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Patricia Arquette On Embracing The Sexuality Of Her 'Dannemora' Character

TERRY GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Our next guest on our Emmy week series is Patricia Arquette. She's nominated for two Emmys for her performances in two limited series, Showtime's "Escape At Dannemora" and Hulu's "The Act." She won an Oscar for her performance in the 2014 film "Boyhood." Arquette already won a Screen Actors Guild Award for her performance in "Escape At Dannemora," which is based on the true story of a prison escape. She plays Joyce Tilly Mitchell, who helped two murderers escape from prison. They got her to help them by pretending they each loved her and wanted to be with her after they escape.


GROSS: As the story is portrayed in the film, both of the prisoners have sex with her. And it makes her feel sexy and desirable to have sex with them. And she does favors for them, including eventually getting some of the tools that they need to escape. She was even supposed to drive the getaway car, but she had a panic attack at the last minute and failed to show up.

I want to play a clip from the very end of the series when she's in jail - your character's in jail - on the day before her trial. She's with a guard, and she asks him if it's OK if she read the statement that she's written to read for the judge. So here's my guest, Patricia Arquette.


PATRICIA ARQUETTE: (As Tilly Mitchell) Hey, would you do me a favor? Would you listen to this and tell me what you think about it? It's for when I have to give my statement to the judge.


ARQUETTE: (As Tilly Mitchell) Please allow me to start by saying how much remorse I have for everything that has happened with my part in Matt and Sweat's escape. I am 51 years old. This is by far the worst mistake I've ever made my life. I not only let myself down but my family. I love them more than life itself, your Honor. None of this was ever my intentions. I'm not a bad person. I realize I need to be responsible for my actions, but I am hoping you will have mercy on me, your Honor.

My lawyer said I have to sound apologetic. Does that sound apologetic to you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As guard) It's worth a shot. Hey, sometimes I like to throw an inmate a little party the night before she gets out of here. Is that something you'd be interested in? I'll be around. Think about it.

GROSS: Well, it was a great performance.

ARQUETTE: Thank you.

GROSS: How were you able to find something to relate to in her character? Like, what did you find you could pick up on and really understand?

ARQUETTE: Well, I felt like Tilly was a real triangulator. I saw that Tilly was getting her needs met by these three different men. Like, in a way, if she could put these three men together, she would have her ideal mate. She has this Lyle version when he's younger and who - she thinks he's going to be the savior and this man is going to take care of her.

GROSS: That's her husband?

ARQUETTE: Yes, that's her husband. But years later, we see that they've kind of fallen into this rut where she takes him for granted, and she's become basically his caretaker in some kind of way, and there's a resentment about that. And then with Sweat, she has this very adolescent feeling, this excited feeling, like, as if she was the cheerleader and he's the football player. And it's, in a way, innocent, but it's also weirdly maternal. But she just thinks he's really a good guy, and she has a huge crush on him, and she's crazy about him.

GROSS: He's the prisoner played by Paul Dano.

ARQUETTE: Exactly. And then there's the third man, who is Benicio Del Toro's character, Matt. And I felt like with him, he scares her, but he's also the most alpha male she's ever been with. And she's used to being the alpha, so it's very strange for her to get thrown off her game. There's a part of that that she really likes, and it's confusing to her.

You know, she's living upstate New York. It's very cold. It's very harsh. You're working in this dangerous place, this prison. And she's in a marriage that - at that moment, all she can see is coldness. And where is her life going? And she's not feeling anything, and she doesn't feel alive. And then all of these men are there, and suddenly, I think she feels alive and seen and beautiful and sexual and desirable.

GROSS: You had to physically transform yourself to play Tilly. You gained 40 pounds. You wore prosthetic teeth. You had brown contact lenses. How does it feel to be in a different body when you're in a role? I mean, I feel weird when I put on clothes that make me uncomfortable. I mean, I don't feel quite myself. So, like, if you put on a body that's not yours, what does that feel like?

ARQUETTE: Well, conceptually, as a woman, I was really excited to explore this middle-aged woman being a sexual being and being really comfortable with her body and being sexual and, you know, in general, being comfortable with her body, even though later, she wants to lose weight and do all this - but in her sexuality, being in her body completely, which is so different than me because I've grown up in this Hollywood structure that's always telling you you're not right, no matter what the hell you look like. No matter how young and beautiful you are, you're not beautiful enough, and there's always something wrong with your body, and there's always something wrong with the way you look.

So the idea to play someone, a middle-aged woman who is unapologetic about her sexuality, was very exciting to me. But to do that for months - and some people in the business said, you don't have to really do that. Have them get you a fat suit. I was like, I'm doing real love scenes, and I actually want to go for this. And I want people to see that because I want to have that conversation. But in my real life, walking around for the many, many months - I think it was about a year, really, with all of this, even longer - it was hard. It was physically hard, and then people treated you really crappy. People treat you different.

GROSS: Oh, tell me about how people treated you differently.

ARQUETTE: They would look at you like, oh, are you still working? Or, you know - or they would just ignore you. Honestly, there's people who didn't know who I was at all, and they would ignore you in line or they would just push past you. You were the kind of an invisible person, which, I think, helped me with that part - her frustration of feeling invisible and wanting to be visible. But yeah, it's really weird. I think people do respond differently to people.

GROSS: Patricia Arquette is nominated for two Emmys for her performances in two true crime stories - Showtime's limited series "Escape At Dannemora" and Hulu's limited series "The Act."


GROSS: Our Emmy week series continues tomorrow with two Emmy nominees from the Netflix series "When They See Us" about the wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five. We'll hear from Ava DuVernay, who produced, directed and co-wrote the series, and Michael K. Williams, who plays the father of one of the boys. The series is nominated for 16 Emmys. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.