Waterson-directed drama “Backspot,” as Tracy, a mother struggling to connect with her daughter Riley (Devery Jacobs).

Where she hasn’t much been nowadays is in a string of big movies, splashed across magazine covers or on red carpets. Sossamon recognizes that that’s uncommon for a lot of actors.

“I think it’s just from the movie industry itself — like, being actively involved in that game and system,” she said. “The activity has been really slow. But as a human in this universe, I’m like, ‘I’m so alive and so active.’”

By the time we got around to speaking, in fact, she had just returned from a trip. “I was traveling and have been traveling a lot and pretty busy,” she told me.

From there, I got a peek into her imagination and we went on one of what would be several tangents. (Recent comedy recommendations like the movie “Babes” and Nate Bargatze stand-up specials, and her observation that young people “would much rather watch unfiltered humanity” on social media “than a pretend version of it in some film or television show,” were two others.)

Sossamon poses at the 2007 Comic-Con at the San Diego Convention Center, July 27, 2007.
Sossamon poses at the 2007 Comic-Con at the San Diego Convention Center, July 27, 2007. Mark Davis via Getty Images

Sossamon wished she were in Hawaii, her birthplace, at the time of our conversation. But she had another place in her mind as well. “Actually, I love Hawaii,” she said, “But the truth is I really wish I was in Greece, if I were to choose. The two places I’ve been to are really wonderful ― Crete and Parga and Corfu.”

She spoke so dreamily, I got the feeling she could talk about her travels for the rest of our conversation. But she also understands that people are very curious about her career.

The thing is, Sossamon doesn’t subscribe to the ethos of “work hard, play hard, grind, grind, grind,” as she referred to it, which is endemic in Hollywood. “Like, I run for the hills if someone is approaching me with that energy.” She feels she must connect with a film’s story and character.

The part of Tracy in “Backspot” wasn’t supposed to be that next role.

By the time the offer came to her inbox in March 2023, Sossamon was in an entirely different place in her life. It was coming up on year four of the pandemic, another coronavirus threat had hit the nation, and personal events in her life were “coming like tower after tower,” she said. Her assistant, mindful of all this, saw the note and dutifully said, “Nope.”

The actor didn’t think she was in the space to take on work, and at that moment at least, she didn’t feel the financial urgency to do so. “Like most of us, I was having just a really tough time being human,” Sossamon remembered. “Just up and down, roller coaster, since the pandemic — you name it.”

She paused briefly, before pressing on with that thought: “I mean, I almost don’t even have to talk about it, because I feel like we all know it on some level. Some kind of level of suffering, whether it’s loss or — it’s comedic at this point.”


Sossamon in a scene from
Sossamon in a scene from "Backspot." COURTESY OF XYZ FILMS

But before that offer came, it all began with a personal letter from Waterson and Jacobs, who is also a producer on the film. “I really loved their letter,” Sossamon remembered. “It just felt that — everything’s about feeling, right? And I just had a good feeling.”

What did the letter say?

“The overall sentiment was that they were fans, and they hadn’t seen me play something quite like this before, and they would love to have me,” she replied. “It was just very sweet. It was —”

She interrupts her own memory with a laugh. “I just listed all the things that sounded like, ‘Oh, that...’ Never mind. I’m sorry, I just made myself laugh.” And so then I laughed, because I figured she probably felt awkward repeating compliments about herself.

But that letter turned everything around for Sossamon ― especially after she read the screenplay. Despite her initial misgivings about the space she was in at the time, she knew she could bring a sense of honesty to the role.

There is a particularly prickly scene between Tracy and Riley, a promising new member of a competitive cheer squad, that helps define their dynamic. Tracy has just cooked a special meal for Riley, and is already criticizing it before her teenage daughter has even had a chance to digest. Riley tries, in vain, to keep her mother from spiraling.

With just three or four days of shooting to capture the character, Sossamon immersed herself in the role of a woman who we see constantly vacuuming a spotless house while her husband watches sports in another room. A woman whose life has in many ways stagnated, just as her fiercely independent daughter’s life starts to soar — and on her own terms.

In “Backspot,” over the course of just a few scenes, we see that the mother and daughter, each of them wracked with their own kind of anxiety, have both everything and nothing in common.

“The mother is clearly suffering, whether she chooses to acknowledge it or not,” Sossamon said. “And I have all of the ingredients right now to do this truthfully. So I said yes, but it was still really hard. I didn’t want to be around people. I didn’t want to be on camera. But I’m so glad that I did.”

That’s a part of it, the actor added: being able to bring her own truths to a performance, so that it feels like less of one. While Sossamon has two young sons, she was able to bring her relationship with her own mother to the portrayal of Tracy.

“I want to say this in a respectful and loving way, but I do have a complicated relationship with my mom,” she said. “So, I was actually more able to pull from that than I was my two boys. You know, the relationship between mother and daughter when the age is not too far apart.”

For sure.

“Here I had a daughter who’s following her dreams, and I’m stuck in this loveless marriage, not following my dreams,” Sossamon continued. Tracy was clearly so close to her that she, perhaps without realizing it, referred to her as “I” just then.

“I just felt it in my core and in my bones,” the actor said. “I was like, ‘I know what I can do here.’ I knew that in my current state, I was so raw and vulnerable that I would be able to access it without overthinking it.”

Sossamon portrays one half of a complicated mother-daughter relationship in
Sossamon portrays one half of a complicated mother-daughter relationship in "Backspot." Courtesy of XYZ Films

She had essentially just keyed into the very thing that led her to acting in the first place. Early on in her career, she moved to Los Angeles as a dancer, which “is definitely a cousin or sibling,” as she put it, to being an actor. Meaning, it’s all related to the art of performance.

“I loved disappearing,” Sossamon recalled. “I loved to not be here now. I liked to disappear into my imagination. So I feel like as an adult now, when I look at that tendency, that could have pointed to being an actor one day.” 

Hers wasn’t the typical journey, if there is one. She didn’t start out doing much theater, though she did take a few acting classes in L.A. She also worked as a musician, including as part of the indie rock group Warpaint between 2004 and 2008. But she remembers how she felt being in front of the camera.

“I often say that the camera feels like a nonjudgmental parent,” she told me. “You can feel really safe in front of the camera, because it doesn’t judge you. It picks up all the truth and whatnot. But that can also make it very intense, too.”

Not long after that, Francine Maisler, the casting director behind 2001’s “A Knight’s Tale,” had seen her in something — or seen her somewhere (“I’m getting old. I’m not remembering the story anymore, am I?” She’s only 45, but forgiven) — and asked the actor to audition. It became her first movie.

“It worked,” Sossamon recalled. “There was something in me.” 

Over 20 years later, though, she still wonders if she’s actually any good at what she does.

Sossamon portrayed the fair maiden Jocelyn in 2001's
Sossamon portrayed the fair maiden Jocelyn in 2001's "A Knight's Tale," her first film. Columbia Pictures/Alamy

“I feel like when I’m connected to the material, I love it,” she said. “There’s nothing like it. And when I am not connected to the material, or connected to the people that are in charge of the camera, I hate it. So, it feels like love/hate. But I don’t know.”

It begins to feel like a performance. “I think there are some actors out there that love it so much that they’ll do anything with any material. They’ll have fun no matter what. And I wish I could say that, but I can’t, if I’m being honest.”

“Backspot” was different for Sossamon. She fondly remembered her experience working with Jacobs and Waterson, a first-time director whom the actor described as a “dreamer.”

“I’m a dreamer myself, and to watch D.W. do that so confidently and in such a loving way was amazing,” Sossamon said. “And the production was very professional and loving. Independent film is not like that very often, especially these days. It’s like the wild west right now.”

I thought about that “wild west” descriptor a lot during our conversation. Independent film has always been a crucial avenue for artists to connect with audiences, particularly the most marginalized, but I suggested that moviegoers today don’t seem to be as excited for it as they were in, say, the ’90s.

“Well, because unfortunately when it is the wild west and some people have access to money, anyone thinks they can make something,” Sossamon said. “And that can go not so well. Some artists that should be making independent films don’t have access to that money.”

Fair point. Though, despite the “wild west” terrain of independent films, Sossamon has made a number of them since her early-career marquee titles.  Were the slew of independent films she did — the acclaimed “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” from 2005, “Wristcutters: A Love Story” the following year, and many others — a purposeful pivot?

In short, no.

Sossamon in a scene from 2002's
Sossamon in a scene from 2002's "The Rules of Attraction." Lionsgate/Alamy

“At first, it was considering scripts that came,” Sossamon said. “Sometimes I needed to make money. So, my manager at the time said: ‘Well, why not?’ There were a few times in my career where the ‘why not?’ hat was really easy to put on. Sometimes I really was moved and excited.”

Then there were the other times.

“And that’s why there’s such a wide range,” she continued. “There’s a few that I really love and where I really was deeply moved. Then there’s times where you can tell that actors just need to make a living. There’s times where it’s a really wonderful casting fit, it’s just fun and it works.”

That spanned across various film budgets and formats. “And you know, I think that there’s a lot of different reasons,” Sossamon said. “But there wasn’t a conscious choice where like, ‘I am going to do independent films now,’ or anything like that.”

As she reminded me, she hasn’t done a whole lot of screen work in the past 20-plus years. Her IMDb page turns up 49 credits.

“That’s because I really do take long breaks,” Sossamon said plainly. “Or if I don’t have to work, I’m not going to do something where I’m not moved. But then sometimes I wait so long, and I’m dreaming about other things. Then I’m like, ‘Oh no, I have to work. I have to survive.’” 

Another quick pause, before adding: “And I rush into something. Then — I’m not saying this proudly, by the way — it’s not the greatest.”

Would Sossamon return to comedy? “That's a dream,” she said.
Would Sossamon return to comedy? “That's a dream,” she said. Ravi Dhar

As she said all this, I thought about some of the less glowing reviews I’d read of her performances in a few films. The Austin Chronicle described her 2005 turn as a model in the rom-com “Undiscovered” as “cringing.” MTV said that her performance in the 2006 thriller “One Missed Call” was “flat,” while the BBC said it was “bland but adequate.”

“I wouldn’t give a young passionate actor this advice,” she told me, going back to the untraditional route she’s taken in her career. “I don’t think it’s the way to do it if you really, really love acting. It’s just been my journey. My journey’s been odd — really, truly. It’s a strange rhythm, but I’m OK with it.”

At around this point, Sossamon told me she had to wrap it up to do a tarot card reading (because she does that too). It didn’t even surprise me — partly because I saw that on her Instagram, and partly because it’s right in line with the unusual path she’s charted for the last two decades or so.

To use her word, tarot reading has been “grounding” for her. She’s done it for over 20 years, and started doing it publicly during the pandemic “as a coping thing,” she said. “And then I realized it was really helpful to other people, and therefore helpful to me and healing for me.”

It’s another aspect of her identity that few people get to see in her onscreen work, only catching glimpses of it on her social media page.

Speaking of her more kaleidoscopic interests: Would Sossamon ― who made a name early in her career playing moody, sometimes troubled women (college student Lauren Hynde in “The Rules of Attraction” immediately comes to mind) ― consider doing more comedic roles?

Many people have apparently asked her the same question. “Everybody that follows me on social media wishes I would go back to the fun, goofy. Because people like to laugh.”


“That’s a dream,” she laughed. “That’s what I should be doing. I don’t even like to talk about it so much, because it’s like, it’ll happen when it’s supposed to happen. But like I said, I just have a snail, turtle pace, and I’ve made peace with it.”

“Backspot” hits theaters nationwide Friday.