It’s a good thing Patricia Arquette didn’t listen to her children. If she had, TV audiences would have missed out on her powerhouse performance in Hulu’s The Act, an anthology series about Dee Dee Blanchard, who medically abused her daughter, Gypsy, before being murdered by Gypsy and her boyfriend in 2015. Known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy, Blanchard confined her daughter to a wheelchair, convinced her she had several medical conditions, medicated her, and shaved her head to make her appear sick.
“When I told my kids, they were both like, ‘No! Don’t play that lady, no.’ They were all scared,” the Oscar winner said in a phone interview last month from London, where she was doing press. “I said, ‘Guys, I’m just acting. I’m not going to start poisoning you or medicating you.’ But they said that lady is too scary. She really was.”
What about Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, the New York prison employee who famously had affairs with two separate inmates before helping them escape in the summer of 2015 — just eight days before Blanchard was stabbed to death in Missouri? Arquette delivered a show-stopping performance as Tilly in Showtime’s gripping miniseries Escape at Dannemora, which filmed before The Act and aired late last fall. “Oh, I could play Freddy Krueger, I could play Charles Manson, and they would be okay,” she said. “But they really didn’t want me to play Dee Dee.”
Word about Arquette’s role in Dannemora was already buzzing in Hollywood by the time production began to wrap in New York and Hulu offered her The Act. “It was a surprise to me that I got offered these things back-to-back,” Arquette said. “I think they fed off each other. But it wasn’t something I had anticipated in any kind of way. There aren’t always the greatest parts for women in TV or anywhere and both of these are great parts in their own right. Even though they both come from true crime, I don’t know if I would really believe them as real if they hadn’t come from real life.”
Vulture asked Arquette — who is in contention for two limited-series Emmy nominations: Outstanding Supporting Actress for The Act and Outstanding Lead actress for Dannemora — to choose a scene from each series to discuss. In the scenes she selected, each of her characters melts down, but under very different circumstances. “These women are very strange, very flawed women,” she said. “There are commonalities, you know? They’re both kind of sad and depressed and they both are lonely and they both are just trying to get their needs met and to be loved in very different ways.”
Arquette calls Dee Dee “the weirdest person I’ve ever played.” Spanning two decades, from the time Dee Dee gave birth to Gypsy to the night she died from stab wounds in her bed, what happened between the now-famous mother and daughter was “a real American horror story,” in Arquette’s mind.
“It flies in the face of what nature demands from us,” she said. “I can’t imagine why or how a parent could ever make decisions like that, to intentionally harm their child. What was interesting in the beginning was there wasn’t as much research material. Everything we knew about Dee Dee came after she had died, so everything is skewed with this different view of everything because of what Dee Dee had done.”
As Dee Dee aged in the series, Arquette found it more challenging to live inside of the character’s mind. “Between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ I strive to be thinking about what the character’s thinking,” she said. “Dee Dee’s thought process got weirder and weirder. She’d be having a conversation with Gypsy and at the same time she’d be having a second little conversation.
Sometimes it would be in reverie. She’d go off on a tangent in this whole other memory. It was very weird because between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ I felt like I was two people removed from even being in the scene.”
In “Stay Inside,” the fourth episode, Dee Dee wakes up to discover her daughter has been using a secret computer to communicate with the outside world. She completely loses it and confronts Gypsy, who doesn’t back down, infuriating her even more. “Sexuality in youth is undeniable,” Arquette said. “Even though Dee Dee has created these rules and fears and all of these mechanisms so that Gypsy won’t be able to break free of her, sexuality and nature comes in and is this impossible thing. It becomes a real threat of Dee Dee being abandoned. That’s how she emotionally perceives it, so it’s terrifying, heartbreaking, and enraging.”
Before filming the scene in which Dee Dee smashes the computer and wheels Gypsy back into the bedroom and attempts to tie her up, Arquette spoke with Joey King (who plays Gypsy) and apologized — something she says happened many times during production. “We walked and talked through everything and I wanted to make sure she was okay with it,” Arquette recalled. “It was intense. Joey’s such a good actress and such a sweet person that I found myself apologizing a lot in advance. I just can’t believe this lady did these things to her daughter.”
Although she doesn’t often experience rage in her life, Arquette tapped into her own childhood to let Dee Dee’s fury build up inside her. “There’s something weirdly familiar about it. My mother was pretty violent and mercurial,” she said. “That’s hard sometimes, revisiting the darker moments or fears of my childhood. It upsets me.” When Gypsy spits in her mother’s face, Dee Dee can’t handle it and collapses on the bed. “It’s so shocking and disrespectful to her. There’s a really strong fear of abandonment there that goes to such a crazy level,” she added. “I mean, Jeffrey Dahmer is said to have a fear of separation and that’s part of why he ate people. Sure, we all have a little fear, but we don’t eat people. The way Dee Dee felt it, or put value on it, or created survival mechanisms to defend from it, she created this web of lies to ensure that she is never left.”
Escape at Dannemora
In Dannemora, it’s Tilly who wants to leave — her husband, her job, and her life. In the fifth episode of this wild prison-break story, directed by Ben Stiller, inmates Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and Matt Sweat (Paul Dano) finally make their escape and get picked up by the prison worker they’ve manipulated for months and used sexually. The two murderers had convinced Tilly to poison her husband Lyle so they could run away to Mexico as a happy threesome. But as the time nears, and Tilly and Lyle (Eric Lange) are having dinner at their favorite Chinese restaurant, the weight of what is about to transpire takes a toll and she suffers from chest pains.
The scene begins in the restaurant, moves to their truck, and ends in the hospital, where Tilly learns she is having an anxiety attack, not a heart attack. Stiller broke it up in parts and shot the different sections over many months, later juxtaposing it in editing with the adrenaline-thumping prison break. The part inside the Chinese restaurant was the first scene with dialogue that Arquette filmed of the entire series. “We had done little shots of running up and down hills and exercising and stuff, but this was the first big thing,” she said.
The trick came in bringing herself back into this pivotal moment for Tilly time and time again during production. “It was many months of coming back into something, to try to have the emotional through line so all of these scenes would stitch together,” she said. “Making a big choice about her physicality was important, and also remembering the slightly different phases that are going on in her mind, the dawning of her. What was most interesting is that even in this revelation of this moment, where emotionally her body is being as honest as it’s been, where it overrides her self-deception, she’s still lying.”
Arquette didn’t meet the real Tilly Mitchell, who is serving a seven-year maximum sentence for promoting prison contraband and facilitating criminal activity. But the actor had followed the case as it was happening in the news back in 2015, gasping at every new development as the public learned about Tilly’s relationship with the inmates and her role in their breakout. “At every turn, I was screaming, Oh my God, what is going on?” Arquette said. “Later, I saw interviews with Tilly and I saw one with Matt Lauer and she was not telling the truth. I’d also heard she was very litigious and could be demanding so I thought, What’s the point of that? I really didn’t want Tilly trying to dictate what should be happening.”
Playing two real women in a row gave Arquette the opportunity to portray completely unique characters, which she considers a gift for a female actor. “There’s a thing about these stories, maybe because they are ‘normal humans’ or because of a chain of events or personality traits, they start to make choices that keep getting slightly more radical,” she said. “They’re trying to cover for themselves and where that takes them is fascinating. These women are different than everybody else, so I’m not playing the same roles as anyone else that I know.”
Even so, Arquette admits she hasn’t quite caught the true-crime bug. “I’m not wedded to it or against it. I’m open to reading anything. I just don’t want any real true crime in my own future,” she said with a laugh.