Photography Annabel Scanlen
Eliza Scanlen keeps getting sick. The actress, now 21, made an unforgettable American debut as Amy Adams’s psychopathic (and sickly) little sister in HBO’s miniseries Sharp Objects, and later joined the cast of Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women as Beth, a sweet ingénue who falls ill with scarlet fever.
When asked why she keeps getting cast as characters with illnesses, Scanlen responds with a laugh. “I don’t know! It’s very strange that I do play sick people. It’s not something that I see in a script and am dying—slip of the tongue—to do.”
Scanlen’s latest role runs true to form. In Babyteeth, she stars as the terminally ill teen Milla, who falls in love with a face-tattooed drug dealer in an attempt to pack as much life as she can into what little time she has left. While we may know how this story ends, director Shannon Murphy gets us there in an entirely new way, and Scanlen’s nuanced performance as Milla further cements her as Hollywood’s next big thing. “I like to describe [Milla] as a supernova that is about to explode. Just because she is about to disappear and pass away doesn’t mean she isn’t going to go with a bang,” Scanlen says. “That’s something I love about the film. This character doesn’t waste away. Instead, she soars.”
We caught up with Scanlen at home in Australia to talk Babyteeth, sisterly relationships, and mukbangs.
L'Officiel: You and your sister, Annabel, collaborated on this shoot for us. Did you collaborate creatively as kids?
Eliza Scanlen: Oh yeah, for sure. Some of my most fond memories are of creating something together, whether it’s a drawing or a play or an imaginary world in our childhood backyard. I was actually looking back at childhood photos and videos a few days ago ... and I was constantly filming things, and I could hear my voice in the background always saying something along the lines of ‘Oh, this looks like a movie! If you look that way, it looks like a movie!’ Annabel has always been my guinea pig, so I think it’s obviously very fitting that I do what I do now.
LO: Sisterhood is a major theme within a few of your projects, like Sharp Objects and Little Women. What does sisterhood mean to you and why do you think it’s such a powerful relationship?
ES: I think sisterhood means understanding. While you might not agree with your sister, you will always try to understand them, and I think that is the real testament to a relationship. That’s why my really close friends I treat like sisters because I don’t want to lose that bond. I think sisterhood is something so special. You see in Little Women that they’re constantly fighting and bickering, but then the next moment they can all be curled up together. It’s the same thing you see in Sharp Objects. I guess the turbulent nature of that is what makes it so strong, and I see that with my sister and I. It’s really, really special and I don’t think I would be anywhere near who I am today without her.
LO: Your character in Babyteeth, Milla, is doomed from the start of the film. Despite that, she never really comes across as a weak person. What did you do to get into her headspace and play into that dichotomy?
ES: I think I have a bit of that in myself. I can be quite an emotional person and I think about things deeply, but my outer surface is very much not that. A big part of dropping into a character like Milla was the physical transformation. Shaving my head was extremely helpful in taking me to that place, and I didn’t quite expect how moving and transformational it was going to be. At that point I had prepared for the shock of it, but what I didn’t prepare for was the attention I got when I stepped outside my house. People just stare at you ... and then there’s the other side of the spectrum where people don’t want to look at you at all. I was kind of moved by how isolating it can be.
LO: You recently wrote and directed a short film about mukbangs, which are videos people film of themselves binge eating for an audience. What is it about that phenomenon that made you want to explore it more deeply?
ES: Mukbangs, for me, were a perfect metaphor for social media today, specifically how young people interact with it, and how they present themselves on social media platforms. I see it as a kind of sickness in a way. I realized there was this strange parallel between pornography and mukbangs, and they both shared this detached intimacy that I think pose the same threat...this feeling like you’re connecting with a person through a screen that distorts connection in a similar way. I wanted to make a statement on how we can accept the reality of internet culture and what it’s doing to our way of connecting, but also rise above it and try and find the authenticity in real-life connection.
LO: What was it like to step behind the camera instead of being in front of it?
ES: I really enjoyed it, and I look back on the experience now with so many fond memories, but it was incredibly stressful too! I was wearing many hats in pre-production but once it came to filming I felt like I was in my element, and I was surrounded by people I adored. Everyone on that set was a friend. What I realized when I was directing is that I’m very much reliant on other people’s opinions. I don’t usually like being the loudest person in the room, but that was something people were asking from me, obviously, as the director...initially I felt quite uncomfortable. As an actor you’re quite confined to the group of actors working on the set, and a lot of the time you just have to sit still and not touch anything and not break anything, so it was weird to have people ask me my opinions. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s how some directors get God complexes, of course!'