The Act is a story as repellant as it is enthralling—a tale of mother-daughter tension at its most gruesome extremes. The Hulu series, which debuted this week, is an adaptation of co-creator Michelle Deans instantly viral 2016 BuzzFeed story, “Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter to Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom Murdered.”
Dee Dee Blanchard likely suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, in which sufferers feign or induce symptoms of physical or psychological illness in another person—in this case, her daughter, Gypsy Rose. (Dee Dee was dead by the time the story made national news, and thus could never be officially diagnosed.) Throughout Gypsys childhood, her mother drugged her with an unknown cocktail of medications, forced her to use an unnecessary wheelchair and feeding tube, and subjected her to multiple painful surgeries. All of this plays out on-screen in The Act, making the show at times sickening to watch—but due in large part to the performances of leads Patricia Arquette and Joey King, its also nearly impossible to look away from.
In an interview, Dean said that Hollywood expressed interest in her story within days of its publication—“and it sort of came as a surprise.” This signaled to Dean that someone would adapt her story regardless of whether she was part of the process herself. Obviously, certain elements of the tale would have to be dramatized—but as she said, “it was important to me that somebody who knew about the case be heavily involved.” In the end, Dean and co-creator Nick Antosca collaborated on a series that can be tough viewing—but only because its characters are so completely, undeniably human.
Vanity Fair: Youve said you wanted this adaptation to be grounded in emotion, rather than taking a more lurid approach. What specific choices did you and Nick make to achieve that goal?
Michelle Dean: We both made the decision that certain things that came to light in the reporting werent integral to the story and didnt need to be focused on. So theres a certain amount of just picking and choosing the parts of the story that we thought were more emotionally resonant as opposed to just shocking.
And then, a really direct way that it happened, and this is credited to Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, who did Episodes 1, 2, and 6—as our pilot director, she got to set a lot of the tone of our show. She went into [the Blanchards] house, which is very colorful, obviously, in real life, and she elevated the palette in a way that I really admire. She made it possible to an audience to see why they found the world that they lived in so beautiful, and I feel like that choice about the set design informed a lot of what we were thinking about: how do we dramatize this so that people can see the situation in the way that the people who lived it did, as closely as possible?
How did you decide which aspects of the Blanchards inner lives would be ethical to imagine, and which wouldnt be?
Its a really interesting question, and I think we did this as thoughtfully and consciously as we could under the circumstances. But I think part of that is just being thoughtful about it at all points, right? I dont think that Gypsy, the real person, was far from the minds of anybody on the production throughout the time that we were working on it.
I think ethically, its less about drawing a line at a certain situation, or a certain fact or visual, and more about asking yourself, Are we doing this in a thoughtful way? if we are choosing to depart from fact—and where we have to depart from fact because of pacing, or tone, or lots of other demands that television makes on us. The question is, Are we aware of what were really doing?
How did the writers room discuss how to handle Dee Dees character? Obviously, she committed a lot of monstrous acts, but as youve noted, she was also likely suffering from Munchausen by proxy. How do you convey that without painting a possibly mentally ill person as evil with a capital “E”?
Yeah. Well, and also the things that she did are unquestionably evil, right? I mean, thats one way to do it. So I had the writers room read Rachel Cusk, who had, its called A Lifes Work: On Becoming a Mother, and Adrienne Rich [who wrote Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution]. And Vivian Gornick wrote a book about her mother called Fierce Attachments. I had them all read those books in part because I wanted to have a more wholesome discussion among us about the trope of the Good Mother, which was obviously like a fantasy that Dee Dee was trying to live out. She really strained to be the good mother who somehow ended up to be the exact opposite, and I think that that is an interesting duality.
We dont know very much about Dee Dee because shes gone, and she never really spoke to this experience. We had to guess pretty much everything. But a lot of that was informed by that intellectual work on mothers. Its not to say that there are any mothers like Dee Dee in those books; its more about the cultural constructs of motherhood, and the way in which it can be really damaging to women to [seek] this kind of validation without mediation.
What was it like to transition from telling this story as one person to collaborating with a writers room—especially one that included so many women?
It was great. The thing that I most enjoyed about this process—and Im so grateful to Nick for introducing me to it—is the collaborative nature of the writers room. I was initially a little bit like, its going to be weird—Im not sure how this is going to work out. And Nick insisted that I was going to find it helpful. We had a blessed writers room that was able to move very nimbly and very quickly, but was also filled with deeply intelligent writers. We chose very carefully, and we ended up with writers who had worked on Mad Men and Better Call Saul and Westworld, and had really a good, strong backing in prestige television and prestige storytelling. Which, I kind of hate the word prestige storytelling, but the truth is it meant that they were into a sort of complexity. And that we really needed here.
It was great to not feel alone, especially because its really dark subject matter and it can be a really intense subject to just sort of live in for a really long time.
I think what I really want to focus on is just the fact that we were a show, and Nick was also the leader of the show, but it was produced by so many women. And that we had a majority-female writers room, we had majority-female directors—and we also had some great men working on the show, dont get me wrong—but, you know, its still like a little bit rare to have that achievement. And it was really gratifying in terms of shaping the show that we have into something that gets into pretty dark and deep subject matter. A lot of that is tied to budding female sexuality. And it was just really gratifying to have all of these people participating in it. And Id love to be talking about that more.
As somebody who has now seen so many sides of this story—you have a legal background, youve reported the story, youve adapted it—what do you take away from it all?
Well, because you alluded to the legal background: I dont really think that the best place fRead More