Patricia Arquette on Playing 2 Truly Toxic Women – and Earning 2 Emmy Nominations

TheWrap Emmy magazine: “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I need another scary lady to play,'” says Arquette of playing troubled women in “Escape at Dannemora” and “The Act” back-to-back

Patricia Arquette Escape at Dannemora

An edited version of this story about Patricia Arquette first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

“I’m a 51-year-old woman,” Patricia Arquette said with a laugh. “I really thought they were going to force me into retirement.”

They didn’t. Instead, Hollywood embraced Arquette after her role in Richard Linklater’s 2014 film “Boyhood.” She won SAG, Golden Globe, BAFTA and Academy Awards for her performance, and galvanized the Oscar audience with an impassioned plea for equal pay for women. And she continued to play unusually rich roles, including two limited series that landed her Emmy nominations this year.

“They’re multifaceted people,” she said of her troubled and complex characters in “Escape at Dannemora” and “The Act.” “We may not like the choices they make, but they’re very complicated, and they’re full people.

“A lot of parts for 50-year-olds, or even young women, are pretty simplified: You’re the pretty girl, you’re funny and supportive or you’re a wife. Selfishly, as an actor, these are much more interesting parts.”

They’re also based on real people. In Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora,” Arquette plays Tilly Mitchell, a woman who worked in a correctional facility in upstate New York and helped two convicted murders escape after having sexual relationships with both of them. (The real Mitchell denies that the relationships were consensual.)

“I was so into the story when I saw it unfolding on the news,” she said. “It was a prison break, which is so scary, and then they showed this woman’s picture and I was like, ‘What does this lady have to do with it? She might have had an affair with both these prisoners? Oh, my God, what is going on?’

“And I kept thinking, ‘How does this all happen?’ Prison is such an intense place, such a lonely place – a place where human beings really need to make relationships for survival. And also, these guys are really great hustlers. How is that, to be one of very few women surrounded by those men?”

To prepare for the role, she said, “I watched all the footage that they had of her, although there was a lot that the police won’t give you. What was very helpful was watching the Matt Lauer interview, and seeing how she lies and how one of her mechanisms is crying to get out of things.”

Arquette didn’t speak to the real Mitchell, who is currently in prison, but she said she did feel some responsibility to the woman she was portraying, who has said the limited series is full of lies. “I do have a lot more empathy for Tilly, having played her, than I would have before,” she said. “But Tilly’s still not telling the truth.”

After “Dannemora,” which would land her a nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie, Arquette went into an even more horrifying project, Hulu’s “The Act.” (“Actually, I had a little comedy in between, thank God,” she said, referring to the upcoming “Otherhood.”)

In “The Act,” she plays Dee Dee Blanchard, a divorced mother with the mental disorder Munchausen syndrome by proxy, who convinced her daughter, Gypsy Rose, that she suffered from leukemia, asthma and muscular dystrophy, along with an assortment of other ailments.

Eventually, Gypsy Rose persuaded a boyfriend she’d met online to kill her mother, a crime for which she is now serving a 10-year sentence. (The boyfriend was sentenced to life in prison.)

“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I need another scary lady to play,’” Arquette said of the role, which earned her a supporting- actress nomination. “But it was a really great part, and the subject matter has always fascinated me. How can you do that to your child? What happens to this incredible relationship between a mother and a child when you have this mental illness? I didn’t think I could not do it.”

To prepare, she said, “I really looked at what specialists say. There’s illness, but also other elements — a lot of narcissism, a lot of codependence that was really toxic. I think Dee Dee had a fear of abandonment, and she needed Gypsy to be crippled for life so she never leaves.”

In the aftermath of those two miniseries, Arquette said she’s spending a lot of time working on women’s rights issues, writing a book and thinking about directing. “I’m just looking for something that makes me think, ‘This story needs to be told,’” she said.

“But I love this business, and I’m really happy about the change that’s happening, and about continuing this conversation about diversity and women, which can only make our business richer.”

Read more of the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

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