The eight-part HBO series, based on the first novel by "Gone Girl" author Gillian Flynn and directed by Jean Marc Villee of "Big Little Lies," premieres July 8.

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Dead young girls. A reporter haunted by flashbacks. Bathtubs and barrooms, and a small town with something sinister sewn in.

What’s a nice guy like Chris Messina doing in HBO’s upcoming series, “Sharp Objects”?

“I’m a short guy; I’m not really that tough,” Messina acknowledged during a Seattle screening of the first episode of the series, based on the first novel by “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn. “But you crave complicated characters.”

The eight-part series, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée of “Big Little Lies,” premieres July 8 and stars Amy Adams as Camille Preaker, a St. Louis newspaper reporter who returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to write about the gruesome murders of two young girls. It forces her to reckon with her family’s ghosts — both past and present — and her own scars, both physical and emotional.

In the process, Camille connects with Messina’s character, Detective Richard Willis, who came from Kansas City to help with the investigation.

“He’s not that welcomed, certainly not by the police chief,” Messina said of his character. “Bumped heads, different philosophies. And he is extremely lonely. He has his own demons, he has his own past, and a lot of it is kept quiet. He is his own mystery, and he leans on Amy’s character for information.

“He gets as wrapped up in her and is interested in who she is, just as much as the case,” he said. “Which was a fun thing to play.”

He was brought into the project by Adams, with whom he starred in 2009’s “Julie & Julia,” and who told him to read Flynn’s 2006 novel. Messina read for the part, but director Vallée needed some convincing.

“Amy pushed for me,” Messina said, adding that he was eager to work with Vallée, who directed “Wild” and “The Dallas Buyer’s Club.”

Once filming started, Vallée was happy with one or two takes — an approach Messina didn’t take to right away.

“It was frustrating because I have never worked that way,” Messina said, “but ultimately, I think he made me a better actor. And once I surrendered to his philosophy, I found it very freeing and I really learned to trust him. He knows what he wants, he sees it, he’s got it and he’s ready to move on.”

He also loves how Vallée uses music as a character in his projects. As a wrap gift, the director gave cast members a mix tape of the music used in “Sharp Objects.”

“I still, to this day, have it in my car,” Messina said. “Lots of Zeppelin. All stuff that inspired him for this. He’s masterful with his music.”

The dark tone of the series allowed Messina an escape from the “nice-guy schmucks” he has played in films like “Julie & Julia,” in which he played Adams’ long-suffering, constantly-consuming husband.

“There is no guy like the guy in ‘Julie & Julia,'” Messina said. “I don’t even know. Does that guy even exist? So playing somebody who is not just going to sit around and eat somebody’s food all day is always interesting to me.”