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The Showtime miniseries, which premieres Nov.?18 and is based on the 2015 breakout at New York state’s Clinton Correctional Facility, required the 50-year-old Oscar-winning Boyhood actress to lose herself in the dowdy shoes, body and irises of Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell — a prison worker who aided in the infamous spree after alleged affairs with the two escapees. And now that Arquette has had a taste of character work, she’s ready for more.
You’re bound to get attention for the physical transformation here. Can you talk through the process?
I had to gain a bunch of weight, so I started working with a nutritionist. I asked her, “How do I do this in a healthy way?” She’s like, “Well, eat milkshakes.” It turns out there’s not really a healthy way — just a lot of bread, ice cream and beer. I also wore these prosthetic teeth to give me an underbite and these giant brown contact lenses.
The contacts are more jarring than the weight gain.
The first time I got all ready in hair and makeup, I went outside to smoke a cigarette. David Morse, who I’ve worked with for years, looked at me, like, “Who the hell is this lady, and why is she talking to?me?” Even Benicio [Del Toro]. He said, “You’ve got devil eyes.”
What was your initial read on Tilly?
I like that she’s unapologetically comfortable with her sexuality. It’s not something we get to see with middle-aged women of a certain body type. So what I really love about her is that she’s the least likely femme fatale.
Was there ever the suggestion of meeting with her in real life?
There was talk, but I didn’t think it was going to serve us. Knowing what I know of Tilly, she likes to threaten people. I didn’t want her trying to work her magic on me. And I don’t think you can ever really play someone. You can only play your version of someone. I couldn’t even play myself.
You filmed in the prison. How did that inform your work?
That whole community is chained to this prison. Almost everyone works there or is married to someone who works there. When you’re in there, it’s really scary. Before we shot, we toured the tailor shop where Tilly worked. The prisoners were in there, just walking around with giant scissors. This nice lady showed us around. At one point, I looked at her and said, “Come on, you’re a pretty lady. All of these guys have to be coming on to you. These guys are hustlers, really.” She’s like, “Oh, I just like to treat everyone like they’re people.” Two weeks later, she gets busted for having an affair with a prisoner in the same room where Tilly did.
You can’t make it up. And here’s the thing: No one ever admitted they had sex with Tilly. Because if they did, she’d be up for 20 more years in jail for rape. Sex with a prisoner is rape. This lady is up for a longer sentence than Tilly.
Do you see a common thread to the roles you’re being offered now?
When I started, I was like an ingenue — someone’s girlfriend or object of desire. Then I moved into motherhood. Now I’m doing Dannemora and a crime series for Hulu [The Act]. I’m playing the character parts. I’m doing weird things. I’m not saddled with, “Are you the nice wife? Are you the nice mom?” This is my year of playing complicated monster women, and it’s really fun.
So this is another phase of your career?
I’m grateful for all of it, but I am having a blast exploring things that I didn’t think my youth and beauty afforded. I didn’t think of myself as beautiful, but, in retrospect, I guess I was. But it limited me the world or the storytelling limited me. I’m feeling much more expansive right now with opportunities, challenges and creativity.
You spoke about parity for women in your 2015 Oscar speech. Have you seen a change since then?
Weirdly enough, I wasn’t really taking about Hollywood. I was talking about 98?percent of all jobs. We have these primary breadwinners, women, but they’re paid so much less. They say if women got paid the full dollar, it would eliminate half of the child hunger in America. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
What changes have you seen in Hollywood?
In Hollywood, nobody knows how much everyone is making, It’s all very hidden, and it’s hard to change those things. I have been very heartened by some change, though. I was working on a project, and we went out to all these female writers — but they’ve been working. And the last couple of shows I’ve been on, we’ve had female grips, female boom operators on Dannemora, we had a female cinematographer [Jessica Lee Gagne].
You’ve been filming The Act in Georgia. What’s your experience been like there with the election results still up in the air?
I’m frustrated. There were so many votes tossed out. If we don’t allow people to vote in America, what is our democracy? It’s a sham. But I’ve very proud and grateful to Stacey Abrams as a leader, saying, “No. Count every vote.” She’s the real deal.
This story also appears in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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