What distinguishes this seductive, deceptive thriller?
Seduction, greed, deceit and jealousy are hot buzzwords for film and television, however sharper (on Apple TV+ on February 17) starring Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith, Briana Middleton and John Lithgow uses multiple angles to navigate the twists and turns of this thriller.
sharperwritten by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka, and directed by Benjamin Caron (Andor, The crown), takes you to New York City. It begins with a sweet encounter in which bookstore owner Tom (Smith) meets graduate student Sandra (Middleton). Without giving too much away, a core element of this story is that no one and nothing is as it first seems. Jumping between different points in time, telling the story from the perspective of different characters, sharper wants to keep you on your toes as more characters are added to this cheating story.
“I think what makes this film different is that it’s perspective based,” Smith said Yahoo Canada. “So we’re highlighting the reasons a character does what they do, and I think with that framing device, the audience can decide for themselves who’s the protagonist and who’s the antagonist.”
“We only objectively present what someone’s actions are and what their justification for those actions is, and allow the audience to project their feelings onto these characters. I guess that’s how life works. It is uncut and dry. People are complicated and good people are capable of terrible things and terrible people are capable of good things. I think this film is a really good representation of humanity in that respect.”
Money can’t buy happiness
For Smith when it came to playing Tom sharperhe had a personal perspective on the space the character inhabits in society.
“Tom is a melancholic guy and that stems from his relationship with money and the stage he was born into,” Smith said. “Growing up, I’d noticed that I was surrounded by some kids who were rich and who also felt a similar emptiness inside, especially because of… their family, the money their family came from.”
“I was so interested in researching this. Like why someone with so much inside would feel so little. We often associate money with happiness, even if we don’t like doing it. But I think there’s a really dark side to money and the way it can affect our minds and our relationships. Tom was sort of a representation of that.”
While the concept of Tom’s character sounds familiar, many movies and TV shows touch on the fact that money, wealth, and class don’t necessarily equate to happiness, but it is the journey sharper considers each character’s quest for what they believe to be happiness or success, which adds an element of dimension to the narrative. It’s this elaboration of this story that also drew Smith to the role.
“As a young actor, it’s really easy to relate, and Tom is a role that has … similar aspects to roles I’ve played before, a character desperate for love and connection,” Smith said. “I knew Tom would be my wheelhouse… but exactly why I wanted to do that sharper was because I knew the story in general was something I didn’t have [ever read].”
For Middleton to create the character of Sandra, who also acts as a sort of liaison between several of the characters in sharperthe actress emphasized that she keeps reminding herself that “people can surprise you”.
“I think the fact that we were already seeing such complexity in the character made it easier to relate to her, like looking at myself and the way I kind of contradict myself within a day,” he said Middleton.
“It’s about decisions. The decision to deceive, and then what decisions you make after the deception. One of the things that I find really beautiful [Sandra] and what’s interesting about her is that she makes decisions. These things don’t just happen to her.”
“I was intimidated by her at first”
Without spoiling how deep the deception runs in this story, we’re going to say that for a significant part of this story to work, you need to engage with Tom and Sandra’s relationship and feel invested in the development of that relationship. Smith emphasized that there were “sparks” between him and Middleton that happened fairly easily, but he was also “intimidated” by his co-stars’ talent.
“[Benjamin Caron created] an environment where we had so much freedom to massage the language to suit our bodies, or to improvise, or just to exist and to find out what sparks came from me and Briana, to just exist in a room together.” said Smith. “I think me and Briana had a semi-instant connection when we first met.”
“At first I was intimidated by her because she is so professional and so talented. … We hung out a lot off set and I think we built a certain level of trust in each other. … Any great actor can take a tiny, short-lived bond between himself and another actor and magnify it into some sort of intimacy for the sake of the film, and Briana was incredibly gifted at that.”
Middleton echoed Smith’s comments, saying the pair “really didn’t have to work that hard” to create a connection that worked for these characters.
“It doesn’t always happen. … I’m really happy he was,” she said.
Julianne Moore is a ‘nurturing, powerful, bad presence’
Julianne Moore is not just part of this cast ensemble sharper but she’s also executive producer on the film, and her co-stars have lauded her talent.
“She’s such a force and such a warm, caring, powerful, evil presence on set,” Middleton said.
“She creates a character right before your eyes, she’s not afraid to try new things and explore options,” Smith added. “It’s also incredibly reassuring, she told me I’m doing a good job when I felt like I was doing a good job, which you don’t always hear.”
“When you’re in a scene with Julie you don’t really have to prepare, you just have to react to what you get, and that was such a stroke of luck. Movies can be quite technical and when you have a huge camera in your face it’s quite difficult to focus on the actual relationship between two characters. But acting with her felt like theater. We both fully believed what we said to each other.”
“People can surprise you”
For both Smith and Middleton, as the stakes are raised throughout the story (leading to a tense ending), navigating those twists and turns required capitalizing on the “sincerity” of the moment and the characters.
“There’s a lot about duality in this movie, and to explore that duality there are characters who don’t necessarily believe what they say, but the audience needs to believe what they say,” Smith explained.
“The key is to just play the sincerity of the moment, because you want the audience to go on that ride with you. So you play like a different character every day, because you can’t play the end at the beginning, you just have to be present in every moment.”
Middleton realized the key to “playing sincerity” was not “complicating” the moments.
“These characters have so many layers and there can be so many layers that you think about in a performance,” Middleton said otherwise.
“It was just trying to keep it as simple and honest as possible. Let everyone else fill it in.”
As the film releases on Friday, Middleton stressed that she hopes the public will be reminded that “people can surprise you.”
“The moment you label someone as something, after seeing them on screen for 20 minutes or talking to them for 20 minutes, you think you know who they are, they may totally disagree with that.” , she said.
“That’s just how we are and if we forget that, I think our humanity is denied.”