After a Year of Playing 'Crazy Women,' Patricia Arquette Is Ready to Find Herself Again (Exclusive)
By Jennifer Drysdale
"I just need to go back to my own self for a minute," Patricia Arquette jokes, leaning over the side of a low-set leather couch at a hotel bar in Pasadena, California, in early February.
The 50-year-old actress is promoting her new true-crime anthology series, Hulu's The Act, just two days after filming on the eight-episode series wrapped in Georgia. Arquette plays Dee Dee Blanchard in the drama series, a woman with Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Dee Dee's teenage daughter, Gypsy Rose (The Kissing Booth's Joey King), helped murder Dee Dee -- with the help of a boyfriend -- after learning that her mother had been convincing the world that she was wheelchair-bound and suffered from a variety of illnesses.
It’s an intense story, and a physically, emotionally draining role for Arquette, who had just finished playing another real-life woman, Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell, on Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora, for which she won a Golden Globe in January.
"You don't usually get that interesting [of a] part as a woman, that complicated. So I think that's part of it," the actress tells ET of why she jumped so quickly into another "crazy woman" role after Dannemora. Arquette is quick to note she can be a bit of a "crazy woman" too. "If you saw my packrat piles, you would question my scruples," she says, laughing at the thought.
"There were moments where I started as Dee Dee during rehearsal, and, Oh, there's a little Tilly face coming out of my face. 'Stop it, Tilly. Go back!'" Arquette recalls, painting a picture of how characters can live inside her head. "I was having these weird conversations with these [characters]."
Arquette can't help but demonstrate, giving a mini lesson in The Patricia Arquette Method. "There's three different phases of Dee Dee," she explains, smoothing out her vibrant red dress over her knees as she goes through her approach to each part. "She doesn't feel like she has enough value as a person to be worthy of existing if not as this maternal archetype, this kind of martyr type."
“Even though I, Patricia, know what this other person is saying or what they mean, I made a decision that my character is hearing this whole other thing and perceiving this whole other thing from what they're saying. And that's triggering something else in me," Arquette reveals, describing how a piece of dialogue can turn into a "four-way scene," even though there is no one else in the room.
She's delighted by the mixture of awe and confusion she’s created. "It's insane. It’s really a lot!" Arquette squeaks out before bursting into laughter so loud that others in the intimate bar peer over, curious as to what’s going on in the Arquette corner.
"Trust me, it’s like playing chess or something. I'm 12 moves ahead," she now sort-of-whispers, only because she's laughing so hard that words barely come. "Think about that, oh my god! You're sinking your own battleship all the time!"
Still, Arquette remains 100 percent fascinated by and committed to Dee Dee and Gypsy's story. Minutes earlier, Arquette's 19-year-old co-star, King, was singing her praises, confessing that she felt working with the veteran actress had made her "a better actor."
"I'm so unbelievably lucky to have someone like Patricia," King told ET, jokingly calling Arquette "queen." Really, the young actress says, Arquette's like "family." "It was so helpful to have someone so generous, with not only their performance, but just as a human being. She's just one of the kindest people I've ever met… I feel like my life has changed after meeting her."
Despite the smile emerging on her face, hearing what King had said about her doesn’t seem to faze Arquette much.
"We just really had this chemistry right away," Arquette says matter-of-factly. "There's just a lot of things that clicked and were familiar with one another. When [Joey] would get sick, I'd make her chicken soup and send it to the set. I'd do mommy things for her."
Arquette giggles at a question about what exactly she put in said soup. "I didn't poison her! I didn't poison her!" she insists through her chuckles. "I draw the line at poisoning people."
Like other true-crime tales, interest in Dee Dee and Gypsy has risen exponentially in the last few years. There was the HBO documentary, Mommy Dead and Dearest, in May 2017. (Journalist Michelle Dean, who covered the case and appeared in the HBO film, serves as an executive producer on The Act). And in January, Lifetime's two-hour film, Love You to Death, starring Marcia Gay Harden, was loosely inspired by Dee Dee and Gypsy's ordeal.
"I don't think it's fair to [compare the stories]," says Arquette, adding that she hasn't seen the Lifetime movie but "loves" Harden. "We have eight hours to tell it, so you can really go much more in depth of the pressure cooker of this relationship, you know?"
She would know. Arquette's award-winning work has spanned over three decades in TV and film. She’s won a slew of awards, including an Oscar (for 2014's Boyhood), two Golden Globes and an Emmy (for Medium). This year, Arquette has been recognized for her stunning performance in Escape at Dannemora, taking home a Critics' Choice Award, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award.
"[TV] is the future and the past [for women]," she declares, crediting the success of such groundbreaking programs as Cagney & Lacey, Maude and The Golden Girls as paving the way. "I still don't think it's like that in film, really. I guess it's slowly moving towards that a little bit… but the stories are getting richer now in television."
Arquette also notes that TV, right now, is "paying better." "I made The Indian Runner 28 years ago for [a budget of] $8 million. I'm getting offers now, 28 years later, for movies that have a $1 million budget all the time," she reveals, leaning forward in the leather set, but not lowering her voice. Money talk isn’t something she shies away from. "A lot of actors can't afford to do these tiny movies and the movie business... movie theaters have closed, people want to watch things on cable. Pirating is decimating people's work. That part of the business hasn't worked itself out right now. So you'll see more and more people moving into TV."
The veteran actress has become somewhat synonymous with advocating for equality in Hollywood, having used her awards acceptance speeches in recent years to draw attention to larger, systemic issues like the treatment of women in the industry and politics and granular problems like production companies shorting actors on their timecards.
"When I said that at the Oscars, I knew there were going to be eyeballs on it. So yeah, I did want to call attention to equal rights and equal pay and what the hell is going on," Arquette explains. "These other things like SAG… this is an award for actors, by actors. I felt the most responsible thing I could do is say to my fellow actors, 'Hey, something bad is going on, and we need to be careful here and make sure you're getting paid all your money.' And maybe put the industry on notice to stop doing that."
But as passionate as Arquette is about the business side of Hollywood, the creative is where she feels most fulfilled. Though she has her own ideas on Dee Dee Blanchard, she wants viewers of The Act to come to their own conclusions.
"When people set out to make an audience feel something, it feels really manipulative. Just tell each character's truth and let them have conversations about it," she says. "Even after making it, there were different perspectives on [Dee Dee and Gypsy's] relationship."
Arquette sits back in her chair, with the wheels turning in her mind the way she believes they did for Dee Dee. "I have two kids. I understand this maternal bond and concern about my child and mothering my child, and sometimes even over-mothering my child. But to this level, this distorted maternal relationship, how does that work?" she asks.
"We're still talking about these people, so I don't know [how I’m going to let go of it]," Arquette jokes, making herself laugh again. "But I want to do yoga, breathe, swim, eat vegetables! I want to do things I want to do for a little while."