By Shirley Li
June 07, 2018 at 03:05 PM EDT
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A version of this story appears in the Summer Preview issue of Entertainment Weekly. Buy it here or subscribe now for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

When 19-year-old Eliza Scanlen headed into her screen test for HBO’s eight-part adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, the Sydney, Australia, native froze. She was auditioning opposite Amy Adams, with director Jean-Marc Vallée (Big Little Lies) watching, and, well… “I was starstruck,” she admits. “The situation I was in was just too big for my mental capacity. My brain could not handle what was occurring.”

Luckily, she wasn’t distracted for long. “It was a very playful audition, and we had a lot of fun,” she recalls. “I had to get up in Amy’s personal space, which was really weird and a bit surreal.”

The result? Adams was more than impressed, especially because she tried to keep Scanlen on her toes. “She never backed down,” the actress gushes. “There were a lot of scenes where she surprised me, and that’s exciting. I like when actors surprise me.”

Adams smiles as she continues to think back to Scanlen’s audition. “Eliza was able to outmaneuver me,” she says. “When she walked out of the room, I looked at Jean-Marc, and he was just floored.”

And relieved. It wasn’t easy finding the right actress to play Amma (below, with her friends played by April and Violet Brinson). As the half-sister of Adams’ Camille, who’s a police reporter investigating a pair of child murders in her small Missouri hometown, Amma can be delicate and docile — especially in front of her and Camille’s mother, the icy Adora (Patricia Clarkson) — or wild and cruel, depending on what she needs. “She’s constantly trying to avoid vulnerability,” Scanlen explains. “It’s a psychological game. She’s always trying to find ways to win control.”

Anne Marie Fox/HBO

To Clarkson, Scanlen had no trouble with the balancing act. “I’ve played the mother to a lot of young actresses, but Eliza is has a command of language and emotion, and a melancholy that comes with more mature people, that she seems to have now,” Clarkson says. “I think she has all the tools. She can be young, old, beautiful, plain, angry, sad, difficult, funny, enlightened. She’s a combination of so many things.”

Still, juggling all those facets of Amma intimidated Scanlen. The actress, whose last major role had been an arc on the Australian soap Home and Away, only began acting professionally in her teens after years of participating in school plays and talent shows.

“It was a lot of pressure,” she says. “I was quite frightened, but I’d been told that you should always do what frightens you.” Even if it means freezing at first.

Sharp Objects debuts July 8 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

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