Sharp Objects’ Eliza Scanlen Talks Amma’s Wild Side

The Australian actor reveals what makes her character different from other teenagers on TV.

Eliza Scanlen of Australia has had back-to-back whirlwind summers. In 2017, she landed the part of Amma Crellin — Sharp Objects’ enigmatic, precarious teenager — and began acting alongside her “idol” Amy Adams. Fast forward to 2018 when the provocative limited series, based on Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, premieres to praise from critics and audiences alike; many of whom took notice of Scanlen’s breakout performance. Here, the fast-rising talent discusses why Amma acts the way she does, what sets Sharp Objects apart in the age of Peak TV and how herself, Amy and TV mom Patricia Clarkson “kept things light” on set.

HBO: How did this role come to be? What was the audition process like?

Eliza Scanlen: I was in my final year of high school and wanted to finish my education right, so acting took a back seat. This opportunity kind of came out of the blue. I sent through a tape, auditioned later in Sydney, then didn’t think anything of it for a while. Once I finished school, I got a call from my managers who told me HBO wanted to fly me over [to the United States] and do a screen test with Jean-Marc Vallée and Amy. At that point, I was freaking out, but I flew over and, a few days later, got the role. It was a life-changing moment.

HBO: What was your experience with Gillian Flynn’s novel?

Eliza Scanlen: I knew about Gillian Flynn before I even got the casting call for the show. I read Gone Girl and really loved it — I thought the film adaption was fantastic. After I was cast, I decided to read Sharp Objects. I ended up drowning it in sticky notes, highlighter and pen. It became my little diary I could refer to. I took little quotes out of the book and transferred them onto this scrapbook I kept about Amma. I ended up filling up the whole scrapbook by the end of the shoot.

HBO: What do you make of Amma’s double life, which we see in full force in Episode 6?

Eliza Scanlen: I’ve never seen a teenage role so intricately written. Amma’s family situation is different from others’. Her mother is quite overbearing and that places a lot of strain on their relationship. The past trauma of Marian has so deeply affected Adora, making it even harder for Amma to act like a normal teenager — she has no choice but to live this double life.

I think, as human beings, we feel most powerful or content when we have a sense of control. It’s just a natural part of the human psyche and Amma, as a result of her family situation, is very much a product of her environment: She needs control. That’s why she can be so manipulative, because she’s used to treading on eggshells around Adora. Her more rebellious side is a release and gives her a sense of power in an environment where she feels she always has to live up to Adora’s image of perfection.

HBO: How did you, Amy and Patricia keep things light on set?

Eliza Scanlen: Amy, Patricia and I definitely worked to keep it light. You have to on a show like this. I just really loved being on set with them. They’re so talented, have these incredible personalities and are truly hilarious. As you probably know, Amy’s an amazing singer, and we would host karaoke in the hair and makeup trailer. There was a lot of Prince and a lot of Moana.

HBO: What do you think sets Sharp Objects apart from other TV dramas right now?

Eliza Scanlen: The show is unique in the way it explores mental illness and the coping mechanisms we use to deal with grief. It displays characters who can function in society, but behind closed doors, are deeply suffering — causing others around them to suffer, too.

I think it’s really easy to approach a touchy subject head-on, but Sharp Objects does it in a way that’s subtle and it presents mental illness as something quite common and normalized. It’s so common and shouldn’t be a conversation we’re afraid to talk about. Hopefully this show will contribute to breaking down that stigma and our reluctance to talk about our true feelings.

Sharp Objects is available on HBO.