Little Women 's Eliza Scanlen was 'very scared' to take on the lead role in The Starling Girl
Eliza Scanlen was shocked to discover a Sunday drag brunch happening in the cafe of the Louisville apartment building she stayed in while filming her new movie, The Starling Girl.
"Very surprised — pleasantly surprised," she tells EW.
It's not a place you'd likely find her latest character, 17-year-old Jem, a fundamentalist Christian who at the beginning of the film is essentially shamed by the older women of her rural-Kentucky congregation and given a cover-up because the outline of her bra can be seen through her shirt.
Brian Lannin, Courtesy of Bleecker Street Eliza Scanlen in 'The Starling Girl'
Devout in her faith, which strictly upholds moral beliefs and doctrines as described in the Bible, Jem celebrates God through dance along with other young women in her church group. But she's also starting to feel out of place, and struggles with pressure from her family and community to conform to the life around her — she's barely allowed to make decisions for herself. And with the return of their youth pastor Owen (Top Gun: Maverick's Lewis Pullman), temptation tests her.
"I was very scared to play this role because it's a wild roller coaster that Jem goes on," Scanlen admits. "I didn't know if I could keep up, especially when it's an independent film and there's very little time to shoot and complete the scenes and develop a rapport with your cast and feel comfortable with the person you're being intimate with."
In other words, she doesn't pass that temptation test, getting caught up in a secret relationship with Owen, who's several years older than she is.
"It was definitely more of Lewis's responsibility to navigate that complexity because, for Jem, her intention is a constant: She desires Owen, but she's also vulnerable and naive, so she can't really see the power play that's occurring between her and Owen," Scanlen explains.
Brian Lannin, Courtesy of Bleecker Street Lewis Pullman and Eliza Scanlen in 'The Starling Girl'
Compelled to fit in, Jem also wonders — especially as she gets closer to Owen — if there is something more for her beyond her small town.
"It's the hero's journey, right? The hero believes they can suppress that and ignore it, but only for a while until it will start to eat away at them and they have no choice but to go out and find out what lies beyond," Scanlen says. "Jem tries with all her might to suppress these desires, but it reaches a breaking point and she has no choice but to forge her own path. And she couldn't have done that without it being destructive — there was no way of her getting out of this without a couple of mishaps."
Scanlen has mostly been part of ensembles in her previous projects, including Sharp Objects and Little Women, in which she played the ill-fated Beth March, but Starling Girl, from writer-director Laurel Parmet, is all about Scanlen — and she definitely "felt the responsibility" that comes with a lead role.
"Being in every scene of the film is something I've never done before, and that was quite the experience," she says, adding that Parmet's direction intentionally kept the focus on Jem to keep audiences engaged with her. "She wanted the film to have an immediacy that I think actually worked in my favor, with my being in every scene. I could only plan ahead so much because there were multiple scenes to do a day that were quite challenging. It forced me to take one step at a time and be in the moment a little more, because I would say I'm a bit of an overthinker. I learned a lot from the experience."
Brian Lannin, Courtesy of Bleecker Street Eliza Scanlen and Lewis Pullman in 'The Starling Girl'
But there's one thing she missed out on.
"I'm sad to say I didn't even have Kentucky Fried Chicken. It's almost offensive," Scanlen says, adding with a laugh, "Lewis just made eggs on toast every night for dinner. So it wasn't that enticing."
The Starling Girl is playing now in select theaters.
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