Megan McLachlan chats with actress Joey King of The Act on Hulu about why she was scared to take on the role of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and the surprising thing she was told not to do in the audition process.
Joey King really comes into her own in The Act on Hulu. As Gypsy Rose Blanchard, the young woman under the thumb of her mother’s unnecessary care, King does an acting workout: one second, her face reflects the sense of wonder and excitement of a world of possibility; the next, the devastation when hope is so swiftly swiped from her fingertips.
Even though she faces off against Academy Award winner Patricia Arquette, who plays the dominating Dee Dee Blanchard, King plays this part like a veteran, from the voice to the distinct physicality of this real-life figure. At times you forget that this isn’t the real Gypsy Rose Blanchard.
I had a chance to chat with Joey King about what it was like to get into the head of this troubled, tortured character and why The Act is a record-breaking series for Hulu.
Awards Daily: This has to be one of the most complicated roles of your career. What drew you to Gypsy Rose Blanchard?
Joey King: I think what drew me to this character was a lot of different things. One, it was something I’d never done before, and I was scared of it. I was scared of the idea of taking on a role that was so demanding. Also, the idea of taking on someone’s real-life personal story scared me, too. It scared me so much that I thought ‘I have to do it.’ It was such a challenge. I had these moments where I really had to pull out of myself the belief in myself. I was really happy I was able to do that. When playing a role like this, you really have to believe in yourself and commit and be confident 100 percent, and sometimes that’s really hard to do with a character so complicated and complex. Once I started really diving into the research and doing my script work, it all fell into place. I was so nervous and excited to be able to portray such a character and such a story.
AD: What kind of research did you dive into?
JK: Mostly online research. Lots of videos and interviews, things I could find. Online, you only scratch the surface. What was very helpful was having Michelle Dean, who was one of our producers—she was in the documentary [HBO’s Mommy Dead and Dearest] and had a personal relationship with Gypsy and interviewed her. She’s the one that wrote the Buzzfeed article that made the story go viral. Having her there and being able to discuss things with her was so, so helpful. The research I really wanted to do [on Gypsy Rose] was embodying her. Being able to not mimic, but very closely study her speech patterns, the way she talked, the pitch of her voice. A lot of it was really important to me to get down the way she moved.
AD: You really become this character. What kind of things did you do with your voice and body?
JK: When I first got cast, no one knew I could do the voice. I was told not to audition with the voice, so I was a little confused. I thought it was really important for the character. I was so grateful I was cast, but I also wanted to show them I can go very deep with this character, more than what they saw in the room. I wanted to become this character as authentically as possible. A lot of it was just listening to things, watching her interviews, being able to say the lines out loud and get the pitch right. It took a little bit to get to perfect it the way I wanted to. But I think ‘perfect’ is the wrong word, because I personally don’t think Gypsy’s voice could ever be perfected. Our story takes place over the course of 7 years, so it’s not just about perfecting one pitch or one tone—Gypsy ages. If you watch videos of the real Gypsy as a child versus her in prison now, she sounds totally different, even though her voice is still quite high.
AD: What was it like working opposite Patricia Arquette? You go toe to toe with her and both of you are spectacular.
JK: Thank you so much. God, I can’t even begin to describe how wonderful it was. And I’m so thankful that I met her and that I have her in my life now. She’s one of those people where we’re friends for life now. It was such a tasking and emotionally exhausting experience that we shared together. I learned so much from her, not just as an actor, but as a human being. She’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever met. She’s so collaborative. We supported each other 100 percent and there’s so much trust between us. She just gives such a mind-blowingly rattling performance and I’m so thankful that she believed in me and gave me such kind words of affirmation on my performance, too. Working with her was a dream come true.
AD: As an actress, was it hard to juggle Gypsy’s different lives as a character? She’s completely different with her mother as opposed to how she acts with Nick (Calum Worthy).
JK: I think as a character one of the key things was that Gypsy herself was struggling and juggling these two personas she had. That’s really the sad thing about Gypsy—she doesn’t really know who she is. Portraying those double lives she leads was difficult, but it was also difficult in the way where I imagined Gypsy felt a similar difficulty of balancing someone she’s supposed to be for her mother and balancing someone she’s trying to be for her boyfriend, even though she’s not quite comfortable with that person herself. I wanted it to be a hugely distinctive difference. You see the way she talks to Nick versus the way she is around her mom is completely, totally different, but you still see that it’s Gypsy; the problem is that Gypsy doesn’t even know who Gypsy is at this point.
AD: Did you ever worry about how the real-life Gypsy Rose would perceive your interpretation of her?
JK: Of course. What person doesn’t worry about that? Of course, she can’t watch it right now because she’s still in prison, but I am nervous about if she ever does get to see it. I personally feel Gypsy is a victim and our story, the way we portray her story, I feel proud that we did it in a way where we never show Gypsy isn’t the victim. She commits a crime, but her story is so tragic and she deserves for people to know that she’s a victim. Some people still call her a cold-blooded killer and I don’t believe that to be true in any way, shape, or form.
AD: You shaved your head for this role, which meant you really couldn’t go home at the end of the day after filming and not think about this part. Was it hard leaving this character?
JK: It was hard leaving this character. Not in the sense that it was hard to shake it, but I think it was hard because it took so much energy and emotion from me that when it was time to say goodbye to the character, I almost didn’t feel like I was ready. I spent five months playing this character and getting to know her and getting to work with the best cast and crew in the world. Saying goodbye to that set and character, because of how much focus and preparation it took, I didn’t feel ready to say goodbye. It was really emotional for me to leave this show behind.
AD: The limited series broke records for Hulu, with the most subscribers-to-series in the first month ever (meaning people signed up for Hulu and watched the series within 24 hours of subscribing). What do you think it is about this story that really captivates people?
JK: Yeah, that is crazy! When I found that out, I was totally flabbergasted. It was incredible. I think the story is so fascinating to people because it is so bizarre and so disturbing. True crime really interests people. I like true crime myself, it interests me, and I think getting inside the mind of someone who commits a crime is so interesting and you want to know more—why they did it, how they did it, what motivated them. Two people commit a crime here—of course Gypsy and Nick—but Dee Dee is committing so many crimes throughout this show and Gypsy murdering her is one of many crimes that they both committed throughout the duration of Dee Dee being alive. We get to see the double side of these two people and how the crimes they commit affect the final crime in the outcome of the story. I think the reason why people are just so drawn to the show is that Munchausen by proxy is something people don’t really know about. Diving inside of that and learning more about it and seeing how fatal and scary it can be—it intrigued me and I think it intrigued a lot of our viewers as well.
AD: I wonder what the outcome would have been had Gypsy not fought back. Gypsy could have died. It could have been a completely different story.
JK: What people don’t realize is that we don’t hear a lot about Munchausen by proxy because the victims usually do wind up passing away at the hands of their caretakers. They don’t make it out. Gypsy is such a rare case. She had the mental dedication to get out, and she did, and that is very, very rare. Most Munchausen by proxy victims don’t get to say that.
AD: That’s so sad. How has playing Gypsy Rose changed you as an actress and as a person?
JK: As an actress, I had to learn to be trusting of myself and proud of myself. It took a lot of work to be able to do that. It was also one of those things where even though you’re playing such a dark role, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time doing it. Being able to enjoy your craft, as an actor—this role was something I could have only dreamed of having. I’m so excited to be able to tackle it. And as a person, it’s devastating to have to tell this story, but it’s also one of those things where I feel very fortunate and honored to have been trusted with it in the first place. Honestly, the show did change my life in many ways. I worked with some of the greatest people I’ve ever met. I feel like not only was I doing work I was proud of, but I was also surrounded by some of the nicest, most talented people I’ve ever been surrounded by. It was just one of those environments where it feels more like a home and a family than a job.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.