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‘Sharp Objects’: Chris Messina on Richard’s ‘Broken Heart’ and the Moment He Lost Control

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Falling,” the penultimate episode of “Sharp Objects.”

The characters in “Sharp Objects” are all hiding secrets, some deeper than others. For Chris Messina, the idea of “having a secret in every scene” was integral to his portrayal of Detective Richard Willis, the outsider sent to Wind Gap. Mo. to investigate the disappearance and subsequent murder of two teenage girls.

“You don’t find out all that much about Richard — he’s holding his cards close to his vest,” Messina explains. “He is getting way too close to the lead reporter, which is Detective 101 in what not to do, but he is also showing some [restraint], and little by little you see in the behavior of Richard these secrets reveal themselves.”

As Richard’s time in Wind Gap went on, he should have been getting to the bottom of the case, but his complicated feelings for Camille (Amy Adams) caused lines to blur.

“I don’t think until episode 7 he’s quite even aware of how deep he’s gone,” Messina says. “He’s gone off the beaten path of the investigation and really headstrong into the investigation of Camille.”

Here, Messina talks with Variety about Richard’s backstory, Camille’s betrayal, and keeping the audience on his side.

What did you rely on most to understand Richard?

The book was terrific and very cinematic. There were great descriptions of Richard, and it was clear to me what the task was in playing him just from the source material. And then the scripts, they started to flesh out and explore all of these characters in a more vast way, so I started to get a lot from the scripts we were given. But at the end of the day, there’s only so much about him in the books and in the scripts, really, so it was important for me to create a backstory and a world which could even complicate things more for him. I really felt like he was the flip side of the coin that Camille was on. He understands pain and had his own share of it — maybe not the same extent or the same level that Camille’s had at the moment, but it was important to me that he came to this town with a broken heart and that he was leading with that in getting to know Camille and in wanting attention or wanting to be seen or heard.

Do you feel like Richard’s past pain is why he connects so quickly with Camille, rather than he wants to get close to her to learn the secrets of her family?

I think it’s a little bit of all of it, as least when I was playing it. It was “I’m an outsider here, you’ve made yourself an outsider here. Nobody’s talking to me, nobody wants me here, and you’re giving me the time of day.” [That] combined with she’s very attractive and very smart and has this edge that [he’s] interested in, combined with a kind of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” manipulation. And then that starts turning and building, and that gets ahead of Richard, and he’s not in control.

Do you feel he’s allowed his feelings for her to color the way he reacts and responds to news about her mother’s disease or even the way he arrests John Keene?

It’s that blurred line of trying to solve the case and make a step forward as a detective to prove himself, and also his heart is now involved. And so, all of the stuff he’s finding out is complicated because it’s tying into Camille and Camille is tying into it. He wants to share with her, and I think had things turned out differently, I think there was some kind of hope from Richard that they would begin to team up and work together. They were like this dynamic duo — they had this relationship growing romantically and they had this relationship growing as two people looking for the truth of the town. I think had he not kicked down the motel door and seen her with Keene and her clothes off, he would have tried to continue [with her] and do it in the most delicate way possible. It sort of broke for her and then broke for him.

The confrontation with Camille after the arrest is the most emotional we’ve seen Richard. 

When I find her in the motel, there were lines in an early draft that were something along the lines of “How stupid am I?” He was really mad at himself. There’s still a line there [about] “I should have slept with [the suspect],” but there was more along the lines of how angry he was that he let himself get wrapped up — how stupid he felt, how embarrassed he felt. And all of that was really informing to me.

At what point were those lines cut? Was it just a matter of wanting to show something rather than say it?

A little bit of everything. The scripts came in and then they’d start tweaking things. And it was right because a lot of the stuff that was said was maybe more of his internal monologue and stuff that I could act with behavior. And then some was on the day as we were shooting and working through it — and then some even more so in editing. And not just that scene, it’s kind of just the way it goes. But that was definitely a scene, especially after so much investigation, where it was nice to have Richard kind of crash head-first.

Did having to play him restrained for so much of the time create any unique challenges for you as a performer?

I enjoyed it because there’s something about playing a detective that’s really helpful to the actor. Because your job is to listen as a detective and observe behavior, whether that be the color of her eyes to her body language. It’s really being in the moment and being present, and really, that’s the job of the actor, too. So it was fun to do because I often got to sit and take all of these great actors in — of course Amy and Patty [Clarkson] and Elizabeth Perkins and Matt Craven and all of them. I [had] front row seats to their excellence. I would take notes from all of them and will steal from them for the next project.

Does the fact that this project come with a closed end have an extra appeal for you at this point in your career?

I think the life, for a lot of us is like the Traveling Wilburys — it’s like we carry these trunks of capes and mustaches and wigs and we go into the next town, “OK what are we now? What do we get to play now?” There’s something really fun about that, so the idea of an eight-hour movie — it’s different from a two-hour movie where you’d barely get to know Richard. So to take all of these characters and flesh them out over eight hours and get to say goodbye to them is very appealing to me. On the flip side, I’m lucky to have work, so when I did “The Mindy Project” you knew you had a job, and you knew when it came to a close you were coming back for the last season, and that’s a beautiful thing and something I didn’t and don’t take for granted. But the adventure of feeling like you’ll never work again and what’s around the corner is kind of fun. And scary as hell.

And in knowing you have eight episodes to introduce Richard to the world and then say goodbye to him, what did you want to make sure you left the audience with before the end?

I didn’t want [the audience] to think he was just manipulating her, and I also didn’t want the audience to feel like he was just being manipulated and pieced along and really sucked into this relationship and didn’t keep his focus on work. … That backstory that I was talking about, there’s something to this guy trying to do his job as best as he could, and like many people in life, he couldn’t control his heart, he couldn’t control his feelings, he couldn’t control temptation, and he got confused. He f—ed up, but he was trying his best.

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