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Before writing a show about an imploding biotech start-up, Elizabeth Meriwether was best known for creating the sitcom New Girl. For reasons she herself doesn’t understand, Searchlight Television asked her to pitch herself as showrunner for a limited series based on the podcast The Dropout about the rise and spectacular fall of Elizabeth Holmes’s fraudulent blood-testing start-up Theranos. Meriwether was skeptical of the project, then set to star Kate McKinnon, but her meeting with the production company changed her mind. “I had a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude when I came in,” she said. “But while I was talking, I found myself getting animated, and it made sense to me and felt easy. I realized how much I connected with this story.”
One Liz suddenly thrust into a position of fame and authority could see herself in another: Holmes created Theranos after dropping out of Stanford at the age of 20; New Girl premiered when Meriwether was 29 after she’d had a script adapted into No Strings Attached and a streak of buzzy plays (she was featured in New York back in 2005 as a 24-year-old playwright about to debut her Ibsen riff Heddatron and has since written for the Cut about politics). Holmes was famous for her artificially low speaking voice; Meriwether lost hers the first week filming her sitcom. “I understood what it felt like to be a young woman grasping for a role model of what a leader is,” she said. “And not trusting yourself to be that leader, feeling like you need to put on this performance.”
Of course, Meriwether never ran any scam blood tests on actual at-risk patients. But the parallel was enough to fuel The Dropout, now starring Amanda Seyfried. The Hulu miniseries cuts many ways at once, acknowledging the sexism Holmes experienced without condoning her actions and emphasizing the differences between her decisions and those of other women in science, including Theranos whistleblower Erika Cheung (Camryn Mi-young Kim) and Stanford professor and Holmes critic Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf). The show delivers all the sordid beats of the Theranos story line while emphasizing the humor of Silicon Valley absurdity, often by way of pop music needle drops from the 2000s and 2010s. Meriwether spoke with Vulture about seeing herself in the story, updating the series during Holmes’s trial, and why making Holmes dance to Lil Wayne became the easiest way to legally depict her intimacy with Sunny Balwani.
Something that always baffled me about the real-life Holmes was that she went to Burning Man after Theranos collapsed. How did you make sense of that side of her?
Her relationship with her identity always interested me, and it felt like she was a different person with Burning Man and Billy. Every time I looked up where she was now, the pictures made it look like she was so happy. Why would that be? Was it really how she feels? I wanted to end the show at Burning Man, but then COVID happened, and that was not going to be possible. I realized I could do it in a simpler way but keep that same spirit. Now it’s one person getting into an Uber.
It’s her getting into an Uber and saying her name is “Lizzy,” which feels like a crucial shift. Especially when written by an Elizabeth who also goes by Liz.
When I finally forced myself to sit down and write the finale, I got to that moment, and it just felt right. This is a new identity and a new chapter for her. Then there’s Uber, another start-up that happened while she was running Theranos. The scene shows how easy it is, in the way we live right now, to reinvent yourself. It’s just changing the name on your Uber account.
Before the car shows up, Amanda Seyfried lets out this primal scream. It’s a big, cathartic moment you can interpret in a lot of different ways. How was it written in the script?
It doesn’t say scream in the script. I wanted a moment of reckoning. I struggled because Elizabeth, before the trial, hadn’t talked about it and never said she did something wrong, that she was sorry. I thought about having her not ever come to a place of reckoning, and it felt unsatisfying as a viewer. I knew that if she was going to have a moment of that, it couldn’t be in public.
So I wrote into the script that “it all flashes in front of her eyes.” When I went to set, we talked about what it was going to be, and Amanda had a clear picture of what she wanted to do. It’s really effective. She also really wanted to fall down on the ground. Elizabeth’s physicality is so formal, and to have Amanda do that was great because it’s something we’d never seen on the show.
I’ve read that Amanda is interested in playing Elizabeth Holmes again. Are you interested in writing a second season?
She keeps saying that, and I keep telling her that I will not be writing a second season! She actually texted me this weekend like, “I hear you’ve started working on a second season.” She’s messing with me a little bit. I would love to work with her and all the people who worked on this show again, but this story has gone as far as I want to go with it.
There’s an exchange in the finale between Elizabeth and her mother that references Elizabeth’s assault and her mother’s advice to her afterward. Elizabeth says, “You told me to put it away and forget it” and “If you choose to forget certain things, do you think that’s lying?” How did you think about writing that moment?
This was an episode I put off writing because I didn’t know how to call back to earlier episodes without saying that one thing was the reason for everything that happened. But I still wanted to acknowledge what came before. As I was working on the finale, I was thinking about her memory, and in the deposition, she keeps saying she can’t remember anything. It led me to this idea: How do you choose what to remember? And how she would justify the thing that happened in her own mind.
A lot of this show feels like a tour of the pop music of the 2010s. How did music become a part of telling this story?
In the podcast The Dropout, there’s this anecdote from Ana Arriola. She said she saw Elizabeth one morning in her parked car dancing to hip-hop, thinking that no one could see her. There were so few anecdotes about private moments, so I was drawn to the idea that, before work, she sat in her car and danced. I was surprised that it was a hip-hop song. The other piece of information was that “I’m in a Hurry” was her favorite song in her high-school yearbook. When I listened to it, the lyrics were very relevant to this story.
It was also a way of getting the audience back to the particular year of a scene. I think the difference between 2009 and 2015 is interesting, but how do we get the audience there emotionally and quickly? Then there were things between Elizabeth and Sunny that I couldn’t dramatize for legal reasons, and I found that dance and music were a way of telling the story without using words.
What couldn’t you say for legal reasons?
We don’t have a lot of information about their relationship, and when I wrote the scripts, their text messages hadn’t come out yet. Their relationship was the most dramatized part of the show, and I felt a lot of responsibility to not do something wildly off. It was also a question of sex scenes. I wasn’t sure how to write those or if that felt invasive, so dance ended up being the answer.
Was it always that Elizabeth would dance to “How to Love” to Sunny in the office?
It was! I wish I had a cooler way of finding the songs, but I would Google the year and the top hits. I tried to think about a song that people had maybe forgotten about but was instantly recognizable. I remember loving that Lil Wayne song so much. This show has maybe revealed my own music tastes and less whatever Elizabeth Holmes might have liked.
The music choices dovetail with Elizabeth’s obsessions with her iPhone and Apple as a company. A lot of them feel like they could have played during Apple commercials.
Those Apple commercials were an inspiration for some of it — and the dancing silhouette. We had an amazing supervisor, Maggie Phillips, who suggested that Feist song. Apple has always been connected to music and a particular kind of pop that doesn’t feel too dangerous.
Speaking of pop that’s not too dangerous: Alan Ruck’s Walgreens exec sings along to “Firework” in the fourth episode. It immediately establishes him as an older white guy who wishes he could be cool but doesn’t know how.
That was from Dan LeFranc, who wrote that episode. I told the writers I wanted music to be a big part of the show, and he Googled the top song at the moment in time and then zeroed in on the lyrics and what they meant to Dr. Jay. I think we’re all Dr. Jay in that moment.
The show portrays Elizabeth rubbing her iPod over her face as she listens to it. How did you think about writing the Apple iconography?
In that scene where she goes to the Apple store, I had originally written that she was watching footage of the iPhone launch. But for legal reasons, they didn’t allow us to use any part of Steve Jobs’s likeness or anything he’d ever said. That’s how we ended up with the guys in front of the Apple Store screaming, “I fucking love Steve Jobs!” I didn’t know what to do! I needed him in a turtleneck so that at the end of the episode “Green Juice” she’s in a turtleneck. I actually related to that part of her character. I understood what it felt like to be a young woman grasping for a role model of what a leader is — and not trusting yourself to be that leader, feeling like you need to put on this performance.
New Girl was picked up when you were 29. Was there a TV writer version of Steve Jobs you felt you were imitating when you worked on that?
I read Tina Fey’s memoir right before New Girl started. I mean, look at my glasses. Have I just spent my life trying to be Tina Fey? I lost my voice the first week of New Girl, and the doctor asked me if I had been trying to sound authoritative. I think it’s hardwired in our brains that we need to be more masculine and sound more like men to be taken seriously.
The show also depicts how Elizabeth Holmes falls back on the defense of “I’m just an innocent girl who doesn’t know anything” when things don’t go her way. There’s a scene in episode three where she’s confronted by her board. She cries and repeats the excuse the employee at the Apple store told her after accidentally deleting the memory on her iPhone.
That felt like an important beat because I needed to show how she used being a woman to manipulate people. That’s what makes the story complicated, especially around gender. There’s a tendency to take the girl-boss “any woman who is in a position of power is great” approach or that they’re a 1980s shoulder pad–wearing ballbuster.
The show needs to have a level of empathy for this character, or at least an explanation for her actions, but you don’t necessarily want to excuse her. How did you talk about toeing that line?
Writers would come in like, “I really understand why she did this,” and others would be like, “But this is the horrible thing that happened because of what she did.” We were always having those conversations. I hope that’s reflected in the show. I don’t want people to walk away from the show with a verdict on her or a diagnosis. Everybody I talked to when I was working on this wanted to label her a sociopath. There’s a desire to push her away, and I wanted to tell the story in a way where, in the moment you’re watching it, what she’s doing makes sense. But then, when you take a step back, you’re forced to reckon with the fact that you understood what she did. I wanted you to connect but also constantly question your connection to her.
What was the decision she made that was hardest for you to understand?
They’re both in episode five. One is never reaching out to Rochelle Gibbons and Theranos coming in and taking Ian’s computer. Then, the big one: the decision to go live at Walgreens. Not even to make the deal with Walgreens — I could sort of understand how that happened — but the decision to start testing actual people is a tough one.
Your TV background is primarily comedy writing. How did this show come to you initially?
Searchlight had optioned the podcast The Dropout and attached Kate McKinnon, so the only thing they didn’t have was a writer. They asked me and I don’t know how many other people to come in and pitch. I loved the story, and I didn’t know why we needed to tell it as a limited series. Then, in all the reporting that had been done, there wasn’t a sense of digging into who she was. I had a “take it or leave it” attitude when I came into pitch, but while I was talking, I found myself getting animated. It made sense to me and felt easy.
That taste for comedy is to this show’s benefit because you can acknowledge the absurdity of Silicon Valley in the story.
There are moments in the real story that are so odd! In episode seven, these lawyers were hiding in George Shultz’s house, and George Shultz sprung them on his own grandson! Over the course of putting the show together, I would get notes from Hulu that were like, “This is too ridiculous,” and I would be like, “This is actually what happened.” But while I loved the strangeness of the story, I never wanted the audience to comfortably laugh at things or to think of her as a joke. The scene in episode two of everyone getting the office together for Don Lucas was originally much longer. There was a lot more silliness, trying to fix the coffee maker. I could tell that was reaching for a joke, and I didn’t want the tone to be reaching for comedy. Which was hard for me!
You also cast a bunch of actors from TV comedies, like Laurie Metcalf, Michaela Watkins, and Utkarsh Ambudkar. They bring a comedic energy, even if their roles don’t necessarily have comedic business.
It was a constant conversation with our casting director Jeanie Bacharach and Hulu about whether we were going too far into the comedy world with casting. I felt, and I still feel, that really great actors play the moment. Some of the funniest aren’t doing “comedy.” We should try for a joke and see how it feels and then pull back on it if it felt like we were going too far. One of the amazing things about Amanda is that she has the sense of play that a comedy actor has and isn’t afraid of trying something completely different.
Amanda joined the show pretty far along in the process. How finalized were the scripts at that stage?
The scripts didn’t really change. Kate had gone into the project wanting to play the character dramatically, and when Amanda came, the tone didn’t change. We were pretty close to shooting, but looking back, I don’t know how we got so lucky. Her performance, even after being in editing with it — I’m still surprised by things she did.
There’s a scene where Amanda is practicing the Elizabeth Holmes voice, repeating, “This is an inspiring step forward” into the mirror, going lower and lower. It’s a good scene to hand an actor because you can watch their process. She doesn’t have to start off doing a perfect impression. What went into writing it?
That was actually a reshoot. We’d shot something that felt like it wasn’t having as big of an impact emotionally. The original scene was much shorter, and I was glad we expanded it and let her go for it. That scene was one of the last things she shot as the character. Michael Showalter, the director, talked about the fact that her voice wasn’t a joke and was an important emotional part of the character. That scene was the climax of that story. It’s when her self is splitting apart.
Structurally, as the season goes on, the show picks up these subplots that take over their own episodes. In episode six, for instance, Tyler Shultz and Erika Cheung go through a sort of buddy investigation. How did you land on that structure?
At one point, episode six was all the whistleblowers, and there weren’t any scenes from Liz’s point of view at all, kind of the way we had done with episode four, “Old White Men.” But I missed her character so much, and it was important to see what success felt like for her. But I had always been drawn to the character of Erika Cheung. The Tyler Shultz–George Shultz dynamic is incredible, but Erika, as another female scientist and a young woman in the story — there are a lot of parallels with Elizabeth, but she’s also very different. She’s a woman of color. She came from no money. That she is the one who brings down the company is incredible from a storytelling point of view. It was important to really understand what she and Tyler did and what that felt like.
A question that I was asked early on was, “Why are you telling this story about a female scientist who commits fraud? Do we need this narrative out in the world for women?” That episode was important to me because you see Erika’s story, Phyllis’s story, and Elizabeth’s story. It was important to look at those different versions of being a woman in the sciences side by side.
For a TV show, The Dropout offers a pretty realistic depiction of the process of reporting a story like this: getting sources together, facing the Theranos lawyers.
I hope this show makes a case for whistleblowers, journalism, and also federal regulation. [Laughs.] I didn’t go into it with an agenda, but those things are fragile, and we’ve seen in recent years how checks and balances can come under attack and go away when faced with enormous pressure. The second half of the series tries to show what it takes to stop a speeding train like Theranos. It takes a lot.
Holmes’s trial started while you were very far into working on the series. What were the biggest changes you made as it was occurring?
I was done writing it, and we were two-thirds of the way through shooting it. I was trying to take it in, but I was afraid of something coming out that would feel completely different from what we’d already shot. It’s definitely not a documentary, and I did find some comfort in that because I knew the story I wanted to tell. But the text messages we got were the conversations I had spent years trying to imagine. Suddenly, in one email from Taylor Dunn, who was a producer on the podcast, I got all the answers I had been looking for for years! Taylor and I were going through pages and pages of text messages going, “Did you see this one?” She was looking at it from a journalistic place, and I was looking for flashes of emotion. There was a lot I couldn’t include, but the spirit of them was something we had already covered in the series. I went to set a couple days after the text messages came out, and I had the quotes I wanted to include on sticky notes on my laptop. I gave them to Naveen after a first rehearsal of a scene, like, “Could you somehow fit this in?”
The Dropout is coming out in the midst of a fleet of TV shows about various schemes gone awry, like Inventing Anna, WeCrashed, and Super Pumped. Do you have a sense of what might be interesting to producers in Hollywood about these kinds of stories?
Each show is pretty different, but in recent years, there have been more attacks on the idea of an objective truth, and maybe that has inspired some of these stories to come out. Also, there’s been more skepticism about Silicon Valley recently. This was a particularly American story, and there’s a sense of us questioning the American entrepreneur myth — that you could get a good idea and suddenly become a billionaire. You can just ignore gatekeepers and cut through the red tape.
Was there something that helped you understand the Silicon Valley mentality in writing this show?
I was obsessively listening to How I Built This, the NPR podcast about entrepreneurs. I’ve never been interested in business, and most of my friends are artists and writers, so that mentality was foreign to me. There are so many similarities between the early days of Theranos and a lot of these success stories. There’s a moment in the second episode where Utkarsh’s character says, “When we get the box to work, none of this will matter.” It was important to emotionally understand the context she was in. I also bought a portable bidet for my husband on Indiegogo, and I’ve gotten updates from them for years. They never sent it! I get long updates about their manufacturers and China and who knows what. I want to do a dramatic reading of those emails. They’re so intense.
There is so much green juice on this show. Did you have someone constantly making green juice on set?
I was on a feed because of COVID and because I had just had a baby, so I wasn’t on set that much! But I assume there was a constant green-juice supply flowing for everybody. I don’t think I’ll ever drink it again. I don’t know how Amanda feels.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.