News

How True-Crime Horror Story The Act Came to Life

Star Chloë Sevigny and creator Nick Antosca tell Rotten Tomatoes about fictionalizing the horrific true tale at the center of their new series.

by | March 22, 2019 | Comments

Stars. They’re just like us: also deeply fascinated by true-crime stories, like the one at the center of The Act. The series, which is Certified Fresh at 92% on the Tomatometer, is based on a Buzzfeed News article by writer Michelle Dean called “Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter To Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom Murdered,” which was subsequently turned into the HBO documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest. The Act star Chloë Sevigny was so engrossed by the documentary that she watched it twice in a row.

“I was so flabbergasted,” Sevigny told Rotten Tomatoes — a natural reaction to hearing the full story of Dee Dee and Gypsy Blanchard.


The Story

The Act -- " " -- Dee Dee Blanchard (Patricia Arquette), Gypsy Rose Blanchard (Joey King) shown. Photo by: Brownie Harris/Hulu
(Photo by Brownie Harris/Hulu)

On the surface, Dee Dee (played in The Act by Patricia Arquette) seemed to be a devoted mother caring for her incredibly sick daughter, Gypsy (Joey King). In reality, it turns out that Dee Dee suffered from Munchausen by proxy and forced her daughter to shave her head, use a wheelchair, and undergo unnecessary medical treatment. Eventually, Gypsy (and her secret online boyfriend) killed Dee Dee.

Channel Zero creator Nick Antosca, who created the series alongside Dean, said of the many questions he had after reading Dean’s story, there was one that was most important to answer when turning the saga into a scripted drama.

“How does this happen in real life? The important thing for me to explore in working on the show was what was that experience like,” Antosca told Rotten Tomatoes. “What was it like for Gypsy to live in that house for all those years, and participate in the deception that has so many layers? It’s such a complicated experience, and that was the most important thing to dig into for me. And, also, to be accurate about what happened: the fact that she underwent all these medical procedures, that she had her teeth extracted, she had this feeding tube, that it was medical abuse on a day-to-day basis. It was important that we portray the truth of what happened to her.”


The Show

The Act -- "La Maison du Bon Reve" Episode 101 -- Doting mother Dee Dee Blanchard and her sweet daughter Gypsy arrive in a new neighborhood, where Gypsy feels lonely due to a barrage of medical issues and eager to make friends. But their new neighbors can be nosy, and Dee Dee and Gypsy have secrets to hide. Dee Dee Blanchard (Patricia Arquette) and Gypsy Rose Blanchard (Joey King), shown. Photo by: CZ Post/Hulu
(Photo by CZ Post/Hulu)

Antosca came to the project from the horror world, having created Syfy’s horror anthology Channel Zero and written several episodes of Hannibal.

“My experience is in horror, but it’s always human horror, and that’s what I’m interested in: human horror, psychological horror,” he said. “I don’t feel like I was playing in a completely different sandbox here than I was with Channel Zero or Hannibal, because great horror always puts character and psychology first. And The Act, on some level, is a profound psychological horror story.”

It’s also grounded thanks to Dean’s extensive research on Dee Dee and Gypsy’s lives and medical records that became her thorough 8,500-plus word article. Since the facts are so well-documented, the story isn’t treated as a mystery, but rather more of a character study.

“The story is so widely read that this show can’t be a mystery in a traditional sense,” he said. “Not whodunit. It’s more existential than that. It’s how could this happen, and what was it like to live through that? As a storyteller, and as a viewer, and as a reader of an article, that’s what is really interesting to me and compelling to me.”


The Characters

The Act -- "La Maison du Bon Reve" Episode 101 -- Doting mother Dee Dee Blanchard and her sweet daughter Gypsy arrive in a new neighborhood, where Gypsy feels lonely due to a barrage of medical issues and eager to make friends. But their new neighbors can be nosy, and Dee Dee and Gypsy have secrets to hide. Mel (Chloë Sevigny), shown. Photo by: CZ Post/Hulu
(Photo by CZ Post/Hulu)

Arquette and King portray the mother and daughter at the center of the story, and both underwent serious physical transformations for the role (including King shaving her head).

“For Dee Dee, we needed somebody who obviously had incredible range, but also who could be very grounded and human while playing this woman who did monstrous things,” Antosca said. “So we didn’t want her to worry about being likable, but she had to have an inherent humanity.”

Sevigny plays Dee Dee and Gypsy’s neighbor, Mel, an amalgam of several real-life neighbors.

“The challenge was that truth is stranger than fiction, and this story, there’s so much there,” she said. “That’s why it was exciting that we got to do eight hours of a deep delve into these characters and these people’s relationships.”

Sevigny had to make her character as relatable as possible, especially in the middle of such an unbelievable story.

“When you think about Chloe’s roles, they’re so diverse. From Kids to Zodiac, she plays so many different kinds of people,” Antosca said. “We felt like for the neighbors — when you hear this story, you go, ‘How could people have been fooled? How were they so dumb?’ And the fact is that they weren’t [dumb]. They were just regular people like you and me, and if our neighbor said ‘My daughter’s sick and she’s in a wheelchair,’ you wouldn’t question it. So it was important that the neighbors, who are basically the audience’s surrogates, be real, regular people who are perceptive, and smart, and just trying to live their lives while this deception is going on right under their noses, so that we feel their sense of betrayal once the truth comes out.”

Sevigny, who won a Golden Globe for her role in Big Love and makes a case for more trophies here, also drew inspiration from family members in other true-crime documentaries.

“I did a whole binge of Making a Murderer when it first started, and I was thinking a lot about the aunts and cousins and different women you would see in some of the footage,” she said. “Just the women in those parts of the country that are so hard-working and can’t catch a break and how they’re so hardened by their circumstances, and I was trying to infuse Mel with that kind of person that you see in those sorts of documentaries.”


The Illness

The Act -- "Teeth" - Episode 102 -- Dee Dee is on a high since Gypsy will be given the “Child of the Year Award,” which makes Dee Dee feel like Mother of the Year. But before the big event, Gypsy has a dental emergency that gets the attention of a skeptical doctor who could expose Dee Dee’s secrets. Dee Dee Blanchard (Patricia Arquette) and Gypsy Rose Blanchard (Joey King), shown. Photo by: Brownie Harris/Hulu
(Photo by Brownie Harris/Hulu)

While Gypsy might appear to be the sick one, the truth is that Dee Dee suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, where a caregiver makes up or even causes illness in their ward. It’s a disease that has been portrayed in pop culture before (most recently in 2018’s HBO miniseries Sharp Objects), and it’s something that can quickly turn from relatable quirk to disturbing affliction.

Dean found in her research that some scientists believe “there was a spike in Munchausen once the Internet came around and people could look up reams of medical information at home in front of the television,” she told reporters on a Television Critics Association panel about the series in February. “And I think we’ve all had that experience where you’re having an ache or a pain and you go on WebMD and you think, ‘Oh, I have cancer.’”

And the way Munchausen moms in particular suffer from the illness means that there’s also still that natural instinct to protect and care for their child, and sometimes their lies take over what they rationally should know to be the truth.

“In order to be a successful fraudster you usually have to believe the fraud. You fall for it yourself,” Dean said during the panel. “I think actually that’s the answer to the question, “Why are people so intrigued by Munchausen?” It’s the question of, does the mother really believe that the child is sick or not? And in speaking to Munchausen experts, we learned they don’t know the answer to that question either.”

But why is pop culture so interested in Munchausen by proxy now?

“I think it’s part of our ongoing fascination with motherhood, what a mother should be. The mother as a monster sometimes,” Antosca told Rotten Tomatoes. “And I think it’s a role that incredibly complicated to explore. We all have interesting and complicated relationships with our mothers. Every mother makes mistakes, and does the wrong thing out of love sometimes, and this is such an extreme example of that. I think it’s universally fascinating.”


The Future

The Act was ordered at Hulu as an anthology series, but Antosca said he isn’t necessarily sure he has the right idea for another season just yet.

“Honestly, I pursued this show and wanted to make this show because of Dee Dee and Gypsy’s story. If we do another season, it would have to be another really complex human relationship. I’m not interested in doing a story about a murder, or about a crime. It has to be about the people behind the crime,” he said. “So I would love to do another season. I don’t know what it is yet. I’m completely focused on the first one now. We’re still editing the last couple episodes, but if we did another season, it would have to be about regular people in America searching for the American dream and going to a very dark place because of it.”

Sevigny has moved between film and television for nearly her entire career, and she’s planning to continue doing that. In 2019, she appears in Netflix series Russian Doll in addition to The Act, as well as several feature films, including Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die with Adam Driver and Tilda Swinton — “It’s a zombie comedy. Also Selena Gomez is in it,” she said. She also submitted a short she directed to Cannes, and is currently filming Queen and Slim, directed by Melina Matsoukas and written by Lena Waithe and James Frey.

“I love making movies, and I hope forever to make movies,” she said. “It’s nice, though, that there’s so much challenging work being made for TV and I hope to continue to work on great projects like I have been. I like cruising between the two. And also directing. I’ve directed a few shorts now and am hopefully going to develop a feature this year.”


Hulu releases new episodes of The Act every Wednesday.


Like this? Subscribe to our newsletter and get more features, news, and guides in your inbox every week.

Tag Cloud

anthology Mary Poppins Returns cancelled Columbia Pictures talk show diversity Premiere Dates true crime Paramount Network Adult Swim Chernobyl Musical PaleyFest Black Mirror Logo Freeform Hulu crime thriller Universal MSNBC 24 frames spain Mystery Year in Review Election Reality Competition crime thriller singing competition miniseries YA Ellie Kemper E! award winner Pirates Holidays Red Carpet GoT Emmys adventure Acorn TV jamie lee curtis TNT Comedy Central FOX AMC BBC robots TV renewals Stephen King OWN TLC WGN Drama WarnerMedia cooking Shudder canceled Starz justice league politics golden globes psycho spy thriller GLAAD Rock TCA 2017 Amazon Prime toy story Valentine's Day Warner Bros. CNN mutant vampires Song of Ice and Fire slashers DC Universe south america period drama First Reviews Comics on TV spinoff doctor who comiccon game show Showtime stand-up comedy canceled TV shows Set visit romantic comedy Elton John E3 FXX Sundance dc Writers Guild of America Character Guide USA National Geographic hist APB cats Sony Pictures Nat Geo serial killer Vudu natural history TIFF Awards Tour HBO Trivia cinemax Box Office Apple TV+ spider-man Awards facebook Mudbound 2018 007 Film Festival DGA Mindy Kaling crossover Superheroe harry potter casting Calendar zombies zero dark thirty SDCC NYCC Epix The CW Crackle aliens SundanceTV Fantasy Nickelodeon Pride Month binge GIFs supernatural Photos Tumblr Ovation New York Comic Con Nominations Summer Britbox unscripted Cartoon Network mockumentary Toys teaser Christmas Shondaland cults sitcom Martial Arts Esquire Masterpiece MCU series SXSW boxoffice Women's History Month transformers Action Netflix Trophy Talk richard e. Grant TBS Disney Grammys green book dragons Walt Disney Pictures NBC Best and Worst Marvel PBS travel renewed TV shows TV discovery FX Brie Larson Video Games Comedy A&E VH1 theme song Disney streaming service Food Network Infographic social media Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Pop dceu latino Paramount 2017 quibi biography The Walking Dead ratings cars docudrama TV Land Comic Book CW Seed children's TV Spring TV Star Wars foreign Heroines The Witch psychological thriller RT History historical drama dramedy technology BET kids Countdown Animation DirecTV 45 USA Network Podcast 20th Century Fox tv talk Lifetime American Society of Cinematographers President based on movie 21st Century Fox VICE HBO Max TruTV YouTube Premium Cosplay joker Thanksgiving streaming Opinion Polls and Games Star Trek Horror game of thrones cancelled television Fox News Emmy Nominations 71st Emmy Awards science fiction CMT Family zombie batman Disney Channel Sci-Fi romance Kids & Family Disney Plus festivals what to watch space Mary poppins hispanic composers cops BBC America ITV MTV Trailer political drama Biopics crime drama See It Skip It History Sundance Now Captain marvel police drama YouTube Red breaking bad revenge finale Winter TV CBS All Access Watching Series Mary Tyler Moore El Rey IFC Creative Arts Emmys 2019 Extras Fall TV Television Academy comic Interview LGBTQ Pet Sematary cancelled TV shows TCM halloween Peacock Superheroes LGBT ABC Family medical drama First Look Rocketman CBS video Apple strong female leads Sneak Peek book Schedule RT21 Chilling Adventures of Sabrina free movies Teen anime ABC Amazon Musicals Quiz Pixar adaptation Syfy Western nature TCA IFC Films movies Music Reality Rocky Cannes Dark Horse Comics ESPN Bravo Film Certified Fresh ghosts elevated horror Binge Guide Anna Paquin 2015 Rom-Com 2016 Country animated Tarantino Oscars Tomatazos blaxploitation The Purge Marathons Arrowverse cancelled TV series Spectrum Originals Super Bowl witnail San Diego Comic-Con sports YouTube DC streaming service X-Men Winners Amazon Prime Video The Arrangement Ghostbusters disaster DC Comics spanish language television war Lionsgate Lucasfilm sequel Spike