Warning: Spoilers for “The Act” below.
In the second episode of Hulu’s new series “The Act,” Gypsy Rose Blanchard (Joey King) sits in her wheelchair and smiles up at her mom Dee Dee (Patricia Arquette), who’s giving a speech about caring for her sick child at an award ceremony.
“I never saved Gypsy. Gypsy saved me,” Dee Dee tells the audience before looking at her bald-headed daughter, wide-eyed under large ’80s-style glasses. “I was born to be your mama. I carried you into this world, but you’ve been carrying [me] ever since.”
As the crowd erupts in cheers, Gypsy takes the mic and begins to sing The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”
You and I must make a pact
We must bring salvation back,
Where there is love, I’ll be there.
I’ll reach out my hand to you
I’ll have faith in all you do.
Just call my name and I’ll be there.
Dee Dee soon joins in, and applause fills the room.
The lyrics of that song in the context of this show are ironic and unsettling.
Nick Antosca, showrunner
This tender moment is not in place to solicit tears; it’s meant to enrage viewers who are witnessing the psychological warfare being carried out by Dee Dee, a mother who suffers from Munchausen by proxy syndrome, in which caretakers exaggerate or induce symptoms or illness in children to receive attention and personal gratification.
Dee Dee Blanchard was a real woman, and she was murdered in June 2015 after Gypsy ― who wasn’t actually sick at all ― could no longer endure the abuse. The story made national headlines when a BuzzFeed article by Michelle Dean detailed the deranged narrative in 2016. Then, in 2017, HBO released a stirring documentary on the Blanchards titled “Mommy Dead and Dearest.” Now, Hulu is tackling the case in its new anthology series co-created by Dean and “Channel Zero” showrunner Nick Antosca.
When I spoke to Antosca about “The Act,” he made one thing clear: The showrunners chose “I’ll Be There” to be Dee Dee and Gypsy’s song long before they knew anything about the four-hour documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which thoroughly investigates the child abuse allegations against Michael Jackson.
“Of course, there’s a reputation around Michael Jackson and a creepiness to it,” he told HuffPost. “We did choose that song knowing full well that there was something unsettling about it. Even if you didn’t know who wrote it and who was performing it, the lyrics of that song in the context of this show are ironic and unsettling.”
The song is featured a few times throughout the eight-part series, most notably in the second episode, titled “The Body.” After her duet with Dee Dee onstage, Gypsy is seen getting her feeding tube replaced. When she arrives back home, “I’ll Be There” plays as she places a stuffed unicorn on a mountain of other plush toys ― toys which have been used to trick doctors, neighbors and strangers into thinking Gypsy is a very sick young girl when she’s really a perfectly healthy teenager being drugged by her own mother.
Gypsy herself thinks she has leukemia, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy and a sugar allergy, among other things. In actuality, Dee Dee has been lying to her and convincing medical professionals of these ailments for most of her daughter’s life.
Below, Antosca discusses “The Act,” the bizarre case of Dee Dee and Gypsy, and our culture’s fascination with bad parents.
Why did you decide to take on Gypsy Blanchard’s story?
I read the [BuzzFeed] article when it came out and I saw the documentary a few years later. But the article is the entry point. It’s an exhaustively researched piece and there’s so much detail, yet you’re left wondering, “How could this happen?” To me even more than that was, “What was it like inside that house? What was the experience of living inside a cage of lies?”
Gypsy’s mother built this cage for her and kept it the same size as she kept growing, until the only thing she could do was use the skills and manipulation and deception that her mother taught her to escape from her grasp. I feel like the experience of what happened to Gypsy is truly nightmarish. I even had a nightmare about it after reading the article.
And the questions that I had are the kinds of questions that nonfiction can’t answer. When I think of the great true-life dramatizations, it’s stuff like “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Heavenly Creatures,” which each take an unthinkable crime and tabloid, lurid story and take it into the humanity and prolific experience behind it.
Was Michelle Dean, who wrote the BuzzFeed article about the Blanchard case, a part of this from the beginning?
Greg Shephard and Britton Rizzio, who are the other executive producers on the show, optioned the article from Michelle and reached out to me and asked if I was interested. So Michelle and I had quite a few conversations about how to treat something like this. It’s real people. It’s a sensitive story to tell, but at the same time, it’s a story within the public interest and many have a great deal of fascination and curiosity with it. So we wanted to make sure we had the right philosophy going into it, and then we took it to Hulu and they bought it.
In a way, it’s kind of the weirdest, most twisted coming-of-age story that I had ever heard.
Did you want this show to be on Gypsy’s side? Because it does come off that way.
We wanted to approach the story with an awareness of the humanity of both characters without shying away from the fact that Dee Dee obviously did many monstrous things over the years, and we wanted to portray those things.
We didn’t want to think of her in the writers’ room as a monster — things were done to her when she was young and she was in a difficult position. She fell victim to her own pathologies in a way. But we didn’t want to present her as, you know, Mommy Dearest.
At the same time, the story to me, most fundamentally, is a mother-daughter story focused on a coming-of-age story. In a way, it’s kind of the weirdest, most twisted coming-of-age story that I had ever heard. So it naturally leans toward Gypsy’s experience as a protagonist because she’s the one who something is being done to and she’s the one who’s going through a process of self-discovery.
Did you meet with Gypsy at all or talk to her about the show?
I didn’t. Michelle interviewed Gypsy and quite a few other people extensively for the article. Once we were working on the TV show, we were relying entirely on mostly available research, documents and all the interviews and research Michelle did.
Does Gypsy know that the show is happening, by chance?
[Pause] I don’t know. I have no idea. For me, it was a process of using the research and taking some dramatic license. I mean, it’s not a documentary — there is a documentary and this is not that. But we tried to get to what seemed to be the psychological and emotional truth of the story based on a great deal of information we had.
Munchausen by proxy syndrome is a big part of the story — had you heard of it prior to working on this?
I was aware of what Munchausen by proxy was. I hadn’t worked on a story like this before, but it’s something that seems to have risen to the surface of the culture lately. There’s been this case, in particular, and certain other stories [“Sharp Objects,” “Love You to Death”]. There seems to be a national fascination with Munchausen by proxy. I don’t know what the explanation for that is, but I think we’re all kind of fascinated with mothers who do terrible things to their children in the way of, “How could this happen?”
The question of, “How could someone do that?” is a compelling one. It’s also, in a different form, in the Michael Jackson documentary [“Leaving Neverland”] or “Abducted In Plain Sight,” where you’re thinking, “How could a parent do this?” It’s a question that sticks its hooks into you.
This show hooks you in with unsettling drama, but also has this horror feel to it, which is definitely your genre, given “Channel Zero” and your upcoming “Chucky” series. Did that excite you at all, to bring out the terror of the situation?
I didn’t feel like I was using a different muscle doing “The Act” than I did for “Channel Zero” or “Hannibal.” In all cases, I’m interested in psychological horror and in character-based storytelling. You approach every story on its own merits, and this one certainly has a lot of horror to it. I’m sure one of the reasons that it stuck with me and gave me nightmares is there’s a deep human horror aspect to this story.
You wanted these actors to bring that humanity to this story, I’m assuming? I mean, you cast Patricia Arquette, so you can’t go wrong in that regard.
You need somebody grounded in humanity to play Dee Dee who has that quality naturally, so that they don’t have to worry about being likable. With Patricia, she’s sort of fundamentally human, and for her to then go to this dark place made for a really interesting conflict.
And then with Joey King, she physically transformed to play Gypsy.
Joey’s a revelation. I had never worked with her before and I was only familiar with her in supporting roles in “Fargo” and “The Conjuring.” It was her audition and even more than that, our conversations with her, where she had such a curiosity about the role and such commitment and dedication to finding what the lived experience of Gypsy Blanchard was.
And the role requires extreme range. The story takes place over many years and she evolves and she has to play different levels of deception. It’s a role that most experienced actors couldn’t pull off, and Joey is one of the most amazing actors I’ve ever worked with. She really blew us all away.
It’s truly a toxic love story between mother and daughter, and those actors only enhance it.
Fundamentally, it was really important to the writers’ room, and when working with Patricia and Joey, to never forget that these two characters love each other. And it’s a love that becomes twisted and deformed and leads to a murder. This is a deeply toxic love story.
And one of the reasons that Gypsy did kill her mother was because she loved her. Everybody says, “Why didn’t you just leave?” Or, “Why didn’t you just tell someone what was going on?” And she couldn’t bring herself to do that because of what it would’ve done to her relationship to her mother, and because of the consequences her mother would’ve faced. She couldn’t bear to think of her mother going to jail; she couldn’t bear to think of her mother suffering without her. Even though she came to hate her mother at the same time, in some way, she felt killing her mother was going to be an act of mercy.
The show primarily focuses on Dee Dee and Gypsy, but you do feature a few supporting characters as well in Chloe Sevigny and AnnaSophia Robb, who play their next-door neighbors. How did you make the decision to include the roles of Mel and Lacey?
The neighbors and the doctors, those are fictionalized characters. They’re composites, and they represent various people who have different qualities of life. What was important was having relatable characters outside of that pink house who represent the audience, effectively, because when you hear this story you think, “How did people buy this bullshit? How could people buy this act for so long? How could they hide in plain sight?”
And part of you wants to believe that the people who were living around them were foolish or blind, but I don’t believe that they were. I think that any of us would’ve been hoodwinked by a mother who we think is eccentric, but seems motivated by love and by protective feelings toward her daughter. We’re not going to cast doubt on someone who says her daughter is sick, gives her everything, devotes her life to her. So it’s important to have that point of view and have the other mother and daughter story [of Mel and Lacey] as a reflection of Dee Dee and Gypsy.
You mentioned the pink house — talk about the set design on this and how you wanted this neighborhood to feel, because it does have a fairy tale-esque quality to it.
Well, they were obsessed with fairy tales, and they moved into this tiny little house in a Habitat for Humanity neighborhood, but they had been homeless in Katrina, so to them, it was their castle. It was a big, exciting place they were going to live for the rest of their lives. And even a life that might look small from the outside feels big on the inside, so we wanted the production design to reflect that.
We built that entire neighborhood in Savannah, Georgia, with the intention of recreating the original neighborhood but heightening it slightly. We wanted to create the sense of this insular world for them. A lot of the show takes place in that house, so it’s important for us to recreate the experience of what living there would’ve been like.
In real life, the neighborhood was entirely built by Habitat for Humanity, so we tried to create that sense of a little community that had been constructed. Then, when we tore it down, we donated a bunch of our construction materials back to Coastal Empire Habitat for Humanity.
Did you visit the actual site of their house to get a feel for it?
No, I never did. Michelle did when she was researching the article back well before the show. We relied on blueprints, photos and all the extensive documented evidence of what the neighborhood looked like to choose what we wanted to recreate exactly and what we wanted to adjust for dramatic and cinematic reasons. But the house itself is as close to an actual reproduction as we could get.
This is intended to be the first season of a series reproducing true crimes, like “American Crime Story,” versus, say, the fictionalized “True Detective.” How are you going to go about picking the real-life cases you want to cover in future seasons?
Honestly, I can’t even go there right now. I’m so deep in Season 1, and that’s been our entire focus. I signed on because I was passionate about digging into the Blanchard story. If we were to do a Season 2, I would just want to do something that has a rich, compelling, complex relationship at the heart of it. A story that’s not about the crime or the murder but about the people behind it. And, for the lack of a better word, regular people. Everyday, working-class Americans.
This is not the O.J. story or the Versace story. What we’re interested in for “The Act” is everyday people who want the American dream and just can’t have it.
The first two episodes of “The Act” premiere March 20 on Hulu.
This interview has been edited and condensed.