Amanda Seyfried, Redefined: How ‘The Dropout’ Finally Opened the Door for More ‘Thrilling’ Roles

Photographs by Jill Greenberg

As much as Amanda Seyfried believed in “The Dropout,” she wasn’t expecting it to become a phenomenon. “I’ve never carried anything like this before, and now that it’s all done, it’s been amazing,” she marvels. “I’ve never felt the impact of something so viscerally. It feels like everyone I’ve talked to has seen it!”

She’s not wrong. “The Dropout” immediately cut through streaming TV’s increasingly crowded lineup in large part thanks to Seyfried’s undeniable performance as Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of a billion-dollar blood-testing company who’s since been convicted of fraud. For the role, Seyfried transformed physically like never before, nailing Holmes’ wild-eyed blank stare, eerie and invented baritone voice, and aggressively awkward dancing style (which has since become prime GIF fodder, to Seyfried’s delight and chagrin).

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Jill Greenberg for Variety

“Pretending to be somebody else with a different way of speaking, and expressing themselves, and even walking, is so thrilling,” she says after her Variety Power of Women cover shoot in New York City, just a little over a year since she accepted the role. “It’s just so fucking fun.”

Embodying Holmes was a new challenge for Seyfried. In fact, one of the only other projects she considers as much of a character piece is “Mean Girls,” in which the then 18-year-old, making her feature film debut, stole scenes as a sweet but dimwitted teen.

Today, she sees Karen Smith as “the most iconic type of character,” whom she compares — unexpectedly but perfectly — to Thomas Haden Church’s lovable dummy in “Wings.” In 2004, though, she had to be careful not to get stuck playing variations on the “dumb blond sidekick” theme forever. “When I think of what I want out of my career, I want longevity. So how do you do that?” she asks, though she already has the answer. “You work with different types of people and different mediums. You keep people guessing.”

Determined to carve her own path, Seyfried threw herself some curveballs. After “Mean Girls,” she joined HBO’s polygamist drama “Big Love,” playing Bill Paxton and Jeanne Tripplehorn’s daughter for five seasons. She fought for a role in Tom Hooper’s grim “Les Misérables,” and starred in the splashy “Mamma Mia!” franchise with Meryl Streep. She followed David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” revival with a supporting turn in David Fincher’s “Mank,” which landed her an Oscar nomination and more cultural capital than she’d had in years.

And so she spent it on “The Dropout,” which promised her the kind of complex lead role she’d been waiting for her entire life. “I think people in the industry are realizing that I can be cast as more than just versions of me,” she says. “Of course there’s some of me in Elizabeth — but the more Amanda can get lost, the more thrilling it is for me.”

As much as she seeks nuance in her career, Seyfried’s spent recent years finding balance and purpose in her personal life too. She moved to the Catskills long before the pandemic inspired so many city dwellers to do so, and continues to live there full-time with her husband, fellow actor Thomas Sadoski, their two children and assorted farm animals.

Sadoski introduced her to the International Network for Aid, Relief and Assistance, a nonprofit that connects refugee children with crucial medical and mental health care. After they had kids, Seyfried says, “it became more important for us to do as much as we possibly can to advocate for the work that INARA does: to raise money, to give our own, and also get our kids involved when it’s time. There’s nothing like these generations understanding other perspectives. … It breeds sympathy, empathy and compassion.”

Seyfried is careful to foreground those qualities in her own work. With “The Dropout,” for instance, she found ways to empathize with her character but is quick to acknowledge the very real havoc Holmes wreaked on vulnerable people.

“For the sake of all the victims of her lies, I hope they feel more seen,” Seyfried says. If nothing else, she hopes “The Dropout” does exactly what Holmes was most afraid of at the height of her deception: “The story keeps going if we keep talking about it — and then we don’t let her off the hook.”

Styling: Elizabeth Stewart/The Wall Group; Makeup: Genevieve Herr/Sally Harlow; Hair: Renato Campora/The Wall Group; Lavender dress (cover); Dress: Adeam; Pink Suit: Suit: Alexander McQueen; Shirt: L’agence