true crime

The Act’s Co-Creators Are Making Real Art From True Crime

Photo: Brownie Harris/Hulu

“Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter to Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom Murdered.” Spelled out in the headline for journalist Michelle Dean’s blockbuster BuzzFeed News article, the case of Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard sounds deceptively simple: a mother with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a daughter driven to kill in order to escape the abuse, and a world fooled by the pair’s deception until it was too late. But as millions of readers learned, the minds of these two women, and the story of their lives and Dee Dee’s death, were far more complicated.

The same can be said about The Act, Hulu’s haunting new show about the Blanchard case based on Dean’s article and featuring without-a-net performances by Patricia Arquette and Joey King as Dee Dee and Gypsy. (Its fourth episode, which was written by Dean, airs this Wednesday.) In an arrangement Dean describes with a laugh as “unusual,” she helped adapt her own article to the screen, tapping Nick Antosca, creator of the terrifying horror-anthology series Channel Zero, to be her co-creator and co-showrunner.

It’s a killer combination. Antosca brings an eye for surreal horror, attention to the psychology of characters in complicated relationships, and experience behind the scenes. Dean contributes rigorously reported and extensively researched knowledge of the case, including interviews with several of the key players, as well as a strong sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the true-crime genre from her previous career as a critic. Add a predominantly female cast, writers room, and roster of directors and the show stands out among its peers even before you actually, you know, watch it.

But it’s the end result that really sinks its sugar-rotted teeth into you. Dreamlike pacing, disturbing imagery, and powerful acting add up to one of the strongest true-crime series since ACS: Versace this time last year. At the heart of it all: a mentally ill woman and her abused child, trapped in a candy-coated world where the lines between mother and daughter, deceiver and deceived, and perpetrator and victim are blurred beyond recognition.

We spoke to Dean over the phone from Los Angeles and Antosca over coffee in New York about the unique thinking and process behind their “hybrid” collaboration.

Michelle, this is your first television project, and it’s in the very crowded field of true crime.

Michelle Dean: In the run-up, I didn’t expect the article to be optioned. I didn’t have a TV agent or a film agent. I was just sort of operating as Cultural Critic Number 17. [Laughs.] When this went super-viral, I started to get the Hollywood calls. It became very clear, very quickly, from a number of different producers, that they saw so much potential in the story that someone would do it with or without me. It felt like there was something to be added in having somebody who was super-familiar with the events as a creative force in the show.

I’ve thought a lot about the true-crime trend, about what I like about it and what I don’t, and I wanted to do something that wasn’t just about the wigs. That’s the shorthand I use. Like, there’s a lot of adaptations of true stories where they spend a lot of money on the wigs, and they thought about the wigs from every angle: “Did the wig look like the real person?” We never really thought about that — beyond, of course, asking Joey to shave her head for us, which she did with alacrity.

In adaptations, I’ve often felt that they weren’t digging as deeply into the psychology of the character as they could, in part because they were limited in the specifics that they knew. I wanted this to be something that was more psychologically complex, which is why I chose Nick as my partner. He also traffics in that kind of work, and obviously he’s an experienced showrunner. That pairing led us to what I think is an idiosyncratic true-crime show.

Nick, your most recent project, Channel Zero, was a horror show. So is Chucky, the Child’s Play series you’re working on with creator Don Mancini. How much of that did you carry over into doing a show based on a true story?

Nick Antosca: My instincts are to make things that feel like dreams and nightmares, whether consciously or not. I find myself trying to capture an atmosphere that feels at home in the horror genre. I don’t think of The Act as something radically different from Channel Zero.

When the Blanchards’ pink house on that cul de sac first appeared, I thought back to some of the key images in Channel Zero and thought, Yep, same energy.

Antosca: Yeah, that pink house is the key image of the show. When I read Michelle’s original BuzzFeed story, which is how I learned about the case — I read it when it came out, along with 6 million other people — there’s a picture of that house, and that’s what you take away from it. What was it like to live in that pastel nightmare, in a cage of lies, for all these years?

In both cases, I’m interested in the characters. I’m curious about the characters. And I think we all approached The Act as a hybrid. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s a thriller. It’s a character study. And at the same time, it’s a psychological horror story.

Michelle mentioned that’s the kind of thing that made her choose you as a partner, and which she hoped her knowledge of the case would help with as well.  

Antosca: I mean, she interviewed Gypsy. She interviewed her family. She interviewed doctors. She interviewed everybody she could talk to. She did a year of research. She has a thousand pages of medical records, court transcripts, all that stuff. She’s an expert on the case, and that was incredibly useful in collaborating. She and I came up with the structure of the season and co-wrote the first episode, and we had the writers room together. Then it was a normal TV writers-room process — you know, break it in the room — but we were always able to rely on her specific expertise in the case.

That level of involvement does set it apart, even from other true-crime adaptations on which the original reporter serves in a role like executive producer.

Dean: That was deliberate. I sold the show to producers who really did want me involved. It’s a long story and it’s boring Hollywood machinery, but the idea was always that it would be an anthology series, and it would have something to do with crimes that had a particularly strong element of deception and performance, hence giving the title The Act some weight.

The double meaning took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out, by the way.

Dean: People are divided. Some people find it very clever, and other people are like, “Now when we look you up on the internet, we get the ACT.” [Laughs.] But yeah, I’m incredibly lucky to have been allowed to participate. It had to do with having partners who cared about having my participation happen at a high level. It’s unusual. Without trying to sound too self-serving, I think it’s something Hollywood should experiment with more. It’s worked so well in the comedy space to bring in people who aren’t necessarily career TV writers — people who’ve done other things, and then ended up being, I dunno, Lena Dunham or Issa Rae.

One of the idiosyncrasies of our show is the fact that it came from a collaboration between — now I’m going to sound like Janet Malcolm — the journalist and the showrunner. [Laughs.] That we were conceiving of it creatively together was an actual strength. Both Nick and I were never really that interested in making just a straight murder show. There is a version of the show that would be really focused on what happened one night, and how the cops caught them, or something. That was never of much interest to us. I’m curious about how we got there, and I’m curious about where we go. And the show reflects that curiosity.

In addition to doing the reporting on which the show is based, you’re also familiar with television from the other side, as a writer and critic. How much of that did you carry over into the show?

Dean: Writing about TV was the only way in which I thought I was ever going to get into TV at first. I really do care about the medium. I think it holds a lot of interesting storytelling possibilities, because — although they’re now sometimes denigrated — I was such a lover of the early male anti-hero shows. I love The Sopranos and Deadwood. That HBO renaissance stuff is some of my favorite art ever produced. I was curious about the ability of TV to portray a really complex story, which obviously we had here.

It’s true that sometimes I’m looking at it from a critical angle and not a storytelling angle, and I had some stuff to learn about how stories are built. I certainly had a lot to learn about how the mechanics of how TV is built, which is fascinating — and makes me regret that I wrote about TV before. [Laughs.] I didn’t really have a concept of how a TV show is put together, and Nick led me through that. We ended up with this big machine of a show that had all of these ingredients and collaborators. We had a lot of young filmmakers contributing to the voice of the show. The majority of our episodes are directed by women. Our writers room is majority women. Those things helped build the show out into what it is.

That’s another thing that sets The Act apart, maybe more than anything else: It’s a show almost exclusively about women, written mostly by women, directed mostly by women, with a woman co-creator and co-showrunner, who’s also the woman who wrote the article it’s based on.

Dean: It has a slightly different feel. “Intimate” is the word I often hear, like, around our world of executives. [Laughs.] It was a very conscious choice, in part because of the nature of the story.

Antosca: We took it from real life. It’s two women, in a house, for many years — that’s the core of the story. And their neighbors were mostly women — the Chloë Sevigny and AnnaSophia Robb characters are composites of neighbors who lived throughout the community. It was important to have a mother-daughter counterpart to the Dee Dee and Gypsy story.

Dean: The nature of the story is about mothers and daughters, and there’s a specificity to that experience — especially this idea that mothers dress their daughters up as kind of their dolls, which a lot more people than Gypsy would report that as being their experience, right? And also, some things about the tropes of good mothers that trapped Dee Dee.

Antosca: When I read Michelle’s article, I didn’t take away from it, “Oh, this is a lurid true-crime story.” I took away, “This is a powerful story about a young woman discovering who she really is and doing whatever she can, using the only tools she has, to escape the prison of lies she’s been trapped in.” Imagine how unstable your identity would be, how your sense of self would be destroyed and malleable, if you were raised like that and shaped like that — a case of long-term medical child abuse and radical gaslighting.

Gypsy is such a complicated character. She’s deceiving the world along with her mom, but she’s deceiving herself too. Ultimately, she’s using the skills of deception that her mom taught her, which are the only thing she knows at that point, against her mom. She had access to countless drugs, so she could have poisoned her mom. Or she could have stabbed her herself. But she couldn’t do it, because she loved her mom. So she had to use the skills that her mom gave her to reach into the outside world and bring somebody else in to kill her.

Dean: When I interviewed her she would always say, “My mom was my best friend.” Which is really sad. The protective impulse that is still in her, and the ways in which it trapped her, is something I think about a lot.

Antosca: We all felt in the writers room that Gypsy is a victim as well as a killer. I mean, there’s no question. The degree to which she was justified in killing her mother is a question that the audience can ask themselves. I personally have a great deal of sympathy. Yet we also felt that Dee Dee did love her daughter. She just had an extreme pathology, and her love came out in a way that was poisonous.

Dee Dee is not portrayed unsympathetically. Her fear itself is real, even if the things she’s afraid of aren’t.

Dean: Patricia has been saying in interviews, it’s not so much that you are sympathetic [to Dee Dee], so much as you sit with her humanity. My proudest moments in the show are where I can see that so clearly — the understanding that Dee Dee was a person. To a certain extent, that’s also the trap that the abused child is in. They see their parent as a person, a whole person, and that makes them so much harder to leave even when things are getting really bad.

This goes back to your earlier question, but I made people in the writers room read a bunch of books about mothers. Like, we read Rachel Cusk and and Vivian Gornick and Adrienne Rich. [Laughs.] I know, right? I am proud of this fact. And Nick loves those books. There was a deep immersion in the idea that this was a specifically female experience, and that there was something worth surfacing there.

This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations with Nick Antosca and Michelle Dean.

The Act’s Co-Creators Are Making Real Art From True Crime