WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the first episode of HBO’s Sharp Objects. Read at your own risk!
By the end of the first hour of Sharp Objects, HBO’s atmospheric small-screen adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s first novel, Amy Adams’ troubled journalist, Camille Preaker, has already been put through the wringer. She’s assigned to investigate the murder of a young girl and the disappearance of another in her hometown — a stifling place she escaped years ago, not without consequences — and she’s forced to stay in the home of her icy mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson). There, she meets (or rather, re-meets) her half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), and almost immediately begins to feel trapped by her own personal, psychological demons.
Of course, she’s never without those demons. Over the years, Camille’s carved words into her skin, using self-harm as a coping mechanism. The premiere reveals one word in particular — “vanish” — but exposes plenty more around it. Below, Adams explains what it was like to wear her character’s skin, the challenges of playing such a weighty role over the course of eight episodes, and why it was important to work as a producer behind the scenes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: At the end of the first episode, we see Camille’s scars. What is the process like for applying those, and how does such a costume of sorts affect your performance?
AMY ADAMS: The application of the scars is about four hours, give or take. And when you’re standing there, getting them put on, you have to be exposed. I think that was just the hardest part, just standing there, preserving some modesty but virtually naked just to get all the scars on. It sets you up for that vulnerability.
Especially in that last scene, and in scenes where she presses into her own scars. She no longer cuts herself now, but she tends to poke herself, or stimulate herself.
Well, when she’s doing that, that’s a relief, her relief. She’s trying not to do it, because she’s trying to be healthy, but when she pokes herself, it’s a relief, you know? It’s a temptation. It’s enticing — which is why she ends up drinking so much. And I did a lot of research. I read a book called A Bright Red Scream, and read about people’s emotional release that comes with the cutting. It’s a very complicated issue, and if anyone’s curious, I highly recommend that book, because it’s beautifully written and people are so candid.
Writer Marti Noxon (Dietland) has said that she felt like the character was a “burden” for you to carry. Did it indeed feel that way?
That’s funny. Hmm, not in that way. I can see to an outsider [it would seem so], because when I’m on set, I’m very, very focused, and I carry the character with me, and it takes a little second to shake it. It’s not an easy character to live with, and it is something that can weigh heavily at times. But I’m always sensitive, being an actor, that as much as I live it and I try to make it real, I’m only empathizing with somebody else’s reality.
That reality, though, is very heavy. What was it like staying in such a dark place for eight episodes straight, especially after working for so long in film, where you’re able to leave a role behind?
I enjoyed the process, and living in Camille was… [Pauses] It was a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. It was rewarding and informative, and I worked some sh— out, you know? Pardon my language [laughs], but I don’t need to stay in that space.
I’m curious: Is this a role you would have gravitated to at all earlier in your career, or would it have scared you off?
The darkness of the story doesn’t intimidate me. I think, as a performer, being able to pull it off in a way that felt authentic, that might have intimidated me when I was first starting [out as an actor]. Knowing how to achieve that in a healthy way would be something I wouldn’t have been able to do at that time. And hopefully, I did. [Laughs] I’m always like, “I think I did it.” [Laughs]
And, I mean, Camille is someone I was really, really attracted to and I hadn’t ever [played]. It’s funny, the character that I played that I thought was the saddest, no one thought was sad, so every time I think I’m playing a sad character, everyone’s like, “No.” Like with Junebug, everyone was like, “She’s so hilarious!” And I’m like, “She’s so sad.” And in American Hustle, it was like, “Oh, she’s so sexy,” and I’m like, “She’s so saaaad.” They were both masking something! [Laughs] But yeah, I’ve never been afraid to explore. I just typically play characters who have more effective masks, and I think Camille just doesn’t have a very effective mask.
Certainly not around her mother. Let’s talk about you and Patricia Clarkson’s toxic relationship —
[Laughs] On screen. Not so in life.
Of course! So how would you describe their dynamic?
She doesn’t really care for me. Adora had me when I was quite young, and I was an example of a shameful time in her life. I took away her potential and I took away her attention, and yet I wouldn’t let her take care of me. There’s so much more you guys will find out, but she says I was always a willful child, and I think that she rejected me based on that. I wouldn’t surrender to her — which is funny, because my daughter’s very willful and as much as I get frustrated, I love it. It’s like, “Good, you won’t be a victim.” You know?
And I think Camille sort of enjoys reverting to [being] the pest, to pester her mother. It’s slightly rebellious, slightly childish. But Adora infantilizes Camille all the time and makes her feel powerless.
This story explores their relationship through the family’s past and present. Even in the very first scene, a memory seamlessly blends into reality. What is it like shooting those scenes? They look tightly choreographed.
A lot of that, I have to rely on [director] Jean-Marc [Vallée]. We were very lucky to have two brilliant young actresses who set that emotional tone, but a lot of that is Jean-Marc’s editing, which he’s so brilliant at, and his communicating with me and showing me what shots he did. It’s very cool the way he does it — you hear footsteps running through the hallways and it’s a memory, and the past and the present become fluid. I loved that. I find it very true. After working in Arrival, I started messing with myself, about how you can make memory feel real.
This marked a return to TV for you. Would you want to do more television work, after finishing this season?
I would. I would definitely consider that. I want to get into producing. I really enjoyed…
Being at the table?
Yeah. I always think about it, like, with Hamilton — I like to be in the room where it happens. [Starts singing] I wanna be in the room where it happens…
No, I’m sorry, everything always goes back to musicals eventually. [Laughs] But being in the room where it happens is really beneficial to me, and I think it helps me be a more patient and a more fluid actor. It helps me have an understanding of the creative process in a way that’s new and exciting, and it’s really thrilling for me, to the point where I was maybe a little too active. [Laughs] But bringing creative people together was exciting. Getting to introduce Jean-Marc to this team, getting to go into HBO and pitch it was so exciting. It’s nice to know how the sausage gets made.
How has this affected your process for choosing roles and how much you want to be involved? Has it affected that at all?
Yes and no. There are other factors that have affected it — being a mom, that’s a big part of it. I still love acting and that’s my primary focus, but I would really like to create stuff not only for myself but for other actors and introduce new voices. Give people a leg up or a hand up, I like that. It feels good. It felt good to work with Eliza [Scanlen] and get to see her start something.
And finally, what can we expect from the rest of Sharp Objects?
Hmm. Camille does some stuff that is not smart. [Laughs]
Oh wow, no way.
[Laughs] You just go deeper into the exploration of this family and their history. As history unravels, the present starts to unravel as well. I think that’s the best way to put it without giving too much away.
Sharp Objects airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.