“Sharper” Star Briana Middleton on Finding Her Edge in Apple TV’s New Thriller
Filled with plot twists, double-crosses and characters who never seem to be who they are, Sharper is designed to keep you guessing right to the end. But one thing is for certain; with a razor-sharp cast that includes Julianne Moore, Briana Middleton, Sebastian Stan, Justice Smith and John Lithgow, the Apple TV+ original film delivers its many satisfactions with a cast more than equal to the job.
“It’s so fun,” says Middleton during a recent interview. “The experience was so amazing. It’s a testament to Ben Caron, our director. He set the tone. He kept coming back to, ‘It’s play! It’s exploration! It’s fun!’”
Middleton plays Sandra, a pivotal character who sets the conniving in motion when she walks into a bookstore owned by Tom (Smith). By the time she has made her purchase, he is smitten. A relationship soon evolves. Or does it? As the plot unwinds, we follow Sandra into her past life as Sandy and her involvement with Max (Stan). He, in turn, leads us to Madeline (Moore), who is set to become the new wife of New York billionaire Richard (Lithgow). Things only get twistier from here, as Richard’s health fails and a power struggle for his money unfolds among Madeline, Tom—who turns out to be Richard’s estranged son—Max, who we are led to believe is Madeline’s son, and Sandra, who,well…you will need to watch and see.
And that’s exactly the point of the screenplay by Brian Gatewood and Alessandro Tanaka—it’s a film as sharp and glittering as a diamond. And it’s what lured Middleton, who made her film debut in the George Clooney-directed drama The Tender Bar, to sign on.
“I fell in love with Sandra pretty instantly,” Middleton continues. “It’s a very non-traditional script in the way that it’s told – this non-linear, chapter-like story. And then once we get to the end of the film, seeing her arc, her growth — it just cemented it for me. Oh my God… to not only get to play such a multi-faceted role, but such an amazing person.”
Middleton got into a conning frame of mind by watching a string of caper films, citing the Will Smith/Margot Robbie crime comedy Focus as a particular favorite. But she credits Caron with the spark that fueled Sharper’s intrigue. Before filming began, he encouraged the cast to read “The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It… Every Time,” a 2016 book by Maria Konnikova. It was a game changer for the actress.
“It dives into the psychology of these games and why they work. That opened my eyes to not only how much human psychology, but also how much of our humanity is tied into these confidence games. That was a huge thing,” Middleton explains. “We want to believe that the world is a safe place and people are good. I think that’s something that really felt true about Sandy for me. It gave me little nuggets of wisdom to go back to, little fun things to hold on to and make choices around.”
The cast was also given the opportunity to dig a little deeper into their multi-layered characters with two weeks of rehearsal. “God bless Ben for that,” says Middleton. “Getting into the psychology like we would any character. It was an amazing way to discover things in dialogue and in the relationships before we actually started filming.”
To put his vision for Sharper in focus, Caron took the cast and crew on a field trip to MoMA for a big screen showing of the Jane Fonda/Donald Sutherland 1971 film Klute. Middleton thinks it helped set a tone as they prepared to begin shooting. “We all watched it together,” she says. “It was an aesthetic inspiration in the way [Klute] shoots New York because of the way that our film involves New York. We shot on 35 millimeter. It was lit so gorgeously. Charlotte Bruus Christensen, our DP… stellar! It planted the seed for my love for New York because Sharper is a love letter to the city.”
Middleton admits that she struggled to relate to some aspects of Sandra. Unlike her character, Middleton has never been homeless, in trouble with the law or struggled with substance abuse. This is where she drew upon her acting lessons. But when it came to the heart of Sandra, Middleton found the two had a lot in common. “I have a lot of hope for people and I try to see the best in them. Seeing the good and the potential in others is a reflection of how we see ourselves,” she says. “So I think the biggest thing I discovered from reading the book and then going back to the script was that link between the two of us. That was a central piece of her to me.”
As she got more into Sandra’s skin, Middleton discovered areas of the character that weren’t as apparent at the onset. “When I was thinking about the story and her growth, she felt like this bamboo in the wind, kind of flowing back and forth, doing whatever,” says the actress. “But when I actually embodied her, she had way more strength, way more opinions and way more agency than I gave her credit for.”
Middleton may not have as many films under her belt as the rest of the cast, but the rising star used this to her advantage by tapping into their experience to up her game. “I do believe that when you have a great scene partner that, you have to work a lot less,” she explains. “I didn’t get to work with John, unfortunately. But Julie, Sebastian, and Justice were all amazing examples of that. Because this film has just so many layers, you can get overwhelmed. ‘What should I play right now? Should I lean more into this for the audience? Should I do a little split in the middle?’ We talked a lot about just prioritizing presence over preparation or perfection. And that’s such an easy thing to do when you have amazing actors like the four of them.”
For example, Middleton cites one of her favorite scenes in Sharper, where Sandra and Tom get to know each other during an afternoon of strolling through Queens. “It’s kind of a montage,” she explains. “It’s near the billboard scene in that first chapter. Ben just trusted us so much to play and to improv and trust that we knew these characters. We got to explore different things and I felt we both walked away knowing more about our characters and about that relationship after that night. That was a real fruitful experience.”
But there’s another scene that Middleton might just remember most from Sharper. That would be the confrontation that takes place between Sandra and Madeline as the con builds to its climax. “This is going to sound awful,” says Middleton. “But, when else are you gonna tell Julianna Moore, this amazing woman and actor, to suck your d**k? Like, when else are you gonna say those things? Wow! That was so fun. I think we both had fun with that.”
Sharper is streaming now on Apple TV.
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Featured image: Briana Middleton in “Sharper,” now streaming on Apple TV+.