Castle Rock’s Lizzy Caplan on Taking Annie Wilkes Beyond Misery

Photo: Dana Starbard/Hulu

The word iconic gets bandied about a lot these days, so suffice it to say that Kathy Bates’s girlishly homicidal turn as Misery’s Annie Wilkes is a hard act to follow. But Lizzy Caplan didn’t let that stop her from taking up the mantle of the unstable obsessive for the second season of Castle Rock, Hulu’s horror anthology freely remixing assorted works from Stephen King’s vast canon of suspense writing. The series joins Caplan’s Annie Wilkes prior to her Misery years, as she drifts from town to town on a hunt for easily stolen medication, which she passes off as the normal work of a traveling nurse to her young daughter (Elsie Fisher). With her voice pitched up to a tangled yelp, unchecked mania in her eyes, and violent urges in her heart, playing Annie leads Caplan down some dark alleyways her career hasn’t explored until now.

As Casey Klein, the struggling comedian/actor that Caplan played on the cult-worshipped sitcom Party Down, she won over comedy geeks with a sardonic mix of wit and self-loathing, and carried that put-the-fun-in-dysfunctional energy to the 2012 sleeper gem Bachelorette, in which she portrayed a bitter bridesmaid a touch too fond of her vices. Even Janis Ian, her Mean Girls scene-stealer, had a spikiness that set the character apart from most of the too-cool-for-school alternative types in the annals of high-school cinema. She’s already proved herself a sharp and distinctive performer, and Castle Rock confirms that she’s a versatile one too.

Caplan got on the phone with Vulture to discuss her new tightrope-walk of a role, and how to avoid both the shadow of Kathy Bates as well as the pitfalls of depicting mental illness. That left plenty of time to chat about her comfort on the cult circuit, the difference between being aimless in your 20s versus your 30s, and that week she got embroiled in an international incident with North Korea.

Annie Wilkes’s voice has a distinct cadence to it, almost like a weird melody. How’d you go about establishing that part of the character?
I knew that I didn’t want my portrayal of Annie Wilkes to sound like me. That was the jumping-off point. I also knew that I ideally wanted to have some shades of what Kathy Bates did in the movie Misery, so that one could feasibly believe that our Annie could become that Annie. But I also didn’t want to do a straight-up impression, which I don’t even think I’d be able to do, and would probably be a bit of a cop-out.

How do you make the performance your own distinct thing while also making sure it corresponds to the example that Kathy Bates set?
A lot of the heavy lifting on that front is handled by the writing, and the circumstances that we’ve put this Annie Wilkes in. The easiest way to delineate the two is that the Annie Wilkes from the book and film of Misery has been in isolation for a while, she’s not trying to treat any one of her myriad psychological disorders, and our Annie Wilkes is the total opposite. She has her teenage daughter to look out for, so her driving force is to be functional enough to provide for and protect her daughter. Our Annie Wilkes has to be in public, and go to hospitals, and work with other human beings, and that immediately gives her a different shape than the hermit Annie Wilkes we know from Misery.

Performing mental illness can be a delicate task. Is it hard to split the difference between a respectful, accurate portrayal and the intense, hysterical tone that Stephen King’s writing works in?
I wasn’t tasked on this job with singling out one specific mental illness, which would’ve required an entirely different approach to research. But the character of Annie, on the DVD of the movie Misery, they bring in a psychologist or psychiatrist who diagnoses her. The list he comes up with is quite long; she’s basically got a little bit of everything. In that way, we’re not making this a study or meditation on a specific condition. In the book and the film, she’s a symbolic force more than anything else. That’s what I got when I first read the book, that she was supposed to represent the pressures that he was feeling from his adoring public, but his take on the character actually is that she represents his addictions. This person, who feels like a fully formed, three-dimensional human being to me, her origins are that she was a concept to Stephen King and Paul Sheldon.

That frees us up a little bit, in terms of not feeling responsibility to be doing justice by one specific mental illness. Our Annie Wilkes is on a bunch of antipsychotics, and she’s self-medicating for each of these different issues, some better than others — hang on, sorry, I think my dog’s choking on a bone. Nope, she’s fine. She just likes being a drama queen! But I was going to say, the most ambitious thing about this season is making your protagonist a deeply unstable person who sees and hears things that aren’t there, who is certain that she’s correct when she’s 100 percent wrong. You put this person in a town where objectively insane things regularly occur, that even a levelheaded person would be thrown and confused by, and watch what happens to her.

This role goes to wilder, more violent places than any you’ve played before. Did this feel like a change of pace in terms of the gigs you usually take?
Completely new ground. Definitely one of my more, if not my most ambitious swing. I knew when it came my way that it would be an intimidating prospect, which was also how I knew I had to do it. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I’d said no because I was scared to do something different than I’d done before.

Are you a big Stephen King person, movies or books?
I’m more of a Stephen King movie person, which I’m embarrassed to admit now. I guess it’s a testament to King’s writing that his books make for such vivid movies. Not all of them, but he has a pretty good track record, and that’s mainly due to his strength with character. He makes unpredictable people who then make for riveting books, which then make for riveting films. I always found The Shining to be the scariest movie ever; I love that one. But I never took the books as seriously as I should’ve, and I don’t know why. When I started dating my now-husband, who’s the biggest Stephen King fan in the world, he’d wax poetic about all the ways King’s writing was great. I realized what a dummy I was.

Did he flip out when you told him you’d be doing Castle Rock?
Yes, he was the one who told me that I absolutely had to do it. There was no two ways about it! The only thing that’s a bummer is that we were both huge fans of the first season of the show, and nothing ruins a viewing experience like showing up in it.

Yeah, that must be an eerie feeling. You’ve done a lot of TV work, has that happened to you before now? 
This is the first time, I think. But yeah, you see how the sausage is made! There’s no chance that Castle Rock will be scary at all for me, now that I know what parts are fake! It’s completely ruined!

Your character shares most of her scenes with her daughter, played by Elsie Fisher, with whom she’s got an, shall we say, unusual dynamic. How did you and Elsie get along? This was her first big TV job, yeah?
Elsie Fisher is one of the greatest human beings of all time, and I say that without a whit of hyperbole. She is so scarily next-level talented, and she’s a really good human being. You have to be exceptional to be 16 years old, a great actress, and a decent person all at the same time. I’m not saying that to knock other kid actors; this whole world is overwhelming when you’re a teenager and your still-forming personality and brain get subjected to an onslaught of attention. There’s a reason so many child actors have had a rough go of it, and it’s not because they’re bad people; it’s the circumstance. So I really tip my hat to Elsie’s parents; they must’ve done a lot of stuff right, because after all the excitement of last year, she’s still a genuinely kind person. I love hanging out with her. I would probably take a bullet for her.

Having done Mean Girls so early in your career, which turned out to be a really distinctive part, did that ever feel like your “Are we having fun yet?”
Not really. Right after it happened, I felt the way a lot of young actors and actresses feel. This was pre–social media, the internet hadn’t taken off in a big way, and it was harder to take a litmus test of how the public felt about something. But I do remember thinking that after that had all wrapped up, it was on me to do something compleeeetely different, because people would recognize me from the last role and I didn’t want to get typecast! That’s something a lot of young actors think, that everyone’s clocking your career as closely as you are, when the reality is that nobody’s really paying attention to the choices you’re making. So for one of the next jobs I did, I had blonde hair and a spray tan; it was for some teen show on the former WB, now the CW. I wanted it to be a total pendulum-swing in the opposite direction. But then the job I took after that was called The Class, and that role had echoes of Janis Ian. I felt uncomfortable returning to that, and my agent was like, “Hey, guess what! No one cares.” Which was ultimately good to hear.

With Mean Girls becoming as huge as it has, and Bachelorette to a similar extent, have you ever experienced the dynamic with fans that you talked about with Stephen King and Misery?
No, but only because there was that period of time between when these movies come out — even though they make money, and people like them — and when they really take off. At the time, I remember loving the Mean Girls script more than anything I’d ever read up to that point. I just wanted to be a part of it so badly. So a positive response is what you’re aiming for! But there’s the long period of time before it gets a new second life on the internet. There were enough years between shooting and that resurgence that it still feels novel to me. I never had the chance to feel pressured about it. Plus, I’m not on social media, so it might get old if I was inundated with fan stuff on a daily basis. But I’m mostly just grateful. The success of those two movies are just evidence of how brilliant Tina Fey and Leslye Headland are. Just yesterday, a friend told me their 8-year-old daughter is obsessed with Mean Girls.

They let an 8-year-old watch that?
She’s a mature 8. I’m surprised by how many people tell me their kids love that movie. But again, just proves how strong Tina’s writing is! It’s lightning in a bottle, especially because the internet would completely alter how that movie works and plays out. At that point, kids were still calling each other on landlines. Even more impressive that kids today can still access and relate to it.

Bachelorette came out in 2012, by which time the internet had pretty much taken shape, and I was convinced when I saw it that the release would be gigantic. Like you mentioned, it’s starting to get more recognition now, but why do you think there’s been a delay?
Difficult to say. The movie business changes so dramatically every day right now, or at least that’s how it feels. Bachelorette was one of the last indie movies I was a part of that got the best possible outcome, which is that you make it, you submit it to Sundance, the movie gets in, people in Park City pay attention to it, and then you get a release later in the year. They’re making fewer and fewer mid-budget independent films like that, and I personally have been missing that type of movie as of late. It was always an option, to go do a movie like that, as recently as 2012. They’ve gotten scarcer.

But I don’t really love getting caught up in the aftermath of any project. The only part of this job that I actually like is shooting. I love it, but everything else is just unbelievably anxiety-provoking. I try to stay unaware of it. Things taking a little while to catch on actually matches up better with my personal timeline! I’m more willing to look at how something turned out and read reviews and get invested, like, five years after the fact. It ended up working out fine for me. But I do feel weirdly comfortable in the “cult” space. It’s been a while since I’ve done something cult-y, and I feel a bit bad about that. Party Down, Bachelorette — I love being part of stuff that feels like an underdog you want to root for. Because, yeah, Bridesmaids had come out months before, and I do adore that wonderful movie, but it totally dominated the conversation. “How is Bachelorette like Bridesmaids? How is it unlike Bridesmaids? Do we need two movies about women getting ready for weddings?” It seems absurd now; they’re telling totally different stories, but we were pitted against one another in a way that wasn’t even real. I’m pretty sure we weren’t on Bridesmaids’ radar at the time. But that was one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve ever had making a movie, and of course Leslye has gone on to do so many great things.

For someone who gets anxious about all the extraneous stuff outside of actually being in movies, I’m curious about how you handled the North Korean controversy surrounding The Interview.
That was very strange. We were making jokes about the movie causing an international incident back during shooting, when we were all joking on set. None of us thought it would really happen. I was in London working on Now You See Me 2 when everything started going down, so I felt kind of separate from it, but reading the news felt so odd. I saw this on the front page of British papers! It was a little scary, and deeply surreal.

But the best part is now, if you hold up that moment, it feels super tame in comparison to all the crazy things that have happened since then. It would not even rank in the top 500 most insane things to have taken place over the past month. The ripple effect of that was horrible, too — not for us, but for the rank-and-file Sony employees who really had to take the brunt of everything. It shined a light on how vulnerable we are to cyberattacks, that sort of thing. Cyberwarfare, I find very terrifying, especially since that whole episode. That feels so long ago. It made everyone, especially the Sony people, a little jumpy.

You’ve said you prefer to think about each job independently, but there are a lot of similarities between two of your biggest roles, in Party Down and Bachelorette. These women who are figuring things out and constantly fucking up, is that a type you feel sympathetic toward? Have you ever felt part of that in yourself?
It’s funny, I always thought I would be attracted to that sort of character. At their core, I think I always will; nobody wants to play a role where things work out perfectly and everything feels easy; there’s no drama in that. But the 20-something version of the fuckup who can’t seem to get it together is a very different person than the 30-something version of that same figure. I’ve been doing this for so long that I got tired of it at the same time I was personally aging out of it. Now I’m fully fascinated by how that idea gets filtered through the mid-30s. The complications, things you’re faced with, they’re very different. At the core, though, it’s still a woman trying to know herself a bit better, which I’ll always find sympathetic.

You’ve mentioned your dog and husband while we’ve been talking; do you feel like you’re fully into the being-a-grown-up part of life?
It’s strange, I don’t think I’ll ever fully feel that way. Mentally, I will always be 22. But yeah! My life has gotten markedly different over the past few years, and it’s made the working experience even richer because now it’s just one facet of a greater life instead of the focus of everything. I did that for many years, where if I got along with my castmates, it was the best experience, and if I didn’t, it was horrifying. Each job was my entire universe. Now, it just feels like a job. It doesn’t take away from the pleasure I get out of acting, hasn’t made me a less committed actor, but it has put my thinking in a more manageable box. The business is far too fickle to stake your happiness or serenity on. Far safer bet to put that on a family.

Lizzy Caplan on Taking Annie Wilkes Beyond Misery