Actress Amanda Seyfried is no stranger to entering the lives of real-life people. In her career she’s portrayed 1970s porn queen Linda Lovelace as well as one of the earliest stars of classic film, Marion Davies. Now, she’s playing tech entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes in Hulu’s new limited series, “The Dropout.” Holmes, recently found guilty of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, was the darling of Silicon Valley, alongside her company Theranos, which claimed to be able to take patients’ blood without using a syringe. The series, inspired by the podcast of the same name, charts Holmes’ rise and fall.
For Seyfried, who recently spoke with IndieWire via Zoom, the nature of dramatizing figures like Holmes is almost akin to watching “Titanic.” “I don’t know about you, but I still have this weird hope that it doesn’t sink,” she said. The series, written by Elizabeth Meriwether (“New Girl”), tries to get at the heart of what made Holmes strive for success, and her subsequent failure. Part of what Seyfried found interesting was how Meriwether interpreted Holmes’ unknown though process. Because Seyfried didn’t have the ability to meet with Holmes directly due to the Theranos founder’s on-going legal issues, Seyfried trusted in Meriwether’s writing and the awareness that this was a possible interpretation of who Holmes was. The end result is drawing raves for the Oscar-nominated actress.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
IndieWire: What initially drew you to Elizabeth Holmes’ story?
Amanda Seyfried: It was Elizabeth Meriwether. Her scripts were insanely solid. I loved her take. I loved the fact that this show was going to be from a very non-judgmental point-of-view, and I got the sense that Elizabeth [Meriwether] was just trying to understand her more, which is the true point of making this show. Because this is fiction, we get to explore inside [Holmes] and we get to imagine what was happening inside.
For fans of Elizabeth Holmes, and Theranos, and all the documentaries, and the podcast, the thing we’re missing is what might have been happening for her and we have now delivered some possibilities. I wanted to play somebody who’s infamous, and mysterious, and I think it’s all the more fun for me when when I get to try to understand somebody who is such an enigma.
I still don’t know much about her, but I do know what I wanted to portray and it was totally in line with what Liz Meriwether wanted to do. Everybody involved, like [director] Michael Showalter and [producer] Katherine Pope, we all were on the same page: We’re making something a little different than people had seen. It also feels like a dream job because this person exists and I have a lot of footage. I did a lot of cramming, and there’s a lot of studying the mannerisms, and the voice and the affectations that she projected. There was just no limit to the things I would find, but still no closer to who she really was, which gave me a lot of freedom.
You’ve played three real-life figures now. What is your research process like generally with real characters and with this series in particular?
Getting as much information as possible, taking it all in. If you’re telling a piece of their story you focus on the timing of that piece. Those are goalposts and then you work [with]in there, and if you have time you go outside of those lines a little bit, if you can, but the most important thing is you want to serve the story. So this was very different than playing Marion Davies, because Marion Davies was serving Herman Mankiewicz’s story. I didn’t have a lot of footage on her. Of course, Marian Davis was an actor [yet] I had zero footage of her speaking in real life. I had an audio tape that I could barely hear. She sounded much older because she was a smoker. Incredible audio though, as it was, and that was just to tell his story.
With Elizabeth Holmes I had less freedom because we, as a society, know her, watched her story, know how she sounds, how she looks, how she walks, how she goes about the world. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not my own version. It’s just that I have to stay close to certain things, which is a blessing, which is an awesome thing about my job and about this particular portrayal. I did a deep dive. This show spans from when she’s young to now and it was a lot of work, but the more time I spend with her, the more it got absorbed. We’re human beings. Whether we’re actors or not, we absorb things if we’re close enough. Like I could imitate my daughter perfectly. I can’t sound like her [because] she’s five, but I can play her. So that actually happened just naturally over time.
Do you distance yourself from the figures you’re playing?
You distance yourself from the real person if they’re still alive, which seemed to really help me. We weren’t allowed to talk to her anyway and she wasn’t allowed to talk to us. Who knows what that would have been like, but thank God because I think I tend to get close to people and see the good immediately, and I definitely have gotten in trouble in the past. The more kids I have, the more boundaries that build, it’s cool. From now on if I do play someone who’s around I, for the sake of my experience playing this person it’s safe to to keep my distance.
Do you relate to her? Was it easy to get inside a figure who is such an enigma?
It’s a lot to do with the writing, for sure. That was my guide book, in a lot of ways. But the number one thing for me is just to try to find a way to relate and get inside. I feel competent enough to play the parts that I don’t relate to because the more I relate to certain aspects the closer I get to the person. I found it hard to be commanding just because I, Amanda, find it hard to be commanding. I had to get used to that physicality. I did feel uncomfortable at times getting the depth — because my voice is never going to be able to go as low as as hers does, I just physically can’t. There are limitations. I knew that that had to be okay, but the more I did it the more competent I felt going lower and more outward. That’s just how I describe her voice. So it was experience and time that made me more comfortable.
I remember the first day I was playing Elizabeth, when she’s in her early twenties, and she first leaves this office building that’s her first Theranos headquarters. I had no idea what I was doing. If I come on set the first day and know what I’m doing then that’s going to be bad. I always think I don’t know what I’m doing the first day, and it ends up the second day and I’m getting on my feet, and it starts to feel better but no amount of preparation can make me feel competent my first day.
I love you mentioning the physicality because women are often taught to think taller if they aren’t.
One of the things that I was actually a little bit worried about was my height because Elizabeth is taller and she appears taller, even though she’s hunched over a tiny, tiny bit; her posture is not perfect. And I did use that for when she’s walking. I’m just like, wouldn’t that be something that she paid more attention to? Or maybe that’s just her standing up straight? I thought, well, you know what I’m much shorter than her and that’s not going to matter. It has to be all the tricks she used, I’m using the same tricks. We’re both exploring that commanding presence.
I always found it so strange that the models in Seventeen and YM magazines would just be like curled up, almost ashamed. I know that that informed where I am with my posture. I’ve been working for years, even doing a little ballet here and there to keep it. But I also know that that was seen as beautiful, and glamorous, and sexy. I really hope that is not the experience that kids who are 13 years old are having right now because it’s so submissive.
“The Dropout” is streaming weekly on Hulu.