From co-creators Michelle Dean and Nick Antosca (Channel Zero), the first season of the true-crime anthology series The Act (available to stream on Hulu) tells the shocking story of Gypsy Blanchard (Joey King), a girl who’s desperate to escape the toxic relationship she has with her overprotective and overbearing mother, Dee Dee (Patricia Arquette). As the sweet, naive and lonely Gypsy becomes more and more aware of the outside world, her quest for independence turns dangerous, threatening to reveal a never-ending list of secrets that ultimately lead to the drastic act of murder.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, actress AnnaSophia Robb (who plays the Blanchard’s neighbor Lacey, a teenager who just wants to befriend Gypsy) talked about her reaction to this story, why what Gypsy and Dee Dee Blanchard went through was like a Greek tragedy, shadowing the directors to gain experience, developing the mother-daughter dynamic with co-star Chloe Sevigny, and what she thought of Lacey. She also talked about how and when she realized that she wanted to get really serious about her acting career, and preparing for an off-Broadway, all-female version of Macbeth.
Collider: This is such a wild story, full of interesting characters. Was that something that you could see immediately, when you read this script?
ANNASOPHIA ROBB: Yeah, I definitely remember, when I read the pilot, I went, “Woah, this story is so interesting!” It’s absolutely insane, and it was just packed with strong and complex female characters. It’s based on a real story, from (co-creator) Michelle [Dean]’s great article. And so, it felt like something that I could really unpack.
They all feel really human, too.
ROBB: Very human. When I was coming onto the project, I was just so excited to be a part of it, and then I talked with Michelle and (co-creator) Nick [Nick Antosca], and (director) Laure [de Clermont-Tonnerre], and they just wanted to tell this story with such integrity. They wanted to take these characters, especially Gypsy and Dee Dee, who make crazy decisions, but do so because it’s their version of reality, and we’re pulling back the layers. It’s like an onion. Both Joey [King] and Patricia [Arquette] do such a fantastic job digging into the heads of these characters, and making their choices out of love and their needs, and not just randomly. It’s not for entertainment. It’s because Dee Dee loves her daughter, and it’s because Gypsy loves her mother so much that she kills her because she can’t leave her. It’s like a Greek tragedy. No one can stop it. There’s not that recognition.
When you start digging into this story, was it hard not to just keep going down the rabbit hole even further because there are no definite answers when something like this happens?
ROBB: Yes, 100%, but those are the best kinds of stories to tell. In life, we want to simplify things, but life is definitely not black and white. By sharing these stories, I think it causes an audience to become more curious and hopefully pay more attention to what’s going on in their neighborhood. This doesn’t, by any stretch, raise awareness for Munchausen, but it does go undiagnosed, so often. Lacey and Mel represent the community that surrounded these real people. They’re based on real people, but there’s a lot of fiction in it. Lacey thinks she knows who this person is, just because she’s in a wheelchair and seems sick, but there’s a whole life and a sexuality to Gypsy that she didn’t see. There’s a lot of guilt in Lacey that comes with, “If that was happening, how did I not see it, when I thought I was her friend?” There’s a lot. The story takes place over seven years, so to be able to play 16 through 23, and go back and forth between those ages, was challenging, as an actor, but it was also a lot of fun to play.
You’ve had a really interesting career and played some very different types of characters. Is that something that you’ve really paid attention to and worked hard to find, or do you feel like you’ve gotten lucky to find such an interesting group of characters?
ROBB: It’s a mixture, in that I’ve really tried to find that, but I also feel lucky getting these great jobs. There are so many stories to tell. I just want to look back on my career and feel like there were stories worth telling. With this one, I definitely think it is. I want to learn from the people that I’m surrounded and working with. I shadowed Laure, on one of our episodes, and I was able to learn so much from her. It was so much fun to take on a different role, and to just observe and take a step back from being in front of the camera and sit in the editing room, go to production meetings, go into fittings, go on scouts, and learn about that side of things. That was such a privilege for me. All of the directors and the whole crew were so open to it and so receptive. They answered all of my questions, or they’d come to me and be like, “Do you wanna look at these lenses? This is what this means.” So, yes, I am very intentional about the roles that I take. I take my job very seriously, and I love what I do. I just want to get more involved in it. I’ve really loved working on this show.
Had you been looking to shadow directors for awhile, or is that something that you recently started thinking about?
ROBB: Since I did The Carrie Diaries, I went to school. I graduated last May from NYU. So, I know that I wanted to produce, and then I got this opportunity. I’m not a lead in this. I’m in the show, but I wasn’t constantly working, every day, so I had a lot more time to just sit back and watch. I was like, “Can I shadow? That would be lovely.” And Laure and Nick said that they’d be comfortable with me doing that. As I get older, I’ve become good friends with people on set, and I love having that camaraderie of feeling like an equal. I’ll always be a lifelong student ‘cause I love to learn, but to have somebody who I know is gonna take me along and talk to me, where I can feel comfortable being like, “Hey, do you mind if I sit in on this rehearsal, or should I step out?,” is great. It’s nice to have that feeling of safety, where you’re comfortable with the crew, and the crew knows you. I can ask really obnoxious questions, and they’ll answer.
It seems like you can learn the most about directing from just getting on a set and doing it, or watching someone else do it because no matter what someone tells you, you can’t be prepared enough until you’re actually doing it. What was it like to have that experience?
ROBB: Part of me felt like, “This is a whole new world!” I have a lot more respect for directors and how much they have on their plate. I had a sense of all of these things, but I didn’t really know. I feel like they have to be in a bazillion places at once, and it’s just so important to have a strong, clear vision. We have an incredible cinematographer on our show, Zack Galler, who has done a beautiful job, and he was on every single episode while we had different directors. He and Laure really set the tone, but then he was there, every day, with every director. Going from the tone meetings with Nick and Michelle to watching him work, and looking at the shots and asking, “How are you constructing this?,” I was watching that trickle down, and that was something I had never seen before. I was just endlessly fascinated by that. But then, there were other times that I’d be on set and be like, “Yeah, I get it,” and I’d just be sitting around. There’s so much to know and so much to learn. I’d definitely do it again because every director is so different.
What was it like to have Chloe Sevigny to work on and explore this dynamic with?
ROBB: It was phenomenal. I loved working with her. We were able to spend a lot of time together on set, and we had a lot of conversations with Nick and Michelle about our characters, creating that mother-daughter dynamic, finding where we could make it stronger, and finding the intricacies and the marrow of this relationship. We wanted to really bring out that flavor because it takes over such a long period of time. We would do script work and try things, and we’d talk a lot and go get drinks afterwards, to create a relationship. I felt very safe with her, and it was so lovely to be able to ask her about life. She’s made so many interesting choices. I have so much respect for her, as an artist and as an actress, and just in terms of career, and sticking to her guns about her taste and what stories she wants to tell. I really value that relationship. Mel and Lacey are foils to Gypsy and Dee Dee. It appears that the relationship between Gypsy and Dee Dee is really loving and close and perfect, which we learn is not true. Mel and Lacey actually have a much healthier dynamic, where Mel wants to be a good mom, but Lacey is trying to become her own person. Lacey is rebellious, and they fight and argue and disagree. It’s normal, but it’s also tumultuous, which is a mother-daughter relationship. There will undeniably be conflict.
They also seem fairly close in age, which can make things seem more like friends than mother and daughter, and that kind of relationship often has tension.
ROBB: Very much so. Lacey is really parenting her mom and raising her younger brothers. But by the end, their relationship goes through a transformation.
What did you like about Lacey, from day one, and what did you grow to appreciate about her, the longer you played her and got to know who she is?
ROBB: Her naivete and hope made me a little bit sad because, when you’re 16 and you have this hope for your life, you wanna push away from your mom and be your own person, so she does things very differently from Mel. She also has rose-colored glasses on. Her glass is half-full. She wants to be friends with the neighbors. Then, reality happens. She didn’t leave town. She never got out, like she wanted to. She never worked as a marine biologist. She never made it to the coast. She never scuba dived. All of those dreams become deferred or dead. That pain of being home, and the hope that was there, but that’s no longer there, shows the reality of her choices. At the end of the day, she has her mom, and that relationship is important. Mel cares so deeply about her community, but she’s suspicious because she’s been burned by life. In the beginning, Lacey hasn’t been burned yet, but that changes. You wonder what’s gonna happen to Lacey, after this? Is she gonna turn out just like Mel and be distrustful of people?
You’ve been acting since you were pretty young. Did you have a point where you really wanted to make this a career and get serious about it, as opposed to just doing it because it was fun?
ROBB: Yeah, when I was a sophomore in college, I took a Greek tragedy class and realized, “Wow, this is what it’s about!” I was taking philosophy courses, and philosophy is about intangible and existential ideas, where people are trying to figure out who they are. And then, we’d talk about these people, which help people understand why they make decisions, and that was so fulfilling. I knew that this is what I want to do. I worked on Mercy Street, this show on PBS, with a bunch of theater actors, and the next thing that I’m doing is this all-female production of Macbeth. I can’t wait! I’m really excited about that. Every job that I get to do is something different.
How did you come to be doing an all-female version of Macbeth?
ROBB: I auditioned for it. I love Shakespeare and I love classical text, so I can’t wait. There’s so much beauty in those words. It’s gonna be great.
The Act is available to stream on Hulu on March 20th.