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‘Sharp Objects’ Star Patricia Clarkson on the Challenge of Playing a ‘Brutal’ Woman

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the premiere episode of “Sharp Objects,” which premiered on HBO July 8.

At a time when so many stories both in the news and the scripted space are focusing on how men can harm women, HBO’s limited series “Sharp Objects,” focuses on the damage women can do to each other. The series, which is based on Gillian Flynn’s novel, explores the trauma three generations of women of an affluent family have experienced due to mental illness.

“Some of the harshest times I’ve had in this business have been [with] women executives. Have I had a million men write me — producers, directors, co-stars — invite me to their hotel rooms? Of course, but there’s also been a harsh level coming from female executives,” star Patricia Clarkson tells Variety. “So I think on the whole women can be tough on other women in ways that men are not, in terms of judgment and certain characters. I think that’s just natural. I knew that when I took this part on. I knew it was going to be a very steep climb, but that’s part of the challenge.”

In “Sharp Objects,” Clarkson plays matriarch Adora Crellin, whose mental illness is clear from the start. As episodes go on, the extent of her issues in coping with trauma deepens, with tragic consequences.

“She’s deeply troubled, and clearly needed help and medication,” Clarkson says. “You have to realize this is a cyclical trauma, this generational trauma and pain that has led to three incredibly damaged women — a mother and two daughters.”

Clarkson says that with Adora, she finds “echoes” of one of her most intense characters, Blanche DuBois. In fact, after portraying Blanche in a 2004 Kennedy Center run of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Clarkson says it was a “a terrain I never really wanted to ever cross again.” But after receiving three scripts for the limited series, she was interested in exploring the “the duality” of Adora.

“She’s a difficult character…but I can come at her with light,” Clarkson recalls saying during initial conversations with producers about taking the role. “I think of her as beautiful and gracious and glamorous and a lovely person who loves her daughters and cares for her husband. I can come at it with all of the externals intact.”

Clarkson says that she had to “stay in a certain place, in a certain environment” during the months it took to film the eight-episode project. “I think if I would have let my guard down too much I would have went to a different place emotionally, physically,” she says, revealing she didn’t want to take Adora home with her.

While Clarkson admits that Adora is quite “harsh” towards her daughter Camille (Amy Adams), she doesn’t think of the character as “chilled” but rather “fraught.” And she points out there is an emotional subtext that reveals how “very, very difficult and traumatic” their relationship is for both women.

“This is a brutal woman, make no mistake, and I knew it from the get-go that I had to be strong enough to really just not care about what people thought about me,” Clarkson says. “But there is an underlying sadness and heartbreak underneath. … [Camille] has forsaken her in many, many, many, many ways and abandoned her and moved on and refused to be a part of her life.”

Clarkson feels it is important to tell stories of such damaged women without “softening” the edges in order to inspire understanding and perhaps even empathy.

“I think a lot of women also see in her what they want to see in her. Sometimes I find women are the hardest on her, are the most unforgiving of her, which I think is just as women we want women to be better and that is our natural inclination,” Clarkson says. “We’re so quick to judge and we don’t know the whole story. I look at people I’ve judged before and then truths have been revealed, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, what was I thinking?’ And that’s human nature — we’ve all judged people unfairly.”

“Sharp Objects” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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