A nuanced look at manipulation and desire

Benicio del Toro plays convicted murderer Richard Matt, while Patricia Arquette (both left) plays prison employee Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell in Escape At Dannemora.
Benicio del Toro plays convicted murderer Richard Matt, while Patricia Arquette (both left) plays prison employee Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell in Escape At Dannemora. PHOTO: FX

Escape At Dannemora, a new limited series directed by Ben Stiller, tells the story of two male inmates' daring jailbreak after seducing a female prison employee into helping them.

Its two Oscar-winning stars, Benicio del Toro and Patricia Arquette, loved sinking their teeth into the fact that it is not your average prison-break story, but rather, a complex look at manipulation, sexual desire and the many shades of grey in human nature.

For starters, many would look at the frumpy, middle-aged woman in the trio and assume she was the victim in this scenario.

But Arquette - who played her after gaining "a lot of extra weight" and, with the help of dental implants and wigs, says it is not that simple.

The cast were speaking to The Straits Times and other media at a recent Los Angeles press day for the seven-part drama, which debuts on Monday at 11pm on FX (Singtel TV Channel 310 and StarHub TV Channel 507).

It is inspired by the elaborate 2015 escape engineered by two convicted murderers, Richard Matt (del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano), from a maximum-security facility in upstate New York, with the help of prison employee Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell (Arquette).

Arquette, 50, thinks that in developing a sexual relationship with the pair, Mitchell abused her position running the prison's tailoring workshop, where the men worked.

So, in a way, she seduced them and not the other way round.

"We went to the actual prison and toured it while prisoners were there - and they are killers, rapists. The woman who had taken over Tilly's job had these guys flirting with her all the time.

"A few weeks later, that woman got arrested for having sex with another inmate and was up on rape charges because she was in a position of authority. I definitely think there's a power dynamic - you have a captive audience. It's also a lonely place up there."

For Arquette, Mitchell also represented a different female sexuality from what Hollywood usually portrays.

"It was interesting to explore this middle-aged woman, who looks not like some femme fatale or sex symbol, but who is a sexual being and is comfortable being sexual," says the actress, who won an Oscar for the 2014 drama, Boyhood, and a 2005 Emmy for the supernatural series, Medium (2005 to 2011).

"You don't have to have a perfect body to be into your body and into having sex and being close with somebody," she adds.

"As an actor, so much of our industry puts you in a box - you have to be this age and you have to look like this.

"There's something about authenticity and humanness and closeness, so I wanted to be brave enough to explore that. What was interesting about her that you don't see in a lot of female roles is her needs came first."

But she made a conscious decision not to seek out and meet the real Tilly.

"After reading through all the information we had - we were given boxes of police interviews and testimonies and so much backstory - what I realised was she had changed her story a lot and was kind of manipulative by a lot of accounts."

If she had met her, "I'd be watching her lie or manipulate me and I don't want to put the production in a weird situation or beholden to or entangled with her in some kind of emotional way".

Del Toro was, similarly, reluctant to overly identify with the man he plays - another complicated character who was not only a murderer, but also a talented painter and a bit of an artistic soul.

"That's where the fiction comes in," says the 51-year-old, who picked up an Oscar for the narco-drama, Traffic (2000).

As an actor, though, he relished the challenge. "There was something about how he manipulated things and was a bully in his relationship with Paul's character, with Patricia's and with the prison guard played by David Morse.

"I don't necessarily identify with it, but there are interesting things about manipulating not only with a lie, but also with the truth.

"The way those relationships are stacked up and put together is interesting for me as an actor."

• Escape At Dannemora debuts on Monday at 11pm on FX (Singtel TV Channel 310 and StarHub TV Channel 507).

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2018, with the headline A nuanced look at manipulation and desire. Subscribe