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On the Set of ‘The Act’: How Patricia Arquette, Joey King Went “Grotesque” for Hulu Series

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The Hollywood Reporter visits the set of the limited series — based on the true story of a mother who forced her child to feign illness for years — which serves up memorable performances along with “mystery, humanity and great human drama.”
Gypsy Rose Blanchard didn’t need a wheelchair. She certainly didn’t require a feeding tube. But for the first 20 years of her life, she was forced into a bizarre charade of fake ailments and shuttled in and out of hospitals by her mother, Dee Dee Blanchard, who herself suffered from a rare case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. It all came crashing to an end on June 14, 2015, when Gypsy Rose snapped and, along with her boyfriend, stabbed her mother 20 times, killing her.

Just three years later, last fall, this real-life tragedy was being re-created on a set in Savannah, Georgia, for The Act, an eight-hour limited series for Hulu that stars Patricia Arquette as Dee Dee, Joey King as the Disney princess-loving Gypsy Rose, AnnaSophia Robb as Gypsy Rose’s friend and Chloë Sevigny as the neighbor who suspects that something isn’t quite right with the Blanchard family.

The story had everything,” says co-showrunner Nick Antosca. “It had mystery, it had humanity, it had the great human drama — the relationship between mother and daughter.

Much of the series, which debuted the first of its eight episodes March 20, was shot at a local church that production designers transformed into a children’s hospital, as well as various real-life doctors’ offices. The Blanchard home, a bright pink bungalow (built by Habitat for Humanity), was decorated in what co-showrunner Michelle Dean calls “hypnotizing” florals; the costumes were equally colorful. Arquette’s character was outfitted in bright, oversized blouses that, the actress says, were “alarming in the way it looked very non-sexual, almost like, ‘My whole life is being the mom.’ Safe, cozy, warm, traditional, almost Holly Hobbie-ish, like a Cabbage Patch personality.

Even the stuffed animals Gypsy Rose clutches through much of the series (in real life, she’s now serving 10 years in prison) were chosen to boost the horror of the show’s happy-creepy atmospherics. “The grotesque that underlies the cuteness,” is how director Christina Choe describes it.

According to Sevigny, though, the most useful prop was Savannah itself. “It’s such a haunted city,” she says. “There was a paper mill there, so the scent of the mill just permeates, which is kind of depressing but also so specific. All of these weird elements added to our show.”


Joey King delves into a twisted true-life killing in ‘The Act’


Joey King will tell you that when it came to preparing for her role as Gypsy Rose Blanchard, the young woman whose twisted upbringing would make headlines after her involvement in the death of her mother, that it was as much a mental journey as it was a physical transformation.

Hulu’s “The Act” is a dramatization of the real-life horror story of Blanchard and her mother, Dee Dee. For years, Dee Dee made her daughter believe that she suffered from a number of serious health maladies, earning the pair public sympathy and help from charity organizations. Experts would later deem it to be a case of Munchausen by proxy syndrome, a mental disorder in which a caregiver makes up or induces illnesses for sympathy or attention. After figuring out she hadn’t really been sick, Gypsy helped to plot her mother’s death in 2015. (Gypsy is currently serving a 10-year sentence after pleading guilty to her role in her mother’s killing.)

The case gained national attention following the release of a 2016 Buzzfeed article and an HBO documentary, “Mommy Dead and Dearest.” King, 19, relied on interview footage to help capture Gypsy’s demeanor and childlike voice. She also wore prosthetic teeth and shaved her head to better resemble Gypsy. But then came the internal navigation.

I had to imagine what Gypsy was like in her more quiet moments by herself,” King said when she recently stopped by the L.A. Times video studio. “There’s this way that she is around her mom — and you can see a lot of that in the footage that’s been put out there. But when she’s alone, I imagined, what I put out there, would just be a little bit different — especially as time goes on.

“The Act,” which is nearing the end of its first season, spends most of its time exploring the mother-daughter dynamic over a seven-year stretch, after the two moved to a home built by Habitat for Humanity in Springfield, Mo., in 2008. It chronicles how Gypsy comes of age — or at least tries to in secret — and slowly realizes the deception at play.

The bottom line is, she and her mom both had the same desire: to love and be loved,” King said. “But Dee Dee’s love for Gypsy was so toxic and so unhealthy that even though Gypsy loved her, she just wasn’t getting what a young girl needs from a mother or from anyone. So doing these things in secret, eating the sugar, I wanted to play that. There is a sense of guilt from Gypsy when she does all these things because she does love her mom. You should never get the sense, throughout the series, that Gypsy hates her mom. … I think when Gypsy is experiencing these new things on her own, it’s exciting, it’s freeing, it’s her little secret, but there is a sense of guilt that comes with that because she doesn’t want to hurt the person that is closest to her even though she wants to break away from that closeness.

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Gypsy Rose Blanchard reveals how she feels about Joey King playing her in The Act

Joey King is currently receiving critical acclaim for her starring role, which is based on the shocking true story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her mother Dee Dee. Dee Dee suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy and made Gypsy pretend to suffer from multiple diseases for years on end. In 2015, Gypsy killed Dee Dee and she is currently serving 10 years in prison for second degree murder. Now Gypsy has spoken out about Joey King.

According to E!, Gyspy is very fond of Joey. Speaking to the publication, Gypsy’s family friend Fancy Macelli said: “That was someone she really liked. She was very excited about Joey portraying her.” However, Fancy then went on to add: “But she’s very unhappy with the actual series itself.” Gypsy hasn’t been able to watch the series in prison. Not only that, but she has already revealed that she intends to sue the creators.

In a statement to Bustle, Gypsy wrote: “I am unable to watch The Act. However, I feel it is very unfair and unprofessional that producers and co-producer Michelle Dean has used my actual name and story without my consent, and the life rights to do so. Therefore, there will be legal action taken against the show’s creators.” As it stands, everyone working on The Act is profiting off of Gypsy’s story without her consent.

Speaking to E! Fancy also said that Gypsy is worried about how her friend Aleah (who is called Lacey in the show and is played by Anna Sophia-Robb) is being portrayed in The Act. “She heard from people about how Aleah was being portrayed and she was very upset about that because Aleah was such a positive influence for her like an older sister and she didn’t like that.

Many viewers of The Act have warmed to Lacey (her character is warm and kind) but, given that Gypsy can’t even see the show to judge for herself, it’s understandable that she’s concerned. Fancy is currently developing her own show about Gypsy with Gypsy’s involvement. It is currently unclear who will star in the series and when it will come out.

Gypsy is due to be released from prison in 2024 but people are petitioning for her to be freed sooner.


Joey King talks about her acting career, goals, and future projects

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Joey King has come very far from her days as a child actor. The burgeoning star is transitioning into a brilliant film and television career as she approaches her 20th birthday, most recently giving a command performance in The Act on Hulu. In the series, King plays Gyspy Rose Blanchard who murdered her abusive mother who spent her life fabricating her illnesses and disabilities to scam people.

King has proven her range and depth as an actress as she takes on these more challenging roles. At 5’4’’ she’s the little lady with the big acting range. Last year she started in The Kissing Booth on Netflix, proving her ability to take on leading lady roles in romantic comedies. From comedy to drama, King has proven she can do it all and then some.

AS IF sat down with her to discuss her recent and upcoming projects, her approach to acting technique, and her other interests and passions in addition to acting.

Let’s talk about your character Gypsy in The Act. Playing Gypsy was the first time you transformed yourself for a role. Tell me about the process of that transformation and the responsibilities you have of telling the story of a person who’s still alive?
People have been asking me if I am a Method actor who stayed in character on and off set, and the answer to that is no. I’m not the type of person that can do that mentally, it would take too much of a toll on me. But, there were times when I took Gypsy home and it was really hard to shake her off. I had to decompress by watching cartoons. I started the process of becoming her by getting to know her through information available online, like news articles and videos. I was really lucky that we had Michelle Dean working on the project with us. Michelle was the writer who wrote the Buzzfeed article that made the story go viral, and she was one of our producers. Michelle was on Gypsy’s side because she had a personal relationship with her, so I could turn to Michelle whenever I had any questions.

You are not a Method actor, but let’s talk about the scene in the court room. It was very emotional. How did you get to that place?
I definitely give myself about five minutes to get into a certain headspace before the camera rolls. It’s interesting because I’m playing a character I don’t have a lot in common with, so getting in that headspace takes more focus because I’m trying to relate to something that I can’t possibly begin to imagine. I was really fortunate to have such great directors, and the entire crew was so supportive that it made the process that much easier. Once I started getting into the headspace of the heavier scenes the character that I came to know took over for me—once I started going to that place my character knew what to do.

Do you prefer acting in one genre more than the any other?
My heart lies with drama. I love all genres, like comedy, but my heart lies in drama and when working in drama I feel most productive.

This is not the first time that you’ve shaved your head for a part.

The first time you did was when you were 11-years-old?

You had a lot of controversy aimed at you for doing so, and one would think in today’s day and age, where many stigmas and stereotypes are dissolving, that women could shave their head without an onslaught of negative comments.
Shaving my head again, this time for The Act, and playing a character so different than anything I’ve ever done before, helped me learn so much about myself. I have never felt happier than working on this project. Shaving my head was something I was a nervous about even though I had done it before. I don’t know what has happened to me over the years, but the negative comments people say don’t really register anymore, which I’m so thankful for because I feel beautiful, and I feel proud of myself. I feel proud of myself for being allowed to play this character and to work with actors I admire so much. I am proud that I got to tell someone’s life story to the best of my ability. This was such a great opportunity for me as an actor that it didn’t even cross my mind that people would judge me for the cosmetic aspects of the role. The reality is I’m proud of myself and happy with the way I look. It was a bizarrely enjoyable experience to be able to completely strip away all vanity and become Gypsy, so fuck what other people say, I’m proud of myself! (laughs)

Full  interview:

The Act: How Patricia Arquette Helped Joey King Transform into Gypsy Rose Blanchard

Anyone who pays attention to burgeoning talent in Hollywood has had their eye on Joey King for some time. Though only 19 years old, the Los Angeles native has been working steadily in film and television for 12 years, attracting attention for her preternatural maturity—which allowed her to hold her own opposite acting heavyweights in Season 1 of FX’s Fargo—and her arresting features, which stood out even in the gloomy prison pit of The Dark Knight Rises, where King played a young version of Marion Cotillard’s villainess. But for her latest and most ambitious role yet, in Hulu’s The Act, King had to transform into the real-life figure of Gypsy Rose Blanchard—a teenage girl who was grievously abused by her mother, Dee Dee, and is currently serving time for orchestrating Dee Dee’s murder.

The story of Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee Blanchard is much stranger than fiction. As outlined in the 2017 HBO documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest, as well as Michelle Dean’s in-depth reporting for BuzzFeed, Dee Dee (played on-screen by Patricia Arquette) was engaged in a long-term con job to fake a variety of illnesses for her daughter, in order to benefit both from the sympathy and fiscally lucrative charities that supported Gypsy Rose. The con involved some acting on Gypsy’s part, but Dee Dee also kept her daughter sick using unneeded medication. For this project, King had to tackle almost a triple role—playing the deeply sick girl Gypsy Rose pretended to be, the actually sick girl her mother ensured she’d be, and the healthy girl she dreamed of being. In 2015, Gypsy Rose conspired with Nicholas Godejohn (played by American Vandal breakout Calum Worthy) to kill her mother.

For anyone who has seen footage of the real Gypsy Rose, King’s performance is a chameleonic revelation. In order to take on such a psychologically and physically demanding role, King leaned heavily on her co-star and on-screen mother: Arquette. “When I looked in the mirror after shaving my head,” King told me during a lengthy chat at the Television Critics Association winter press tour last month, “I thought to myself: ‘Holy shit, I’m about to play Gypsy Rose Blanchard for four and a half months of my life. Next to Patricia Arquette. Are you kidding me?’” Here, in her own words, is how King did it.

Vanity Fair: Had you watched the HBO documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest before your audition? You capture Gypsy Rose’s voice so well.
Joey King
: When I got the audition, I watched the documentary, and I was so excited and nervous. I wanted it so bad. I was called in twice, and they said both times in their e-mails: ‘Don’t do the voice when you come in. Don’t do the voice.’ So I didn’t do the voice, and I got the role. Then, I called our show-runner and some producers, and said: ‘Y’all, I think I should do the voice. I think it’s a huge part of who she was.’ They never wanted it to seem like we’re making fun, or sensationalizing who Gypsy was, but I’m so thankful that they let me.

It’s pretty uncanny. And I know you listened to tapes of her voice over and over while preparing. Was your preparation process for this role similar to things you’ve done in the past?
I feel I’ve really let go of any ego, vanity, anything I knew or thought I knew about acting, to just really try and dive into this as deeply as I could. There’s a lot of twists [in The Act], and disturbing information revealed in crazy ways. What I love is this show is in no way sensationalizing. It’s a chilling story, and you should feel disturbed while watching it.

Some of the most unsettling footage from Mommy Dead and Dearest features a repentant and vulnerable Gypsy Rose in jail. When I watched it, I genuinely couldn’t tell if she’s being real or if she’s manipulating us, the viewer.
That’s the thing: Gypsy’s a master manipulator. She was raised by one, and now she is one. It’s not her fault, and it’s going to be so hard for her to adapt to normal life . . . I pray for her that she’s able to find someone to talk to when she gets out, and starts to try and adjust to normal life and lead normal relationships.

Did you talk to her at all?
No. We weren’t able to.

Do you wish you could have?
I do. But I am so grateful that Michelle Dean, who reported on the Blanchards, was a producer on the show. I was able to sit down and talk with her for hours about anything. Speaking to Michelle was the next best thing. Now that I’m finished filming, I think that maybe if I had contacted Gypsy, it might not have been a good thing. I just have a feeling.

Gypsy’s father, Rod Blanchard, and his second wife, Kristy Blanchard, are such a key part of the documentary. Do you know how they feel about this adaptation?
I’m not really sure what her family’s feelings are. I just know that Michelle was very close to them, and would talk to them often. They’re aware that the show’s happening. I think that we told the story in the most sympathetic way we could toward Gypsy, while still remaining truthful. We did take some creative liberties, but I feel like if someone who’s watching is not sympathetic toward Gypsy, they’re gonna really rethink that when they watch this story. I hope that she and her family are pleased.

One of the most fascinating elements of this story is the role social media, the Internet, and FOMO play in enhancing Gypsy’s frustration as she gets older. In that first episode, once she gets her hands on a laptop, she starts seeing what an ideal relationship is, what a best friend is, what a boyfriend is—all these images really driving home what she’s been missing. There are also fantasy sequences later in the season. What was it like adding that fantastical element to this true story?
When she first got a hold of the computer, you can see in her eyes and her heart she doesn’t even really know what she’s doing. I think seeing her relationship with Nick and the Internet become more and more sinister as the series goes on is such an interesting arc. You go from this girl who doesn’t really know what she’s doing—and then she gets real good at it. She can type really fast now. She can video-chat people.

And because, as you say, Gypsy is such a hard person to know, how do you make decisions about what’s going on with her internally throughout this story?
Every time that she’s around Dee Dee, there’s a sense of performance—to manipulate her mom so that she thinks she’s this sweet little baby. When Dee Dee’s not there and Gypsy’s completely alone, you start to see that she’s becoming self-aware. In her moments of being alone is when we see the arc of sexuality really come to life.

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