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Lizzy Caplan on ‘Shades’ of Kathy Bates, Portraying Mental Illness in ‘Castle Rock’

From her very first role in “Freaks and Geeks” to her scene-stealing performance in “Mean Girls,” Lizzy Caplan has cemented herself as an on-screen chameleon. Turns in “Party Down,” “New Girl,” “Masters of Sex” and “Das Boot” only added to an eclectic mix that continues on the second season of Hulu’s “Castle Rock,” in which she takes on the role of classic Stephen King character Annie Wilkes, previously portrayed by Kathy Bates in the 1990 film “Misery.” Soon, she will also be seen in Apple TV Plus’ adaptation of “Truth Be Told.”

Annie Wilkes has become such an iconic character, how much freedom did you feel you had to make her your own while portraying her younger years, versus have to tee up who pop culture fans knew she would become?

I was a big fan of the first season of the show. I watched it when it first came out, well before I had any idea I would be involved in the second season. So I knew the “Castle Rock” model is to take some of the familiar characters and then to put them into completely novel situations. In the first season they took some of the more obscure characters; in our season obviously Annie Wilkes is one of the most iconic characters in both the book “Misery” and of course the film “Misery.” So it was daunting, for sure. I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to incorporate what I loved about Kathy Bates’ performance into my own performance, but if you break up Annie Wilkes’ life into three parts, there’s her childhood, there’s the bulk of what our story is about, and then there’s what you see of her in the film. Even though the situations that she finds herself in are very, very different than anything you would imagine in just watching the film, I wanted to have our Annie feasibly be able to become that Annie in the future. So there were different shades of how to attack that, and I thought a lot about how, if I was just a viewer of the show, I wasn’t going to be particularly interested in seeing a brand new, completely start-from-scratch version of Annie Wilkes — because what Kathy Bates did was so beloved; it certainly was for me. I wanted to have a few shades to quite a few shades of her performance in my own just so it felt like our Annie Wilkes could grow into hers.

Her voice and her walk are two of the most distinctive pieces. How did you find them?

It’s funny, I read the book and I’m actually re-listening to the audiobook right now, and even the voiceover actress who’s reading “Misery” is kind of falling into a similar cadence. So I give a lot of credit to Kathy Bates, but also on the page it feels right, I guess, for all of us who have attemped to play this very complicated, very wonderful lady. One of the things that is very clear in the movie and in the book is that Annie Wilkes’ physicality is very solid and just appears physically imposing. Now, I’m not very tall and I’m not very physically imposing, so I was trying to figure out some kind of way to give her walk at least something that made her feel off-kilter. There’s a great line in the book that says, “Having a conversation with Annie Wilkes is like listening to a song out of key.” So I knew I didn’t want her to walk in the way that I walk in my regular life, and for whatever reason, what came out of it was out-turned feet and never swinging my arms. That just made me feel grounded in her shoes.

The discussion around Annie’s mental health has differed slightly between the book and the movie version of “Misery”; did you feel you had to diagnose her in order to embody her?

Our Annie is in a slightly different phase in her mental illnesses than the Annie in the book and movie. In the film and book, she’s been living a life of pretty much complete isolation and she doesn’t seem to be treating any of her psychological disorders. Our Annie is still attempting to move in the world; she’s around other human beings, she’s very much up against regular, day-to-day humanity, and she has the responsibility of her daughter. So she is very much trying to quote-unquote keep it together. And so we see her in our show attempting to prescribe her own medications to midigate some of her symptoms. There’s a really interesting special feature in the DVD of “Misery” where a shrink diagnoses Annie Wilkes, and the truth is she’s kind of this hodgepodge: She’s basically got everything — every version of psychosis — and so that is both daunting and also allows for a bit of wiggle room. She doesn’t have one specific disorder. And she is also self-medicating, so that changes some of her symptoms. But the bigger question for our show is, you have a protagonist who is a very unreliable narrator — her world view is very obviously skewed — so if you take that narrator, who is at her core quite unreliable, and you put her in a situation where even the most level-headed, sane character in the world would find completely upside-down, how do you modulate that? Somebody who has a really hard time discerning fact from fiction is in a scenario where anybody would have a hard time discerning fact from fiction, and that gives us a lot more freedom around how that person would react in those situations.

How do you think “Castle Rock” will alter how villainous the audience thinks Annie is?

Annie believes, to her core, that she is doing everything right and that she is the hero and that everything she does is to protect her daughter. That as the original thread is very helpful because I think many parents will go to extreme lengths to protect their children; they might break some laws if it means protecting their kids. Annie takes that to a bit of extreme more than once, but we also tried to make her a sympathetic character — not wholly sympathetic, because that takes away from some of the joy of who she is, but she had a very, very rough childhood, and she clearly is mentally ill. So, you combine that with many periods throughout her life from childhood onward of isolation and probably the wrong parents, and you mix all of that up, and you see why somebody might end up as unhinged as Annie Wilkes.

How much is her motivation in “Castle Rock” affected by the fact that she has a daughter?

Annie striving for sanity and control is all down to wanting to be the person that Joy can rely on. Definitely at the beginning, and then that need becomes more intense as that very basic goal becomes more and more complicated. This is pretty much the moment where Joy is starting to spread her wings and wants to experience life without her mother. Up until this point it was easier for Annie because she was very much Joy’s entire universe, and only when they get to Castle Rock does she have to start contending with some outside forces. But this is the Annie Wilkes we are trying to portray: When she was young, her complete obsession was her father; for the majority of our season her total obsession is her daughter; and then we know the book and the film, her obsession is “Misery” and Paul Sheldon. She is somebody who needs to hook into a singular obsession to move forward in her life, unfortunately for other people.

How did you find the relationship between Annie and her daughter with Elsie Fisher, who played her daughter?

It was very easy to find chemistry with Elsie; she is a child angel. I give Elsie more credit than any other kid in the world — the fact that she turned 16 on set and spent the past year on a press tour for one of the most beloved, iconic films, and she showed up on set without a trace of arrogance. There’s something inherently sweet and young and innocent about Elsie, and so immediately I felt protective of her — me, Lizzy, outside of the character. So it wasn’t hard to translate into the narrative of the show. Really we were just trying to find the truth in every scene together. The circumstances this young girl has been raised in — driving around the country with her mother, completely isolated from other kids. It’s this idea of a mother-daughter relationship that’s very close, but the daughter is becoming a teenager and she wants to find her own autonomy, which is very common for every teenage, but you put them in this completely bonkers situation, and it feels very much like life or death instead of the normal growing pains that mothers and daughters experience with each other.

Are there any common threads to pull between your work on “Castle Rock” and “Truth Be Told”?

I play twins in “Truth Be Told,” and one of them is also completely bonkers. I guess this is my mid-30s career, which, by the way, I’m so onboard with: I never want to stop playing these insane women. But “Truth Be Told” is very different from the book, so if you’ve read the book, the resolution, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the show, as far as I can tell.

In a broader sense, was there something about both of these projects that led you to them? How do you choose your projects today?

I’m choosing my projects basically in the way I like to say I always have which is just the character: If I can get behind the character and think I can bring something to that, I will swing to it. Of course, as one gets older, you have other things to think about; it’s not the same as being 21 and I could go off and do whatever I wanted because these jobs have to fit into my bigger life now. So I don’t want to work as much, but when I do work, I want to work on projects that utterly kick my ass and leave me on the side of the road every day, and I will say that is what “Castle Rock” did.

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