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Interview taken from HEROINE 16. You can buy your copy of the latest issue here.
It’s Amanda Seyfried, but virtually unrecognisable. Jutted jaw, hunched, stompy walk, untamed hair and unnerving accent. A complete transformation without prosthetics or CGI, just good, old-fashioned, well-researched, exquisitely executed acting. She’s done all of the work, but it doesn’t feel laboured, it feels energising, engrossing and delicious to watch.
After an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in David Fincher’s Mank, the opportunity for The Dropout materialised. The project underscores a pivot in Seyfried’s career – playing real-life, disgraced sociopathic CEO Elizabeth Holmes. As founder of Theranos, Holmes promised a revolution in healthcare: tests for a wide variety of disease from a single drop of blood. The claim was a lie; Theranos was valued at $9 billion before the fraud and lies were exposed.
In conversation with James Norton, friend and co-star of 2021’s Things Heard & Seen, Seyfried looks at the opportunities that got her to this point. Embodying such an unrelatable, unsettling character with some level of empathy is no mean feat, but it’s one that will undoubtedly usher in more weighty (and juicy) stories for the actor to tell.
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James Norton: Shall we start with what you’re doing at the moment?
Amanda Seyfried: Have you been watching YouTube videos of journalists? [laughs] I’m just doing press. What are you doing?
JN: I’m shooting the third series of Happy Valley. I was shooting yesterday in the sun and I’ve got a heat rash all over my face.
AS: You’ve aged considerably… I’m kidding.
JN: You know what I do a lot now? This. [rubs middle of forehead]
AS: You massage it? So do I! [laughs] You’re such a baddie in Happy Valley. I can’t wait. That was the first thing I ever saw of yours. I’m doing a show with Tom Holland, do you know him?
JN: I’ve met him. Oh you’re doing that show! I know the one you mean, that’s great.
AS: They started three weeks ago, I’m not in it yet. Also, guess who’s in it with me? Tommy [Amanda’s husband, Thomas Sadoski]. We finally get to work together. You and Imogen [Poots, James’ fiancée] met on a four-person play about a marriage that Tommy also did, and I also met Tommy on a play.
JN: We did a play called Belleville by Amy Herzog, it was amazing.
AS: It’s a very intense play, and so was ours. It’s funny we met the same way.
JN: Ours was amazing because we were off-stage falling in love and then on-stage having this existential crisis, shouting at each other, being incredibly horrible and violent
AS: I would’ve loved to have been a fly on the wall watching that.
JN: Where are you shooting?
AS: In New York, I think for the foreseeable future I’m just going to turn everything down that isn’t in New York – I’m kidding, but truly I feel that way.
JN: I’m going to blow some smoke and go into my journalist thing. Do you know a guy called Stuart Heritage? He’s an amazing journalist I love, he tweeted this morning “I think The Dropout is the best show of the last decade.”
AS: Holy shit!
JN: How do you feel about being in the hype?
AS: I was telling somebody yesterday how I’ve never experienced this kind of exposure where it’s not just one demographic, it’s blanketed across all ages, all genders. It’s like people are watching it because it’s good, not just because it’s a sensation.
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JN: Your performance is very special.
AS: Thank you! Of the opportunities I’ve been given so far, some have been really great, some not so great. I try to dodge those and suss out what’s going to work and what’s going to be fulfilling and fun. But this kind of project has never really come into my hands, and it’s all because of Mank  that I got this role – I got the call the day I received the Oscar nomination.
JN: You were already flying high before Mank.
AS: I was in motion – we’re always in motion – and then some things just reverberate more than others.
JN: I also think it’s about getting older. It’s about people who carry more wisdom and therefore possibly have a more interesting group of people to play. I speak to Imogen a lot about this, that kind of bittersweet but generally unhelpful term of ‘ingénue’ as a young actress. Some people clasp onto that for as long as they possibly can and make a career – if not a life – around it, then others fight against it and want to rid themselves of it immediately because ultimately it is less interesting.
AS: It’s a fine line, there is a wave and if you don’t ride that wave you could miss the next one. I played the ingénue many times and I’m not going to say it was exciting all the time, but one opportunity got me another, you ride the wave and another comes and you just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes you miss opportunities if you fight against it too much, so you have to be really conscious of the opportunities you’re getting and what they can provide. Longevity is about making the right decisions and choosing smart things, which doesn’t always mean choosing the thing that’s going to be most fulfilling for you.
JN: You have to be business-minded.
AS: Yeah sometimes, because in order to do the small indies you’ve got to do some of the splashy stuff, and hopefully the splashy stuff doesn’t fall flat.
JN: You have to be savvy. The irony is that Elizabeth Holmes is someone fighting that fight. She’s a young woman fighting people putting her in a box, she’s taking all of those preconceptions people throw on her and saying ‘fuck you’ to the world. I ripped through the series and your performance is absolutely breathtaking, you captured all of the weird lackings-of-soul, yet we felt for you. We saw your struggle, we saw the world around you and how hard it was and we saw your parents and the conditions you had. You played this sociopath who we felt compassion for and empathy toward, and you captured her without being a mimic – you know when people do too much work capturing the voice and demeanour of someone and it feels a bit gimmicky. But yours, it was her and yet it was also this full, rich, realised human being. It was fucking amazing, Amanda.
AS: Thanks. I think the way to ground anybody is to use a piece of yourself, I don’t know how you don’t just float away otherwise. You can mimic all you want, but if the essence of your own spirit isn’t there, how is it going to feel real, how is it going to feel human? I want more character pieces like this because I had the most fun. We had a lot of fun on Things Heard & Seen [The 2021 horror film starring both Seyfried and Norton], but I was playing myself. [However] with The Dropout, it was thrilling in a way I had never experienced. On Mank, I was still pretty insecure. I was able to get where I wanted to go, but it took a while because I was standing in front of myself. With this, I had done so much preparation and felt safe in my decision to allow whatever part of me was going to come in and ground it.
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JN: Why this was so powerful, and why there is such hype, is because you took up space, were confident with your choices and, out of nowhere, you were this incredible character actor. Your central performance is so spellbinding. I guess my roundabout question is: the part of yourself which you borrowed in order to find that confidence and self-assurance, was that the part which was shaking off the ingénue? Was it the person going, “Do you know what? Fuck it, I’m going to be the character actor that I’m meant to be.”
AS: It wasn’t as conscious – but that is what it was. I was able to hide. I had so much information at my fingertips with her, so much footage to watch, so it was about really absorbing her mannerisms and a different physicality, which really adds to the thrill of embodying somebody else. From my perspective, looking at Elizabeth Holmes and our version of her, I had to find all the empathy I could possibly find. In Happy Valley, you’re a monster but your responsibility as the actor is to sympathise, empathise and really love your character, so I was doing that to a point.
JN: I like it when it’s very hard to love the person you’re playing, and to try find that shared experience. It means you’re going on a wonderful journey. It’s interesting you say you felt safer because you were able to hide. You had this incredibly idiosyncratic and eccentric human to dive into and research, and therefore you felt safer because you are calling on a version of yourself – but it’s so far from Amanda you were in a kind of armour.
AS: I had to think less, isn’t that interesting? I’m not saying it was easy because it wasn’t! It was a different type of challenge. But I thought less when I was acting, I’m normally thinking, “How would I react in this situation?” But with this, I knew how she’d react.
JN: You could tell, you looked unstoppable. You were in that cliched ‘flow’ state where it was just happening around you. I remember a really wonderful speech that Michelle Williams gave at the Globes once where she was like, “Thank you to the producers for giving me the help and the means and the dialect coach and the dance class…” I think it was for Fosse/Verdon, she was like, “You gave me the tools and the means to go on the journey.” You clearly had all of that – not that it takes away from your work.
AS: Everybody was creating this entire world. I got this computer just for The Dropout and it had hundreds and hundreds of pages of interviews, transcripts, ten hours of SEC depositions. Then people connected me with a body language expert to read her deposition body language and I spoke to old friends of hers. It was all there already, because it was supposed to be Kate McKinnon for two years. They’d been developing and writing and then all of a sudden I slid into the hot seat, and everything was already available to me. I just had to spend the time doing it, which was just the most exciting thing. I’ve never wanted to study harder. This was a different type of preparation. It opened me up to this place where there are so many more possibilities now. I know that you have a whole production company, so you can actually now design the road your career is going to take in a more acute way. Creating work yourself is another great way of breaking out of that handsome lead actor thing. Do you know what I mean?
“Longevity is about making the right decisions and choosing smart things, which doesn’t always mean choosing the thing that’s going to be most fulfilling for you.”
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JN: I fight the pigeonhole.
AS: Well Happy Valley killed it, that was a major moment for you.
JN: Definitely, and that’s why I was so happy to come back for the third series. It’s been seven years since we did the second and no one was under option but I owe that show an enormous amount because it allowed me the opportunity to smash the pigeonhole. You’re right, producing is definitely the way to do that in the long term, but Happy Valley was a game-changer for me earlier on in my career, it gave me confidence but also gave me something to show people and go, “Look, I can do it, and I want to do it.”
AS: I feel like Hollywood is finally realising that most of our best actors are from the theatre. I mean it’s a little different in England, you guys start in theatre and it’s more accepted as part of the industry.
JN: Did you come from the theatre?
AS: Not at all, I’m just saying if you look at The Dropout cast, for instance, there are a lot of theatre actors and that’s why they’re so good.
JN: It helps… it’s not a prerequisite, but it doesn’t hurt!
AS: It doesn’t hurt. I’m thinking of people who really got to study and then move into movies and TV. In America it still feels like there are two different worlds.
JN: I get you.
AS: It doesn’t have the same weight here, which is bananas because there’s a discipline and a level of skill you have to have when you’re in the theatre you don’t necessarily need in a movie.
JN: You’re right, it’s a space where people are required to go on a bigger and more transformative journey. Did you meet Elizabeth Holmes?
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JN: Did you feel a responsibility? People always say to me when I play people who lived… generally the real people I’ve played have been ‘of integrity’ like Mr Gareth Jones, who was the guy who blew the whistle on the Soviet Union, which is really prescient right now because of Ukraine. With Elizabeth Holmes, ultimately she’s a very complicated, disturbed narcissist who caused unprecedented amounts of pain. Do you feel a sense of honouring her or can you just do with it what you will?
AS: There’s already a book, a podcast with ongoing seasons, and a documentary, there’s so much footage and exploration, so the point of making this version was to give her some dimension back. It’s not about owing her that, it’s just for people fascinated by the story. It’s to turn things around a little and say, “We’ve got the facts, we’re following the story but let’s turn the camera on her and try to figure out what she might have been thinking, doing or feeling.” I had the responsibility to show that dimension in the context of what Liz Meriwether [creator and writer of The Dropout] wrote, the imagined reality, the things that happened behind closed doors between her partner Sunny [Balwani] and by herself. My responsibility was to ground it and make it feel like it was possible, to show another angle, to humanise her, not to excuse her. That’s what we do as actors, we’re humanising these people, if we don’t then there’s no point, it becomes a caricature and that’s not what I was doing. I didn’t excuse anything she did and I certainly had some trouble playing these moments. Did I show some darkness? For sure, because she can’t exist without it – we all have darkness.
JN: We’re all conditioned to have far too much faith in the corporate structure and the machine, maybe now we’re beginning to untie that. For some reason, every time I read news articles, I had a very different image of her in my mind. You humanised her and fleshed out all of those dimensions, it made you realise how a human being had to make those choices in order for it all to have happened. So whilst making her fully dimensional you also shed light on the horror, you made a dry piece of journalism into something so painfully affecting and I found it really anxious to watch. I was watching it on my own after shooting – it was my treat at the end of the day, I’d be sitting there on my own with my food watching two episodes an evening. Immie was in America so I’d have a very quick chat with her, but basically I didn’t have someone to talk to about it and I felt very anxious after!
AS: Is the anxiety more acute because it’s real?
JN: Maybe. I think it’s just gross.
AS: It felt gross.
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JN: It’s the worst part of being human, that greed excuses selfishness.
AS: The trial was happening half way through our shooting schedule and so these text messages between she and Sunny Balwani would be coming out, very intimate, very…
AS: I would have moments of just like [makes a noise of disgust] after shooting because I’d be like, do we have to? These text messages… I wouldn’t say them out loud, we text differently than we speak sometimes and it was like… “Okay, you want me to call him ‘tiger’? Okay.” [laughs] We actually had to ADR [Automated Dialogue Replacement] something – one of the texts was, “We’re meant together.” Not, “We’re meant to be together,” but, “We’re meant together.” I say that to him after doing this dance to Lil Wayne which is her way of apologising to him. I say “But we’re meant together,” and we actually had to ADR, “We’re meant to be together,” because it just didn’t translate. That’s just one little example of the stuff that would just make me shiver. Another thought I now have when watching every documentary, like the Boeing documentary [Downfall: The Case Against Boeing], which you should definitely watch…
JN: I’ve heard about it, apparently it’s amazing.
AS: How many people actually lie on a daily basis just to flex shit? That’s hard. We do it as humans, we don’t want to deal with something, so we lie. But when you are keeping planes in the air that have a very obvious, disastrous glitch – that one lie from somebody really high up trickles down into a full-on two-hundred person plane crash. It’s not that simple, but what I’m saying is people lying at that level, with that kind of power… how are we supposed to know? Even good people who want to believe in changing the world, especially in BioTech healthcare, we want to believe, and if we have people that are charismatic and ambitious in power… god knows the lies we’re being told. We are complicit as a society in the rise of these people.
JN: I don’t think we’re complicit.
AS: Not holding them accountable as much as we should. Look how long Elizabeth Holmes reigned.
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“That’s what we do as actors, we’re humanising these people, if we don’t then there’s no point, it becomes a caricature and that’s not what I was doing.”
JN: That’s true. Maybe it’s the markets, the way we’re all conditioned to want to see success and money, they’re all around because they’re all fucking greedy. They don’t love you, they don’t believe in you. Also, when I said it made me strangely unnerved or anxious I think you’re right, it’s a perfect example of something in the relatively recent past that shows the structure we have generally grown accustomed to is working [against us].
The last five years have seen an untying, we’ve had Brexit, you’ve had Trump, we had the pandemic and now we’ve got Ukraine and the horrors of that. And you’ve got people like Elizabeth Holmes saying things like, “Is it a lie if I choose to not see it?” That amazing line. You’ve got Putin who is potentially throwing nuclear bombs across the world. We didn’t live through the Cold War but we’re suddenly feeling this anxiety where we go, “This is so fragile.” We cannot do anything about it and suddenly the fairytale we grew up with – I’m literally in my childhood bedroom right now [on the Zoom call] with my fucking spotty curtains [laughs]. Suddenly the world is a terrifying place and your show really rang that home.
AS: If she had been a man, I don’t know if he would’ve gone further or he would’ve been chained up way sooner. She had the key to the future for so many people and she knew people felt that way and preyed on that. I know it’s been hard for female entrepreneurs in the post-Elizabeth Holmes days.
JN: That’s such an interesting angle.
AS: I do know that Elizabeth Holmes is very ambitious, she’s working on the next big thing.
JN: Isn’t she about to serve time?
AS: I think so. Ask her if she thinks she’s going to serve time! I don’t know.
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Interview originally published in HEROINE 16.
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