LOS ANGELES — It’s easy to judge the incidents that inspired the Lifetime movie “Love You to Death” as extreme cruelty and abuse. It’s a case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy when a mother forces her healthy young daughter to pretend she is ill so she can reap the rewards from charitable people who offer her help.
The story is based on the true story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard from Springfield, Missouri. It next airs Saturday.
Marcia Gay Harden (“Code Black”), who plays the abusive and manipulative mother, Camile, didn’t look at the role as being good or bad. All she could see when she looked at the way the mother acted was a lot of gray areas.
“She initially thinks she is doing this out of love when she first thought her daughter was sick,” Harden says. “Then, it got corroded and it became the way of life.
“My biggest question was whether or not a person who engages tin that kind of behavior is aware of it or not. The answer is that when you look at crimes across history, racist people don’t think they are racist. There are people all through history who are doing things that other groups of people would question whether or not what they are doing is a service to humanity.”
The world sees Camile as an overly protective and caring mother to Esme (Emily Skeggs), her wheelchair-bound daughter. It only becomes clear later that what appears to be a perfect relationship turns deadly.
“Love You to Death” tells the story from both the perspective of the mother and the daughter. Skeggs loves the structure because of her extensive theater background, where it is critical to determine just the right angle to tell the story to the audience. In the Lifetime film, she didn’t have to limit herself but was able to play the characters from two very different points of view.
The varied views set up what Skeggs wants the audience to take away from the film.
“It’s an extremely complicated story,” Skeggs says. “You think you understand the motivations. You think if you were in those situations you would have just told the doctor what was really happening. But, it’s far more complicated.”
Both actors did research before the filming started with an emphasis on understanding the disorder of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Neither Harden nor Skeggs were familiar with the condition. The acting part came easy. The Oscar-winning Harden has been working professionally since the ’80s, appearing in “Sinatra” (as Ava Gardner), “Mystic River,” “The Newsroom,” “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Pollock”). Skeggs has appeared in “Salem” and “When We Rise.”
Harden took the mother-daughter scenario beyond the work that was done in front of the cameras.
“I couldn’t separate myself from Emily and I wouldn’t allow her any freedom at all. When Emily would want to go to a restaurant, I would say ‘What about me? Don’t you think I should be there, too?’ No matter what she wanted to do I inserted myself completely,” Harden says.
Skeggs decides to translate what Harden is saying. She explains all that attention is just Harden being “an incredibly nurturing and generous person.” Skeggs always felt well taken care of on set and in the process learned a lot from Harden about acting.
Support was crucial as working on “Love You to Death” threw both of them an acting curve having to go through some serious physical transformations. For Skeggs, that meant having no hair (to keep up the appearances of chemotherapy treatments) and being twisted into a wheelchair. Harden wore body padding to show the character’s weight increase over the years. She laughs and stresses to make sure everyone knows her sagging chin is all the work of prosthetics.
Putting on the faux weight helped Harden find the last pieces she needed to play the character.
“I literally couldn’t access the internal of this character until I had physical part,” Harden says. “I was weighted and big. It was very liberating to be in that physique and then an emotional world began to emerge for me that I hadn’t quite understood until I was carrying the burden of the weight of the people I had hurt on me.”