A year and a half since the release of HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” director Jean-Marc Vallée is back helming a new project for the pay cable network: “Sharp Objects.” Like “Big Little Lies,” it focuses on a female cast and tackles social issues from a feminine perspective, including women on women violence and abuse between a mother and daughter.
Amy Adams portrays that daughter, committing herself to one of her darkest roles as Camille Preaker. As someone still processing her own deep, personal pain, the character travels back to her hometown to investigate the murders of two teenage girls.
There, she meets members of the small town’s next generation in Alice (Sydney Sweeney), Meredith (Madison Davenport), Damon (Aaron Holliday), John Keene (Taylor John Smith), and her half sister Amma Crellin (Eliza Scanlen), among others.
At Tuesday’s L.A. premiere at the Cinerama Dome, these 20-something stars were beaming as they told The Times about their experiences working with the Oscar-nominated actor. “She made everyone feel like they belonged there,” says Smith, 23, who will next be seen in “The Outpost,” with Scott Eastwood and Orlando Bloom. “With a lot of stars, they’re larger than life. It’s harder to connect with them, but Amy was so human and so real that it didn’t even feel like work anymore. It felt like you were there to play.”
It’s been a while since Adams played on the small screen; this limited series marks her first TV project in more than 10 years. Jessica Rhoades, one of the executive producers, expressed her gratitude in having Adams as both a lead and fellow exec producer. “There couldn’t have been another Camille. We got so lucky,” she said.
Davenport felt lucky, too, to learn and grow through her. She described a moment in which Adams dropped one of her “advice seeds” ahead of shooting a scene with her and Smith. “She said, ‘If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be, don’t look to the director for approval. You have to be able to rely on yourself and trust in your own talent.’ When you are a young person and you want that kind of validation, it’s nice to have somebody who is so established tell you, you don’t need it! Just do what you know you can do and move on. Unapologetically.”
Elizabeth Perkins said Adams’ mentorship on set was undeniable, particularly with Scanlen, 19. Scanlen and Adams share a lot of screen time together, including takes with their shared on-screen mom, Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson).
“Amy is just a naturally maternal person. And that just translated into their scenes together,” Perkins recalled. “You really feel that Camille, played by Amy, is the mother of Eliza. She’s sort of taken that role on the minute she comes back to town.”
David Sullivan, who plays barkeep Chris, added, “When you’re in a scene with Amy Adams, and you see how quickly she becomes present and how intensely she’s looking at you, it forces you to do the same. The majority of my scenes are with her, and I think I probably did some of the best acting I ever did, solely because she demands so much of the other person.”
Like Adams, Vallée approaches directing as a mentor or coach, according to the cast. He pushes his actors to take risks, bouncing character story line ideas around with them and even dabbling in some “world building” on set. Sullivan remembered initially feeling “rattled” when Vallée staged dancers in his bar scene with Adams, but never put them on camera. The goal was just to paint a scene to better immerse his stars. “He’s like nobody else I’ve ever worked with before,” Sullivan said.
Perkins also appreciated his inclination to capture the most raw and real footage possible. When they were on set in southern Georgia, the temperature hit about 100 degrees and the cast was sweating through their clothes. But Vallée kept the cameras rolling. “He was like, ‘That’s it!’ As an actor, that’s very challenging, but it also pushes you,” Perkins explained.
For Scanlen and Davenport, the long days on set were worth a chance to spark a dialogue. “I’m a woman. And this is real. Maybe this is a more dramatic version, but these are real characters out there. These are women that are powerful, manipulative, strong and weak. It really shows women in all lights,” Davenport said. “We’re not just portraying women like ‘Oh, if you’re strong you have to be able to kick ass even if you’ve never picked up weights in your life.’ Or like, ‘Oh, are you smart? Then you have to be a genius.’ No, this shows that humans are ugly. They have ugly qualities and they have beautiful qualities.”
Adds Scanlen, “This trauma — hopefully it will open up conversation to mental health. That’s all I could ever hope for.”
“Sharp Objects” debuts July 8 on HBO.