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The five-time Oscar nominee (who really is one of the most gracious and kindest people in the industry) gets the juiciest role of her career in eight-part adaptation of Gillian Flynn novel
SHARP OBJECTS directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, written by Marti Noxon from the novel by Gillian Flynn, with Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson and Eliza Scanlen. Premieres on HBO July 8.
LOS ANGELES – Before Amy Adams broke out with supporting roles in Catch Me If You Can and Junebug – for which she garnered the first of five Oscar nominations – the versatile and sincere star spent years struggling in TV with bit parts on series like Smallville, That 70s Show and The West Wing.
“Television was like a boyfriend you dated for 10 years,” says Adams, recounting her personal experience with the small screen industry. “You got out of the relationship and wondered why you tortured yourself.”
Television has become a whole different beast since the days before Adams was a household name. And now she’s roaring back to the medium in HBO’s Sharp Objects. The dark and twisted limited series about a journalist investigating small town murders is adapted from Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn’s debut novel and sensuously directed by Montreal’s Jean-Marc Vallée (following up his Emmy-winning success with Big Little Lies).
In what may arguably be her juiciest role yet, Adams plays the reporter, Camille Preaker, who is a far cry from her Lois Lane in Man of Steel.
“Not as much into the high heels,” Adams jokes, about a character whose flintiness is nothing like the woman I’m speaking to in early May, during round table interviews with the cast and crew.
Beyond her obvious talents, Adams is widely regarded as being among the most gracious and kindest people in an industry lacking such traits. She’s also openly emotional, at one point fighting and losing a battle against happy tears (we’ll get to that later).
What Adams doesn’t get enough credit for is how funny she can be. Perhaps because her most acclaimed roles have been grave characters, the serious side to Adams is regularly invoked rather than the goofy spitballer who finds humour in everything from her work to her child rearing. You need that, especially when taking on roles like Camille Preaker.
A native of the antiquated town of Wind Gap, Camille returns home from self-exile on assignment, chasing a grisly and sensational story about mutilated girls while sparring with locals and fending off her overbearing Southern Belle mother (Patricia Clarkson).
The show is ostensibly a murder mystery with a Gothic ghost story air. And it would have been only that had it ended up as the feature length movie it was initially packaged to be.
“It’s a ‘Who is this person?’ wrapped up inside of a whodunit,” says Flynn, in a separate interview. Flynn describes the mystery in Sharp Objects as the engine steering a character study.
She sighs with relief that the series format makes room for Adams’s Camille to breathe, simmer and boil over. Camille is haunted. Her trip to Wind Gap is a confrontation with traumatic memories that feeds into her alcoholism.
“I was actually struggling with getting sober again when I wrote this,” says Marti Noxon, who adapted the book for the screen and has been very open about her own bouts with alcoholism and an eating disorder.
“Some of the details I added [to Flynn’s narrative] about Camille’s alcoholism were ripped from the pages of my own life.”
As an example, she points to the tiny travel bottles that Camille regularly sorts through in private.
“They’re for putting in your purse because they don’t make a lot of noise,” says Noxon. “Two or three of those can get you through the day.”
When Camille isn’t numbing her pain with booze, she seeks solace in self-inflicted cuts. Her skin looks like scar tissue graffiti art, which she keeps covered with long sleeves.
“What she is covering is so much deeper than scars,” says Adams. “It’s layers of violence, abuse, sadness and pain – and not being able to deal with that.”
Camille is a troubling character, both sympathetic and abrasive, which is one reason why Flynn struggled to get her debut novel published over a decade ago. She recalls the refrain she kept hearing from publishers at the time: “Women don’t want to read books about women who aren’t heroic.”
“I feel very proud in a weird, fucked up way,” Flynn adds. “Ten years later, we certainly have proven that women understand that not every book has to make them feel uplifted and great.”
The show premieres while Hollywood is having an ethics check after #MeToo, though production wrapped before the allegations against Harvey Weinstein were revealed.
Sharp Objects doesn’t deal with sexual harassment per se. But a key detail from Camille’s past regarding an underage assault is bound to draw more critical attention at a time when society is trying to reevaluate morals, behaviour and culpability.
“[Camille’s] early sexuality is part of the story,” says Flynn. “The question of course is whether a girl’s sexuality is her own and at what age does it become her own? And who gets to say? All of this is coming up in the background of #MeToo.
“What I like about Sharp Objects, particularly on that story, is it isn’t saying there is an answer to this, we’re going to solve this [and] thereby solve this woman, her riddle, and fix her. It’s saying that this is a question that most women ask themselves at some point. And it’s part of her story.”
Flynn wouldn’t brand her writing feminist. She has her fair share of critics who’d balk at the idea, given that Gone Girl’s disarming villain wielded “the girl who cried rape” trope against men.
I would argue that the film caricatures harmful stereotypes about women in a critical look at shallow men.
Flynn, much like Margaret Atwood, has repeatedly answered that feminism means embracing and understanding the full array of women. And when it comes to literature, that includes the bad ones, too.
“I think it means more than just ‘Yay, let’s all support each other,’” says Flynn. “I do think we all need to push a little bit more. It’s okay to be pissed right now. We should be pissed. And it’s okay to piss each other off.”
“One thing I think we could take back is the idea of anger being something that is innate to us,” adds Noxon. “Not in the ways it’s been portrayed as simply shrewish.”
That anger, and its repression, is the driving force in Sharp Objects. The novel and show deal with these issues on an intimate level. There are a lot of bad feelings passed around within Camille’s disturbed family.
“When we’re not allowed to explore anger in a healthy way, or to even admit it to ourselves, what do we do with it?” asks Noxon. “It turns toxic.”
Adams points out how, both onscreen and in society, we’ve become immune to masculine violence, which is typically physical aggression. In the school yard, when boys play and fight, their bullying can be seen by the naked eye. But anyone raising a daughter can tell you that the way young girls bully just fucks with your head.
“The psychological violence that women can execute against each other (is) an interesting thing that Gillian’s willing to explore,” says Adams, who’s a mother to a young girl. “It exists.”
Sharp Objects deals specifically with the intergenerational trauma passed from mothers to their children, a topic recently explored (though with much less satisfying results) in the horror film Hereditary.
Adams uses her own Mormon family as the petri dish sample. She had a great-great grandmother who was one of five wives and wonders what gets passed down from that heritage.
“How do we view ourselves, our value and role as women?” asks Adams, thinking aloud about how self-worth might be passed down. “What strengths does that give us and what challenges does that present?”
She’s quick to point out that these are just comparative thoughts. It’s not like she used her character in Sharp Objects to come to terms with her own upbringing.
“I try not to use films to work out my own junk,” she says. “I pay somebody for that.”
Adams’s mother bucked Mormon traditions, divorcing away from the community, becoming a semi-professional bodybuilder and pushing young Amy into rock-climbing among other activities, to make her a tough cookie.
“I would be such a wimp if it weren’t for my mother,” says Adams, who tries to instill the same competitiveness in her own child, taking her rock-climbing and motivating her to push past perceived limits.
“I’m like, ‘You’re going to run that mile and you’re going to love it!’”
Over the course of the interview Adams regularly brings up her daughter, whether describing the child’s inherited sense of humour or citing her as the reason for not taking on more work.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that her fondest memories from a career that includes playing a fairy-tale princess (Enchanted) and the head of a Scientology-like cult (The Master) involves roles where she had to tap into her maternal side.
She cites Junebug and Arrival, but she’s not speaking specifically to the roles themselves. She gets emotional thinking about how audiences connected to them.
“When I did Arrival I had pretty meaningful conversations with some women,” says Adams, her voice quivering as tears creep up on her. “With Junebug and with Arrival. When women feel like their loss is understood, that’s a huge compliment.”
She’s wiping back the tears, sniffling while apologizing for breaking her cool.
“I feel so drama school when I cry.”