For his role as the real-life Lyle Mitchell, husband to the woman who helped two Clinton Correctional Facility, N.Y., inmates escape in Showtime’s limited series “Escape at Dannemora,” Eric Lange gained 40 pounds and wore a wig and a set of fake teeth. The physical transformation helped him get inside the mind of the man who “could smell smoke, but hoped there wasn’t a fire,” Lange says, regarding the fractures in his marriage. In the fourth episode, Lyle goes from trying to rekindle a spark with his wife to seeing his suspicions about her grow, culminating in a drunken confrontation.
Lange: “It’s not often that you get to be so different from who you are. Many times you’re hired to be a version of yourself: ‘Put on a suit, and now you’re a lawyer!’ But this felt more like theater, and it was a rare opportunity, so that was exciting to me.
“[Lyle] has a speech impediment, he has an accent, he obviously looks a lot different than me, so I was instantly sitting at A and the character felt way over at Z. I reached out to an old vocal coach of mine named Stan Brown, and it was his idea to say, ‘His teeth are such a size and shape and direction that it makes the rest of his mouth not function the way yours might.’
“This ended up leading me to a makeup store, and I bought a pair of Austin Powers’ teeth. You melt this wax to fit them in your mouth, and I started talking, and I was just like, ‘There it is.’
“This was all for the audition. Once I had the role, I made a weird choice, which I don’t normally make, to pull every scene out of the script that wasn’t [Lyle’s]. Because I had been reading scenes between the prisoners and [his wife] Tilly, and I felt like, ‘I shouldn’t know this.’
“[‘Chapter 4’] is one of the only times you see him have any fun, when he tries to make her a margarita. But she just pushes him away, and [director] Ben [Stiller] has this nice long shot of me just staring at the lamp before I turn it off, and you see the heartbreak and the bewilderment in this guy — that he doesn’t know how to fix the situation he’s in.
“There’s a lot in that episode that’s untapped territory for Lyle. In that final scene, when she walks in drunk and he’s sitting at the table, we made a really conscious choice to put some heat on that and put a whiskey bottle on the table. The head space for me was like ‘The Shining,’ when Shelley Duvall walks in on Jack Nicholson and he’s hunched over that typewriter, and you’re like, ‘What is going to happen right now?’ There’s a little bit of danger.
“The first take, Eric wanted revenge; Eric wanted him to be smarter and stronger than perhaps he is. And so, what you end up doing is saying there’s two needs here: One is to punish her, and one is to regain her love and keep her as my wife. That one ends up outweighing the other, but it doesn’t negate the first. They’re sort of playing a tennis match, and the need is [what] ends up triumphing.”