Escape at Dannemora‘s Eric Lange talks to Awards Daily about his shockingly transformative work in Showtime’s critically acclaimed limited series.
You would never recognize character actor Eric Lange in Escape at Dannemora. That is completely by design, by the way. One of the many highlights of director Ben Stiller’s limited series, Lange’s complete physical transformation rivals the efforts of Oscar-winners Robert DeNiro and Christian Bale. Gaining some 40 pounds to portray Lyle Mitchell – the blissfully (willfully?) ignorant husband of Patricia Arquette’s Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell – was a life-altering experience for the actor.
“By the end of the shoot, I was very ready to shed that weight. It was kind of exhausting at the end of the day,” Lange said. “It was like a costume you just couldn’t take off.”
But the praise for Lange’s performance goes beyond the mere physical transformation and the 40-pound weight gain. After nearly 20 years working in film, television and theater, Lange received some of the best reviews of his career for his role as Lyle. His Lyle feels compellingly authentic and, like all of the performances in Dannemora, completely lived-in. His performance received a Critics’ Choice nomination for Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie Made for Television. Is Emmy far away?
A “Perfect Storm” of a Role
Three things drew Eric Lange into the role of Lyle Mitchell: the chance to work with director Ben Stiller, the opportunity to completely transform, and the brilliant script by Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin. Oh, right, and toss in working with the incredibly talented Patricia Arquette on top of that. The role proved irresistible because of the intersection of such outstanding talents – an acting “perfect storm.”
“I’ve been really lucky that I’ve gotten to do a bunch of different things. This was special because of who was involved and the scope of the role. It was more than I’d been given to do in a while,” Lange commented. “Lyle just sat in my heart, weirdly enough. I’d finally seen an interview with him and saw the confusion and the anger and the heartbreak. It was really poignant to me, so to be able to take what I knew about that guy and put it into a this show was really a perfect storm. I knew I could take a sizable bite out of it and make a strong impression.”
One of the primary focuses of interpreting Lyle was to completely avoid stepping into gross caricature. To do that, Lange studied as much as he could about Lyle through news clippings and a single recorded interview. This was, of course, in addition to the brilliantly fleshed out version of Lyle created by screenwriters Johnson and Tolkin.
But Lange was able to complete the image by digging into the core of Lyle Mitchell’s persona. While filming on location, many locals approached cast members and shared personal stories. Lange also spoke to several guards who worked with Lyle Mitchell during a tour of the actual prison. They all shared the same detail.
“They all just shook their head and said, ‘He’s just simple. He’s very simple. He’s grateful for his job. He’s grateful to come to work. He loves his wife, and he loves his routine.’ Knowing that about him became a strong guideline to knowing who he was as a character.”
The Window to Weight Gain
To take on the roles of Lyle and “Tilly” Mitchell, both Lange and co-star Patricia Arquette gained 40 pounds. It sounds a lot more fun than it really was. To put on the extra weight, Lange abandoned his normal lifestyle completely. He doubled down on carbs. He ate a pint of ice cream every night before bed for 10 days. Beer. Pizza for lunch. Fast food burgers for dinner. Just pretty much making polar opposite food choices that he would make in his normal, everyday life as a working actor.
“The first few weeks, it was fun. It was rule-breaking and doing whatever I wanted. But getting up off the floor after playing with my young kids started to become a little tougher. Going up and down stairs made me pant. I watched my skin change. My pants no longer fit, so I had to buy new clothes,” Lange explained.
Keeping the weight on for the duration of the shoot wasn’t a problem either. The upstate New York filming location mostly offered only fast food restaurants. He made committed choices to maintain authenticity of the character – choices he’s not sure he’d make again.
“I went to my doctor and asked him how to do this ‘healthfully.’ He just stared at me and said, ‘You don’t. There’s no way to add fat to your body and keep yourself healthy.’ So, he just monitored me, and I would go to every now and again to check my blood pressure and my cholesterol. It all shot up. It was really disturbing what happens when you eat like crap.”
Fortunately, “Part 6,” a late-series flashback episode, required thinner versions of Lyle and “Tilly.” Stiller allowed a 6-week break for the actors to drop as much weight as possible. By shifting back to his regular diet and exercise routine, Lange was able to drop most of the weight he’d gained. To shed that extra costume he’d been carrying around for some 7 months.
Working with Stiller to Breathe Life into Lyle Mitchell
One of Eric Lange’s biggest draws to Escape at Dannemora was the opportunity to work with actor/director Ben Stiller. Many actors find working with a director who also performs in front of the camera a comforting experience. Lange talked about appreciating Stiller’s work as an actor and as a director both, and he instantly understood that he would feel more secure under Stiller’s guidance. Particularly since a character like Lyle Mitchell puts you out on a limb all on your own.
“In this case, it was extremely relieving because he knew how out on a limb I felt. A good part of the reason for all these false teeth and the wig and the moustache and the extra weight was so that I, Eric, could buy my own bullshit. It was just so far from where I lived normally. And so, when you’re walking around in that voice I had to do and you show it to the crew for the first time, it’s a little weird. It was great to have another actor come up and say, ‘No, that’s it. That’s exactly it.’ ”
Lange and Stiller worked together to keep the portrayal honest without becoming a gross stereotype. Stiller recommended instances where Lyle comes across as a know-it-all and someone at times completely satisfied with himself, avoiding making the character a complete sad-sack. Stiller helped Lange explore different nuances or directions for the character of Lyle Mitchell.
“I knew as an actor that he could take care of me if I was feeling insecure. That we could avoid caricature together.”
As a result, Eric Lange – in a deep partnership with Stiller as well as writers Johnson and Tolkin and co-star Arquette – gave an award-worthy performance of a man seldom seen on television. Lange’s brilliantly rendered Lyle Mitchell emerges as a man so deeply entrenched in the joys of routine that he neglects his wife’s criminal infidelities. He finds a compelling way to illustrate a simple man. It’s a compelling performance that the Television Academy should find difficult to ignore.
Escape at Dannemora is currently streaming on Showtime.