Last time Patricia Arquette was staring an Emmy in the face it was 2007, and she was on her second nomination for playing Allison Dubois in Medium—the pretty mom who has it all, with psychic powers to boot. What could have been a hackneyed stereotype became, in the hands of Arquette, a nuanced and moving portrait of a woman torn. She didn’t win back then, but this year she just might, with two astoundingly challenging real-life roles under her belt: abusive mom Dee Dee Blanchard in Hulu’s The Act, and dissatisfied prison worker-turned-criminal Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell in Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora.
With the two limited series shoots, and her new Netflix film Otherhood crammed into a few months, Arquette found she leaned on the network TV training she had on Medium to run that marathon. “Absolutely it prepared me for that,” she says. “I think it gives you a different skillset working that quickly, the way you have to, when you’re doing 22 episodes a year of something. We actually took more time than you would usually take on TV for Dannemora. For The Act, we did move really quickly, but it is a serious, fully intense workload and it’s a steep learning curve when you aren’t used to that.”
First to shoot was Dannemora. Based on a real-life 2015 prison break, the limited series explores the dynamics between Mitchell and convicts David Sweat (Paul Dano) and Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro). After becoming sexually involved with the prisoners, Mitchell ultimately helped them escape. Arquette is nominated alongside her co-stars, and director Ben Stiller.
Inherent in every retelling of a true story is the pressure of accuracy, but Dannemora showrunners Michael Tolkin and Brett Johnson made the decision not to meet Mitchell—a choice Arquette then seconded.
“Part of what we seemed to know and understand about Joyce Mitchell was that she might be the type of person where if you meet her, she might manipulate you a little bit,” Johnson told Deadline. “If you look at her life history, she’s got a long track record of manipulation and we were worried about that.”
Once Dannemora came out, Mitchell objected, specifically to the depiction of the sexual relationships in a small prison backroom. “Tilly was upset,” Arquette says. “She said all of these things hadn’t happened, that they couldn’t have possibly had sex in that room. But the thing is, we’ve all been in that room. And actually, the woman who took over Tilly’s job was arrested having sex with an inmate in that same room.”
Arquette skillfully wove the onscreen Mitchell, Tolkin says. “I don’t think there’s an actress in the world that could have done a better job than her. She embraced the character’s complicated lust for power and brought her humanity to the character, by not softening the character’s edges, by not winking at the audience, by not doing anything that would make you like the character.”
For limited series The Act, Arquette once again flew solo. Murdered in 2015 at the hand of her daughter Gypsy Rose’s boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn, Dee Dee Blanchard was recreated from scratch, without family involvement. Following the 2017 documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest, which depicted Dee Dee’s condition of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, and consequent abuse of Gypsy, Arquette says the family had completely turned against Dee Dee.
“The family had already reevaluated Dee Dee as the monster who had done this horrible stuff to Gypsy, so there was nobody left to get an unbiased opinion. She was now the hated one, even to the point that the family flushed Dee Dee’s ashes down the toilet. I would have a very hard time getting a version of Dee Dee that didn’t include a lot of condemnation and re-evaluation of who she was, so I kind of had to fill it alone, honestly.”
As with Mitchell’s objections to Dannemora, the Blanchard relatives voiced concerns about The Act. But Arquette believes that may be par for the course with stories like these. “The thing is,” she says, “when you involve the family, you also then bring in their re-imagined versions of events. Certain things that may have happened that they don’t want to see; they don’t want to talk about.”
One of the ways Arquette got into Dee Dee’s mindset was by expanding upon her own feelings of concern for her daughter. “There’s a little bit of the fear when our kids go out of the house,” she explains. “If they’re driving with young friends at night and they’re going to a party, there’s a certain amount of fear just from life that goes with that. But people like Dee Dee, I think, take things to phobic levels, and it dominates their life and dictates their thinking pattern. It kind of rewires them.”
Much has been made of Arquette’s decision to slough off her good looks for these two roles—both Blanchard and Mitchell are heavier and less conventionally-attractive than Arquette—and in Mitchell’s case, Arquette embraced the chance to challenge ideas about female sexuality.
“We really haven’t heard the story—or even talked about—females being sexual beings if they don’t look a certain way,” she says. “Nobody minds if Jack Nicholson has a potbelly in a movie and is a sexual guy or a playboy. But it’s a different story when you have sexual women that don’t look a certain way. Of course, there are millions and millions of women who don’t have that ‘normal’ body type, who have sex and are sexual beings, but we act like there’s a meteor hitting the earth or something.”
Arquette has felt that age-old pressure to look a certain way. “It’s like, ‘We’ll hold you to it as long as humanly possible.’ And you go from being an ingenue to the beautiful, she’s-still-got-it-together mom. It’s really not that fun. Having said all that, I’m grateful to be an actor, and to have this opportunity to make a living acting. I know how rare it is. I’m certainly not complaining. I just really want to expand the artform and I want us to look at different stories.”
Even as a child Arquette turned away from the expectation of conventional attractiveness, refusing the offer of braces on her teeth. “I was already feeling this weird pressure by society that I was supposed to look a certain way as a girl, and to somehow be picture-perfect to have value in the world,” she says. “I didn’t really want to participate in that.”
What stands out in conversation with Arquette is how she became a person willing to be exposed; to stick by the truth and her integrity. Before these two latest roles were on the table, there was of course her memorable 2015 Boyhood Oscar acceptance speech, in which she vehemently called for equal pay, despite the potential backlash. So, what gave her that strong sense of self, the drive to speak her truth regardless of the consequences? “I think it came from my mom because she’s a really intense activist,” Arquette says. “Then also just age. I never saw myself as winning an Academy Award.”
These days, Arquette’s working on putting together her directorial debut, the details of which she’s not yet ready to reveal. But mostly, she says, her head is full of the memoir she’s writing. As she wades through her personal history, emotional revelations are coming from left and right. “It’s less [about] career than I ever thought it was going to be,” she says. “I went back to see what the pivotal, big lessons have been, what made me who I am, and why I’ve made the choices I’ve made; whatever gave me strength to question certain things or to be an activist for equal pay. What things impacted me to get me there? Even though I’m not tying them together like that, I think when you see these stories you start to understand: what’s the fabric that makes us who we really are?”
Right now, she’s working through telling the story of her sister Alexis’s illness and 2016 passing. “I am trying to push myself, but it is very raw,” she admits. Despite all the challenges she has set herself to be authentic, or the difficulty inherent in making two shows that risked the wrath of the real-life people involved, writing this memoir has turned out to be the scariest thing of all. “It’s just intense,” she says. “I think writing like that, it’s the most intense thing on Earth. It’s really almost like swimming with sharks. So scary. I’m pretty brave and pretty bold. I’ll go anywhere and I’ve been in crazy situations on Earth. But writing is the scariest one, so far.”