On the Set of 'The Act': How Patricia Arquette, Joey King Went "Grotesque" for Hulu Series

Raymond Jones
Patricia Arquette (left) and Joey King on the set Nov. 29. "The characters live in a world that is kind of a fairy-tale fantasy, so we wanted to reflect that cinematically, and that’s borne out in every choice, whether it’s wardrobe or palette, production design or cinematography," says co-showrunner Nick Antosca.

The Hollywood Reporter visits the set of the limited series — based on the true story of a mother who forced her child to feign illness for years — which serves up memorable performances along with "mystery, humanity and great human drama."

Gypsy Rose Blanchard didn't need a wheelchair. She certainly didn't require a feeding tube. But for the first 20 years of her life, she was forced into a bizarre charade of fake ailments and shuttled in and out of hospitals by her mother, Dee Dee Blanchard, who herself suffered from a rare case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. It all came crashing to an end on June 14, 2015, when Gypsy Rose snapped and, along with her boyfriend, stabbed her mother 20 times, killing her.

Just three years later, last fall, this real-life tragedy was being re-created on a set in Savannah, Georgia, for The Act, an eight-hour limited series for Hulu that stars Patricia Arquette as Dee Dee, Joey King as the Disney princess-loving Gypsy Rose, AnnaSophia Robb as Gypsy Rose's friend and Chloë Sevigny as the neighbor who suspects that something isn't quite right with the Blanchard family.

"The story had everything," says co-showrunner Nick Antosca. "It had mystery, it had humanity, it had the great human drama — the relationship between mother and daughter."

Much of the series, which debuted the first of its eight episodes March 20, was shot at a local church that production designers transformed into a children's hospital, as well as various real-life doctors' offices. The Blanchard home, a bright pink bungalow (built by Habitat for Humanity), was decorated in what co-showrunner Michelle Dean calls "hypnotizing" florals; the costumes were equally colorful. Arquette's character was outfitted in bright, oversized blouses that, the actress says, were "alarming in the way it looked very non-sexual, almost like, 'My whole life is being the mom.' Safe, cozy, warm, traditional, almost Holly Hobbie-ish, like a Cabbage Patch personality."

Even the stuffed animals Gypsy Rose clutches through much of the series (in real life, she's now serving 10 years in prison) were chosen to boost the horror of the show's happy-creepy atmospherics. "The grotesque that underlies the cuteness," is how director Christina Choe describes it.

According to Sevigny, though, the most useful prop was Savannah itself. "It's such a haunted city," she says. "There was a paper mill there, so the scent of the mill just permeates, which is kind of depressing but also so specific. All of these weird elements added to our show."

 

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.