Mockingbird is in fact only her second professional stage role, following Lord of the Flies at the Sydney Theatre Company in the middle of the year, and Scanlen admits she’s still learning the tricks of the trade – including how to turn on the tears at will.
“There are some nights when I have to push a little harder to get there, other nights where it comes naturally, and other nights where no matter what you do you you’ll never get to that state so you just have to fake your way through it,” she says with a laugh. “I’m still young, and I still have a lot to learn.”
Being in the one show for six months, acting alongside the likes of Ed Harris (who plays Atticus Finch), is the best sort of schooling she could get right now. “To have that routine, that normality, to my life, has been really useful. It has given me room to grow.”
Scanlen, who has a twin sister, made her screen debut in 2016 in Home and Away, playing the conniving Tabitha Ford. After graduating high school at the end of that year she secured an agent in LA and landed a role in the HBO drama.
In Sharp Objects, which was released to acclaim in mid-2018, she played Amma, the scheming 13-year-old half-sister of Amy Adams’ alcoholic journalist Camille Preaker. And she more than held her own with a performance that marked her out as one of Australia’s fastest-rising stars – even if few Australians realised she was one of ours.
Now, Scanlen gets to play nice at last.
In Greta Gerwig’s charming and inventive adaptation of Little Women, she plays Beth, the ill-fated, piano-playing youngest March sister.
Although she learnt piano as a child, Scanlen says, “initially I didn’t think I related to her that much, I thought I was more a Jo. But the more Greta and I discussed her personality and how she navigated the world, the more I found myself identifying with her.
“She has this quiet power in her, which is something I aspire to. She is shy but she is confident in her ability. She doesn’t feel that in order to be heard you need to speak – which I find such a great example to follow.”
Still, we’re likely to hear plenty more from Scanlen in the years to come. She’s just finished directing her first short film, Mukbang, about the internet phenomenon of young people filming themselves eating enormous quantities of food.
“It’s about this girl in high school who comes across the internet phenomenon that is Mukbang, and through that she comes to terms with her own developing sexuality,” she says of the film she plans to send to festivals next year. “It’s sort of a microcosm of my relationship with social media, and this love-hate relationship I have with existing in the digital age.”
Little Women has already grabbed its share of social media attention – for being largely snubbed in the Golden Globe nominations, which was interpreted by some as a post-#MeToo backlash. But with Oscar nominations yet to come it’s not an argument Scanlen wants to wade terribly far into.
“It is really unfortunate,” she says, before adding cautiously: “It’s a sign we’ve got a long way to go still.”
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.