Marcia Gay Harden on Playing a Twisted Mom for Lifetime & Her Possible 'Law & Order: SVU' Return

Michael Maloney
Q&A

In 2015, the investigation into the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard revealed that she had suffered from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, a disorder where she forced her daughter Gypsy Rose to partake in a bizarre fraud that made people think that Gypsy was severely ill in order to gain sympathy.

Inspired by this real-life crime drama, Lifetime is airing Love You to Death, which tells the story of Camile Stoller (Marcia Gay Harden) and her daughter Esme (Emily Skeggs). The real and reel life stories are parallel. Just as Dee Dee was killed by Gypsy and her boyfriend, Camile also meets her final fate at the hands of Esme and her beau.

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Read on as Harden and Skeggs talk about delving into this bizarre world and their future projects, including a possible return for Harden to Law & Order: SVU.

What attracted you both to this project?

Marcia Gay Harden: I didn’t know about Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, but after I did it was like a train wreck. I couldn’t look away. How horrifying it is to have that authority and position in the world to be a mother and use that to the declination of another person.

The psychology was interesting to me. I was interested what the physical world of that character was and that transformation. The more that I learned [about Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy], the more I discovered it’s about abuser and victim and that symbiotic relationship. I felt there was a parallel desperation between the two characters. Obviously, [Camile] was the sicker one.

(Photo: Lifetime)

Emily Skeggs: She is sick because she needs her daughter’s illness to give her purpose or to give her something that she’s not finding in her own life without it. Also, I was attracted to this because I’m a true-crime junkie.

Harden: That’s right! You are a true-crime junkie!

Skeggs: I love it so much. I’m terrified of it, but I read about it, watch it, and I listen to it.

Viewers might watch this and think, “If this were me, I’d try to get out of this situation somehow.”

Skeggs: Yeah, I hope people walk away with a deeper understanding of how complicated the situation is. [Esme] felt trapped, but she also made choices to stay and take that trip to Disneyland and to have that feeding tube because her mom wanted her to have it. She fought, but she was culpable in a lot of ways. [Esme] knew that she could walk and eat food. Our version [of what really happened] is based on true events. It’s loose. The real Gypsy knew how old she was. She had been sick as a kid. She had a leukemia-type blood disorder.

Harden: That [condition] was mis-diagnosed. Her mother did feed her cancer meds and continued to give her medications that continued to make her sick.

Skeggs: It was really complicated and also easy to understand how a doctor would miss it or be unable to identify it or know how to treat it.

What kind of research did you do for this?

Skeggs: We watched a lot of interviews and the HBO documentary Mommie Dead and Dearest.

Harden: Emily loves crime and she turned me on to all these fascinating podcasts where you can learn more about the true people. Because our [movie] is an ‘inspired by’ it was very hard because we’d want to put every single thing [from the real case] in. [But] we had to tell the story that was on paper. Our movie is inspired by the real story.

What did you do physically to make yourself look ill?    

Skeggs: I had a bald cap. That was really transformative. We’d shoot and I was sitting in a wheelchair all day, so it came pretty naturally to feel sick, ill, and trapped. It happened pretty naturally.

(Photo: Lifetime)

Do you have sympathy for your character?

Skeggs: I do. I have a lot of sympathy for her. She’s definitely responsible for her actions. She had an i.d. [card] that gave her real age that she could show and say she’s not this younger age. She had multiple online boyfriends, so she had that to prove she wasn’t a minor. She was very culpable, but she was also really trapped.

What do you want people to walk away after seeing this movie?

Harden: Anytime I do something I hope people can see a reflection of a potential image of themselves in a mirror. We’re all capable of any of the above. You can go back to Greek drama to Medea and find links of that heinous behavior of Medea killing her kids over jealously, and the Oedipal [complex] stories. The acts seem so monstrous to me -- this behavior between the mother and the child, and yet when I think about it every teenager wants to murder their parents at some point. Doesn’t every teenager say, ‘Let me be!’ and ‘Back off!’ at some point?

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Wind Gap is a town occupied by sick and tormented women.

When we subjugate ourselves to another person, which is what parenthood is, there is this weird moment of imbalance. In extremists, it’s sick. That’s what our movie is about, the extreme sickness. I believe my kids will watch this movie and be able to relate to certain things. They might say, ‘Well, you are too much in our business.’ (Laughs) I’ll be like, ‘I don’t tape you to a chair!’

We can always learn something from it. I imagine people will come away with extreme sympathy for Gypsy, rightfully so. I had compassion for mom but don’t expect that or force it on the audience. Her actions were monstrous. She confined her kid to a wheelchair for personal gain.

There was hope that Code Black was going to stage a comeback due to its strong fan base.

Harden: I was so pleased by the support. We loved doing it. It was a gargantuan task to make each episode in eight days. We really worked hard. It was great that the audience and the critics liked it. Michael [Seitzman], our writer, delivered the heart in each episode. We didn’t understand why it disappeared. I feel the show could have gone a solid seven or eight years.

Moon Bloodgood (Rox Valenzuela), Marcia Gay Harden (Dr. Leanne Rorish) on 'Code Black' (Monty Brinton/CBS)

What’s next for you?

Skeggs: I wrapped on a really fabulous indie movie titled Dinner in America. It’s a punk rock/Napoleon Dynamite love story – and it’s a comedy! [Laughs] Thank God!

Law & Order: SVU is in its 20th season. Any chance we’ll see FBI Agent Dana Lewis come back for a visit?

Harden: I’m going to talk to Mariska [Hargitay, who plays Lt. Olivia Benson and is the show’s executive producer] about that. We’re going to have to spring [Dana] from jail, first of all. They had her down for murdering someone. Maybe they can have it all be a lie because she was undercover? I have the whole story. [Laughs] Somebody get Dick Wolf on the phone for me!

Marcia Gay Harden and Mariska Hargitay on 'Law & Order: SVU' (Virginia Sherwood/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank)

Love You to Death, Saturday, January 26, 8/7c, Lifetime

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