Some actresses fearlessly push themselves in whatever role they take on. Such is the case for Oscar and Emmy winner, Patricia Arquette, who, thanks to frumpy clothes, unruly hair and a dialect coach, is virtually unrecognizable in the new Showtime series, Escape at Dannemora.
Arquette plays the vulnerable, local prison employee named Tilly Mitchell, who, in 2015, was seduced by two convicted murderers, Richard Matt (played by Benicio Del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano), and helped them to escape the Clinton Correctional Facility in Upstate New York.
The veteran actress was excited to explore the series’ sexual themes, asserting that we live in a society that often makes women feel “apologetic” about their sexuality.
“I don’t want to move from box to box. I want to open up my career. I don’t want to limit myself,” she told NextTribe at the Television Critics Press Tour. She acknowledges that when she started acting she was in the ingenue box, then she started playing mothers. But this role as a not young or beautiful woman who craves excitement, sex, and her own kind of escape defies expectations, or boxes. “To be able to do character work and explore human sexuality as a middle-aged woman who has not a kind of body that Hollywood is used to, I thought was a really interesting conversation to have.”
Stealing the Show
Her role is getting plenty of deserved attention. “It’s Arquette’s Tilly that steals the show,” Vanity Fair raves. “Arquette traps a delusional, sexual yearning in the body of a voluptuously trashy middle-aged woman—juxtaposing bad teeth and wire-rimmed glasses with desperate, clandestine fucking.”
To say this is a meaty role for Arquette is an understatement—Mitchell was mesmerized by these prisoners and had an affair with each of them. Arquette wanted to reflect why she fell for them in her portrayal, examining her character’s desires more in-depth.
In her portrayal, Arquette wanted to reflect why this woman would fall for these murderers.
She looked at “sexually how different she is with each man, and what does that give to her? Who is it to be someone who triangulates relationships?” she said. “All these different themes, as a woman, I’ve never had the opportunity to even really look at.”
During her research for the role, Arquette found fascinating subcultures that helped shed light on her character.
“There’s a million porn stars who are 20 years old, perfect body. And there’s this humongous audience for MILFs; grandmothers; big, beautiful women, blah blah blah. People are actually looking for something else. What is it? And is it sexy or is it not sexy when someone is into their sexuality?”
Though Tilly Mitchell was naive and manipulated into helping the two murderers escape, Arquette saw aspects to admire in her. “She takes care of her damn needs before anybody or anything else. I didn’t experience that growing up. I haven’t had a lot of models like that in women.”
She takes care of her damn needs before anybody or anything else.
Directed by actor Ben Stiller, the series was shot at the actual prison where the escape occurred, in a town near the Canadian border. “It felt kind of desolate … there wasn’t a lot to do,” said Arquette. “Also, the intense cold of that area made me feel like my character is kind of bored and wants to feel alive. I’d hear these stories of all these people that were having affairs. … because I think we as a species want to feel alive.”
Outside of acting, Arquette has been an outspoken advocate for gender equity and passionately helped get California’s Fair Pay Act to pass. Last year, she worked with the United Nations on an equal pay initiative.
She reports that numerous women have approached her to say how their lives have changed because they courageously asked for wage equality. “It means a lot to me, I am so happy for them.”
While some have urged Arquette to consider a run for political office, she remains uncertain on whether to pursue it. “I’m a troublemaker, not a peacemaker!” she quipped.
Susan L. Hornik is a veteran entertainment and lifestyle journalist. She is an expert at making lemonade from lemons.