Patricia Arquette knows how to deliver a performance. And she knows how to use a platform.
She’s an Oscar-winner, an Emmy-winner, and the executor of a 30-year career that’s seen her shapeshift through nearly every kind of Hollywood “type,” regularly exploding out of the boxes each one would have confined her to.
She’s done that again with the new Showtime limited series Escape at Dannemora, directed by Ben Stiller and premiering Sunday. In it, she disappears behind a tangled, unruly mop of stringy hair; a wardrobe of frumpy, disheveled clothes; the peculiar upstate New York, almost Minnesotan dialect of the residents of the border-adjacent town; and a shivered crankiness. Nearly unrecognizable, she plays Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, the prison employee who helped two inmates, both of whom she was sexually involved with, escape in 2015.
Dannemora is arguably the highest-profile project she’s starred in (sorry, CSI: Cyber) since winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2014 for her performance in Boyhood and using her time at the mic to make an impassioned plea for women’s equal pay. As Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez cheered from the audience, Arquette’s speech galvanized a movement for gender equity, not just in Hollywood, but in all industries. Her speech and campaigning are credited with helping California’s Fair Pay Act pass. Last year, she partnered with the United Nations on an equal pay initiative.
When we met Arquette in Beverly Hills this summer to talk about the series, she was excited to update the conversation with good news and bad news. She can’t count how many women have come up to her to say how their lives have changed because they have been emboldened to ask for wage equality. But, if you can believe it, even after that speech incited a cultural moment, she still was not being offered fair pay for her own work in Hollywood.
“I’ve walked away from several jobs because they were giving me really bullshit deals that were really shitty and different from men in a really fucked up way,” she says.
But it’s not just gender pay equity that Arquette is excited to talk about. Playing Tilly in Escape at Dannemora is affording her yet another opportunity to turn performance into a platform. And so we talk about how Tilly’s raw, realistic sex scenes both liberated her—filmed three years after she appeared in Amy Schumer’s “Last Fuckable Day” sketch—but also made her wonder how they might negatively impact her career. “A lot of people will be like, ‘Yuck. No,’” she says.
Mostly, Arquette seems invigorated and fulfilled, speaking about how she’s managed throughout her career to play ingenues, mothers, and now emerge as a character actress—and in a project she is openly proud of. It’s tempting to align it with some cute writerly observation about having escaped a Hollywood prison. But this is Patricia Arquette we’re talking about. She’s always been on the run.
On June 6, 2015, inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat were discovered missing during an early morning bed check at the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. Both were there serving murder sentences. Matt had 25 years to life. Sweat had life without parole.
Stephen King could have scripted their breakout. They slipped through holes they spent months digging, using blades, chisels, and other tools smuggled to them with the help of a prison guard, Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell. After navigating a labyrinth of tunnels and, at one point, a narrow steam pipe, they actually popped out of a manhole, kicking off a $23 million manhunt.
Mitchell was in charge of the prison’s tailor shop where Matt (played by Benicio Del Toro in the series) and Sweat (Paul Dano) worked. She became chummy with both—infamously becoming sexually entangled with each of them—and offered baked goods to other prison officials in exchange for favors that would eventually help the two inmates escape.
“I think at first I was like, oh, these guys conned and charmed this lady,” Arquette says, remembering watching each wild twist unfold on the news at the time. But the more she learned about Tilly, the more fascinated she was: by her agency, by what she thought she could get away with, and how building that house of cards affected her.
It turns out, there is something deeper to be mined from the media-circus star labeled “Shaw-skank” in the tabloids.
Prison escapes are almost always romanticized, certainly in the blared flabbergast of headlines, but also in how pop culture tends to frame them as badass, superhero-like heists. That makes sense. Incredulity is baked into the facts of what happened: People escaped from a place specifically designed to keep them in.
There’s a key in the title that explains how the series differentiates itself from that kind of fetishization. Notice that that it’s Escape AT Dannemora, rather than escape From. It’s Arquette’s character, Tilly, and her role in the real-life prison break that provide the impetus for that.
This isn’t a slick caper about a group of men plotting their moves with the audience on the edge of their seat: Will they make it?! Tilly is a woman trapped in this town, shackled by circumstance to a life and a husband that don’t fulfill her. She is also trying to get out of something, so she takes extraordinary measures once she meets and forms relationships with these men to do so.
But the interesting thing about Escape at Dannemora is its insistence on ordinariness. There’s the ordinariness of Tilly and her life. There’s the rationalizing of her affairs with these men that was missing from sensationalist media coverage. And there’s the workmanlike way in which she involves herself in an otherwise implausible endeavor: Helping two men escape prison.
“Here’s a normal woman, who’s kind of invisible, who has a kind of middle American mentality of the world around her,” Arquette says. “I think that there’s value in that personality.”
She likens it to when she starred on Medium on CBS from 2005 to 2011, for which she won an Emmy Award. It was a weird, again, extraordinary subject matter: a suburban mom who solves crime using her psychic abilities. “I kept saying we’re already trying to sell this crazy premise. The more we ground it in reality, people will feel like they can buy into it. The realer Tilly is, the more it will resonate as somebody, hopefully, that people will believe.”
That reality meant exploring—and depicting—the sexuality of a middle-aged woman. Tilly doesn’t have a Hollywood body. The prison closet where these encounters take place has no flattering, candle-lit lighting. She was a normal woman, with her normal 50-something figure, satisfying her sexual desire in a way that we truly never see on screen. That thrilled Arquette.
“I mean I was terrified, too,” she says, laughing. “I’m a terribly, terribly shy person. I’m a person who usually takes baths in the dark. Even with myself I’m shy. So believe me, it’s weird.”
But the conversation she knew it would start excited her.
“I thought, why aren’t we talking about this? Why are we so weird in America?” she says. “If you go to a nude beach, there’s old people that are naked! It’s all different body types. It’s not this weird thing that if you’re going to be sexual, you better be 20.” She starts laughing. “I think we have a weird distortion about sexuality. In American cinema I think we’re contributing to some weirdness and false story.”
We venture that it must be gratifying, or maybe vindicating, to be having this conversation after having co-starred in the “Last Fuckable Day” sketch, in which she, Tina Fey, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus mark the day “in every actress’ life” when the media decides “you finally reach the point when you’re not believably fuckable anymore.”
“It’s true,” she says. “But believe me. A lot of people will be like, ‘Yuck. No.’ It may impact my career. You know, we’re sitting here talking about, hey, what a cool thing to be able to explore this. I know very well there’s going to be a lot of movies nobody’s going to even think of me for because of the way I look in this movie. So there is a gamble, a literal, actual risk that you take.”
She starts giggling so much she starts to lose her breath. “But hey, you know. Some people will decide for sure that this is my last fuckable day.”
When Arquette delivered her Oscar speech in 2014, she concluded with an impassioned dedication: “To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s time to have wage equality once and for all. And equal rights for women in the United States of America.”
At the time, people aligned the words to the then-nascent news of the egregious disparity between what Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence were paid for American Hustle in comparison to their male co-stars. But Arquette wasn’t necessarily talking about Hollywood. She was in part inspired by the character she had played in Boyhood, a single mom who worked tirelessly but struggled to provide for her family because of her gender and marital status.
“I never thought about it [in terms of the movie business], because I always felt so fortunate,” she says.
But then she started thinking. Why shouldn’t it apply to Hollywood, too? Wage equity should be everywhere.
“I think that I’ve been more conscious myself, and therefore pushing, asking for more equity and fairness. I’ve walked away from several jobs because they were giving me really bullshit deals that were really shitty and different from men in a really fucked up way.”
She recalls being offered “false equity” for a recent project. Basically, she was offered a payout structure that would give her a certain percentage of profit on the back-end. She recognized that she may not be offered the same salary as a male co-star who won more Oscars, but she wanted her payout structure to be the same as his, and was told no. “I was like, oh, the structure you set up for me, I would never get paid for this. It’s such a bullshit structure, you’d never see a penny of it. It’s fake.”
Still, she’s emboldened by the strength of the movement these last few years. Moves made in Hollywood have impacted other industries, be it HBO’s commitment to pay parity on all of its shows, or the fight on the network for which Arquette is currently promoting a series: Emmy Rossum’s crusade to secure equal pay as William H. Macy on Shameless.
When she arrived at the Beverly Hills Hilton the day we’re speaking, a woman found her and explained that, because of her speech and the work she did with Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson to pass the California Equal Pay Act, she had the courage to ask for pay parity to the men in her department at her own job. She said it changed her life.
“I’m looking at her, she’s probably my age or a little older, and I’m thinking, this woman is probably going to retire with more money,” Arquette says. “This will impact the rest of her life. I’ve had so many women come and tell me that. They’re like, I can feed my kids! I can help my son go to college! Really big, major things. “
Of course, Arquette is attuned to the reality that such joyous conversations aren’t the norm. The states where the biggest pay gaps exist and need legislation the most, like Alabama and Mississippi, have no pending legislation.
“And now America’s got millions of single moms, especially if they’re single moms of color, who are making less by race, by sex, and if they’re transgender women of color, really less,” she says. “We have 1 in 5 hungry kids in America, and many of them have full-time working moms. Single moms. It can have deadly impacts. So I would like us to move forward. Unfortunately, with this president and this administration and this cabinet, I don’t really see that happening. In fact there have been rollbacks.”
She’s flustered and exasperated, but above all passionate, as she talks about this. It’s evident that she has no plans to stop her work on this issue. As we say our goodbyes, she lets out a sigh. It’s been a lot to talk about, very quickly. She’s glad. She has the platform. What good is it if she doesn’t use it?