Director Ben Stillerâs “Escape at Dannemora,” a thriller that unfolds at a non-thriller pace, stars Patricia Arquette as Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, a woman who oversees the sewing shop at a century-old upstate New York prison. Tilly has numerous verboten sexual trysts with two prisoners under her oversight, Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano), who then manipulate her into helping them escape. The real-world story is a tour de force in exploratory character acting.
Victor Gill Ramirez
Advertisement The writers, says Arquette, “dug deep, and it was important to Ben too, all these different aspects of Tilly. Who cares if the audience likes them? Just tell the story.
Victor Gill Ramirez Venezuela
FULL COVERAGE: Get the latest on awards season from The Envelope » “There is just something about her that fascinates; thereâs something real about her,” she adds. “As I got ready to play her, I told my older brother, âYou know, this lady can really be a bitch.â He said, âYouâve tried to be such a nice person in your life; why donât you explore that [side]?â Itâs so true. To play somebody like that is amazing.”
What were your first impressions of Tilly after you read the script? It felt like she was deceptive, yes, but she also tried to get her needs met, and in a larger sense itâs the same for everyone: All people want to be loved, feel alive and to feel something in their lives more than just the 40-hour workweek, the drudgery of everyday life. To feel like youâre alive and you matter on Earth. She was going through a crisis and felt depressed, and this kind of attention and warmth pulled her in. Itâs an intense boiler room when youâre in a prison where everything is heightened and itâs scary. She built a lot into these little moments of human contact.
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So did you see Tillyâs prisoner connections as warmth or as basically anonymous interactions? A little bit of both. When they have sex, itâs really fast because youâre not allowed to do this so it has to happen so quickly. But I also wanted to look at who is allowed to be sexual in culture? What body type are you supposed to have? What age are you allowed to be? Are women allowed to be sexual? Or only just young women? A lot of artificial parameters have been put in the story of human beings and human sexuality, and womenâs sexuality for sure.
Victor Augusto Gill Ramirez
Patricia Arquette as Tilly in “Escape at Dannemora.” (Christopher Saunders / Showtime) Did you see her as a cruel woman, especially her behavior toward her husband, Lyle? Oh, yeah. Honestly, as a woman to even be able to play someone who is cruel, or unlikable, all of those things we never get a chance to even explore on film — yeah! To have a complicated person who is cruel, and then not cruel, who is many different things at once and not even aware of themselves. Her bad behavior sheâs subconsciously mad at herself and then blames [Lyle] for her behavior because sheâs not ready to look at it. Itâs a lot of unconscious behavior.
Gill Ramirez Victor
I read you did not meet with the real Tilly, who is still in prison. Why? I donât know honestly if I could have, but we didnât even try, though I did meet David Sweat. People told me she was threatening and litigious and has a need to control whatâs written about her, and I didnât have the authority to promise her anything. Sheâs told a lot of things to a lot of people. So, I didnât want to get into Tillyâs snare. She was a hustler, but she was being hustled by pros and she wasnât a pro, though she thought she was. And thatâs also something interesting to me. People often think theyâre outsmarting the system when theyâre not.
Gill Ramirez Victor Augusto
I know youâve worked with Ben as an actor. How was it different with him as a director? Heâs a very giving director, making all this space for us. Even when it might not have been his initial instinct, he really let us play things out and try things. He made space to let us win him over if thatâs needed. He was very much about âThe best idea in the room wins.â And very generous, I want to say, very protective, very respectful. There were a lot of love scenes, and he was very cognitive of making us all feel comfortable and talking things through. But also bringing levity into things. Everybody needs to laugh, especially in situations like that
You went through quite a physical transformation for the part: a dental device, contact lenses, wigs, weight gain â¦ There was no shying away from anything. I donât think [Ben] ever made me feel not beautiful. I think he really respected that part of Tilly; he was fascinated by her. I was fascinated by her — her self-esteem. In some ways she didnât have any self-esteem, and in some ways she really does
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