The Act, now on Starz Play, is a story of mothers and daughters, mental illness, and murder. Based on Michelle Dean’s 2016 investigative piece for Buzzfeed, the series explores the story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her mother Dee Dee. In 2015, after more than a decade of suffering physical and emotional abuse stemming from her mother’s Munchausen by proxy disorder, Gypsy and her then-boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn murdered Dee Dee.
The Act explores Gypsy’s growing self awareness, aided by late night sessions in internet chat rooms where she met Godejohn, and tells the story of Dee Dee’s murder within the framework of the deception and fantasy world in which they lived. Filmed in deeply saturated candy tones, the series stars Joey King as Gypsy and Patricia Arquette as Dee Dee. Together, they bring a haunting familiarity to the one of the strangest true stories ever told. For Dean, it was necessary to get at the essential humanity of the story so she enlisted women's voices in the writers room and behind the camera to make that happen.
The result is a deeply affecting true crime story that manages to avoid some of the most problematic tropes of true crime storytelling. And Dean remains proud of her work even as Gypsy's devoted stepmother, Kristy Blanchard – who will take on Gypsy's care when she's released from prison – has spoken out against some of the fictionalised elements of the show.
Refinery29 spoke with Dean, The Act’s co-creator, co-showrunner, and executive producer, about turning her viral article into a limited series, translating the “ZOMG” moments for emotional accuracy, her artistic inspirations, and what Gypsy Lee has in common with Dorothy Parker, screenwriter of the original A Star Is Born.
Refinery29: Can you tell us a little about how your article became a television show?
Michelle Dean: “When I published the article, I had no idea that it was going to be a big thing. It seems extremely naïve to say that now, but it’s the case. Right after it went online, I went off to a Tragically Hip concert in Canada that weekend and as I did it started to go viral and my phone was going off and there were a lot of tweets and retweets. I slowly realised that a couple million people had read it over the weekend. That’s when Hollywood started reaching out and I had to quickly hire a filmmaker.
[I was introduced to] Nick Antosca. He and I talked quite a bit and we had similar tastes in filmmakers and a similar approach to this, and so I chose him to collaborate with.
I've never been on a set before I joined the series, so I needed somebody who had that expertise. I think [the show] is made stronger by the fact that it was a collaboration between an experienced show runner and a journalist. Nick and I collaborated on the series, we shaped it together, we pitched it together and especially in the writers room we ran it together.”
What were some of your creative inspirations?
“Nick and I talked a lot about Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson's film about a murder in New Zealand and then we talked about Boy's Don't Cry, which is obviously an iconic movie that took a “tabloid crime” and humanised it.
That was important to us from the beginning because we knew that people had these sort “ZOMG” reactions to the original story and it always bothered me and in some ways continues to bother me. In the end it’s a story about real people, and that became a priority for us. It would have been easy to play up the extremity of the behaviour here. It was a lot harder to understand how people could get to this place. How do they get to this kind of vibe as it envelopes them and how do they get to this horrible crime that is at the heart of our story?”
And do you think there story is relatable in some way?
“Well I hope that people start to think about the way this kind of abuse often hides in plain sight. I'm often struck by the thought that even Dee Dee had nice side — a sweetness. That was part of the trap for Gypsy and that is something we tried to dramatise in the series: this notion that her niceness was the problem [and] keeps Gypsy loyal.
I just want people to understand that for anybody that gets into one of these extreme situations, there's an emotional logic that precedes most of the violence. We sometimes lose sight of that when we start talking about true crime. These are real people who actually had these experiences. It’s not just a puzzle to be solved.”
In the meantime, you published a wonderful book called Sharp: Ten Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion. How do you transition from writing about Dorothy Parker and Joan Didion to writing about Gypsy and Dee Dee?
“I have an abiding interest in women, and particularly ‘outlier woman.’ It’s interesting because we're in a moment in the culture where everybody says they want female driven stories, but what that has often translated into, it seems to me, are stories about a woman occupying the place that a male detective would in a noir. And while I love some of that stuff, I also think that there is a specificity to female experiences that's worth depicting.
That’s why it was so important to me to have a number of women writers – our writer’s room is majority women and a majority of our episodes were directed by women. It was a conscious choice that Nick and I made. It was a priority that we had.
And I don’t think it’s that hard to draw a line between some of the woman in the book and this story. I mean Dorothy Parker also had a very unhappy unhappy childhood [which shaped her career and life trajectory a lot].”
Can you talk a bit about casting Joey King and Patricia Arquette – two very traditionally beautiful women in these roles?
“Well, I think everyone in Hollywood is beautiful. I mean, it's part of the game. And I actually think that Gypsy is kind of beautiful. One of the things we wanted to get across in terms of casting, was that these people are not so different from real people and so having these recognisable actors who have these profiles of their own is part of that strategy.
Patricia was somebody who came up in the beginning. And when we met with her she kept saying she wanted to understand what could be going through a woman's mind seeing her child getting unnecessary medical treatment. That kind of commitment to try to piece together the psychology of it was something that we thought was really great and Patricia has this lovely soft subtle side that also is married with a kind of fearlessness.
When Joey when she came in, it was just sort of obvious that she was right. She came in for us with no makeup and glasses on. She sat down and chatted and then read for us. We thought that there was something about her and the way she was interpreting the difficulties that Gypsy's going through, [along with] an understanding of her emotional experiences. We really lucked out because they bonded too. Patricia is very protective of Joey.”
What are you working on next?
“You know, I don't really know. I'm trying to figure out what's happening to my life. I have a novel that I’ve been working on and I hope to do some more TV. It was nice to have so many people in the fox hole with me and Nick making this show. Their commitment was something that helped me sort of get through this and the experience that taught me a lot about how to put together a production that does something really unique. And I'm really proud to say that’s something we did.”
The Act is available to stream in the UK via Starz Play