Jennifer Grey is unrecognizable as the controversial diet guru in Lifetime's new movie, 'Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation.'
Prepare to see Jennifer Grey like you've never seen her before. The actress, famous for her roles in Dirty Dancing and Prime Video's Red Oaks, is unrecognizable in Lifetime's original movie, Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation. Grey takes on the titular role of Gwen Shamblin Lara, a religious leader and Christian diet guru who was known for her controversial practices as much as her distinct style and hair before she was killed in a tragic accident in 2021.
"The more powerful she became, the bigger her hair got. The higher the hair, the closer to God," Grey says of Lara.
And for Grey, that transformation -- especially with the hair -- was pivotal in her decision to say yes to the project. "I said, 'Well, I will do this part under [these] conditions. Number one, I need major wigs because I know that wigs are expensive. And I know that if I had some cheap wig on me, it was not gonna work," she recalls to ET's Matt Cohen.
Not only that but Grey knew she needed the best dialect coach she knows, who happens to be Elizabeth Himelstein, as well as the best wigmaker working in the industry. And that's where Jamie Lee Curtis comes in. "I was talking to Jamie Lee Curtis and she said, 'Well, you have to go with Rob Pickens. He's the best wigmaker. He just did my Halloween wigs [and] he did Ana de Armas for Blonde,'" Grey recounts, before revealing that "when she tells me with that kind of stern voice, I do what she says, and so I called him."
Finally, for Grey, it was important to capture "this woman's voice in the world," she says, referring to what Lara represented and how she became famous with her faith-based diet program and church.
A prominent figure in Tennessee, Lara gained notoriety after launching the Weigh Down Workshop in 1986 and later founding the Remnant Fellowship Church in 1999, which became a massively successful Christian-based diet program that expanded her reach all across the country.
But belief in Lara's programs did not come without its risks, with experts concerned with the restrictive diet plan and supposed demands that members alienate themselves from those who did not follow her practices or even became overweight.
"What I noticed and I was so disturbed by was that she was the voice of anorexia," Grey says. "She was the personification of the internal dialogue -- I have never had an eating disorder but I have so many friends who have been so severely damaged by that inner critic of perfectionism and thinking that there's a body shape and size and number on the scale that will redeem you that will make you lovable to God, to other people, to yourself."
Lara "really married shame and low self-esteem and basically said, 'This is it. God is the answer for that,'" Grey continues. And the result, the actress asserts, is that it "grew into some very cult-like behaviors."
Eventually, Lara's antics and amassing of millions led to dissenters, who accused her of abuse, and the church being raided during an investigation into the death of an 8-year-old boy named Josef Smith. (His parents, Joseph and Sonya Smith, were eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.)
Lara's life came to an unexpected end in May 2021, when the plane her husband, Joe Lara, was flying crashed shortly after takeoff, killing everyone on board, including their son-in-law and four other Church leaders. Months later, her legacy and allegations of abuse were explored in the HBO Max docuseries, The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin, which led to renewed attention surrounding Lara and her church.
"I'm just so grateful they gave me this opportunity," Grey says, referring to Lifetime. "I love this job. It was so hard, it was so fast, it was all me talking. It was all so intense."
And all the hard work and attention to detail paid off. "People would say to me, 'I saw you coming towards me with that wig and that accent and uh oh, here she comes,'" Grey says of being on set in full hair and makeup, bringing Lara's look and persona back to life onscreen.
While this role will certainly go down as one of her more iconic film parts, Grey did take time to look back on the one that made her a star: as Frances "Baby" Houseman in 1987's Dirty Dancing. In 2020, it was confirmed that she was set to star in and produce a new installment in the franchise, which has spawned a sequel and a made-for-TV musical remake.
But recently, Grey said she would only star in a sequel if it was "perfect."
While speaking with ET, she expanded upon that comment. "I shouldn't have said 'perfect' the other day. It would have to be authentically soulful and have heart because the original movie was done simply for no money, with no aspirations of being a giant movie," she says now, explaining that the original "was so emotionally gratifying and it was so soothing, and it was about the possibility of two people meeting and transforming each other's lives and how they see themselves forever."
For Grey, that's "some of the key ingredients" for making a sequel. And if so, then maybe "Baby will be back at the Kellerman's, maybe you'll call her Frances, maybe you'll call her Baby and there will be dancing and there will be a rebirth the same way she got to [before]," she offers.
Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation premieres Saturday, Feb. 4 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.