Director Ben Stiller’s “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.
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.
“There is just something about her that fascinates; there’s something real about her,” she adds. “As I got ready to play her, I told my older brother, ‘You know, this lady can really be a bitch.’ He said, ‘You’ve tried to be such a nice person in your life; why don’t you explore that [side]?’ It’s 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 it’s 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 you’re 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. It’s an intense boiler room when you’re in a prison where everything is heightened and it’s scary. She built a lot into these little moments of human contact.
So did you see Tilly’s prisoner connections as warmth or as basically anonymous interactions?
A little bit of both. When they have sex, it’s really fast because you’re 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 women’s sexuality for sure.
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 she’s subconsciously mad at herself and then blames [Lyle] for her behavior because she’s not ready to look at it. It’s a lot of unconscious behavior.
I read you did not meet with the real Tilly, who is still in prison. Why?
I don’t know honestly if I could have, but we didn’t even try, though I did meet David Sweat. People told me she was threatening and litigious and has a need to control what’s written about her, and I didn’t have the authority to promise her anything. She’s told a lot of things to a lot of people. So, I didn’t want to get into Tilly’s snare. She was a hustler, but she was being hustled by pros and she wasn’t a pro, though she thought she was. And that’s also something interesting to me. People often think they’re outsmarting the system when they’re not.
I know you’ve worked with Ben as an actor. How was it different with him as a director?
He’s 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 that’s needed. He was very much about ‘The best idea in the room wins.’ 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 …
There was no shying away from anything. I don’t 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 didn’t have any self-esteem, and in some ways she really does.