Creating a three-dimensional character full of complex emotions, complicated psychological makeup, and multi-faceted motivations is often the singular joy for performers because they get to step outside themselves. But when that character is based on a real person, the performer’s job can become much more complicated.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone play someone perfectly,” says Patricia Arquette. “I don’t think I could play myself perfectly. I think we’re all so guilty of so much self-deception in different things, so I definitely think there is room in the area of exploration.”
Arquette transformed herself for both the Showtime limited series “Escape at Dannemora,” in which she portrayed the prison worker Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell who helped two inmates escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015, as well as Hulu’s “The Act,” in which she took on the supporting role of Dee Dee Blanchard, who manipulated the world into thinking her daughter was chronically ill.
For the former, Arquette shares she had “thousands of pages of documentation” as research to rely on, including interviews with Mitchell herself, as well as articles about the timeline of events. For her process, having that information is important, but not the end-all-be-all, in creating the character. Beyond the salaciousness of the prison story, she says she was even more compelled by the “really rich story of this woman who was married and maybe she was having an affair with one or both of them. It was this intense, emotional, personal journey — how ensnared people can be with one another.”
Julianna Margulies also found ample aid in being able to have access not only to real-life documents, but also the woman she was going to embody for National Geographic’s “The Hot Zone.” In the limited series about the 1980s Ebola crisis, Margulies is Lt. Colonel Nancy Jaax, who worked in the Level 4 bio-labs to determine the threat level at the time. Margulies had the opportunity to sit down with Jaax, as well as get some training from Jaax’s nephew, an infectious disease specialist, in order to find a connection point.
“There were certain physical things, just actor-y questions I would ask her and things I understood from her background,” she says. “I knew she was a horseback rider and an animal lover — she was a veterinarian first. It allowed me to build this character [and] changed the way she walks. I used to ride horses; I rode seriously throughout most of my childhood until I was 16 and I purposefully walked a little pigeon-toed because you’re on a horse all day and you want to be able to keep your toes forward. Being a daughter of a ballerina, that didn’t fly with my mother, and she worked on me for years. So I knew Nancy would have a different walk than I had. Little things like that add to your character.”
But for some performers, such as Joey King, who played Dee Dee’s daughter Gypsy Rose Blanchard in “The Act,” there wasn’t much available beyond some reported articles written through a very specific prism, as well as one documentary and select post-childhood interviews. King had to rely on her imagination more times than not to tap into the motivations of the younger Blanchard.
For others, such as India Eisley’s portrayal of Fauna Hodel in TNT’s “I Am the Night” or Ruth Wilson taking on the role of her very own grandmother in PBS Masterpiece’s “Mrs. Wilson,” it was often more important to create something new, rather than rely on research to re-create the person exactly. These series mixed elements of a woman’s specific journey with facts found out later. For Wilson, this meant it was only “a version” or “an essence” of her grandmother.
“I couldn’t remember certain things about her — I couldn’t remember her voice — and that was quite upsetting for me in certain ways,” she says. “But also I didn’t want to completely emulate her or mimic her. So I didn’t prep as much as I usually do, I just let it happen.”
And in the end, that made it a more fulfilling experience. “It was quite spiritual to get underneath her skin, and to understand her life on a deeper level was quite profound,” Wilson says.