Awards Daily Talks to Chris Messina of HBO’s Sharp Objects about his career in supporting roles, working with a team of women, and how his character would react to that big, final reveal.
Chris Messina is comfortable working with women, with a resume filled with strong turns opposite dynamic leading ladies. Maybe it’s because he’s made a career out of memorable supporting roles, in parts that women are often known for.
In his recent supporting role on HBO’s Sharp Objects, Messina plays Richard Willis, a detective trying to piece together clues to the murders of two adolescent girls. While on the case, he meets Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), a reporter with her own past connected to the murders and the town.
I had a chance to speak with Messina about his work on the HBO limited series, including his character’s motivations, how the series usurps traditional gender roles in pop culture, and what it’s like to be the only man in the room.
If you haven’t finished Sharp Objects, quit reading, as there are spoilers ahead!
Awards Daily: Detective Richard Willis seems to have been around Wind Gap for a while before Camille shows up. What do you think his life has been like before she comes into town?
Chris Messina: I always imagined that character having his own struggles, maybe not as dark as Camille’s, but his own heartbreak and pain from his past. One of the things that could attract them to each other is a loneliness. Besides her being an intelligent, attractive woman, there’s also some kind of connection of heartbreak, not on the same level as Camille’s, but that was important to me. Even though you don’t hear about it on the show, I definitely was thinking about that.
AD: You totally get that from him. I even see him as someone who maybe had a bad high school experience, not similar to Camille’s, but he has a past that he doesn’t want to revisit like her.
CM: That’s cool. Yeah, definitely somewhere along the lines something wasn’t quite right.
AD: You’re one of the sole men in a very dark story. Usually a supporting role like yours is reserved for a woman. And you’re also the only character to do frontal nudity. Did this role make you consider how women are usually treated on television and in pop culture, based on your own experience?
CM: Yeah, I guess it did in ways. I often have that role in my career, so I’m often the support. So I’ve thought about that a lot, not only just with this character, but if you trace back some of my roles. It tends to be a lot of “girlfriend” parts, they call them. Even with Amy [Adams] in Julie & Julia. The supporting sidekick thing. It’s a great thing to do when you get to work with great people and support great people like Amy. Being with Amy and Patti [Clarkson], there was all this electricity coming off them because they’re phenomenal actresses. Also, their parts were electric, so on any good day, I would be electrocuted, but I didn’t have that kind of stuff pumping through me, but if I was lucky, it hit me. As any actor would say, to have a part that’s meaty and complicated and vast is the dream, man or woman. You want the most you can chew. The most dangerous and exciting. And when you ask what have you learned from playing this kind of role, I continue to learn from all of [these women] now only about acting, but the way they handle themselves on set. Their professionalism and strength. I feel very fortunate.
AD: You add to that electricity. I loved your character more in the series than the book. Which is something I wanted to ask you about. Your character is more macho-man-ish in the book. Was that something that you talked about with Jean-Marc Vallee? Did you want to make the character a little different from the novel?
CM: We did, but it started to become apparent in the scripts they were writing that they were fleshing him out more. It started to naturally happen. We’ve seen a lot of those tough-guy cops. I wanted to make that character, where I could, as vulnerable as possible. I don’t know how it came across, but I thought he wanted to move ahead in his career, and this was a big opportunity for him, but he also was really starting to care in a deep way about Camille, and that was important, rather than just use her. It starts one way, in a flirtatious tit-for-tat, but by the end, he’s surprised how much he actually cares. Maybe it’s a surprise to Camille or the audience, but it’s definitely a surprise to Richard.
AD: Speaking of emotions, I think it’s interesting that Richard, nor anyone really, ever suspects Amma (Eliza Scanlen) of wrongdoing, despite showing no emotion about the death of her classmates, but John Keene (Taylor John Smith) is a suspect because he’s emotional. How do you think this series overthrows traditional gender roles in television?
CM: At the forefront, there are just these incredible women. Gillian [Flynn], Marti [Noxon], and Jessica Rhoades our producer, and then Amy and Patti. It’s about time and it’s such a great time that there are so many more stories [for women]. I just saw Widows the other night, and I was psyched to see that. It’s just nice to turn all of this on its head, where you normally see Amy’s character would be a guy brooding around. It was great to be involved in a story that was about women. Even though these women are broken with some brutal stuff in it, it’s about a family and about what you hand down, being told through the eyes of this really sensational, intelligent woman. And it all starts with Gillian. I never read a book so fast, I’m a very slow reader. She’s such a beautiful writer. I’m very proud to be part of it, and I’m very proud in my career I’ve gotten to support a lot of great women. Amy now twice, Nora Ephron, Mindy Kaling, Vicky Cristina Barcelona with Rebecca Hall. Just great women. I’ve learned from all of them.
AD: He’s so interested in Camille throughout the series, but they don’t end up together. What do you think puts him over the edge when it comes to disassociating himself with her: her scars, her association with the main suspect, or something else? He looks repulsed in the scene where he discovers her scars.
CM: I think it’s all of the above. The fact that in a typical man kind of way, he feels like he can save her and comfort her. I think he’s probably somebody a little bit in love with that feeling, in an ego kind of way. She needs me and I can do this. And I think he sees that it’s way bigger and deeper than he can possibly comprehend or handle. Even looking at Amy in the makeup scars was hard to look at, to be honest with you. Obviously that would play a role, but I think that her internal scars are way too vast for him to handle. I do think that in the last scene they have together in the hospital, I think he is genuinely sorry for everything she’s been through and for what he had said to her and the way he behaved and sorry that it didn’t work out because he genuinely started to open up his heart to her.
AD: Given the success of Big Little Lies which started as a limited series, everyone wants to know if Sharp Objects could get a second season. Would you like to revisit Richard Willis?
CM: Yeah, I love this character. What I really liked about this character is that, maybe a little bit different from the book, he wasn’t good or bad, but kinda grey. I think everyone’s like that in Gillian’s world. He was trying to do the right thing in all the wrong ways. Like Detective 101, don’t give information to the lead reporter, and yet he’s sleeping with her, drinking with her, falling in love with her. I liked that. I liked that compared to other characters I’ve played, one person could think he’s an ass, another person could think he’s trying, another person could really like him. We’re all like that as human beings. We’re all just trying our best and we make mistakes. Yeah, I’d love to revisit him. I don’t know how he’d fit into another story. I don’t know if that’s something they’re thinking about. I always just thought it was the book and that was it. Although as an actor it’s always nice to have work, as you probably heard from many actors, every time you work, it feels like the last time you’ll ever get to do this.
AD: I know that feeling as a writer!
CM: You’re like, “This will be my last piece!” And it feels that way often and then all of the sudden the phone rings. That’s probably what’s so exciting about what we do—you never know what tomorrow will bring.
AD: If there’s not a second season, how do you envision your character reacting to the knowledge that the killer he was looking for was a group of teenage girls, under his nose the whole time?
CM: Well, I think he’d probably be partly embarrassed that he didn’t solve it correctly. Maybe he’d feel like, “I was close—I was in the house!” I guess he’d feel incomplete in his mission. I’m guesstimating here, but maybe he would feel happy just to get to revisit with Camille and be around her, and that would make up for his error.
Sharp Objects is available on HBO and HBOGo.