From ‘Feud’ to ‘The Wizard of Lies,’ Emmy Is Having a Love Affair With True Stories

Hollywood’s interest in adapting true stories to the big and small screen is a tale as old as the industry. But in recent years the trend of gravitating toward stories more deeply rooted in reality has grown, especially when it comes to award recognition. In 2016, three out of the 10 Emmy nominees in the categories of limited series and TV movies were projects based on real people, but this year the number almost doubled.

“These stories of real people are even more poignant right now in a literal and figurative challenging time,” says Jennifer Nettles, who inhabited Avie Lee Parton for “Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: Circle of Love.” “I think these true people and what they are going through that seems challenging or so far out of reach, maybe they’re more accessible than we think. They give us an opportunity to hope.”

Typically when actors begin character work for new projects, they have scripts and meetings with the writers and director to use as a guide. But when an actor sets out to work on something “based on a true story,” the amount of information available about the person they need to become can be overwhelming. In today’s world of Wikipedia and social media, hundreds of thousands of words are often written on the person before the script is ever even dreamed up. Having so much research at one’s disposal can be daunting, but it can also offer the opportunity to truly fine-tune the character.

“You’re not just interpreting the action and the dialogue of the script; you’ve actually got reference material where you say, ‘I have to meet some recognizable quality, particularly the visuals,’” Geoffrey Rush says.

For Rush, the number of available photographs of Albert Einstein were key pieces of research for his role on National Geographic’s “Genius.” Einstein’s look was so distinct, Rush knew the audience was going into the project with certain expectations already.

Jason Raish for Variety

For Robert De Niro, who helped put the team behind HBO’s Bernie Madoff project “The Wizard of Lies” together, the key was finding source material about Madoff as a man, outside of his illegal actions, to allow De Niro to shape his own version.

“I was very happy to have all of that material — from the books that I had read, from family members, interviewing people like his lawyer and friends and so on,” De Niro says. “The family tragedy and the whole thing is Shakespearean. The depth was the hardest thing to get — to get the right tone of the piece, if you will. But at one point you just have to take all of that information and make it your own.”

Susan Sarandon, who is nominated as the legendary Bette Davis on FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” admits she didn’t know a lot about Davis beyond her body of work before signing onto the project. And Sarandon doesn’t feel she was alone in that limited view. “She’s so iconic, but many’s impression of her is a very broad, almost caricaturish one because she’s been imitated so much. A lot of the people who know of her now haven’t actually seen her early movies and just know this extreme version of her,” she says.

Projects like these Emmy nominees can give the audience a chance to get to know larger-than-life figures in a new way. Sarandon, who signed on to star on “Feud” before a script had even been written, relished the chance to dive into hours of interviews with Davis and read a handful of books on her in order to understand the woman and fully flesh out her portrayal. And she found she had a lot more in common with Davis than she expected, which both helped her find the performance and also put additional pressure on her to get it right.

“The question is trying to do justice to her, to somehow root it in a reality for the audience who is looking at it in that moment, and to make it feel fresh so the audience can be drawn into that person. That’s where the pressure comes in,” Sarandon says.

Whether the subject of the project is still living (like Dolly Parton, who not only lent her story to the project but also appears in it) or dead (like Davis or Parton’s mother Avie Lee), the goal is to pay homage and respect not only the people individually but also the relationships they had. “It was a mother-daughter relationship, and it was a healthy and loving one, but it was still complex,” Nettles says of her role as the singer’s mother.

“These stories of real people are even more poignant right now in a literal and figurative challenging time. They give us an opportunity to hope.”
Jennifer Nettles

And in this case, having real-life family members as a resource helped Nettles add gravitas to the role and also took Parton back to a special place and time in her life.

“I told her about [mother’s] nature, her spirituality, her kindness, and all the different things that she is,” Parton says of working with Nettles. “I even got her old pictures of Mama when she was young and at the age when the movie took place. We set different times to talk about Mom, and she really felt like she got into the character before she even started it. She felt like she was Mama. I was very emotional, touching, and healing to me to be able to relive that and have my Mom and Dad back.”

Writers who fictionalize a real person’s story have the even more arduous task of crafting visually interesting tales while still staying true to life. George C. Wolfe, who adapted and directed “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” for HBO, had a 450-page book by author Rebecca Skloot to cut down into an hour and a half movie. He chose to focus on the character of Deborah (Oprah Winfrey), the titular Henrietta’s daughter, who was on a journey of discovery.

“We would not know more about Henrietta than Deborah did,” Wolfe says of his adaptation. “She’s our way into the story; she’s our emotional conduit; and she’s the way the science, her mother, and Rebecca Skloot would be revealed.”

While all powerful television has to seamlessly blend the “who” and the “what” of the story, Wolfe says what truly sets these projects apart are that they tap into stories that reflect the viewers watching them.

“I think we all have a primal desire to know as much as we can to find out about where we come from,” Wolfe says. “With Deborah, there is something so heroic about what she sets out to do but her motivations come from such a simple and pure place. She just wants to know her mother, and that is very relatable.”

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