This story about Amanda Seyfried first appeared in The Limited Series/Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
In the first four minutes of Hulu’s limited series “The Dropout”, we see a bright-eyed, teenage Elizabeth Holmes rocking out in her car to Alabama’s “I’m In a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why).” It’s a “great song,” the Stanford student helpfully points out, and for a few brief moments, you almost forget that this is the same person who became one of the most notorious corporate swindlers of all time. As played by Amanda Seyfried, this Elizabeth Holmes could even be called, to borrow a word forever connected to the protagonist of another series by “The Dropout” showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether, kind of “adorkable.”
This was no accident. From the beginning, Seyfried and Meriwether knew it was critical to capture this side of Holmes—the one that convinced an impressive list of powerful people to invest in her blood-testing company, Theranos, and that audiences could find interesting, if also pitiful and pitiable.
“Liz Meriwether was very clear about what she wanted to portray, and I knew that there are pieces of Elizabeth Holmes, like anybody or any villain that we create or project things onto, that have all sides and are three-dimensional people,” Seyfried said during a Zoom call from her home in upstate New York. “So, we thought, let’s find that other dimension. And whether or not it exists, let’s make her somebody that we want to get to know.”
Over eight taut episodes, Seyfried nimbly brings to life the woman who went from socially awkward overachiever to tech-world superstar to disgraced CEO whose faulty technology led to the loss of more than $600 million and put thousands of patients at risk. (In January, Holmes was convicted of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. She is awaiting sentencing.) Clad in a black turtleneck and wielding an everlasting supply of green juice, Seyfried conveys the ruthless determination of a woman working in a male-dominated field who, at least according to this telling, developed a low speaking voice so that colleagues would take her more seriously.
Seyfried’s performance is a standout, even in a field rich with other real-life tales of high-profile swindlers (“Inventing Anna”, “WeCrashed“, “Super Pumped”). It has earned her some the best reviews of her career and is the latest stop in an upward trajectory that began in 2020 with David Fincher’s black-and-white rumination on old Hollywood, “Mank“, in which she played 1930s screen siren Marion Davies. That role landed Seyfried her first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress. Now, with “The Dropout”, the 36-year-old actress is back in the awards conversation.
It’s a nice place to find herself, especially considering that she was cast as Holmes after “SNL”’s Kate McKinnon, who was initially attached, dropped out. As it happens, Seyfried found out that she’d landed the role the same day she learned of her Oscar nomination. “They were like, ‘Hey, you want to do the show?’” she said. “And wherever I was on their list, I was definitely on it! I knew it was a special role, and I knew that it was an opportunity that I wasn’t often going to be given. The intimacy that the character has with herself, and that we get to watch and be a part of, is just so bizarre and beautifully complicated and complex for the audience.”
Open and relaxed, Seyfried answered questions without sounding rehearsed, often pausing to search for the right word and dropping f-bombs liberally. She spoke candidly about suffering from anxiety and panic attacks for years—to the point that she had trouble going on stage when she made her New York theater debut in 2015.
Seyfried’s apparent unguardedness is uncommon in overly media-trained Hollywood—and even more impressive when you consider that she has been a working actress since she was a teenager. After two years on “As the World Turns”, she did a few episodes of “All My Children” before landing her first movie, 2004’s “Mean Girls”, in which she costarred as a sweetly dim sidekick to Rachel McAdams’ queen bee. Her nuanced turn as the conflicted teen daughter in a polygamous family on HBO’s acclaimed “Big Love” earned her critical praise and paved the way for playing Meryl Streep’s daughter in 2008’s massive hit musical “Mamma Mia!” and its 2018 sequel. Between the two, she snuck in another colossally successful musical, 2012’s “Les Misérables”. In 2015, when she starred in the Neil LaBute play “The Way We Get By”, she met her husband, Thomas Sadoski, who helped her overcome her stage fright.
“If you work with someone with confidence, even if you’re having a panic attack every show, there’s something that makes it dissipate quicker,” she said. “I’m not saying I’m giving him all the credit. I did a lot of work to get through the panic attacks and stay on stage, but I owe a lot to him since he was present and understood what was going on without me even having to say anything, which is partly why we’re very much still in each other’s lives.”
A look at Seyfried’s résumé also reveals an impressive list of directors. In addition to Fincher, she’s worked with David Lynch, Paul Schrader, Karyn Kusama, Noah Baumbach and Atom Egoyan. “I think my choices have been deliberate,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be taken seriously and be respected and hireable. And the people that I looked up to had very specific careers, and they did try everything and kept people guessing.” She holds Streep and her “Mank” costar Gary Oldman in high esteem. She no longer feels paralyzed by anxiety, which she attributes at least in part to the young son and daughter she is raising with Sadoski. “I think I’ve surpassed some level of fear—maybe it’s parenthood, I don’t know,” she said, smiling. “But I’m like, fuck the fear!”
For Meriwether, Seyfried’s proven versatility was key to the decision to cast her as Holmes. The showrunner wanted “The Dropout” to flirt with dark comedy and was impressed with Seyfried’s ability to strike a balance between drama and the absurd. “I just really appreciated that she’d done comedy before, and I felt like that carried through in the actual shooting,” Meriwether said. “She just knows what’s funny, but also knows how to make it feel real, which is an incredible gift.”
To prepare for the role, Seyfried studied Alex Gibney’s 2019 documentary about Theranos, “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley”, as well as the vast video record of Holmes’ public appearances during her company’s heyday. She described nailing Holmes’ distinctive baritone as akin to mastering an accent and was adamant about not relying on the magic of makeup to bring her closer to the woman she was portraying. “The way the person walks and talks can’t be bought with prosthetics, right?” Seyfried said. “I also need to trust the audience that they can disappear with me. And if they can’t, then I’ve not done a good enough job and that’s a bummer. But I’m not going to lean on prosthetics, if I can help it, because I really don’t like sitting in the makeup chair for that long.”
According to Meriwether, the mystery that Holmes cultivated around her company and herself could lead to tricky moments on set. “Elizabeth Holmes, as a character, was really elusive,” Meriwether said. “There were moments when it was like, ‘We need to try this and we need to try that and see what we need in the editing room.’ And Amanda was so able to do that. And she’s incredibly funny and nice. And a great leader.”
The majority of Seyfried’s most intense scenes are opposite Naveen Andrews, who plays Sunny Balwani, Elizabeth’s much older boyfriend and president and COO of Theranos. He is depicted in “The Dropout” as being instrumental in deceiving investors. As Theranos grows, Seyfried also shares multiple scenes with Stephen Fry, Laurie Metcalf, Sam Waterston, Michaela Watkins, Michel Gill and Elizabeth Marvel. “We only really had two series regulars (Seyfried and Andrews) for eight episodes because there’s such a revolving door of people who worked at the company,” Meriwether said. “So (Amanda) did have to deal with an enormous amount of people just coming to the set for a few days and then leaving. She had that sense of tone that everybody looked to, and it really helped create a continuity throughout the series.”
Depending on who she was acting with, Seyfried would bring out a certain side of Holmes. “It was great. It was playing, like, eight different people,” she said. But she was glad to leave Holmes’ chameleon personality at work at the end of the day. “I come across a lot of people (like Holmes), sadly, that treat different people differently depending on their status. And that’s the kind of person that I try to stay away from.
”So far, nobody depicted in “The Dropout” has weighed in publicly about the show. Seyfried and Meriwether are both fine with that. “I’m not afraid of what (Holmes) thinks,” the actress said. “Would I be intimidated by her perspective of my portrayal? I don’t know—maybe? But what I do know is that I’m an actor and we were rightfully allowed to create this drama, based on true events, and I’m gonna stay in my quarter on that.”
Seyfried is now using her experience on “The Dropout” as a guidepost for future projects, particularly in the overcrowded television and streaming landscape, where hundreds of titles compete for eyeballs every year. “Dropping into this project—no pun intended—I got really lucky with the team. They were not fucking around,” she said. “And in TV, pretty much anything gets made now, so parsing that out is hard. You know, you’re four episodes in on something and like, ‘This isn’t going anywhere, what the fuck?’ And as an audience you’re like, ‘How did this get made?’ It’s scary, because you can go off the rails so quickly. So now, every time I sign on to something or I look at a TV project, I hope it’s even 50% of what we had on ‘Dropout.’”
She has signed on to star opposite Tom Holland as a clinical psychologist in Apple TV+’s “The Crowded Room”, a limited-series anthology about mental struggle created by Oscar-winning writer Akiva Goldsman. She’s not ready to bid the disgraced former CEO goodbye for good, holding out hope that the trial and sentencing—not to mention Holmes’ newfound motherhood with her partner, Billy Evans—will yield more material for a follow-up project. “It all has to come from Liz Meriwether again,” Seyfried said. “She has to choose it. If she doesn’t, then I wouldn’t. But it would be interesting down the line to maybe revisit Elizabeth as things unfold for her, since she’s basically my age. And she’s got a lot of things happening.”
Meriwether, though, is pretty certain she’s said everything she has to say about Holmes. When asked about a “Dropout” sequel, she replied with a big laugh. “Did she put you up to this? I would do anything with Amanda, except for that. But,” she added with a mischievous smile, “I have said I would do a Christmas special, so who knows?” Holmes trading in her black turtleneck for an ugly Christmas sweater? Count us in.
Read more from our Limited Series/Movie issue here.