Eliza Scanlen: Older Owen represents possibility to sheltered teen Jem in ‘Starling Girl’


Lewis Pullman and Eliza Scanlen's film "The Starling Girl" is now on DVD and video-on-demand platforms. Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street

Lewis Pullman and Eliza Scanlen’s film “The Starling Girl” is now on DVD and video-on-demand platforms. Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street

NEW YORK, July 12 (UPI) — Sharp Objects and Little Women actress Eliza Scanlen says Jem, the 17-year-old Christian fundamentalist she plays in the film, The Starling Girl, is a “fiery spirit” intrigued by the air of possibility her new youth pastor Owen represents.

“He’s just come back from Costa Rica. He’s witnessed new, different ways of expressing faith, different conceptions of God, different ways of living with God, and that is exciting to Jem,” Scanlen told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.

Owen’s unorthodox ways of practicing his faith resulted in him being ostracized from their Kentucky community, but Scanlen said Jem, who has never been away from home, considers herself an outsider, as well.

“She feels excluded from her friendship group and her greatest joy, which is dancing, is tempered by this worry that her actions are sinful and her love for dancing is getting in the way of her relationship with God,” Scanlen added. “She feels alone in that struggle and finds a friend in Owen.”

Jem’s process of falling in love with Owen (Lewis Pullman) — a man more than a decade her senior — afforded Scanlen the chance to play myriad emotions over the course of the film, which is available on DVD, Blu-ray and video-on-demand platforms.

“It was such an exciting read, but I knew it would be a great challenge to navigate. That challenge as an actor was something really enticing to me at the time,” she said.

Outer Range and Top Gun: Maverick actor Pullman was drawn to Owen because of how filmmaker Laurel Parmet infused the character with empathy and realism.

“She was very well-aware that if he was an unlikable person, the story wouldn’t work,” Pullman said. “There would be no room to really learn from his mistakes if he was an entirely Machiavellian, nasty guy.”

Owen initially sees Jem as a “comrade in arms,” according to Pullman.

“They are feeling a little alienated in their community and, so, for Owen to have somebody who hears his ideas and to have his ideas not met with shame, but with excitement and possibility, is what initially really attracts him to Jem,” the actor said. “There is a lot of fantasy that snowballs after that.”

Before the cameras started rolling, the actors had a week of rehearsals during which they established trust and a common language that made it easier to execute emotionally intense moments.

“We got to explore these scenes completely judgment-free and explore every version of them possible, so we could kind of feel — with the safety of Laurel guiding us and herding us and giving us kind of a corral — how far do some of these scenes go?” Pullman said.

“It felt like, by the time we went to shoot it, we’d already been to these places before, so it was familiar territory.”

Parmet said she set out to make a film that explores “empowerment and abuse and faith and the complexities of sexual agency.”

“But it’s ultimately about searching for a sense of self in the face of all the expectations that the world places on us and really the dangers and the freedoms that searching can bring,” she added.

Parmet said she was in a similar relationship with an older man when she was a teen, but didn’t see herself as a victim at the time. However, she said, she felt uneasy about it years later.

It wasn’t until she spent time with women at a patriarchal church when she was researching another film project that she began examining more closely her feelings about the inappropriate romance.

“It was a critical turning point for me because it made me aware of this guilt that I had had,” she said.

“Women were taught to be ashamed of their desires, and I saw the similarities of those attitudes in the way that I grew up,” the filmmaker added. “Sexual shame and seeking approval from men are these universal experiences for women.”

Scanlen and Pullman said they think viewers will connect to the story at the heart of The Starling Girl, which demonstrates how religion can be healing or toxic, depending on how it is taught and practiced.

“There are certainly more controlling or restrictive denominations of Christianity,” Scanlen said.

“Religion, as an institution, can be corrosive. We see that in the media all the time, but I think it was a priority for Laurel to also illustrate religion as something really beautiful and [how] your relationship to God and faith can be one of the most important relationships of your life.”

Pullman agreed.

“I can’t really add anything to that. That was pretty damn well said right there,” he added.

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