The presence of true crime shows on television is rapidly growing, and not just in terms of documentary-style series, but TV dramas as well. The latest is Hulu’s The Act, an eight-episode limited series telling the bizarre story of Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter, Gypsy Rose Blanchard, that would end with the mother’s murder and Gypsy and her boyfriend in jail.
Executive producer and co-showrunner Nick Antosca explains, “True crime is so popular because of our fascination with what’s going on behind the façade, right? There’s a particular fascination with true crime that happens in places that seem safe or normal. When I read Helter Skelter when I was a kid, which is one of the seminal true crime books for me, what grabbed me was the idea that these things could happen to normal kids. They can be seduced by a maniac and could go in and murder people in the Hollywood Hills. It’s the idea that a normal life can be disrupted. And this story of The Act, in particular, has such a ‘stranger than fiction’ quality. I think even after you see the documentary, after you’ve read the BuzzFeed article — all of the nonfiction stuff — you still have questions and you still wonder what it was like to be in that house.”
“That house” was the Blanchard home, where Dee Dee, allegedly suffering from a pronounced case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, told the world — and Gypsy herself — that the girl suffered from leukemia, asthma, muscular dystrophy and had the mental capacity of a 7-year-old as a result of brain damage. This prolonged lie, coupled with them losing the house they were living in because of Hurricane Katrina, resulted in Habitat for Humanity building them a home that included a wheelchair ramp; Gypsy receiving the 2007 Oley Foundation award in the category of Child of the Year; free flights to doctors, trips to Disney World, and backstage passes at Miranda Lambert concerts. Through it all, Dee Dee kept altering her daughter’s appearance to fit the image of a sickly child undergoing chemotherapy, among other things, even though none of it was actually true.
Things went on for years, until Gypsy met Nicholas Godejohn online and a romance began between the two of them. In 2015, after Dee Dee demanded that Gypsy no longer see him, the young couple plotted the woman’s murder with Nicholas stabbing her to death. The two of them thought with mom out of the way, they could just go on about their lives. Needless to say, they were caught by the authorities and, in the end, Nicholas was sentenced to life in prison, while Gypsy accepted a plea bargain (offered because of the emotional and physical abuse inflicted on her by her mother) and was sentenced to 10 years.
In turning the true story into a dramatic series, Nick, along with Michelle Dean, who had written the original BuzzFeed article it’s based on, reflected on true crime “drama dissertations” that were truly meaningful to them. “We talked about movies like Boys Don’t Cry and Heavenly Creatures that take seemingly lurid crimes with tabloid headlines, and dig under the surface to ask questions about the humanity of the characters. And then use dramatic storytelling to get to a deeper truth and what the experience might have been like for the people involved. The key for me was realizing that you want to tell a story not about a crime, but about the people behind the crime.”
And the key to the show, everyone involved knew, would be the casting of the parts of Dee Dee and Gypsy, and, to a lesser degree, Nick. They ended up with Patricia Arquette (who won the Academy Award, BAFTA Award, Critics’ Choice Award, Golden Globe Award and more for Best Supporting Actress in the 2014 film Boyhood) as Dee Dee, Joey King (Ramona and Beezus, Oz the Great and Powerful, Slender Man) as Gypsy; and Calum Worthy (Austin & Ally) as Nick.
“Patricia Arquette is Patricia Arquette,” Nick laughs in saying why she was brought in for the part. “She’s an incredible actress. I’ve been a fan of her since Nightmare on Elm Street 3, all the way through Boyhood and beyond. She just brings a groundedness and a humanity, and at the same time, she’s not afraid to do monstrous things. You know, we had been warned that it might be difficult to find someone to play Dee Dee, because people might be afraid to play a monstrous, horrible mother. But there was never any issue with that with Patricia, who was our first choice. And she was ready to dive into the pool; just an incredible actress and person to work with. What she did was a balancing act between humanity and monster that so few actors would be able to do.
“In the writer’s room,” he adds, “we spent a lot of time talking about what might have motivated Dee Dee. How this was a genuine love that was poisonous and then toxic. And, you know, a mother’s love is deeply human, deeply relatable, even if it does turn toxic.”
Joey King, Nick closes, “is a revelation. I mean, we auditioned I don’t know how many actresses for that role and then Joey came in and that was it. Michelle Dean and I were there with the casting directors watching the audition. When Joey left, we just kind of looked at each other and were, like, ‘I think that’s Gypsy.’ Even so, I was still astonished the first day that we saw her fully embody the character with the teeth, the shaved head and the voice. I was a little bit familiar with her previous work, but she just does something amazing as Gypsy.”
The Act is currently available for streaming on Hulu.
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