Meet Eliza Scanlen, the Breakout Teenage Troublemaker of HBO’s Sharp Objects

Don't be fooled by this young troublemaker's sweet looks.

Photograph by Michael Beckert for W Magazine. Special thanks to Primo’s at the Frederick Hotel.

It’s a summer morning in New York, and Eliza Scanlen is far from home. Nine thousand, nine hundred, and twenty-nine miles far, give or take. It recently took the 19-year-old actress from Sydney, Australia a 14-hour flight to Los Angeles, where she attended the premiere of her new miniseries, Sharp Objects, which debuted on HBO Sunday night, and then another six hours to New York for additional press. But rather than catch up on sleep ahead of a very busy week, Scanlen had used the flight to catch up on the classics. “I watched Thelma and Louise for the first time,” she said. “It was amazing. When we arrived to the apartment we’re staying at, I researched it—apparently, Jodie Foster and Meryl Streep were going to play Thelma and Louise, but timing didn’t work out. And then Brad Pitt! Wasn’t that his breakout role?”

It was. And Sharp Objects, which stars Amy Adams, is based on Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn’s novel, and is directed by Big Little Lies‘ Jean-Marc Vallée, is tipped to be Scanlen’s own breakthrough. Before Sunday’s first episode, the HBO miniseries already had plenty of buzz. In the show, Scanlen plays Amma, the teenage half-sister of Adams, whose sweet, innocent appearance inside the house—watched over by the Southern family matriarch played by Patricia Clarkson—belies her bad girl behavior outside of it. Of course, this is a murder mystery, so not much else can be divulged at this point. And while Scanlen’s role in the first episode might be small, it makes an impact. “She is like every teenager and every girl who is on the brink of womanhood, but in a more extreme sense,” said Scanlen. “[Playing her] was about trying to find the similarities that we have and enlarging that a bit.”

Sharp Objects marks Scanlen’s first major Hollywood project, after a supporting role on Australia’s popular soap opera, Home and Away, which helped launch the careers of Chris Hemsworth, Melissa George, and Isla Fisher, among others. “So many people have come out of that show and are doing really well. I think it teaches you a really strong work ethic and you learn a lot really quickly,” Scanlen said. “I don’t think i would have been able to do my job as confidently on Sharp Objects if I haven’t done it. Being on a set for the first time is in general an overwhelming experience, and coming into Sharp Objects was already nerve-wracking enough with the cast—it’s just such a talented group of people and it’d be kind of strange if you weren’t nervous.”

Eliza Scanlen photographed by Michael Beckert for W Magazine. Styled by Jill Lincoln and Jordan Johnson. Hair by Harry Josh. Makeup by Nina Park at Forward Artists. Special thank to Primo’s at The Frederick Hotel.

When Sharp Objects came along, Scanlen had already wrapped her arc on the soap. After auditioning in Sydney, the actress flew to L.A. to audition with Adams, who is an executive producer, and in front of Vallée. “I walked in and saw Amy there and my mind just blew,” Scanlen recalled. “But straight away, the facade drops and you realize that these are just people who love what they are doing and only want the best for you and the project. In the end, it is about the work. I charged into the room wanting to do business and tried not to worry about the starstruck aspect. Acting with Amy for the first time was exciting and refreshing. You can really tell when someone has worked on a particular scene or character. That first time, it just flowed.”

Scanlen was still in L.A.—she had just walked out of a movie theater after seeing La La Land—when she learned she got the part. She immediately went into preparation mode. “I had a journal and I did a lot of character research from the book,” she said. “Amma is interested in a lot of historical figures, so I read a lot about that. And as we were shooting, there would be scenes I felt I had to flesh out a bit more, so I would write furiously in the book. It kind of became my baby throughout the whole of the filming. It’s all filled up now.”

Still, she wasn’t fully prepared for the scale of the production, which filmed in L.A., northern California, and Georgia. (“I’m vegan, so obviously there is not a lot to eat in Georgia,” she recalled. “I had a lot of salad, a lot of rice, sometimes raw tofu, if I was getting desperate.”). Even the sets themselves were a far cry from Australian soaps. “It was really quite eye-opening in terms of the level of intricacy that they went to,” Scanlen said. “I mean everything was real. The beds were real. I’m used to having beds that were a block of wood shrouded in a quilt.”

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