Eric Lange on Throwing His 'Identity Out the Window' for 'Escape at Dannemora' (Exclusive)
By Jennifer Drysdale
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Critics' Choice Awards
One interview. That's all Eric Lange had to go off of for his role in Showtime's Escape at Dannemora.
Lange, whose resume features an impressive array of TV staples like Lost and Weeds, plays Lyle Mitchell in the Ben Stiller-directed limited series centered on the 2015 escape of two convicted murderers, Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano). Lyle's wife, Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), who worked at the New York prison alongside her husband, provided the inmates tools to aid in their escape. After a three-week manhunt that cost $23 million, Matt was killed by authorities and Sweat was shot and taken into custody. Tilly pleaded guilty to promoting prison contraband and criminal facilitation and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Authorities don't believe Lyle had any knowledge of or involvement in the escape.
"His take is the media ruined his life with this whole thing," Lange tells ET during a recent interview over the phone of his lack of source material in playing the real-life Lyle, who only did one interview with NBC's Matt Lauer in June 2015. "He wanted nothing to do with the series." (Tilly, from prison, has publicly criticized Stiller, who is an executive producer on Dannemora, calling him a "son-of-a-b**ch liar just like the rest of the world" who only "cares about ... making millions off me" in December 2018.)
Not having access to Lyle made Lange's job harder, he explains, noting that he watched that NBC interview "hundreds of times" in an effort to match Lyle's unique accent, cadence and behaviors. Lange had trouble getting the voice just right -- until an old vocal coach suggested he pop in a pair of fake teeth to mimic Lyle's extreme overbite and try again.
"I ended up getting a pair of fake teeth from this costume store in L.A. It was actually a pair of Austin Powers teeth, and the minute I put them in and started to do the voice, it fit completely," he recalls. "It helped me with his frame of mind, how he feels about himself. I can't tell you how much it's shaped what the guy ended up becoming."
At Stiller's suggestion, Lange gained nearly 40 pounds in the month he had until filming began, bringing him from 175 pounds to 212. The rest fell into place. "You have the teeth, the voice, the weight and the masterful hair and makeup people on the show putting the wig in place. They replaced my eyebrows and I had that mustache. Little by little, the outside of him all started to take shape, after which point, I was able to go, 'Who is this guy on the inside, as best as I estimate from what I watched?'"
Lange praises Dannemora's writers, Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin, for "the most researched script ever written" and prison guards at the Clinton Correctional Facility for helping to fill in the gaps of Lyle's character. "'He's just a simple guy,'" Lange recalls hearing from a guard who smiled upon hearing his name. "'He's very simple. He loved that he had the job he had. He loved his wife. They came into work together, lived together, worked all day in the same prison and then drove home together to go to some place for dinner, which I think was probably the highlight of his day.'"
Still, as simple as Lyle is, the combination of his eccentric appearance, speech impediment and supposed lack of knowledge of his wife's involvement in the escape -- or alleged affair with Sweat and Matt -- left some viewers skeptical about whether he was actually this way in real life. (Watching the NBC interview, though, would surely erase all doubt.) "A lot of people would watch [my] performance itself and go, 'I don't know. Is it over the top?'" Lange says, explaining that it took careful crafting to make sure Lyle didn’t veer into caricature.
"One of Ben's early thoughts was, 'There's an easy tendency to make this guy pathetic, to allow people to pity him. I think it's interesting if he's got his own thoughts about himself and if he really likes himself and if he kind of appoints as a bit of a know-it-all, and he has very strong opinions.' We kept trying to find ways to give him dignity to make him his own man, as it were, under the umbrella of this very strong woman," he dissects. "Because it is a trap to play this poor, pathetic husband who has been treated this way by his wife."
Despite their complicated relationship onscreen, Lange couldn't have been more complimentary of Arquette, who also gained weight and underwent a significant physical transformation for her role as Tilly. "People really threw their entire identities out the window," Lange notes of the cast's collective transformation into their characters, which helped his "B.S. meter quiet down." "We were all just kind of fearless and egoless about becoming these other people. And it does help when you see the dedication divided equally among all the cast that you're like, 'We have come to play, here. This is what this job is, so let's go at it wholeheartedly.'"
Lange's favorite moment from Dannemora is his final scene with Arquette in the prison, during which Lyle confronts Tilly. It’s the first time Lyle finally says he believed the rumors of his wife's extramarital affairs, noting he was tipped off when she began "ordering off the diet menu at King's Wok."
"I think is so heartbreaking that you see this man struggle with trying to tell her that she hurt him and that his heart is broken," Lange says. In the script, Lyle is supposed to tell Tilly that he'll be there for her (in real life, he waits as she serves out her prison sentence). Stiller, however, opted for an alternate ending.
"There's a lot to talk about. I'll see you at court tomorrow," Lyle says in the scene before quickly getting up and leaving, only allowing Tilly to see the tears welling up in his eyes but not falling. She's confused and "the tables are turned for just a second," Lange notes. "It does give him an incredible amount of strength. It was such an important scene and it was a very quiet set that day, and you could just tell this was a big moment for the two characters."
Dannemora's penultimate episode -- a flashback zeroing in on the origins of Tilly and Lyle's romance -- was actually the last to be filmed. Production shut down for one month to allow Arquette and Lange to lose the weight they had gained for the series in order to go back in time. Lange was grateful for the unusual gift he had to decompress from the character in the middle of the grueling seven-month shoot.
"With Lyle, so much of it was this long-term relationship I had with the physical transformation," he says. "When we wrapped, I shaved my mustache, I cut my hair, I nearly shaved my head. It was sort of a shedding of all of that time spent in that costume that I could never take off, which was my body, basically," he reminisces. "It really helped me walk away from it. You walk around the world a little lighter and your teeth are back and your voice is back, and I was ready to be back in my own skin. To get back to my own body was a relief."
After more than two decades as a character actor, playing Lyle was a rare challenge for Lange, who is delighted by the critical response to Dannemora and his performance, but remains humbled by the awards buzz surrounding his work. (Arquette has already won a Critics' Choice Award, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for her riveting performance, and is all but assured an Emmy nomination come July when the shortlists are revealed.)
"I always put the same amount of work into every job I get. And 99 percent of them sort of come and go, and that's just the life I've been used to, so to have anyone talking about it in that way is just the highest honor to me, already," Lange says. "That peers and people who have seen it and critics are saying that it's worthy of an Emmy is oddly already a nomination to me."
"Maybe it comes with a bit of a price tag in that way, that you're now thrust into the forefront of the spotlight more, or whatever. But what a lovely problem it would be to have," he marvels. "I'm trying to stay level-headed and be grateful I got the job and look forward to what's next. If [an Emmy nomination] happens, then my goodness, it's a big day in my house."