Eliza Scanlen likes dark places. She was a victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy who turned into a cunning serial killer in HBO’s “Sharp Objects;” the terminally ill Beth March in “Little Women,” and now can be seen as a teenage cancer patient in “Babyteeth.” At 21, Scanlen takes on characters who find transformative, sometimes sinister, power in affliction.
“I would probably be even more scared about doing a comedy,” she told IndieWire in a phone interview from her native Sydney, Australia. She earned notice for her supporting roles, but “Babyteeth” announces her position as a leading force who commands the screen in nearly every scene of director Shannon Murphy’s heartfelt coming-of-age tale that reinvents the maudlin cancer indie dramedy.
In “Babyteeth,” Scanlen is a young woman who must grapple with illness as well as the rush of first love with a drug-addicted crust punk (Toby Wallace). “I really changed as a person,” said Scanlen, who had to shave her head down to the scalp every day on set. “I realized how much we hide behind our hair and how much we associate it with our identity. To suddenly defy that and shave it all off was quite empowering.”
Shaving her head brought her a great deal of unsolicited attention in the real world. “Walking on the street, people would either look at me too long, or not want to look me in the eye. I’d get pats of sympathy on the shoulder by elderly women,” she said. “It’s crazy. I really did look like I was ill, but it was all this undeserved sympathy that I felt quite uncomfortable with in the beginning, but I quickly realized how important this was for the character.”
Murphy said Scanlen was the first person to audition for “Babyteeth,” but she didn’t cast her for a year. “She’s so unassuming,” Murphy said, “and then when she auditions for you, she’s so buried in what she does but it’s almost terrifying because you’re showing me all these different versions. I was going, ‘Who are you?’ When I circled back to her, it was because she could do everything. I knew together we’d be able to craft who Milla was because she’s so limitless in what she does. She’s also so intelligent for her age. She learned the violin in three weeks.”
Scanlen said that after HBO’s “Sharp Objects” and Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” she has the freedom to be choosy about her projects. “For a long time, I was hurling myself at every project that came my way, so I do still feel like it’s a bit of luxury to turn things down now,” she said. “That’s something I’m still not quite used to, but to have that autonomy and that sense of freedom has been nice. I feel like I’m very much in control of how I want my career to be shaped now.”
While she does have a top-secret M. Night Shyamalan movie currently scheduled for July 2021 (production hasn’t started), Scanlen said she’s not necessarily interested in a major tentpole. “I guess I’m a l little scared of those big franchises, and that’s something that with age I can probably handle a bit better,” she said. “For the moment, I’ve been enjoying playing characters that are obviously very meaty, but it’s a place where I feel like the weight of the project isn’t too much on me, and I’m still learning from other people.”
Why is a big franchise scarier than playing a bald cancer patient or a murderous Southern baby doll for Scanlen? “The job follows you once you do it, and that’s terrifying to take on. I don’t think my personality is as equipped as other actors I’ve met at that level of exposure.”
Scanlen recently had a brush with the perils of exposure when a short film she directed, the Sydney Film Festival award-winner “Mukbang,” was accused of appropriating Korean culture and showing triggering images of a violent attack on a young Black man. “I am so deeply sorry for creating a work that has caused offense,” Scanlen said on Instagram. I intended this film to be a young girl’s journey of self-discovery in the age of internet culture, and I failed to recognize how problematic this was. I take full responsibility for this.”
In the fall, Scanlen stars in writer/director Antonio Campos’ upcoming Netflix drama “The Devil All the Time,” based on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock about faith taken to terrifying extremes in post-World War II Ohio. (Think Flannery O’Connor meets William Faulkner meets Michael Haneke.) Scanlen plays Lenora, an orphan who falls for the new preacher in town, played by Robert Pattinson.
“This film is about the ways people struggle with their faith, and how they define faith for themselves and what it leads them to do. We see in this film very extreme depictions of this struggle,” Scanlen said. “It was only a 10-day shoot, but it was filled to the brim with really tricky scenes and a really tricky storyline to fill amongst other people’s storylines. It was definitely a test in stamina.”
Scanlen said playing Lenora was “incredibly challenging” because the characters are “really struggling with God and with their relationship with God. And it leads them to do things that they that they either regret or things they have to run from. And for my has quite a tragic journey. It wasn’t a particularly lighthearted character. She really struggled in this film and she becomes a victim of this dysfunctional relationship with God, unfortunately.”
Campos said Scanlen delivers. “Eliza is my favorite kind of actor. She has the ability to get deep into the character and go to dark places, but in between the hard work, she’s one of the funniest people to be on set with. I think that combination is what leads her to imbue her characters with so much humanity and heart.”
“Babyteeth” is currently available in virtual cinemas.