Vulture Interview: Elizabeth Perkins on Sharp Objects Adora’s Shocking Secret!
In Sunday’s episode of Sharp Objects, Jackie O’Neill, played to wry, boozy perfection by Elizabeth Perkins, finally tells Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) that she knows the truth about Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson) and what happened to Camille’s late sister, Marian (Lulu Wilson). It’s a confrontation scene that the show has been building toward all along, but, in true Sharp Objects fashion, it still keeps certain details shrouded in mystery.
Perkins took some time to talk to Vulture about shooting that scene with Adams, why she thinks Jackie kept Adora’s secret for so long, and what it was like to work with director Jean-Marc Vallée, who’s known for his unique creative approach. “there is no blocking, there is no rehearsals, there are no lights,” she explained. “There’s no beginning, middle, end to a scene.”
Had you read the book before you did the show?
No, I had not. I had read Gone Girl even before the movie of Gone Girl came out, so I was a big Gillian Flynn fan and, of course, loved what they did with the adaptation of Gone Girl. It was an amazing movie. But no, as soon as I got the role, I went right out and read Sharp Objects, and I thought, “Oh, my God, how are they going to expand this into eight episodes?” I’m pretty impressed with what Jean-Marc did, to be honest, because the role of Jackie in the book is described so differently. When they meet Jackie in the book, she’s just had a facelift, and she still has bandages on and she’s described as, like, her bandages were oozing. I thought, “Wow! That is so fantastic.” But I don’t think they wanted to do that with her. We just had to give the impression that she was one of those people, you know.
How much did the book stick with you as you tried to bring this character to life?
Well, you have to put everything out of your head when you work with Jean-Marc Vallée, because nothing he ever does is literal.
I read the book, but the minute we started shooting, Jean-Marc was like, “This is going to be almost a dream state that we’re in all the time.” So I know who did it, and I know how the story ends, but that’s not the way we’re really telling the story. It’s not like point A, point B, point C. It’s sort of like start at A, go to F, go to E, go to C.
Is it different working with him than other directors?
Completely different, to the point where at first you’re thrown by his approach because there is no blocking, there is no rehearsals, there are no lights. There’s no beginning, middle, end to a scene. It’s so organic that you don’t even — you never know where his camera is going to be, and it’s all from Camille’s memory. All of a sudden, there was a beetle on the ground, and that’s what [Camille] remembered. So if there was a beetle suddenly in the middle of the scene, that’s what he was shooting. And he knew exactly how he was going to edit this, and it’s meticulous.
You have to give into that style, which is brand new. There wasn’t one actor on the show who knew how to do that, so there was a great deal of trust. We all just had to hold hands and jump into the water. And we did.
To use the example you just gave, let’s say he starts shooting a beetle. Do you still continue doing the scene?
Absolutely. He’ll come back to you at any moment — and he’ll also go back and get what you were doing when he was shooting the beetle. Or he’ll find a spider, or he’ll find a word, and it’s all threads of a narrative. He knew what words he wanted. He knew when he wanted them. Some of the words were already scratched into Camille, so if we found them, they were a moment of art. Like I said, as an actor, at first it feels very disconcerting, but once you get into his storytelling, it becomes a freedom because you know that you’re all on this strange, dream-like journey.
It sounds like it’s improvisatory, but also very planned at the same time.
Exactly. He very much responds to his environment, and he picked specific environments to create that. There are no happy surprises. If it presents itself in the moment, it was supposed to be there. If somebody trips over a log or something like that, that’s supposed to happen. And so, there really is an artistic quality to it unlike anything I’ve ever done.
Does that make you feel like, “I don’t have to be quote-unquote ‘perfect’ because whatever I’m doing is just the way it’s supposed to be?”
Exactly. And that’s why he didn’t like rehearsal. He wanted to see what was just going to happen. For him, that’s part of the experience. At the same time, he’s weaving together a story and he knows exactly what he’s doing. So he would sometimes wait until you got to the place that he wanted you to be because of the elements that are presenting themselves. All the sweat stains are real, and that was important for him to have this environment that was true. Nothing about this is false.
When you do the one-on-ones, say, me and Chris Messina in a bar, he just said, “Come in and sit wherever you want. And Chris, you come in and sit wherever you want. Everybody just do what they want, and let’s see what happens.” Usually, that’s a take he ended up using — the one that was purely organic.
You have a very big scene in Sunday’s episode, where Camille finally asks Jackie what she knows about Adora. How was that to film?
Purely organic. The only thing I knew was that I was drinking and that I had a box of pills. Everything else just fell into place. [Camille] arrives, I bring her in, that was all we established. We didn’t even establish where we were going to sit.
What I love about that particular scene is, for Jackie, everything starts to make sense. You realize that Jackie is, just as everybody else in town is, medicating herself from a story she knows the truth about. I don’t think it’s ever going to be explained why Jackie does this, but with all of the ailments that she’s gone through — the fact that there’s a painting of herself over the fireplace. There’s no family, there’s no children, there’s no husband. And she can no longer contain this story. Either because of her own pain or for her love of Camille, she can’t contain this anymore. It’s like somebody finally pulled their finger out of the flooding dyke. But like I said, I don’t think it will ever be explained why Jackie has sat on this secret for as long as she has.
Did you figure that out for yourself, just for the purposes of the performance?
I think Camille is very much the child that Jackie never had. Adora’s life is the life that Jackie never had. And I think she was willing to sit on the story because of her friendship with Adora. But once Camille comes back, she can’t sit on it any longer. Once these girls die, she can’t sit on it any longer.
There’s a line in the book that says something about emotional blackmail. It implies that Adora has something on Jackie, but I don’t think it says what that is?
No, and we never explore that. There was talk of exploring that in season two. Who knows?
Wait, could there be a season two?
I thought they said there wouldn’t be one.
I can’t imagine there being one. But I think, in the long run, Jackie sits on it because she doesn’t have proof. She went for proof, she looked for proof. Adora’s too powerful. Adora can crush anybody. I love the metaphor of Adora owning the pig farm. The line from a few episodes back of, “Well, the pigs shit themselves because they know what’s going to happen to them.” Adora has that control over the whole town. I mean, even Gayla the housekeeper says, “Well, it’s either this or the pig farm.” That’s it. And so, even if she doesn’t have anything over Jackie, she has something over the entire town. That’s why they’re all drunk.
I was watching the scene again, actually, right before this, and there’s something you do that cracks me up.
Camille says something like, “You’ve always been really nice to me,” and you crack your knuckles as you smile at her. Was it in the script for you to do that or was that just you?
No, it was not. When she says, “I’ve had IBS, I’ve had this, I’ve had a hysterectomy” — Jackie’s falling apart and she has pain. I did that to just show that she was hurting. It was better than cracking my neck. That was just a way to show that she’s suffering. She’s taking a lot of opioids and there’s probably some benzos in there and some NSAIDs and many other things, and she’s washing it down with alcohol. But thank you, I do like to have a little bit of comic relief in everything I do.
For a half-second, it looked like Amy Adams smiled, like maybe she was going to laugh and then she kept going.
Well, Jackie is very much the only relief that’s sort of floating around the town in these brightly colored muumuus. She’s the only person in town who truly does love Camille and would be a safe harbor for her to run to, if she needed to. She says to Jackie early on, “You make me laugh. You’re the same old Jackie.” And the only time you really see Camille smile is when she sees Jackie at the funeral.
I think the show benefits so much from that. Jackie has more of a function than just being funny, but it’s a dark show, so having those moments is really helpful.
Yeah, I do too.
This scene ends on a pretty confrontational note. Camille storms out and Jackie’s still yelling, “I did what I could.” Whereas in the book, it ends more quietly and she basically tells her, “Get out of town.” When you did the scene, was it always going to end on that combative note?
That was the first choice, and that’s what we went with. I think originally, I ended up throwing a glass across the room. But [Vallée] stayed with Amy, because that’s what he does. It’s important that you stay with Camille while she goes to confront her mother. Jackie is so screwed up at that point on drugs that the minute Camille starts to get upset, she can’t handle it.
What about the sheriff? There’s that scene where you run into him at the gas station — the way that you talk to each other, it makes it sound like you both know what’s going on.
Well, I think Vickery has protected Adora just as much as Jackie has. You know, when Vickery shows up at the house to talk to Adora and Alan gets pissed off and they’re sitting on the couch, chummily drinking, and Adora says, “You know, I could have you fired.” That’s the emotional blackmail. It’s insinuated that there’s a closer relationship between Vickery and Adora than what you’re seeing now. These people go back decades together, and there could’ve at one time been some sort of relationship between Vickery and Adora. But in any event, she’s holding the purse strings.
I let Vickery know that I know that: “How’s our girl? Well, not that one, the other one.” Like, I know who you’re protecting. It was interesting because that was a shorter scene. It was just us passing each other and then we both just sort of stopped and looked at each other because we both know what’s going on.
Was the stuff at the gas station improvised?
No, it was written. But I think we held it longer because there’s a friendship there that’s gone on for decades and decades, and there’s an acknowledgment that we’re both sitting on the same information. Vickery’s sitting on the same information that Jackie is. Everybody is. Everybody knows that Adora had something to do with Marian. Nobody can prove it.
When Chris Messina’s character goes to the hospital and gets the records, my name is all over it. Obviously, Vickery had the same information. I don’t think it was something that I kept from Vickery. I’m sure he did the same investigating that Jackie O’Neill did. Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe he didn’t try hard enough. But in any event, Adora got away with it and that’s a testimony to her power.
After working with Jean-Marc, has it been challenging to go back to not working that way?
No, because I’ve been doing it so long. At the beginning, like the first week that you’re with Jean-Marc, you’re like, “I don’t know how to do this, I don’t know how to do this.” And then, he says, “Relax into it. Just try it. Just try it.” Once you relax into it, there’s an incredible freedom to it. But it was also really dangerous. There was something about it that was befitting to the mood, where nobody really knows what’s going on and nobody really knows who’s doing this [to these girls]. It set a tone of not knowing, and there’s something dangerous and very fragile about that. I’m definitely much more of like, “Tell me where to stand and where to look and I’m good.”
I didn’t come on board until the second week, and the first thing that Matt Craven — who’s one of my oldest, dearest friends — said to me was, “Okay, so this is how it works.” And I was like, “Oooh.” He goes, “Yeah, it’s pretty great.” I’d love to do it again. I don’t necessarily miss it, but I do love the freedom it affords you. Plus I was in muumuus and drinking. It was fantastic. Who doesn’t want to wear a muumuu all the time?