Eliza Scanlen was moving at a mile a minute, that is, until she wasn’t. Like everyone else, the pandemic interrupted Scanlen’s everyday life, though at that point, her everyday life was a Broadway run in Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird,a run that was suddenly cut short when the production had to be shut down. In the interim before the world returns to some kind of normalcy, Scanlen is spending her newfound free time back home in Australia. “I’m just taking this time to reset and rejuvenate,” she says. “I think I’ve been in a deficit of sleep for quite some time now so I’m trying to catch up on that.”
Even then, you still can’t help but wait impatiently for Scanlen to return to screens again. She’s an elastic actress, capable of fitting perfectly within any role that’s thrown her way. In her breakout turn as the troubled Amma in Sharp Objects, Scanlen bristled with a quiet terror and achieved the unimaginable by outshining Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson. For her next feat of magic, she reinvigorated Beth March in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, adding new layers of complexity to a character we thought we already knew.
But it’s in Babyteeth that you can find Scanlen’s best role yet. As Milla, a terminally ill teen who falls in love with a rat-tailed screw-up, Scanlen rips up the coming-of-age rulebook with enraged exuberance and a knowing wink to the audience. Scanlen describes her character as living in flux, and you could say the same about the actress, who reinvents herself and defies expectations with every role. Since Scanlen is only at the beginning of a hopefully long career, you just can’t wait to see what surprise she unveils next.
Calling through Zoom from her home in Australia, Scanlen recalls the challenges of her first leading role, avoiding cancer drama cliches, and how Breaking the Waves inspired her.
Babyteeth is your first major leading role. Was that a daunting prospect or were you ready for a challenge like that?
It was incredibly daunting, but I remember when I found out that I had the role, the idea of doing something of that capacity in Australia felt really comforting to me. And I think I’ve been lucky in this industry. I think in many circumstances I’ve really been swaddled, and I’m supported in huge challenges that I’ve faced. And whilst I feel at times I’ve been thrown into the deep end, it’s always been in a good way and I’ve always had people supporting me. So taking on this role definitely was scary but the idea of doing it back home and with my family and friends close felt like a really good transition into roles that are perhaps more challenging and more prominent in a story. I absolutely loved it and I think I grew a lot from this film so it’s very special to me.
Every new role you play is so radically different from the last—from the dangerous Amma in Sharp Objects to the quiet and reserved Beth in Little Women—and Milla is another great departure. Are you always looking to take on such varied characters?
It’s a tricky thing for actors. At times, you want to just jump at every opportunity, and other times we really want to be selective with the roles we pick. I’m of the belief that with every role you take on a little bit of it rubs off on you inevitably. I don’t think that’s necessarily a sustainable perspective to have, but I really do believe that, and everything your character goes through you have to go through too on some detached level. I think that when I played Amma, I was definitely challenged and it definitely made me a daring actor and it allowed me to take risks and feel confident in doing so. But recently I don’t think I have been playing as problematic of a character. So I think the next role I play I want to look for something a little bit more challenging and scary in that way. I think I’m still at that stage where I take anything I can get and there’s still so much to learn from every director and writer I work with. I’m just happy to be part of the picture.
You mentioned that you grew a lot from working on this film. What did you learn?
In the funniest, most lighthearted way, being on that set and playing Milla feels like a spiritual experience for me. Milla is such a vibrant character and she’s constantly in flux and that energy really rubbed off on me. She goes through things that only adults should really experience and she has to take a lot within a short period of time, and as a result I had to do that too. The film wasn’t going to work if I didn’t throw myself into it, and into the whirlwind of Milla’s life so that felt really prominent for me. It was five weeks of shooting and I was there every day, and I had never had that experience before on set. I had always been on a set for maybe three days a week and then the next week I’d be there for the whole week but it was never consistent. So I was able to develop a relationship with people and as a result I think that led me to some really interesting places in the film.
The film has this incredible playfulness with the eccentricity of the characters and the way that Milla breaks the fourth wall. Did you have any conversations with Shannon Murphy in terms of balancing that playfulness with the more somber side of the film?
There’s an irreverent quality to the film that I really gravitate towards and I think that’s a quality that Shannon and I both share as people. Shannon is opinionated, she’s strong minded, and she’s also hilarious and I think that’s an incredible combination and we really see that in the film. We had a lot of discussions about how Milla really led the film and how we were seeing this film through her eyes. One of the references that we had was Breaking The Waves by Lars Von Trier, and that was an inspiration for us for the use of the fourth wall to acknowledge the audience and remind them that Milla is always aware of a greater presence, which I think is a symbol of her otherworldly awareness as a result of coming face to face with the inevitability of death. That’s how I see it.
I was thinking about why Milla and Moses are so drawn to one another, and I think the obvious answer is that he ignites this rebellious side of her. But there’s also the possibility that she sees in him this lack of fear of death and a body as fallible and vulnerable as hers. When they first meet, he’s running towards a train and proudly showing off his scars to her.
That’s something I thought about too, actually. I definitely agree that Mila met Moses at a very vulnerable point in her life. She had just discovered the relapse of her cancer, she was on her way to get her hair cut at the hairdressers in preparation for chemotherapy. And it was reigniting a lot of emotional trauma that she experienced when she was 10 and first had cancer. And to suddenly be confronted by another human being who is so unafraid of death, and quite literally runs toward it was an incredibly life-changing perspective that she encountered and she wanted to be unafraid like him. In the back of her mind, he was also going to be the one who could help her leave the world if she needed to. The scene where Mila asks Moses if he could suffocate her, I think that’s always been in the back of her mind because she knows that her mother and her father would never do it and would never understand. And she knows that she couldn’t do it herself because she wants to live too much and her body is fighting to survive, but to have someone who is so unafraid of death, but loves her, yet is also detached enough from her family to commit an act like that—it was the perfect candidate. That’s definitely something she was thinking about too. In the beginning it was very much a transactional relationship and they miraculously became really close and really did love each other.
Films that broach the subject of terminal illness tend to have their cliches and pitfalls. How did you navigate that and avoid the weepy melodrama that similar films fall into?
We always said that it was a terrible pitch, and we would never pitch the film to anyone, we’d just get them to watch it. If someone were to tell you this story in a nutshell, you would have said that you’ve seen it before. I think that’s all attributed to the writer, Rita Kalnejais. It was all there in the script. We didn’t really have to do much to avoid the soppy melodrama that we so often see about cancer patients. In fact, with this film, I think there’s only one scene that is set in the hospital, and it doesn’t revolve around the sickness at all. It’s almost like Milla is running from the sickness and she’s doing everything she can to dissociate herself from that stigma or that identity that threatens to envelop her whole being, and she just refuses. And as a way of refusing it she just doesn’t acknowledge it at all which I think is a really triumphant character trait in Milla and it’s really enticing. Like I said earlier, she really leads this film and she marches to the beat of her own drum and I think that was Rita’s intention. She really let Milla own her story. I think it’s more than just the sickness, I think it’s about broken people and how broken people learn to be there for one another, despite the fixing that they have to do. I think it’s just a really beautiful story about family—an Australian family.
Babyteeth is an IFC Films release and lands on VOD Friday, June 19, 2020.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Iana was inspired to become a culture journalist at the tender age of 15 when she saw Kurt Hummel intern at Vogue in Glee and she never looked back. Since then, she has written for publications including GQ, i-D and Little White Lies among others. She writes about all things film and internet culture, which may explain her mild obsession with Call Me By Your Name. She also has a strong preference for films that make her cry, which definitely explains her mild obsession with Call Me By Your Name. When she’s not writing about movies, she’s tweeting too much at @ianamurray.