It’s not 20 minutes into our interview, and already Gillian Flynn is in tears.
The best-selling author of Gone Girl is huddled with Mad Men writer Marti Noxon and five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams in a private room at a bustling Brentwood steakhouse. They’re here to talk about their prestige murder mystery, Sharp Objects, adapted from Flynn’s lesser-read debut novel about a deeply troubled newspaper reporter, Camille Preaker, who cuts and draws all over her skin. On the surface, Flynn, 47, wouldn’t seem to have much in common with the character — except that she too was once a journalist, for Entertainment Weekly, back in the early aughts — but Camille clearly is close to her heart. “The reason I wrote about the scars,” she says, “was because I felt that [misery] of, like, ‘Why can’t anyone see how much pain I’m in?'”
When Sharp Objects premieres July 8 on HBO, with Adams, 43, playing Camille, it enters a landscape in which such darkness traditionally has been reserved for male leads. In fact, conversations about whether audiences were ready or willing to see a woman maim herself have been had more than once at the premium cable network. And, per its programming president, Casey Bloys, for good reason. “I can’t think of a more complicated female lead,” he says of the first drama he bought when his purview expanded in early 2016. “There are a lot of celebrated, self-destructive male leads out there, but it’s going be very interesting to see a woman really wrestling with her demons like that.”
Such questions have trailed Flynn for more than a decade. “No one wants to read a book about difficult women,” she was told over and over when she initially pitched the manuscript to publishers back in 2005. Ultimately, Crown bit — “but barely,” she jokes (and in doing so earned Flynn’s loyalty, in the form of two more best-sellers, including 2012’s monster hit Gone Girl, which has sold more than 9 million copies). Sharp Objects‘ journey to screen didn’t go much smoother. It wasn’t until Noxon, 53, stepped in, in early 2014, and convinced rights holder Jason Blum to let her reconceive it as a TV series, rather than a film, that things began moving. Four and a half years later, that vision — under the direction of Big Little Lies auteur Jean-Marc Vallee, 55 — is finally being realized.
On this springtime afternoon, the female trio, each a hands-on producer (with Adams on the heels of a development deal to produce and star in more for the network), spoke candidly about everything from psychological pain to sexual harassment.
Gillian, Sharp Objects launched your career as a novelist, but it wasn’t an easy sell. How come?
GILLIAN FLYNN No one wanted to buy the book. I was writing it in 2004, 2005, and it was really in response to the fact that I didn’t see that kind of character out there. You saw portrayals of bad-boy men and men who were making bad choices. They were everywhere. And I thought, “Where are the women who are like this?” It was at a time where “chick lit” was very popular, and that drove me insane. It was all about these women shopping in their heels, and the end was about getting the boy. I wanted more than that, so I wrote it. You always hope to get that bidding war and instead it was crickets. We’d hear a lot of, “We like her writing, show us her next book.” And, “We just don’t think this book’s gonna sell.”
Ultimately, you found a buyer.
FLYNN At Crown, and I’ve stayed there ever since.
AMY ADAMS Do you go all Pretty Woman into the other publishing companies now and say, “Big mistake, big mistake”? (Laughter.)
FLYNN Loaded with all my books, all the spinoffs … (Puts out her hands and wobbles, as though she’s carrying too many books.)
ADAMS Your awards …
FLYNN All my airport paperbacks. “Suckas!” (Laughter.)
MARTI NOXON My analogous fantasy is the ex-boyfriend audition. It’s all exes coming in to audition for me. And I get to say, “Ya know, that was interesting. We’ll be in touch.”
ADAMS “I’m just looking for something else. Just something … else.”
The process of bringing it to screen doesn’t sound like it was much better, correct?
FLYNN Yeah, there was no interest. (Laughs.) Or only nibbles. Fun fact: Andrea Arnold picked it up and dropped it, and now she’s [taken over for Vallee directing] the next season of Big Little Lies. Other than that, it just sat silently. And a bit of that was my choice, because anyone who was interested wanted to do it as a horror film.
And you objected to that?
FLYNN Yeah. I wrote Sharp Objects because I wanted to write a character study, and I hid that inside of a mystery. I tricked people into reading about women and violence and rage and what that looked like in three different generations of women. That’s what I wanted to write about, and I figured out I could do it if I coated it in this yummy Southern Gothic mystery. But people were only interested in the yummy, chocolate coating of the mystery and not the Camille part, and I knew that I was going to lose that if I sold it that way.
You were each, in your own way, drawn to this central character of Camille. Why?
FLYNN I’m a laugh-through-the-pain kind of person. I wrote Camille coming from a very, very dark place, a place of deep pain. The reason I wrote about the scars, about Camille writing on her skin, was because I felt that [misery] of, like, “Why can’t anyone see how much pain I’m in?” I wished I could bear witness somehow. I had these fantasies of being mangled — of showing how much pain I was in.
Was putting it on paper, even if in fictional form, cathartic?
FLYNN Writing is always cathartic. It’s also always painful as fuck. (Laughter.) I’d say it was a saving thing for me. To me, Camille is … (Begins crying.) … a testament that people are braver than you think and that everyone walkin’ around is wounded in some way. It’s this idea that sometimes keeping your head above water is the brave thing. Oh, God, if this gets printed, my mom is gonna call me immediately: “Honey?” (Laughter.) She’ll say the same thing she did after she read Sharp Objects. “That was such a great book, so how’s …? Are you OK? Should we talk?”
What about you, Marti?
NOXON I jokingly refer to [my last three projects,] To the Bone, Dietland and now Sharp Objects as my self-harm trilogy.
FLYNN Oh, God. (Laughter.)
NOXON I got very sick [with an eating disorder] when I was young. In fact, I almost died repeatedly until I got sober in my early 20s. And then around the time I went into menopause, I got sick again and to treat that I started drinking again. And because I knew all the signs of what could happen, I was trying to arrest it, mid-fall, which is really hard to do because I hadn’t hit bottom — but I knew what it would be, I had a memory of what bottom was like. So, when I read Sharp Objects, I was like, “That’s what I’m doing to myself right now. But I do have a choice about this. I don’t have to keep cutting myself, metaphorically. I don’t have to keep living in this pain.” It’s funny, I remember a man on the crew said to me early on, “I don’t get it, why would anybody want to watch this? It’s so dark.”
What do you say to that?
NOXON I explained what I just explained to you and that it’s an experience that a lot of marginalized people — not just women, anybody who is not in the ruling class — have. And then I explained that there is tremendous wish fulfillment in searching for the truth and actually finding it. The hardest thing for me, with so many of the things that happened to me, was that people told me that they didn’t happen. No one ever said, “This is true, this is real, it happened and now you can at least know you’re not crazy.” No one ever said that to me. And Camille gets the truth and other people see it.
Amy, you had to inhabit this exceedingly dark world for five months. How did you prepare yourself to get into the character and, just as important, back out of it?
ADAMS I often said that if I left set or left a scene feeling like I needed to cry or left crying, I had done my job. Because Camille isn’t someone who’s going to cry in front of people, she’s going to internalize that pain. I felt like I had residual pain from her more than pain playing her. I also tend to be a sufferer of, like, 2 to 3 o’clock in the morning insomnia, and that’s when Camille would catch up with me. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and have like unexplained terror or self-loathing and I’d have to work my way out of it. That said, the scenes that were hardest were the ones with Patricia [Clarkson, who plays Camille’s mom].
NOXON They’re the hardest to watch, too.
ADAMS Because she just keeps going back to the same well and drawing the same poison water. And that’s so common and it’s something we all, ugh, it’s hard to talk about. I have two parents who are alive and I feel like I shouldn’t …
You had prosthetic scars glued on daily. How did that impact your performance?
ADAMS I think what helped me was I had to stand naked because it was head to toe, every inch of my body. So, there I’d be, in a taped-on thong. Everyone was so professional but, to me, there’s such a humiliation to it. I’m not a, what’s the word?
NOXON An exhibitionist?
ADAMS I’m not an exhibitionist, I’m not somebody who naturally feels comfortable parading myself around in front of people, so I had to have a false bravado standing there naked. There was also a mirror right there and I had to confront my body and I’d stopped working out to play Camille because I thought, “She’s not gonna be toned, it’s gonna be annoying if we see her naked and she looks like me in American Hustle.”
FLYNN She’s not someone who takes care of herself.
ADAMS She eats Kit Kats and drinks beer, whiskey and whatever else you put in front of her. She’s bloated.
NOXON When I was still in my mini-alcohol-bottle era, I was so skinny-fat it was crazy. It’s not a good body.
ADAMS So, there I am, in my not-a-good-body, just standing there. I’ve never had so much fluid in my life. O’Doul’s and Coca-Cola mixed with water and whatever [Camille was drinking in a scene]. I thought I was going to die of water intoxication. Literally, [on one episode], I had, like, 24 O’Doul’s.
FLYNN That’s so gross.
ADAMS And I thought, “OK, I’m gonna ask for a covered cup, and then I’ll fake it.” I thought I had it all figured out, but Jean-Marc was like, “I need Amy to have a clear cup. I need to see the beer go down.” I’m like (makes a bloated face).
FLYNN “And I need Amy to get a bigger dress because she has had 58 million O’Doul’s.” (Laughter.)
ADAMS Exactly. So there was definitely an emotional component to putting on the scars in terms of seeing the damage that she had done to her body, but there also was that vulnerability that standing naked created. And I had this amazing stand-in, Reb, who they also scarred up because Jean-Marc wanted to see it and she would stand there every day, too. She was fantastic, and she also put up with a lot ’cause she wasn’t getting the sort of catharsis from the performance and she wasn’t treated the same way I’m treated. And I’ve never experienced this before but, because we looked so much alike, at one point somebody grabbed me really hard and pulled me. I went, “What’s going on?” And they’re like “(Gasp) You’re not Reb!” I went into producer [mode] and I was like, “You will not handle her like that.”
FLYNN And, “Is that what you do to Reb?”
ADAMS I shouldn’t share that story but …
NOXON Well, it’s a true story. And [it happens] all the time. And she wouldn’t have said a word, by the way, and that’s the other part that’s [changing] through women being more a part of the engine. But I learned a lot on this show about how I want to do it in the future, including controlling more of the pipeline. It’s not enough to come in and sell your thing to an entity. I’m waiting for the first female-owned streaming service. That’s my dream.
Gillian, this was your first writers room experience. How’d it feel to workshop characters you’d created with six other writers?
FLYNN Like so much input for someone who’d been spending her days alone. I don’t know how people do it. I was exhausted by the end of the day. I’d get home and I’d have two tiny children to swim with in the pool and run around with and I was like, “Where is my liquor!?” (Laughter.)
And yet you’re about to do it again for Utopia, a remake of the cult U.K. drama.
FLYNN Well, I wrote all the scripts, so they’re done — but I did recently have a tiny writers room, a punch-up, and we start filming this fall [for Amazon]. And I’m in charge! (Laughs.) But first, I gotta finish my book, which is way overdue. No one used to care [when I turned the next one in]. They were always like, “You’re writing another book? Okaaay …”
NOXON “If you need to.”
FLYNN “I guess we’ll pay you, if you do it.” I didn’t really have a contract for the next book until Gone Girl.
NOXON That put you in the catbird seat.
FLYNN Yeah, I mean, they’re doing OK with the Gone Girl money. (Laughter.) So, that’s hopefully going to get turned in this fall and be out next year. It’s sort of in response to the election of a pussy grabber as our president … It’s not about that, but it was a response to it. If you read my Time essay [“A Howl” was part of the magazine’s Person of the Year: Silence Breakers issue], you’ll know the tone of it.
In that essay, you said, “I’d like to scrape up some sense of triumph over the fact that many courageous women have raised their voices, but I don’t feel triumphant. I feel humiliated and angry.” Did that reaction surprise you?
FLYNN Yeah, because we’ve been whipped up in this false sense of triumph. And I don’t feel that way and I think a lot of other women don’t feel that way. Maybe hopeful, maybe invigorated, but not triumphant.
NOXON If some of the men — the ones whom we’ve all heard stories about, who are making a lot of money for people right now — if they were paying the price, I’d feel a little bit more triumphant.
ADAMS I don’t think retribution is going to make me feel triumphant.
NOXON Nah, I’m still focused on revenge. (Laughter.)
ADAMS I’m an idealist — it can be annoying and I’m constantly disappointed. Before the Harvey thing came out, a young actress said to me, “This is going on [with a male producer], is this weird?” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s not OK.” She didn’t know what to do, and I said, “Tell him I said hi,” because, unfortunately, I knew this person and I thought if he knows he can’t create a silent victim, then maybe we remove that temptation?
In your own past, were you always able to recognize what was wrong in the moment?
ADAMS I think most women have experienced it, even if it’s just feeling unsafe rejecting somebody. And apologizing, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I must have been sending you the wrong signal,” when, really, it’s like, “No, I think I said I don’t want to go out with you, I don’t know how that’s the wrong signal. I think we should just be friends and I’m not sure why you’re at my doorstep,” it’s that unsafe feeling. I can’t say all, but most women have had that moment and you question yourself. “Did I smile? Was I not direct enough?”
FLYNN “When we were joking, was that wrong? Should I not have joked with another human?”
ADAMS There’s a reason I started playing nuns and virgins. I was like, “I’m not putting up with that anymore.” (Laughs.)
Do you find yourselves revisiting past experiences through a 2018 lens and seeing them differently?
ADAMS I knew they were wrong then.
Marti, you came forward in support of former Mad Men writer Kater Gordon, who claimed showrunner Matthew Weiner sexually harassed her. Walk us through your decision to speak up.
NOXON It was so interesting because Kater came forward and, to be perfectly honest, other people from the show started to call me and say, “What are you gonna do?” Because I was the person with seniority in that room at that time [a decade ago]. And even back in the day, part of my job felt like telling people that they could leave and that they’d be OK, but the truth is even I didn’t fully know that it would be. We were on the most successful show on television at that time and people were calling it history-making. So, the idea that we might get fired and that the person in power would say terrible things about us felt like it could ruin our careers. And all the people who would say to that, “Well, just walk away,” I don’t think they understand that there wasn’t a woman in that room who had a safety net. Not one. I was supporting my entire family. I had no place to land, and I was terrified. So, can you imagine what it’s like if you’re a 27-year-old [like Kater] in that situation?
ADAMS Or a farmworker or a waitress or a teacher or an assistant at a drug company?
You went to AMC, which aired Mad Men as well as your new show, Dietland, before you went public. How’d that go?
NOXON I went to the most in-charge person I could find [she declines to name the executive] and I said, “I feel I need to do this,” and to his credit, he teared up and he said, “I’m so sorry, we suspected but we didn’t know for sure, and you have to do what you’ve gotta do.” It was a pretty awesome thing to say, knowing that I had a show coming up on the network. And if he hadn’t said that, I don’t know what I would have done. But other relationships have been forever destroyed. A price has been paid and that’s all I can say.
If you had to do it all over again, knowing the repercussions, would you?
NOXON I’d do it in a heartbeat because, boy, you find out the people who are interested in progress and the people who are interested in keeping things the way they’ve always been. After I dropped my bomb, I got some angry responses, particularly from women, who said, “Wake up, you’ve been in this business for a long time, you know better than anybody that that’s just the way things are.” And after working on it for a while, I finally got to, “No, that’s the way things were.”
ADAMS I love that.
NOXON And, of course, one of the reasons I could speak up now is that if somebody said, “You can’t work in Hollywood anymore,” I’d be OK. I don’t care that much about money, and I have enough now for my family. But that’s not true of so many people.
ADAMS So many people. And that’s one of the reasons I chose not to speak immediately after the Sony hack [which revealed a pay disparity between Adams and Jennifer Lawrence and their male co-stars on American Hustle]. Because I wasn’t educated about pay discrepancy in all industries and until I understood the truth of it outside of my particular bubble, I didn’t want to talk about it. I know what my truth is, I know what I fight for and the things I let go of based on them saying, “Take it or leave it.” And I make those decisions for myself and I don’t hold anybody else accountable for them. But I didn’t want to talk about it until I was educated. And as much as I love Jennifer Lawrence, she doesn’t need me to be her voice. She has her own voice. [Lawrence famously opened up about the experience in an essay on Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter.] And if I’m going to use my voice to talk about pay discrepancy, it’s going to be for women who don’t have the same platform as me.
Has that mind-set changed at all in the Time’s Up era, when many of your peers are speaking up about parity?
ADAMS Of course I think about it, but I think about it in terms of how I operate as an example, not how I use my voice. I think about it with Eliza [Scanlen, her 19-year-old co-star] or any other young actress I’ve worked with. Helping the next generation further the cause is going to be the thing I want to focus on.
Much has been made here about Sharp Objects being a story about women and by women, and yet you brought in a man to direct every episode. What was behind that move and does the story get told differently through male eyes?
ADAMS Jean-Marc came on through me because we had been developing Janice [a now stalled Janice Joplin biopic] together, and the way that he communicated about Janice, I was like, “Oh, he’d really understand this darkness and the resilience of [Camille].” And I’ll say this, he does have a way of seeing women and being able to tell the truth about them, whatever his relationship is with women, I don’t know. So, he came with us to the different networks when we pitched it and he kind of acted like Mick Jagger.
NOXON He just swaggered his way in. But I learned a lot from watching Jean-Marc because he does have this, like, “No, this is how we’re gonna do it.” And I come from a school, especially in TV, with lower budget projects, where I was like, “There’s a thing called a green screen. We can just fix this and make it easier for all of us.” But he kept saying, “But it’s just…” And he kept saying it until people got exhausted and gave it to him. And I hated it at the time but you know what? The show is beautiful.
ADAMS It’s a good lesson for us women. Like, maybe it’s okay to ask for what we want and what we feel like we need to get our job done, right?
Final question: It’s a limited series now, but that doesn’t mean much these days. Is this a story you’d want to keep telling?
FLYNN My characters always go on in my imagination. They have full working lives in there, and I keep in touch with all of them.
ADAMS Does Camille have a boyfriend? That’s what I’m worried about … (Laughter.)
FLYNN Camille’s doing great. But I would never say no [to another season]. I know exactly what happens to them.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.