From author Gillian Flynn, showrunner Marti Noxon and director Jean-Marc Vallée, HBO’s eight-episode limited drama series Sharp Objects follows what happens when Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) returns to her small hometown to cover the murders of two pre-teen girls. Trying to understand the crimes puts her in the direct path of her own past and forces her into the line of fire of her disapproving mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) and her impetuous 15-year-old half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen).
While at the HBO portion of the Television Critics Association Press Tour, Collider got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with actor Chris Messina (who plays Detective Richard Willis, in the small town of Wind Gap to assist with the ongoing murder investigations) about why he’s so proud of Sharp Objects, how he came to this role, adjusting to the way director Jean-Marc Vallée works, with no marks, rehearsals or lighting, the challenge of going back to the way other directors work, why he enjoys playing an outsider, why he watched Chinatown for inspiration, and the attraction of someone like Camille. He also talked about his experience on The Mindy Project, and his desire not to be typecast as just one thing.
Collider: Terrific job on this show! Even though it’s beautiful to look at, this is really, really dark material, and I love the whole vibe and atmosphere of it.
CHRIS MESSINA: Yeah, I’m really proud of it. Jean-Marc Vallée is fantastic. Of course, with this source material, we’re already starting from a great place. What Gillian [Flynn] wrote is rich, but cinematically, he elevates everything he does with these incredible images. He’s the most improvisational director that I’ve ever worked with, and I don’t mean in language, I mean in images. Working with him is very frustrating, in that there’s no rehearsal, there’s no blocking, there are no marks on the ground, there’s no lighting, and it moves very fast. You’re not quite sure what’s happening, some of the time, especially early on. Then, you get to a place where you feel incredibly free on the dance floor that he’s creating for you and you learn to really trust him, and then you fly. But, it took a little time to understand it ‘cause I’d never worked that way. I think that’s why he gets such raw performances, in all of the projects he does, out of the actors. He takes the acting away from the actors. If you get a lot of takes and if you over rehearse, you then to over-think and get in you head, and there wasn’t time for that. I really appreciated his style, but it took me a moment.
Is it weird to then readjust back to the other way of working again, once you finished this?
MESSINA: Yeah. When we were doing this, we all talked about how it would be strange to return back to the norm, and it was strange. I’ve only done one small movie since. and there were marks on the ground and there was rehearsal, and I kept being like, “Let’s just shoot it and see what happens. Why do you need that light? It’s fine the way it is. Let’s just put it in the shadows.” So, yeah, it was an adjustment. One of the great things about what I get to do is that you get to travel into these different worlds, whether it’s books or scripts, and different characters, but also different philosophies on how we tell a story. You groove better with some than others, but it’s fun to give yourself over to other people’s philosophies and see where it takes you. That’s something I really enjoy doing, but it’s still sometimes painful to do that, and often, you might come out the other end not agreeing with their way of working. This is not that example. Working with Jean-Marc Vallée, you have to come prepared. You have to come with an understanding of the character and what you want to do, and why you’re in this story and your purpose. And then, you have to really surrender to the moment.
Did it feel like you had a little bit of freedom with this character because he is so unfamiliar in his surroundings, not being from this town?
MESSINA: Yeah. It’s fun to play the outsider. I worked on it and really didn’t tell anybody about this because it wasn’t necessary, but I thought this guy has a past of heartbreak and he is damaged, just maybe not as severely as Camille. In a way, he’s at the other side of the coin. If Camille’s the head, he’s the tails, or vice versa, just not as severe. He wants to be seen and heard, and he his own problems. In a way, that’s what intrigues him about Camille, besides the obvious attraction. She also has information, and the town is full of people that don’t want me around while she’s the only one really talking to me. It’s all of those things combined. It was a fun character to work on. I grew up feeling like an outsider, so I really relate to those characters.