In 2016, millions of people read, emailed, and discussed the twisty true story of Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee Blanchard. Thanks to reporter Michelle Dean, their strange and tragic relationship—a controlling mother faking her daughter’s manifold illnesses; a teenager stifled, abused, and growing angry; an eventual murder—unfolded in a Buzzfeed piece that highlighted extremes of behavior and pain, and the corruption of familial bonds.
Today, Gypsy and Dee Dee’s story premieres on Hulu as the first season of true crime drama The Act; they’re played with inscrutable sweetness and on-edge alertness, respectively, by Joey King and Patricia Arquette. Each season, the show will delve into a different story, but for its maiden voyage, Dean revisited the Blanchards’ case with fellow co-creator and writer Nick Antosca. ELLE.com spoke to Dean about the haunting image that hooked her into the story, having Gypsy in her head, and why pop culture is having a love affair with scams.
When did you find out about the story, and how did you feel when you came across it?
I first encountered the story in a wire report. At the top were Nick and Gypsy’s mugshots, and they just had such fear in their eyes. When I was a crime reporter, I learned that if people are grinning like fools in their mugshots, it’s usually because they’re disturbed and that’s why they’ve been arrested. But when they look as vulnerable and scared as Gypsy and Nick did, there’s usually a story there. It was that wrenching feeling that pulled me into this. I think everybody has a struggle with their parents in terms of independence, and trying to figure out who you are outside of your parents.
You used to be a lawyer—did that affect how you approached this story?
One of the things that being a lawyer gave me is an ability to see things from all angles, because [you’d] argue cases that personally you might disagree with, or make arguments that you personally might disagree with. So to a certain degree, it helps in the dramatization of the story too, just having some sense of competing perspectives on what happened and how, and trying to put all those competing perspectives together.
What were the most challenging parts of writing the original story?
I think it is a dark place, right? In dramatizing it, we did our best to try and open their world up and and try to explain what they found beautiful about it. They had their house painted bright colors—people sometimes comment on the floridness of that, and for us it was important to open that up to the audience so that they could see that, or at least experience it the way that Dee Dee and Gypsy seemed to have experienced it.
But at the end of the day there’s a lot of dark stuff that happened here and it’s been an emotionally challenging experience overall, because the nature of the story, the responsibility that you feel, also being in this headspace for so long. One of the advantages of doing this as a collaboration with my co-showrunner Nick, and also writers and directors, was feeling like I wasn’t totally alone with this completely dark subject matter for a time.
I know you spoke to Gypsy while reporting the story. What was that was like for you? Was she in your head when you were adapting the story for TV?
She was in my head every day. Talking to her is a strong experience because Gypsy is very articulate, and she is also to a certain extent—and she’s heard this all the time—the product of what her mother made her. Not only was she physically abused, she was emotionally abused and damaged from what she went through. And there were moments just talking to her, and I think I said this in the original article, where my heart would just drop because of what she went through. It’s just the nature of the thing, I couldn’t not think about it.
Did you ever have torn loyalties between what the viewer would see, your original story, and Gypsy? How did that play out for you?
Of course. I think I can say this: When I published the story, I didn’t think it was going to be a big thing for a lot of reasons, and I was totally taken aback by the reaction and by the Hollywood interest. The nature of the Hollywood interest made it very clear that some version of this was going to get made with or without people who actually knew the story, and it seemed to me important that somebody who actually knew the real facts in a very significant way be involved, because I think our show is better for having had that sense of responsibility discussed all the time. I think it’s deeper psychologically and different dramatically for that having been the case.
What tone did you want to strike with the show?
We knew that it was going to be a very tone-dependent show. In reaction to the initial article, there was a lot of, “Oh my god, can you believe this, this is so crazy”—and I thought because that was everybody’s automatic reaction, the braver creative choice was to try to move away from that. Nick [Antosca] agreed with me, and that’s why I chose him as my partner—we were both committed to telling the story in a way that tried to deepen what people already thought they knew about it, emotionally and thematically.
The show’s not a work of journalism and you don’t need to pick up any information from it, but we thought the entire show should be grounded in the emotional journeys of the characters.
Pop culture is deep into scams right now. Why do you think we’re so interested in that kind of story?
There’s some of the internet in that—it’s possible to put an avatar of yourself online and now that everybody is experimenting with that, now that creating a persona for yourself online has actually become a very common experience, we’re curious about people who seem even less authentic than themselves. But—and this is me putting on my cultural critic hat—the reason we obsess over them is they speak to an anxiety with ourselves that we’re not being authentic about certain things, right?
The perception that you were a good mom was so important to Dee Dee, and I think we all know fundamentally there’s something wrong with this idea of “a good mother.” It demands a certain fakeness about the actual lived experience of childbearing. Then our anxiety translates to doubling down on wanting people to be good moms at all costs.
The Act has incredible lead performances from Joey King and Patricia Arquette. Did you talk much to them about their performances, and what were those conversations like?
The conversations were usually pretty specific, actually. Both Joey and Patricia like to fasten on specifics about how Dee Dee and Gypsy might go about their day. Those specifics were informed by the facts, but also by our general take on the characters. Patricia fastened on the way in which Dee Dee would make these medication cocktails that she would give to Gypsy—in real life we don’t even really know what all she was giving Gypsy but Patricia found that it was easier for her to enter the character if she got into this specific methodical mixing and whisking of meals. Joey found that playing with the voice, trying to make it sound both like her own voice but also to have the softness that Gypsy often had was the thing that helped her get there.
Was there a moment that felt particularly special or surreal or emotional for you during the production process?
I really loved the scene between Gypsy and Lacey, AnnaSophia Robb’s character, in the bathroom in the pilot. I remember watching that being filmed and thinking, Joey is so moving. You’re always worried right up until you see the camera, like, What is this gonna look like? Then I remember doing that scene. Joey was so moving, with her fictional Gypsy longing for this other girl and wanting to be like her, and that’s when I knew this was probably going to be okay.
On Twitter, some people thought that your co-creator Nick Antosca downplayed your contribution to the show in interviews.
Nick and I really had a collaborative attitude toward this when we started out. We come to the show with different skillsets, and the idea was that there would be a strength in the two of us actively collaborating on a show like this, so that is what happened.
I know this is intended to be an ongoing series. Do you have any hints about what The Act will cover in the future?
Nick and I have not really talked about it that much because we’ve been so focused on getting this done. We’ve had some ideas for future seasons, but I think it would take a story that had the same affecting tones as this one.
The Act is streaming on Hulu now.