As Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano play them in "Escape at Dannemora," real-life convicts Richard Matt and David Sweat epitomize different kinds of intelligence. Behind bars, Matt is the star, a master manipulator with big ideas and a knack for recognizing people's needs. Sweat is the younger, highly competent guy who can handle the nuts and bolts of a complex plan. With the help of a prison worker (Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell, played by Patricia Arquette) with whom both had an intimate relationship, the two infamously broke out of the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility in 2015.
Del Toro says, "In jail, I'm the alpha. Somehow [Sweat] becomes the alpha when we're out in the wild and I just crumble. Home court, [Matt's] a bully. He's the visiting team, he doesn't play as good."
Dano says, "They needed each other. It was almost like one person was the face of the tech company and one person was actually doing the work. You don't look at them and think, 'Those two guys should be together.' But they offer something the other one doesn't have."
Dano and Del Toro hadn't done much television, but were lured into director Ben Stiller's drama for Showtime. The depth of the characters, complexity of relationships and details of the plot would have been tough to do justice to in a feature film, they say.
"It's not like it used to be," says Del Toro, dapper in a tailored suit before an industry event at NeueHouse Hollywood. "TV has ... the time to really tell the story or explore many characters in one story. It's attractive to actors to explore many aspects of their characters in shows like 'Escape at Dannemora.' "
Dano, soft-spoken and articulate, adds, "Also, it's pretty rare that one director sees through an entire miniseries, whatever we're calling it. Ben was doing the whole thing. We shot all seven episodes at once. It was like a biiig film."
[Warning: The video clip below contains profanity.]
Del Toro says Stiller talked about the '70s vibe from the start, referencing Sidney Lumet films and others. The director also discussed how Matt and Sweat would switch positions once they got out — fueled by Matt's sudden access to booze.
"My guy, he was an addict. He was an alcoholic," says Del Toro. "He was doing crack when he killed Mr. Rickerson. So he had that tendency. You give him freedom, and boom."
Matt was convicted of murdering and dismembering his elderly boss after beating and keeping him in his car trunk for hours as he drove around. His accomplice called him "the Devil."
"It's a sad story, the Richard Matt story. He came to meet his father for the first time when he was in jail — and his father was in jail. He was 18 or 20. Never knew his mom. Grew up in one foster home after another. I mean, that's a recipe for total failure. I've also read that he had some qualities that were very much like a normal guy. He had two faces," says the actor.
"I just feel like someone who's a 'devil,' whatever, I think that they don't show it to you — you don't see it right away."
Matt was also a talented portraitist, but even that skill had its ominous side, warns Del Toro. He cites the high level of technical expertise in Matt's paintings; their painstaking detail.
"That means that he spent a lot of time on one thing. Meaning, he could destroy you very slowly. If you have that quality and there's evil in you, you're really dangerous."
Sweat was in some ways the opposite: under the radar and mechanically adept.
"We can't answer how much is nature, how much is nurture," says Dano, who, along with Stiller and Del Toro, interviewed Sweat. "Were Richard Matt and David Sweat always going to turn out this way? Or how much of it is the opportunities they were given? David, his mom, I think, was not well. I know she had a lot of parties, a lot of boyfriends. He went from foster home to foster home to foster home as well, at a young age. Jail at 16. If he hadn't, maybe he would have gone into the service. Those talents, that practical intelligence, could have been steered toward something, some outlet. But it wasn't. And at 19 he was in prison for life."
[Warning: The video clip below contains profanity.]
Dano notes a key difference between Sweat and Matt: Sweat's killing of a cop wasn't premeditated, but an unintended consequence of a robbery.
"Maybe it's that I want to believe there's something there, but I don't know that he ends up [a killer], had he been given a better chance. He could have been an engineer. When we were talking with him, we were confronted with the fact that he's still a person. We had laughs. Then you're thinking, 'OK, this person killed somebody.' "
"That brings it all back to reality," says Del Toro.
Dano says Sweat gave them a great deal of information about the escape — Stiller "filled his notebook."
"The fact that he didn't say anything about Tilly was also important," Dano adds. "He was so gregarious about the escape. That's what he's famous for. But Tilly comes up and he's like — " Dano makes the cutoff gesture.
"David did talk about how you always have to project something in prison. 'What parts of myself, as David, am I shutting down because I can't reveal that I feel X, Y and Z? And what are you projecting?' So that was a really helpful thing to hear. And imagine what that does to a human being. You have to tuck yourself away."