Patricia Arquette plays Dee Dee Blanchard, mother of Gypsy Blanchard (Joey King), a girl trying to escape the toxic relationship she has with her overprotective mother.
Josmar Taveras, USA TODAY
NEW YORK – Patricia Arquette’s kids were terrified about her starring role in “The Act.”
In Hulu’s chilling new drama (first two episodes streaming Wednesday), the actress plays the real-life Dee Dee Blanchard, who was brutally stabbed to death in 2015 by her daughter Gypsy Rose’s boyfriend. Gypsy “lived” with chronic conditions for years – leukemia, muscular dystrophy and asthma among them – but most were later found to be fabricated by Dee Dee as part of an elaborate scam to get money.
“I told my kids I was thinking about doing this project, and they were like, ‘No, Mom, don’t do it,’ ” jokes Arquette, who has two children (Enzo, 30, and Harlow, 16). “I was like, ‘Guys, you know this is pretend for me. I’m not going to poison you.’ ”
Arquette, 50, has long been fascinated by Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a mental disorder in which a caregiver exaggerates or causes symptoms in someone who’s often not actually sick. She watched many documentaries on the subject, but what stood out to her about this particular case was Gypsy’s resistance to the abuse: eating sugary foods until her teeth rotted, starting a sexual relationship with an online boyfriend and, eventually, conspiring in the murder of her mom.
“This little girl takes control, and makes a lot of very important choices that have big implications,” Arquette says. “That’s what’s really different about this story: Very few victims rise up and take their power back, certainly not in this way.”
Although she doesn’t believe you need to empathize with characters in order to play them, Arquette could relate on some level to Dee Dee’s fierce protectiveness.
“My daughter ended up going away to school right before we started this, so I was having a lot of feelings of, ‘How will I know where she is? How can I defend her? I’m going to miss her so bad,’ ” Arquette says. “So I took these normal, common feelings and extended them to almost phobic levels. For Dee Dee, when Gypsy would be in the other room, that was a trauma – for her just to be out of her sight felt too dangerous.”
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Even after her mom was dead, Gypsy repeatedly called Dee Dee her “best friend,” says Michelle Dean, who co-created the show and wrote the BuzzFeed article on which it’s based. (The case also inspired an HBO documentary and Lifetime movie.)
“A thing I love about Patricia and what she’s done in ‘The Act’ is that she’s seized on the fact Dee Dee’s tenderness is often a big part of the cruelty,” Dean says. “It’s what kept Gypsy attached, in spite of everything that was happening and the horribleness of it. There was a certain softness to Dee Dee that was there to cover up the spike.”
Playing Dee Dee required Arquette to undergo a dramatic physical transformation, as she did to portray another real-life character, Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell in Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora.” She dons a wiry, brownish-gray wig and leg prosthetics to appear swollen from diabetes in later episodes. There are also emotional parallels between the two women.
“They’re both self-centered and depressed in different ways, and they both want love,” Arquette says. “So there’s common human elements that we all have.”
For “Dannemora,” which aired last fall, Arquette claimed Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, and is sure to be an Emmy contender, along with “The Act.” She says she’s getting some of the best roles of her career right now, after winning a best supporting actress Oscar in 2014 for “Boyhood.”
“I didn’t anticipate that,” Arquette says. The influx of streaming services and specialty cable networks has “opened a lot of doors for different storytellers and more diversity, so it’s a good time for everybody right now. Certainly in my case, being a 50-year-old woman, I didn’t imagine I’d be getting good parts like this. I don’t know how long it will last for, so knock on wood.”
10 new shows are coming to TV this spring including “The Act” on Hulu and “Turn Up Charlie” on Netflix.
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