Small Talk: Briana Middleton

Briana Middleton Would Totally Join a Cult

The star of Sharper can't deny the enduring appeal of a good grift.

Signing onto a Zoom call shouldn't be surprising to anyone at this point, but when the little window pops open, you don't usually see the other person getting a tattoo. But Briana Middleton was belly-down on a table when we spoke, the distinct buzz of a tattoo gun allowing us to skip the expected pleasantries. It's a first for this reporter — speaking to an actress while she's getting new ink, that is — but Middleton handles the call like nothing's amiss.

She starred alongside Ben Affleck and Christopher Lloyd in 2021's The Tender Bar, but she's swapping the ensemble cast for something a little more intimate with Sharper, a slick dive into the seedy world of con artists as they infiltrate Manhattan’s upper crust, out on Apple TV+ on Feb. 17. And while the crew may be a bit smaller this time around, the names are just as impressive, with Middleton joining Julianne Moore, internet boyfriend Sebastian Stan, John Lithgow, and Justice Smith. The film is a sleek, polished takedown of wealth and privilege — and it slots nicely into the current fascination with grifting, something that audiences can't seem to get enough of after devouring scammer stories, like Inventing Anna, WeCrashed, and The Dropout

Small Talk: Briana Middleton

Photo by Hannah Hall

Between getting the finishing touches on her new piece (a snake on her back, for anyone wondering), Middleton, who studied drama at Carnegie Mellon and University of North Carolina School of the Arts, posits that part of why grifters seem so alluring is the inherent fear we all have that it could very well happen to us. Her character, Sandra, gets pulled into a scheme involving Stan and Moore's Madeline and Max — though a plot involving cons means that the whole situation includes twists, backstabbing, and a jaw-dropping climax.

"We fear ourselves being the victim or the mark of it ourselves. And I think we're curious as to how this can happen, too. There's so much human psychology that goes into this, so I think that's really fascinating to people," she says. "And I think just people wanting to figure out 'how do people fall for this? How do people get roped into this?' Because it's playing on human psychology and that's scary for people. That's scary for me."

She laughs at the gravitas hanging over that last statement, though it may be just a nervous reaction between jabs at her skin (she has other tattoos, so she's no stranger to the pain). But the fear is justified; she says she’d definitely fall for a scam if she managed to stumble into a situation like her character's.

The feeling of the needle and the sting. That's exhilarating.

"It probably would work on me. I'm pretty gullible," she says before introducing Olivia, her tattoo artist. Middleton goes on to say that not only would she fall for a grift, she — and Olivia — would probably get sucked into a cult, too. "We were just talking about Midsommar, and how at the end of the film we both felt like, ‘Oh yeah, they'd probably get me into the cult. I'm really happy for Florence, too, right now. I'd probably join the cult.' So, I think they'd work on me. Totally."

Sharper joins Midsommar in the A24 pantheon and it’s clear everyone in Hollywood is itching for a role with the company. It makes sense, since it produces culture-defining shows like Euphoria, Ramy, and Two Dope Queens, as well as critically acclaimed films like Everything Everywhere All at Once, Minari, Red Rocket, and The Whale.

"I was just super-stoked. I was really excited. The Apple A24 collaborations, I think, have been really interesting and special," Middleton says of being brought into one of the industry's coolest cliques. "I didn't think I'd be working with them this early in my career. It was definitely a dream, and to be able to do it this early is pretty awesome."

Small Talk: Briana Middleton

Photo by Hannah Hall

Sharper is described as a comedy-thriller, something that's just as head-scratching for Middleton as it is for anyone interested in knowing more about the movie. It’s tough to know what’s fact and what’s fraud, but that’s part of what drew Middleton to the story.

"I'd definitely describe it as a thriller and I laughed throughout the movie. I think that's how I would describe a comedy-thriller," she says, still half-wincing with every pass of the needle. "It's thrilling and it's a ride. You don't really know where it's going, and it still has moments of levity and laughter and real human moments."

Ahead, Middleton talks about working with a legend like Moore, how tattoos are an act of self-love, and which of her co-stars she'd get inked on her body (spoiler: it's not Sebastian Stan).

What are you getting tattooed?
What's getting tattooed right now is a snake. A little snake.

Do you have others?
I got a couple.

How was working on Sharper different from being on set with Ben Affleck and George Clooney, who directed The Tender Bar?
This role in Sharper was way bigger, so that was a huge shift already. I was a significant role in The Tender Bar, but that just felt so fun. I felt like that was a really easy entry into being on a film set. And going to this, I just had more to do and I was more involved. I was filming almost every day, which was awesome, getting to really see what it was like to be on set, and working with actors.

Now that you've been on different sets, what kind of movies would you want to work on next?
I haven't really thought much about that, honestly. It's really just a character thing for me. Sure, if it's a big-scale thing, that's fun, and something with a lot of action or something. That stuff is fun. I always try and think more about the character, and if the story and the arc of the character is moving.

Getting to work with Julianne Moore has to feel great when you're in a movie like this. What did you learn from her on set?
Don't hold back. It's really easy as a young actor to hold back or be a little reserved. I don't know. I can only speak for myself. But just watching her flow so seamlessly between talking to the crew and then just going into this really heavy scene moment and just not thinking twice about it and not caring about how she looks or sounds. It was really liberating to watch her work.

If you had to tattoo one of your co-star's faces on your body right now, who would you choose?My god. I want Justice Smith on my ... where should I get Justice? On my hip or something. I want Justice's face on my hip.

People get tattoos for different reasons. Do you have any especially meaningful pieces? 
I've got this one tattoo called "Be Nobody's Darling." It's an Alice Walker poem, which is right here [she motions to her forearm]. But yeah, I like tattoos. They're nice little reminders and decorating the body. That's also nice. This is going to sound weird: the feeling of the needle and the sting. That's exhilarating.

What does self-love mean to you and what do you do to remind yourself that you're worth loving?
I think it means accepting all the parts of yourself. We're not perfect. It's really easy to put forth just the nice part. Social media is very good at just getting us to show the pretty parts. But I think it's liberating to own every part of yourself, including the quote-unquote ugly parts. I think accepting where we are and acknowledging all parts of ourselves, that's really important because we can't just love one half of ourselves. That's stupid. 

How do you practice self-love?
I'd say that I dance around a lot. And I literally would just say, "Yeah, no, I'm super-bloated right now." Just owning it. I'm not perfect at it, but it's an exercise.

Small Talk: Briana Middleton

Courtesy of Apple

Small Talk

Do you believe in astrology?
I think it's fun. I'm agnostic to it. I'm not going to decide if I go to the grocery store or not based on what sign the moon's in.

Are you here or not here for the return of low-rise jeans?
I'm here for it.

Who is your Hollywood fairy godmother or godfather?
Viola Davis, because why not?

Is there a specific pop culture moment that made you realize that you wanted to be part of the entertainment industry?
Peter Pan, I think. Hook. The movie Hook.

Who was your very first celebrity crush?
Jeremy Sumpter in Peter Pan. The 2003 Peter Pan. Chef's kiss.

What is your favorite item of clothing that you own?
That's so hard. Oh, I've got this white top that I just got off of Depop. I don't even know what brand it is; it's secondhand, but it's got this big collar. I feel like I'm Prince as a pilgrim or something. It's really great.

What is one book that you could read over and over again?
The Prophet
by Kahlil Gibran.

Are there any social media accounts that you can’t get enough of?
There's this one account of this person who's trying to live a Medieval lifestyle and they're making leather water bottles and swords and stuff. I can't remember the name of it.

What is your biggest guilty pleasure?
There are no guilty pleasures. Pleasure is pleasure.

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