'Sharp Objects' Breakout Eliza Scanlen Explains Why Her Character Is So Scary

The Australian actress says she, too, was intimidated by her enigmatic character Amma, the teenage kid sister of Amy Adams' Camille, in HBO's eight-episode adaptation of the 2006 novel.
Anne Marie Fox/HBO

Throughout the first six episodes of Sharp Objects, it's become increasingly clear that Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) is not the only complicated woman in her family. Her kid half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), has been acting out more and more as their overprotective mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), tries to shield her from the outside world — and from experiencing life beyond her purview, even in the sleepy small town of Wind Gap, Miss.

At the end of episode five, Amma ran away from the town's Founder's Day celebration (held at her mother's house, naturally) while on drugs, only for Camille to find her in a shed in the woods, disheveled and bloody.

In episode six, Amma and her friends convince Camille to join them for a booze- and pill-fueled party. Against Camille's instincts, she relents, and ends up bonding with her teenage sister in a way she never had the opportunity to before. At the end of the night, the sisters wind up sneaking home and lying in bed together, where Amma tells her sister a haunting message: "Bad things are gonna happen to you. You can't stop them; you just have to let them."

Amma might look sweet, dressed like a doll for her mother and a Skipper Barbie doll for her friends, roller-skating through town, but she's intimidating in the way that teenagers sometimes are. There's something going on inside her head, something complicated. She's sweet and scary, rebellious and obedient. These are layers to the character that aren't often afforded to teenage girls in film.

"I think that every family is dysfunctional in some kind of way, whether we know it or not, and in this case we do see a family that's suffering from a multigenerational trauma that has passed three generations and manifested itself through violence and self destruction," Scanlen tells The Hollywood Reporter of her character.

While promoting the series before its premiere, star and executive producer Adams, showrunner Marti Noxon and author and executive producer Gillian Flynn discussed extensively the fact that Sharp Objects portrays female rage in a way rarely seen on screen. That certainly applies to Amma as well.

"Sometimes people can't even pinpoint what it is about the show that makes them feel uncomfortable. I think it's just that," says Scanlen. "I think when we see these women who have suppressed their rage so much that they have to resort to self destruction or suppress it so much that they need to destruct other people and lash out on the world, it's uncomfortable to see and it's because it's uncontrollable and it's unexplainable."

Australia native Scanlen read Flynn's novel toward the end of the audition process, and ended up using that highlighted copy as a guide while shooting.

"Amma is such an enigmatic character and it's sometimes hard to decipher the motives to her actions, so when there were scenes that I wanted to delve into more and understand the inner workings of Amma when she's doing the things that she does, i was a great way for me to write it out and flesh it out before I got onto set," she says. And yes, Scanlen, too, was intimidated by Amma.

"Even just her demeanor is just so far to how I am as a person that I knew that there was a lot to work on before the show," she says. "I think she has this undying confidence in herself and belief that she is in control of everything and that she is superior to everything. It not often that you come across people that have such a strong inner resolve."

The closing scenes of "Cherry" was both the most fun and most challenging for Scanlen to shoot, particularly because of how age-inappropriate Amma's behavior is. While Scanlen is 19, the character is not even in high school yet.

"Looking back on it now I felt dirty doing those things, and I guess that's also so reflective about society today in how much women are made to feel dirty because of their sexuality or how they might even express their love for another person," Scanlen says. "Doing those scenes with Amy, I think they reflect on Amma in such [an important] way. For Amma, that's a way of expressing her love for Camille and a lot of people don't see it like that. I think that's a result of how she's been raised. You have to do bad things in order to be taken care of."

Continues Scanlen, "It's this strange cycle of abuse and I think Amma is taking that on in her own perverse, warped way. Even thinking on it now I am still so baffled and perplexed by Amma as a character. No answer is a wrong answer as to why she does things the way she does. Doing those scenes really showed me a lot about Amma as a character and her unique ways of expressing love and affection; expressing gratefulness for a lost sisterhood and a sisterhood that she's never been able to experience until now. Quite a nice scene in weird way."

Sharp Objects airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.