As with any dramatic film or TV series based on real-life events, Hulu’s series The Act is intriguing viewers with its stranger-than-fiction storyline and supremely complex, flawed cast of characters. It tells a fictionalized version of Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard's history; the mother and daughter became infamous after a Buzzfeed exposè, an HBO documentary, and a public murder case publicized Dee Dee's abuse of Gypsy thanks to an undiagnosed case of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.
“I didn’t know about [Dee Dee's mother],” Martindale explains to Refinery29, referring to the late Emma Pitre. “I actually looked up pictures of her to decide whether I wanted to do this or not." In addition to reading the script, which she says she "loved," it was seeing the real woman behind the character that sealed the deal for the actress. "I wanted to see what she looked like, what the real woman looked like, and I liked the way she looked," said Martindale. In particular, Martindale pointed out Emma’s eyebrows and hair as intriguing. (Martindale wore a wig for the episode.)
But beyond Emma's look, the flashbacks to a younger Dee Dee (Patricia Arquette) welcoming baby Gypsy (Joey King) into the world with her mother closeby portray Emma as overbearing, condescending, and generally nasty to Dee Dee, who is struggling with the challenges of young motherhood. As Dee Dee does everything from breastfeeding to putting Gypsy down for bed, her mother hovers and criticizes. Martindale says these scenes were fun for her, as an actor. "I loved it when Patricia and I were just in scene together, when I was telling her what not to do with her baby — because everything was small and needling," she says. Later, Emma appears cold and uncaring when Dee Dee is literally arrested in front of her child on charges of fraud and jailed for several months.
But we might never know how accurate or inaccurate these scenes are. Given how little information is out there about Dee Dee's mother (she died in 1997), Martindale had to make conjectures about what kind of woman Emma was, by trying to understand what kind of person might have raised a daughter like Dee Dee and combining that with what she saw in old photos of Emma.
“For me, it was how she carried herself,” Martindale explained. “It seemed like [she was saying], ‘I am so proud of who I am. And so proud of who you aren’t.’ I knew that she was a very controlling woman who thought that she had all of the answers. And really, really thought she was right.”
According to Martindale, much of how she portrayed Emma was an attempt to show “what gets passed on” from one generation to the next, to get closer to the “root” of why Dee Dee behaved the way she did, lying and cheating her way through life. Still, it’s impossible to perfectly recreate a person in all their complexities (especially without many facts to go on), so Martindale is hoping that her depiction of Emma, as well as the depictions of other characters like Gypsy and Dee Dee, are taken with a grain of salt.
“This kind of story intrigues me,” she said. “When I got [the part], I did watch the documentary and read the article, but this is just a jumping-off point. [The Act] is inspired by this true story, but not based on the true story. This gives us lots of great choices. It becomes ours is what it does.”
For the record, other members of Dee Dee’s family (who were not portrayed in The Act) have taken issue with the way the main characters are depicted. Family friend and screenwriter Franchesca "Fancy" Macelli recently told In Touch that while the series itself is compelling, “[The Act] takes away from the true story and helping bring awareness to something that is very serious.” She and Gypsy's step-mother Kristy Blanchard also spoke to Vulture about the version of Gypsy's story that they are working on, explaining their issues with The Act and expressing that their story will be more accurate than the Hulu version. Macelli also told the Springfield News-Leader that she and the Blanchard family were looking at "what our legal rights would be" against Hulu in March.
“Yes, it gets the word out about Gypsy, and we have seen some great support from it for her,” Macelli told In Touch, adding that she's concerned it's "not good attention because it’s so misleading and is not giving a fair depiction of any character.”
For her part, however, Martindale sees the series as an important character study, and one that very clearly states its intent (each episode ends with a slide that explains the series is a fictionalized rendering of the events and real people).
"It is a crack into what might have happened," Martindale specifies. "We could never really know."