You already know Joey King plays Gypsy Rose Blanchard in Hulu’s highly anticipated new series The Act, which tells the devastating true story of an extremely toxic mother-daughter relationship. You’ve probably seen the Instagram video, too, where King shaved off all her hair to transform into character. And chances are, you’ve watched the 2017 HBO documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest, which first brought this mind-blowing tale to TV after a 2016 BuzzFeed article by Michelle Dean sparked widespread interest. You’re likely also aware of the story’s tragic ending: The real-life Gypsy is currently in prison, serving a 10-year sentence after pleading guilty to the second-degree murder of her mother, Dee Dee, after conspiring with a man she fell in love with online. That man, Nicholas Godejohn, was sentenced to life in prison.
You already know all these things, and if you didn’t, you know them now. But beyond the shocking headlines and disturbing details of the case, King’s role as Gypsy Rose Blanchard involved so much more than a five-second video with electric clippers.
Of course, King understands the appeal of the story. “The reality is, people really enjoy tuning in to true crime,” she says. “There’s something super intriguing and very stimulating about trying to get inside the mind of a criminal, and Dee Dee and Gypsy are both criminals.”
But King is equally conscious of the subject’s gravity. The case is nowhere near simple: Gypsy is a victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, and her mother Dee Dee (played by Patricia Arquette) perpetuated this form of child abuse, where someone causes or makes up an illness in a person under their care. “What I want to get across is that if you are not a sympathizer with Gypsy, watch this show and you’ll start to rethink calling her a ‘cold-blooded killer,'” King says. Spending so much time playing Gypsy meant King found ways to understand her mindset. “She’s a victim. This poor girl went through so much only to sit in prison now. It’s no life.”
While King does acknowledge Gypsy’s responsibility for her actions, including lying about her abilities and helping her mother deceive others, the actor believes it was out of fear. “She became a master manipulator, not by choice, but by survival,” she says. In the show, Dee Dee is depicted as reacting violently if Gypsy dared disobey.
I would sometimes fall asleep listening to her interviews… so that I could get her voice really ingrained in my brain.
Beyond the physical transformation of shaving her head and wearing four separate sets of fake teeth, King did as much research as she could about the disorder. But educating herself on Munchausen by proxy wasn’t easy. “One in 10 cases is fatal for the victim,” King explains, “so a lot of the time, we don’t get to hear from the victims because they die before they even get the chance to escape their circumstances.”
Although King says she couldn’t meet Gypsy face-to-face, she took mastering the nuances of her personality and physicality seriously, consuming any actual footage of Gypsy she could find online. “I would sometimes fall asleep listening to her interviews, like in my ears in my headphones, so that I could get her voice really ingrained in my brain,” the actor says. She also made sure to subtly differentiate between the character’s behavior when she’s around her mother and around anyone else. When Gypsy isn’t with Dee Dee, King explains, “It’s a very slight thing. You can see that she just wants her womanhood to come out, and she wants to be a normal teenage girl with sexual desires and friends and a boyfriend.”
If you think your relationship with your mom is complicated, Hulu’s new series “The Act” will offer a dose of perspective.
The first season of the anthology drama, starring Patricia Arquette and Joey King, follows the strange real-life case of Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter, Gypsy Rose. For years, Dee Dee (Arquette), a single mom living in Missouri, convinced the public that her wheelchair-using daughter (King) was chronically ill — all while collecting donations and gifts from charity organizations.
That is, until Gypsy Rose, after figuring out the sham, plotted her mother’s murder. The pair gained national attention after a 2016 BuzzFeed article and an HBO documentary, “Mommy Dead and Dearest,” chronicled their troubled and tragic mother-daughter relationship. (Gypsy is serving a 10-year sentence after pleading guilty to her role in her mother’s death.)
Experts have said Gypsy likely was the victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a mental disorder in which a caretaker induces or fabricates illness in another person to gain attention or sympathy. Pop culture most recently put that form of abuse into view in HBO’s “Sharp Objects.”
“There are two people whose main desire is to love and be loved; they just go about it in the most unhealthy way,” says King, seated alongside Arquette, during a recent interview.
“Yes,” adds Arquette, “These were two people on a collision course. Nothing good was going to come of this. One of them was always going to end up dead.”
Hulu’s scripted dramatization, which premieres Wednesday, is based on the BuzzFeed article by Michelle Dean, who is also a writer and executive producer on the series. (Dean served as co-showrunner along with “Channel Zero’s” Nick Antosca.) It follows Lifetime’s take on the events (“Love You to Death”) earlier this year.
In an interview, Arquette and King talked about diving into the stranger-than-fiction story, portraying a troubled mother-daughter relationship, and being untethered to Hollywood’s standards of beauty. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
There are two people whose main desire is to love and be loved; they just go about it in the most unhealthy way.
With stories like these — that are just so bizarre and wild — it’s easy to lose sight that there are real people involved and to go for the sensational. Were you worried about that going into this project? Arquette: I think there’s a lot of things that lend themselves in this story to turning it into some kitschy thing. They love Disney, and their house was pink, and their room was purple, and the way that Gypsy’s voice had this affectation, and all the layers of deception. But I think people can understand a maternal relationship, even their mom over-mothering them. [And] I think most people make humor out of something that they can’t really imagine. They’re in utter shock that someone’s mom would intentionally harm them in any kind of way or make sense of how they could harm their own child.
Then there’s this kind of overarching thing of what happens at the end. It’s like [Gypsy] claims back her power, and there is a serious price to pay. Was that the right choice or the wrong choice? Were there other choices? But when you have Stockholm syndrome, on top of Munchausen by proxy victim, can you even see the choices that are ahead of you?
What sort of research did you both do before digging in? King: I watched the documentary countless times. I found any interviews, any home videos I could scramble on the internet. It was really helpful to have Michelle Dean on our show, because I would go to her a lot. I would call her up a lot just for stories and information. The craziest thing for me was watching interviews of Gypsy now versus seeing footage of her home when she was younger and how different she is.
Gypsy’s kind of become a master manipulator herself. So it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not. It was difficult to grasp on to anything, because I personally can’t say I can relate to anything about Gypsy.
Arquette: My daughter happened to be going away to school when we started this. There’s a natural instinct I as a mom have, to want to keep my daughter close, to want to keep her safe, to be worried about her in the world, to miss her so much, to wanna hug her so much, to miss her childhood, she’s growing up. I’m gonna take all those normal feelings but exploit them to perverse levels. I did kind of pull from my own normal feelings to a distorted feeling.
We haven’t really seen this kind of complex mother-daughter relationship on-screen until recently. Arquette: I don’t know that in the past there was a ton of value people found in a mother-daughter relationship — especially one like this that’s kind of sick. You might have a “Gilmore Girls” kind of thing. But to have a relationship like this — that’s deadly, that’s toxic — we haven’t really seen that. I don’t think I’ve ever played a mom this dysfunctional before. Well, Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell [in “Escape at Dannemora”] was dysfunctional. But I mean where the dysfunction is focused on the child-parent relationship.
Joey King had a big 2018 with Netflix teen romance “The Kissing Booth” and is now making a star turn in Hulu and UCP’s anthology series “The Act.” For her role portraying Gypsy Rose Blanchard, who grew up being told by her mother that she was gravely ill and later orchestrated her murder, King had to completely transform physically, including shaving her head every three days and wearing fake teeth. She says the project made her feel like a different person and also “so fulfilled.”
Other than shaving your head, what about the makeup and wardrobe process did you find very helpful in diving into the physical transformation to become Gypsy? Her teeth changed throughout the stories. In pictures of her when she was younger she had pretty buck teeth with some silver caps, and then as time went on, her teeth got kind of rotten, and then there’s two more stages after that where when you see her in interviews now, we had those teeth, too.
You also drastically changed your voice for the role. How did the teeth help or hinder with that process? What I had to get used to was saying my S’es, but it did change the shape of my mouth a lot, which was really interesting because when I looked at myself fully transformed as Gypsy, I was like, “Who is that!?” The teeth really helped me get into character, so much.
What did you find yourself working on most to get the voice down? It’s a pitch change. It’s all in the throat, really. It’s mimic — listening to her and then trying out a lot of different things. It was kind of hard, though, because we shot for four months, and I got sick four times during shooting, and two of the times I had a fever and a sore throat, and doing the voice with a sore throat is rough! But it’s hard to explain exactly what my vocal chords do when I’m doing the voice, but when you work on it enough when you’re alone in your apartment, it kind of just comes out. And I hope people notice, too, that there’s a big change between the first episode and the eighth episode — there is a big difference because the story takes place over seven years and her voice dropped a little bit. I wanted people to see, “Hey it’s a big passage of time. She did grow up a little bit.”
And how did the wardrobe come into play? For Gypsy’s early fashion, it was pretty comfy. I wore a lot of PJ pants. But it was pretty crazy how her style evolved and what she thought was sexy when she starts to come into a sexual role in her own mind, what she starts to do and how she perceives what that means, the darkness of that and how quickly it becomes quick scary. She goes pretty quickly from this childlike figure to “Oh no, she’s getting really wrapped up in this idea of what sexualization means and it could go very badly.” And it does.
Since there is a documentary about Gypsy and her mother Dee Dee, among other interviews, available as research, how precise did you want your physicality to be in your portrayal? I was playing a version of Gypsy, but it was helpful to have all of the facts. We did have some creative liberty so our story could move along at a little bit of a quicker pace, but we do really stick to the story. … I wanted to really become her — to transform myself entirely, lose all vanity, lose all ego, lose everything I thought I knew about acting, just throw it out the window. And I’m really happy I did because I feel very vulnerable about this performance — I’m very nervous to put it out there — but that makes me excited because I know I did something worth putting on the line if I feel scared. And becoming her was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever had to face.
What was the first moment during this process you really felt like you finally had embodying Gypsy right? The physical transformation was really, really huge for me. I shaved my head, I wore four different sets of fake teeth for the role, and with the costumes, the wheelchair and the voice, everything really seemed to fall into place for me. And then getting into the rehearsal room with Patricia [Arquette, who plays Dee Dee]. We both had prepared and we were both ready, but really figuring out how our characters were going to mesh was really frigging awesome — figuring out our dialect and how these relationships work and how it would be for us to play with each other for four months and what our trajectory was [going to be].
Once all of the external elements were down, what was most important in understanding her psychology, as a child who was living with a mother with Munchausen by proxy but who was in on some of the deception? In the early episodes I really do believe that Gypsy believed her mom and wanted to listen to her because she knew nothing else; her life had always been trusting Dee Dee, listening to Dee Dee. The only thing she did know was that she could walk — but even then she was told, “You can walk, but it will make you sicker if you do.” So she was like, “OK then I’ll sit down.” So for me, with the portrayal of Gypsy, when Dee Dee’s around, Gypsy’s this infantilized, sweet, “I’m your little girl and I’ll always be your little girl.” And when Dee Dee’s not there, slowly it gets more and more sexualized. And it becomes less of a performance in front of Dee Dee, and as the series goes on you’ll see a much bigger difference in the way I act when Dee Dee’s there.
Did you want to talk to the real-life Gypsy to aid in any of this? It would have been amazing to meet the person that you’re playing. Unfortunately that couldn’t happen for reasons, honestly, beyond my understanding. But that being said, so lucky that we had Michelle Dean as our producer because she had a lot of real contact with Gypsy and her family prior to the show, and I would go to her for a lot of resources. So although I didn’t get to physically contact Gypsy, getting to have long, long conversation with Michelle was the next best thing.
How did you and Patricia work on how much love and loyalty to showcase between Gypsy and Dee Dee, despite the toxicity of their relationship? When Gypsy starts to see the cracks in what her mother is saying to her, she starts to rebel in the kindest, most childlike way she can [such as] eating candy and not brushing her teeth at night. But eventually the rebellion does get super sinister, and I really loved being able to show that progression because at a certain point there’s a switch that’s flipped and Dee Dee becomes the invalid. And that’s not common in a Munchausen by proxy relationship; usually you don’t here a lot of cases about this because the victims stay victims until they die. Why this case is so rare is that the proxy, Gypsy, turned Dee Dee into the invalid, and that never happens. I think the transition in playing around with this with Patricia was so special because it was such a mind game to figure out the manipulation that Dee Dee puts Gypsy through, she’s using on her mother. [And] When you listen to Gypsy give interviews now about why she had her mother killed, to her this was the logical answer. Her mom had always talked about how horrible and scary jail is — because Dee Dee had gone to jail — so she didn’t want her mom to go to jail. And then her mom always talked about if Gypsy went away it would kill her emotionally. So she didn’t want to hurt her mom, so with those two options being off the table, she just thought the best, most kind towards Dee Dee option was to get rid of her. So the murder, in a really horrible, messed up way, came out of a loving place.
How do you hope the audience of “The Act” responds to Gypsy’s story? It’s hard to say because I don’t really think there’s a message to take away, but I hope people who are really not sympathetic towards Gypsy will see her story in a different light. She was a prisoner with Dee Dee and now she’s a real, government prisoner but she feels more free than she did her whole life. That really says something about her childhood. And I hope people open their eyes and start to see, OK murder is not the answer but this girl went through it; she was dragged through hell.
How do you feel like this experience changed you as a performer or woman? I feel like a little bit of a different person, mostly because I worked with such lovely people and I had such a wonderful time getting to know Patricia. I feel like Patricia made me a better actor and a better person. I’ve never had to dive into a character like this before — to transform myself like this — and I’m really proud of myself, and I’m also really happy with where I am right now. I feel so fulfilled because I’m doing work that I feel really proud to be a part of. I feel proud to work with people I have admired for so long, like Patricia and Chloe [Sevigny] and AnnaSophia [Robb], and I feel like the experience has changed me because I learned a lot about myself as an actor and what I can do. I pushed my limits. And as a person I have met some of the most incredible ladies of my life, and I am so thankful to them.
What kind of hope or expectation does that set for the next role you take, beyond “The Kissing Booth” sequel? I love all different kinds of things. I really love drama, but I love the idea of being able to go from “Kissing Booth” to something like this. I’m so happy and thankful that people trust me enough to go from something like [that] to something like this, and I just hope the cycle keeps going. I never want to marry myself to a genre or a character, and I hope people can recognize that I’m down for a lot.
Is there something specific about this time in your life or this television landscape that you feel is lending itself to booking such diverse roles? I feel really lucky to be a part of a change that is happening now. Most of our directors on the show were women, and it was so awesome to have all of this female love and power in the room. And that’s not to knock any of the men; we also had some male directors on the show who were killer. But I feel so lucky that these stories are being recognized and made.