“It’s been an unexpected and wild ride,” says Patricia Clarkson. “I find myself not really able to go anywhere right now.”
The Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actress is of course discussing her chilling turn as Adora, the suffocating matriarch of Sharp Objects. Throughout eight episodes, Clarkson has crafted one of the year’s most complex villains: a small-town socialite whose cocktail parties, big hats and floral dresses belie a certain blood-chilling menace.
Based on a novel by Gillian Flynn, created by Marti Noxon and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the HBO miniseries was billed as this summer’s Big Little Lies, perhaps owing to Vallée’s involvement and its star-studded, women-led cast. But it’s far darker than that: a Southern gothic nightmare exploring self-harm and the cycle of abuse.
At its center is Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), a St. Louis-based journalist whose body is blanketed by the scars of her past. When two young girls are murdered in her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, she’s dispatched by her editor to cover the story—and in the process, forced to confront her demons, including the biggest one of all: Adora.
“She’s probably the most present and fiercely intelligent character in that town, so she knows how to rule,” Clarkson says of Adora.
Adora suffers from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a mental disorder wherein she desires to keep her children—Camille, from her first marriage, and Amma (Eliza Scanlen), from her current one—sick in order to keep them close, and under her care. In the finale episode, she is fingered as the “Woman in White” who lured the two girls to the woods, bludgeoned them to death, and extracted their teeth—that is, until those three little words, delivered by Amma, change everything: Don’t tell mama.
The Daily Beast spoke with the lovely—and seemingly ageless—Patricia Clarkson about embodying Adora and that jaw-dropping finale.
You know, as a big Parks and Rec fan, Adora did remind me a bit of Tammy One, since she’s also a sorta-nurse, cold and utterly terrifying.
[Laughs] She’s terrifying. Tammy One is terrifying, yes. There are pieces of my former characters that have all merged into Adora, but in full, she’s really nothing like anything I’ve done before. The depth and breadth of this character in eight parts, the exploration, and the complicated persona and the façade—and the crumbling of the façade—was very demanding.
How difficult was it to keep up that façade? Because going into it, you know what the endgame is.
I did, but I had to keep it very much at bay. I really stayed in a very specific mindset. We pretty much shot in sequence as best as possible. Jean-Marc is an actor’s director and wants as much truth, which creates a very conducive environment to work in. He knew that for all of us to take this journey, we’d all end up in such vastly different places than we begin—but Adora in particular, because she has probably the most effective, and affecting, façade; this exterior that is meticulous, and well-crafted, and essential. So I had to, from the beginning, have a very specific mindset and demeanor. I was so exhausted at the end of the day because I need to have such good posture! But that was all essential—this certain carriage, and this demeanor, and the importance of her exterior.
Did you go back to your Louisiana roots and channel any society-types you grew up around?
There’s an element of that. You know, I grew up in Algiers—I was born and raised in New Orleans, and Algiers is a little Parish, so I grew up in the suburbs of New Orleans, very middle-class. But my grandmother, my father’s mother, had a very old, Southern demeanor. She was very progressive, thank god, and one of the most brilliant, intelligent women that I’ve known my entire life. She had this old-world charm yet was extremely open-minded as she aged, so I liken her to the best parts of Adora: the grace, the grandeur, the ease… the cocktail life. My grandmother loved highballs, and I still have her highball glasses. I love them. They’re from the ‘30s. She of course was not in any way this character, but she had elements in her, of course. But my life was the suburbs, so it wasn’t this life, though I certainly knew this life.
Not a lot of actors do in Hollywood, so you definitely have a unique perspective on this.
I think they have a false sense of them often that I see be played, because they’re much, much more complicated.
Right. This isn’t like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Oh god, no. Oh god. No, no, no. No, no, no. And I’m not even talking specifically about Adora, who is deeply complicated, is ill, and has many eccentricities, but I’m just talking about in general. To genuinely know these women is to see them reflected in the proper way, and that’s what aided me in this: I didn’t have to reach too far to play these women, and you don’t. You just have to know them. And they’re right there, and they’re not this extended caricature. They are some of the truest, assured, captivating women you’ll meet.
Before Sharp Objects, I wasn’t terribly familiar with Munchausen syndrome by proxy—this twisted desire to keep someone close to you ill so you can care for them. Many people are going to be introduced to this mental disorder by the show.
I was fascinated by it many, many years ago, just serendipitously, so I happened to know quite a bit about it when this project came along. I did some other research of my own that remains my own—I spoke with some people—but at the end of the day, Adora had to come from the deepest, darkest parts of me, and that’s what this part unfortunately required.
Do you think it’s a commentary on modern overparenting?
Well, it’s a very exaggerated portrayal of children that are coddled and wrapped in bubble wrap, to some extent—and a lot of that is Munchausen by proxy, as far as infantilizing children, exerting too much control, and keeping them forever in your need, emotionally and then ultimately physically, and weakened to the point where they can’t leave you physically. Munchausen by proxy can often just be psychological, but in Adora’s case it’s physical, too. The most difficult part of Adora, for me, was the abuse of the children, because I had such genuine love for Amy [Adams] and Eliza [Scanlen] off-camera, which aided me in ways that are hard to explain, but then the pulling-in of them and keeping them too close was quite disconcerting.
I wanted to ask you about the last lines of Camille’s piece: “Men get to be warrior poets. What woman is described that way? Not Adora. Prosecution says my mother is a warrior martyr. If she was guilty, they argued, it was only of a very female sort of rage: overcare. Killing through kindness. It shouldn’t surprise me that Adora fell on that sword spectacularly.”
I think it’s quite beautiful, and powerful, and apt. It’s interesting that, in the end, she is poetic. And right.
There’s the big oh shit moment at the end of the episode with those three words: “Don’t tell mama.”
Don’t tell mama. It’s gorgeous, coming as a major surprise. I think it’s going to shock, because people genuinely believe that it is me, and that justice is served and I’ll be hauled off to prison. But Amma’s the murderer. Someone told me that I was part of this, and I was like, “Are you kidding me? Did you miss the story? That’s the whole point!” Adora had nothing to do with these killings, with the death of the two girls since her little daughter.
I found it a bit confusing, because in the mid-credits sequence we see in a flash Amma pulling the teeth out of one of the girl-victims’ mouths, but then we also appear to see a pair of women in white labcoats beside her, one of whom is a blonde that looks like Adora.
Right. But those three people are the children, not me! No, no, no. Oh my god.
I also briefly—very briefly—thought that, given how the floor of Amma’s dollhouse is lined with her victims’ teeth, there could be something sinister up with Adora’s “ivory” floor.
Yeah, that’s what she’s mimicking. But I’m not part of any of that, no. This is my child. This is what I gave birth to. But now I’m thinking, god, in that flash, I never thought of this. But those are the three girls. Well, if you thought that maybe other people are. I wonder if Jean-Marc realizes it. That’s why she says: “Don’t tell mama”—because she thinks I don’t know. Otherwise those words wouldn’t mean anything.
What were some of the toughest scenes for you to shoot? There’s of course one of the final scenes, where the jig is up and the sirens are flashing and Adora’s whole world—the façade, as you put it—is crashing down.
It crashes. And there was a scene of me being dragged out of the house physically that they cut! [Laughs] Probably a little bit went a long way. Those were all brutal scenes. The scene of me screaming for Amma on Calhoun Day was tough, too. There are lots of moments. With Adora, there was such a dark, deep and quiet rage and brutality to her that just took a toll on me. I never came back to New York for the five months we were shooting, so it was rough to be in that world, and that space. But far and away the most difficult were those scenes with Amy, like telling her I never loved her. They have to come out in such a way where… I don’t know if I could ever do that again. In that moment I just found something where I could enter this world and kind of lose myself. Another good friend of mine said, “Patty, I just don’t recognize you.” And I said, “That’s a good thing! Thank god!” [Laughs]
Adora’s relationships with men are very interesting. That sequence where you bring Chris Messina’s detective on the house tour was distressing because the audience is thinking, “Oh no… don’t do it.”
Oh, yes. If you think about that scene, we shot it with one camera up and down these stairs, and at first we did it in one take—four and a half minutes. Jean-Marc just said, “Talk about the house, talk about the wallpaper…” So we go up the stairs, and you think it’s this seduction of my daughter’s man, yet it ends in one of the more tender moments I have, where I look at him in the hallway and I say, “She’s a rare rose, but not without thorns.” These are scenes that were so beautifully written, and so many emotional levels are required from me and from Chris—and Chris Messina is such a beautiful actor, and such a man, and so I loved acting with him. When each new episode would appear, I’d always keep my fingers crossed that I’d have something to do with Chris.
Adora has this power over men, and she knows it—especially with the chief of police, who is very much under her thumb.
Matt Craven of course, like Chris, is such a dreamboat actor and a manly man—so perfect for that part. But so was Henry [Czerny]. These men all had to play the girlfriend part that we’ve played ad nauseum. They’d arrive and we’d be like, “Oh, the girlfriends are here.” [Laughs] But they’re three truly stunning actors, and this piece so benefitted from having these remarkable actors in these parts, and fleshing out these parts.
You’re not quite sure if Adora’s always kept men at arm’s length, or if it’s due to her illness.
I think this is a woman who’s had a catastrophic childhood. It’s generational abuse, and it’s cyclical. So she goes from a deeply-abusive mother to a deeply-abusive husband, with Camille’s father, and then she meets this rather perfect man in her eyes, but then what catches up to her is her childhood abuse, so she can’t even escape it by marrying a very good man.
On a much lighter note, on Parks and Rec I think Tammy One also maybe had Munchausen syndrome by proxy with Ron Swanson, to a degree.
Because there’s that line where she says, “I knew you the minute you were born. I intend to be there the minute you die.”
Oh my god, yes. Maybe all of this was just preparation for Adora. [Laughs]
You play a cop in Out of Blue, which is premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival. Going from Adora to a cop must have been a tough transition.
And I had a month to turn around. It was a brutal transition for me. I took those nails off, got home to New York and had to just get back to my life here, and get into another transition to go on to play Detective Mike Hoolihan. It’s based on this famous Martin Amis book, Night Train, about a female detective, it’s by this great female director, Carol Morley, and we set it in New Orleans, so it was one of the more radical shifts I’ve had to make in my career, from Adora to Mike. They say what’s in a name, and it’s exactly right there. [Laughs] I’m quite thin, so I had to lose Adora’s curves and rhythm and all of my adornments, and that all probably comes a bit closer to me than the masculinity of Mike, but as actors we must always be masculine and feminine at all times. I had to use another side of myself.