It’s going to be hard to top Patricia Arquette’s portrayal of a woman at the center of a bizarre romantic quadrangle in the Showtime dramatic mini-series “Escape at Dannemora,” based on the real-life upstate New York prison escape of inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat in June 2015. Here are the five reasons why:
1. Serious awards cred
While the series from showrunners Michael Tolkin and Brett Johnson and director Ben Stiller scored rave reviews, it also racked up surprise awards earlier in the year, going against HBO favorite “Sharp Objects.” Arquette followed up her “Boyhood” Oscar win with Golden Globe and SAG awards for “Dannemora,” and at the Critics Choice Awards, tied with “Sharp Objects” star Amy Adams.
Since then “Sharp Objects” has faded in the rear view as “Dannemora” picks up steam. Gold Derby‘s panel of experts, for example, give Arquette the edge against movie stars Adams and another Oscar-winner, “Fosse/Verdon” star Michelle Williams, in the limited series/TV movie actress race.
And Arquette is favored to land a Supporting Actress nomination for another eight-episode series, “The Act,” playing a controlling mother who convinces her teenager that she is a chronic invalid.
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2. A larger-than-life real character
Arquette had to find her own Tilly Mitchell, a seamstress in the prison’s tailor shop that helps with the escape: “You can’t play a real person, you’re always one stepped removed,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s a version of that person. They gave us boxes of testimony, interviews, video interviews and magazine articles. This indicated the choices she made, how she lied, the ways she viewed the world, her survival mechanisms. There’s lots of layers to it.”
Indeed. Of course, the writers delivered a fascinating woman for Arquette to play, based on multiple interrogation transcripts, as Mitchell kept turning up at the police station after convicted killers Matt and Sweat’s improbable escape, and also gave The Today Show’s Matt Lauer a telling interview from the Clinton County Jail.
But Arquette took it further, even in her early meetings with the showrunners. “We wrote a character who was constricted and sad and frustrated,” said Tolkin. “And she brought to the character her rage and her lust — and the feeling of pressure and confinement and resistance. [Mitchell] gave a coy smile on Matt Lauer about whether people knew or didn’t know she had some secrets still. What kind of person gets involved with those kinds of men? She gave a performance that was truly scary and to the edge. She went past the notion of sympathy, but she was able to bring the compassion to that, she found the humanity from the character. That’s what great actors do.”
Chris Saunders / Showtime
Clearly, Mitchell is not satisfied with her life. “She started taking her marriage for granted,” said Arquette. “You see her and Lyle falling in love. She thinks he’s going to make everything great, take care of her needs, make her safe, do what she wants. Flash forward: she feels she’s become the caretaker in the relationship, and there’s resentment. She doesn’t see the positive sides of this relationship, how Lyle loves her. She feels like she’s not getting fed at all. She’s in this depressing marriage, depressing community, depressing workplace, depressing weather. Everything is depressing.”
Thirsty for attention, Tilly gets it from two of the prisoners in her shop, Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano). She flirts, has quickie sex with Sweat, and smuggles them props – including a hacksaw – for their escape. “In prison, where men don’t have access to women, you are like Eve, like the only woman on earth,” said Arquette. “They are charming hustlers. In this other world, her relationship with Sweat [Paul Dano] is almost adolescent. She has real maternal and love feelings toward him. She’s living in a football player-and-cheerleader fairytale world.”
And Arquette found ways to admire Mitchell. “What’s cool about her,” she said, “is that unlike many women, she’s at the top of her list. Whether you agree with her morality or not, staying with Lyle [Eric Lange], she knows her needs aren’t being met, emotionally and physically. For her, this was the right choice for her to make.”
Chris Saunders / Showtime
3. A dramatic physical transformation
Awards voters always give extra credit to actors who undergo dramatic physical changes. Arquette, who is five foot two, gained over 40 pounds rather than add padding, and dressed the part of twice-married, bored, dumpy, and buxom upstate New York prison employee Mitchell, who yearns for sexual and romantic gratification.
Arquette found that when she wrapped for the day, she was still moving through the world with the extra weight. “I found the reaction from people around me was different,” she said. “I was an invisible person. Waiting in line, people push in front of you. Wait at a counter and no one talks to you. I was carrying around some of Tilly’s heavy depression.”
Having taken on the dramatic weight gain, Arquette then had to face the cameras in some frank nude sex scenes. “That’s a lot,” she said. “This was my first time with no body makeup, using full sun streaming through the window. It was brutally honest. I wanted this conversation about who’s allowed to be sexual in our culture, and at what age and body type. Tilly is so different from me. She has a healthier idea about her sexuality, which she enjoys. She is shameless and unapologetic. It’s refreshing for me to see that in someone.”
Vanity went out the window, as Arquette applied rubbing alcohol and blotchy makeup to her skin, and suffered the discomfort of dark contact lenses. “They have to cover all the color of your eye,” she said. “Looking through them is like sunglasses. You get a lot of out of a scene by looking in each other’s eyes. I struggled for the first few days. Then I realized that this boundary, this inability to connect 100 percent, was one way to look at it. Tilly has her own interior life, no one knows what’s happening. Lyle doesn’t know how she feels, there’s a little barrier between her and everyone else.”
In order to further resemble Mitchell, Arquette also added some prosthetic pieces to alter her chin and bottom jaw, and pursed her mouth. She picked this habit up from video interviews. “I’d go back and watch her lie,” she said, “the way she used her mouth, her little pursing thing: ‘I’m better than you and judging you,’ like she was the sour, mean adolescent you see in school.”
4. Finding her own way
Arquette’s reps tried to talk her out of the weight gain; ‘Wear a fat suit instead,’ they said. They were afraid she would lose work if she added any pounds. “It’s not even about the person who said it,” said Arquette. “That’s how the business looks at it. Many times over the years possible employers would say as we were talking projects: ‘Send a picture of what she looks like now.’ A lot of the time, that is that. At this moment I want to do what I want to do. If I get less work, so be it. I feel like I have paid my dues as an actress and as a woman. I’m sick of it. Let me find my own career. I fought that battle on many levels and in many ways.”
Finally, Arquette insists on having it her way. “I knew I needed to do ‘Dannemora’ as an actor,” she said. “I needed to work with Paul and Benicio. I really did think that I was going to get a lot of shit for playing Tilly and it might impact my career. Even in the face of that, I wanted to do it.”
When Arquette first wanted to make the move to television – seeing more opportunity there – her reps tried to talk her out of that too. “A lot of people said, ‘You can’t work in TV, you’ll never get movie work again.’ Luckily now we’re at a time when a lot of great content is being made for television.”
Nor does Arquette regret her passionate “Boyhood” Oscar speech in favor of equal pay for women in 2014. Since then, “some 36 bills were passed around the country,” she said. “Big companies came forward like Salesforce, Apple and The Gap that did equal pay gender audits. So a lot of people have gotten paid more money. We have a long way to go.”
The week after our interview, Arquette flew to Washington, D.C. to testify about rolling back the date of the Equal Rights Amendment, which has been passed by Congress but needs to be ratified by three-fourths of the 50 states – only one more is needed. “If we don’t talk about and push the agenda, if we don’t demand that women have explicit protection,” she said, “then people will not examine their longstanding biases across the board.”
And despite progress from #MeToo and #TimesUp, the movie business also has a long way to go. “People have decided in the past, with some bias, that people didn’t want to see certain stories,” she said. “That’s limited our art form. I am seeing more female directors. Some progress is being made, there’s more conversation, more opportunities for women of color. It’s starting to happen in our industry.”
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5. High degree of difficulty
Bringing this level of quality to an eight-part series is grueling. “It’s like eight movies back to back,” said Arquette. “It’s really hard. Having done TV for so many seasons on ‘Medium,’ I was prepared for that kind of schedule. You learn different performance skills as an actor, whether in live theater or soap opera. In network TV I learned how to move faster than film.”
A few months after she wrapped “Dannemora,” Arquette jumped back into the frying pan with “The Act” (Hulu), which was lower-budget and more demanding. She had already started losing weight, even though this character was even heavier. In this case, she took the extra padding. “I physically can’t do it,” she said. “I’ll have a heart attack and die. So I did other things: I didn’t have a nude scene, so I bulked up by wearing sweatpants under the clothes, wrapped my ankles with ace bandages – I had diabetes swelling. It is fun – I love being an actor!”
Next up for Arquette is Cindy Chupack’s “Otherhood” (Netflix, August) is “a cute comedy about three moms who are in their 50s,” said Arquette, “and how they feel disconnected from their sons.” She’s still trying to get a movie of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” made. And she’s putting together her feature directing debut with a big female cast. “It uses a different part of your brain,” she said. “I tell you, part of my brain isn’t used!”