Michelle Dean’s 2016 Buzzfeed article about real-life mother/daughter duo Dee Dee Blanchard and Gypsy Rose Blanchard predated the popular documentary about them “Mommy Dead and Dearest.” For the first installment of their Hulu anthology, produced by UCP, “The Act,” Dean and fellow writer, executive producer, and co-creator Nick Antosca told the story of the Blanchards’ toxic relationship, in which Dee Dee manipulated Gypsy — and the world — into believing the latter was sick, while Gypsy struggled to grow up under such rule and ultimately ended up manipulating someone else into killing her mother. Antosca and Dean looked to tell a story not about “what happened,” but instead “how it happened.”
The first episode starts with a glimpse at the fatality of the situation, but Antosca points out, the title of the show is really more about the act of deception on Dee Dee’s (played by Patricia Arquette) part, rather than the act of murder.
“It’s not about the murder, it’s about how we got to the murder,” Antosca tells Variety. “We really start the story at happily ever after — the fairy tale. Their performance is firing on all cylinders; the world believes Dee Dee is the best mom around and that Gypsy is this disabled, innocent, pure child. The colors are pastel. And then quickly, happily ever after is going to fall apart.”
In 2008 the Blanchards move into a pink house that Habitat for Humanity built them in Springfield, Mo. The show spends most of its time exploring what the seven years were like for the women inside that home, as Gypsy (played by Joey King) went along with some of her mother’s lies (“There is no disputing she knew she could walk,” despite the fact that Dee Dee pushed Gypsy around in a wheelchair, Antosca reminds) but also slowly started to rebel.
Antosca says it would have “felt like cheating” to wait to reveal how much Gypsy was in on the deception, so he peeled back the layer on her quickly in the premiere episode. However, he notes, as episodes go on, Gypsy slowly begins to realize she is being deceived, too.
“In a way it’s a coming-of-age story of Gypsy,” he says. “The first episode is 90% the act; we’re seeing the facade and what they want to show the world, and then in Episode 2 it’s like 60%. In every episode more darkness shines through as Gypsy’s awareness of what’s being done increases.”
For Dean, who used to be a TV critic and says she never responded well to true crime shows that were simply dramatic reenactments, what she most wanted to see explored in “The Act” was “that girl getting up at night and what she does in the dark.” It’s something she admits she has thought about constantly over the last three years since writing the article, especially as she hears more people call the Blanchards “crazy” in response to hearing their story.
“I get that a lot of extreme behavior happened here, but these people were real, and they did things and had reasons for things in a way that I feel like the tabloid coverage can get really blind about,” she says. To counteract this, in the writers’ room for “The Act,” “there was a lot of discussion about, ‘What is the telling of this that would be the most true to the emotional logic?’ You don’t want to portray people inaccurately, but I think if you stay true to the emotional truth, you get pretty close. That was what was important to me.”
Since the timeline of events and the “external story” were already well-known from the news stories, Antosca says the focus in the writers’ room became about getting inside the minds of the characters and exploring the psychology behind “What is it like when you’re injecting your daughter with something you know she doesn’t need?” and “What is it like when you’re lying to the world by also lying to yourself?” as well as why Gypsy manipulated someone else to kill her mother, when she “was in that house all of the time and could have poisoned her or stabbed her.”
The goal was to stay true to the “spirit” of what happened but be able to take some creative liberties, such as combining events, compositing characters, or even setting the story on a cul-de-sac “to make it feel more like an insular community,” he says.
However, there are certain images associated with the story that were too “iconic” to touch, Antosca admits, such as the Blanchards’ house. “We built it exactly,” he says. “We used the blueprints; we used the photographs.” When production wrapped, they tore it down and donated the materials to Habitat for Humanity.
A lot of what drew Antosca to the story, he says, was simply how “different” the women’s story was from anything he had ever experienced in his own reality or in his past storytelling. But despite how specific the events of Dee Dee and Gypsy’s lives turned out to be, he feels there is something relatable in their relationship in “the desire for independence” from Gypsy and “the desire for connection and loyalty and validation from someone we love” from both of them.
Although Antosca points out that Gypsy “only has the tools that her mom gave her,” so it’s not easy to tell when she speaks what is true and what is partially a manipulation, he believes she did love her mother, so the act of killing Dee Dee, to Gypsy, was “almost an act of mercy.”
“If their fraud was exposed her mom would go to jail, and if she just left, got away somehow, then her mom would be abandoned. So to her this was the cleanest way out, and I don’t think she took any homicidal pleasure in the murder,” Antosca says. Still, although Gypsy was “very much a victim, that doesn’t absolve you of responsibility.”
Therefore, the show won’t end with the reveal of who killed Dee Dee but instead spend some time with Gypsy in the courtroom and ultimately end with her in prison, which is where the real-life younger Blanchard still is today.
“We wanted to end in a place where the audience can ask themselves, ‘Will she ever be able to escape this?’ As seems to be the case in life, she escaped, but she’s not free. It’s an open question whether she’ll ever really escape her mom [and] ever be anything but the person her mom made her into. We don’t know,” Antosca says.
“The Act” premieres Mar. 20 on Hulu.
This story has been updated to reflect Antosca and Dean co-created “The Act.” An earlier version noted them only as writers and executive producers.