Patricia Arquette Explores Munchausen By Proxy In 'The Act' Arquette plays a Missouri woman who falsely convinced the world that her child was seriously ill, in the Hulu series The Act. She says it was "very weird" getting into the character's head.
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Patricia Arquette Explores The 'Toxic Codependency' Of Munchausen By Proxy

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Patricia Arquette Explores The 'Toxic Codependency' Of Munchausen By Proxy

Patricia Arquette Explores The 'Toxic Codependency' Of Munchausen By Proxy

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Patricia Arquette, has been giving some remarkable performances playing complex characters. She's now starring in "The Act," a limited series on Hulu. She won an Oscar for her performance in the 2014 film "Boyhood." She won a Screen Actors Guild Award for her performance in "Escape At Dannemora," a Showtime series based on the true story of a prison escape. She played the employee who helped the prisoners escape. In 2005, she won an Emmy for her starring role in the TV series "Medium." Her siblings, including Rosanna and David Arquette, are actors, as were her father, grandfather and great-grandparents.

The final episode of her current series "The Act" will start streaming on Hulu Wednesday. It's based on the true story of Dee Dee Blanchard, who convinced her daughter and everyone else they knew, including doctors, that the daughter was seriously ill. She was put on medications with bad side effects, fed through a feeding tube, subjected to unnecessary surgeries and confined to a wheelchair. Having such a sick child got Blanchard attention, sympathy and financial and housing help.

When Blanchard's daughter, Gypsy Rose, was a teenager and figured out what was going on, she confided in her boyfriend. He murdered the mother in her bed. He was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence. Gypsy Rose is serving a 10-year sentence for second-degree murder. Dee Dee Blanchard was posthumously diagnosed with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a mental health disorder in which a person makes up or causes illness in a person under their care.

Let's start with a scene in which Dee Dee Blanchard, played by Arquette, is talking with her new neighbors, played by Chloe Sevigny and Denitra Isler. Blanchard is describing the many medical conditions her daughter has.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ACT")

PATRICIA ARQUETTE: (As Dee Dee Blanchard) Some mandibular gland surgery. That's what she had, her salivary glands removed 'cause she was choking herself. She's got the epilepsy, paraplegia, heart murmur. She can barely take anything by mouth. And, well, she's anemic.

DENITRA ISLER: (As Shelly) When my kids got colds at the same time, I was like, Lord, take 'em. Please. Find them a good family. How the heck do you manage?

ARQUETTE: (As Dee Dee Blanchard) Ooh, I sleep with one eye open, I suppose.

ISLER: (As Shelly) Me too.

CHLOE SEVIGNY: (As Mel) Can't watch 'em forever though, right?

ISLER: (As Shelly) Mel's a great mom, especially if you believe in tough love.

SEVIGNY: (As Mel) I just don't believe in spoiling 'em. You gotta teach 'em to fend for themselves as soon as they can walk.

ARQUETTE: (As Dee Dee Blanchard) Oh, Mel, everything is different with my Gypsy.

SEVIGNY: (As Mel) Of course. She ain't well.

ARQUETTE: (As Dee Dee Blanchard) She can't fend for herself. She'll never be able to. I have to do everything for her.

ISLER: (As Shelly) That must be a burden to carry.

ARQUETTE: (As Dee Dee Blanchard) Oh, it is. Thank God I'm good at it, though. Lord knows her daddy wasn't. I am the only one she has. If I wasn't around, who knows where she'd be.

GROSS: Patricia Arquette, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You give an amazing performance in "The Act." The...

ARQUETTE: Thank you.

GROSS: ...Woman you are portraying is said to have had Munchausen by proxy. So what did you learn about that and about what happens in somebody's mind that would get them to make their child ill?

ARQUETTE: Well, I have to say that I think it's really understudied, and a lot is not known about it at this point. So part of my research was looking what doctors were saying about Munchausen by proxy. And part of it was that, oftentimes, people, when they were children themselves, they were ill, and they got attention when they were ill or love. That's how they got some of their needs met. So that's part of it.

And that also, the parents, sometimes, are using it for their own personal need for attention and - or to raise money or a combination of those. But to go further with that, because I felt like it was really understudied, I looked at the mechanisms of toxic co-dependency - when somebody really feels that they have to do more and take care of people to such a level. And part of what's underneath there is they don't really feel that they have value enough in the world without doing all of that.

GROSS: What could you find in her to relate to or to make sense of when you were portraying her?

ARQUETTE: You know, we all have natural instincts as parents. Or when something's wrong with our kid, we think we have an instinct of what it might be. And I think Dee Dee has all these things in excess, in dangerous amounts. Like, I think, sometimes, she thinks she's actually smarter than the doctors. She thinks, oh, no, no. I know what this is. I know what Gypsy has. I know more than you. Maybe I have to fake a test to prove that, but I'm right, and you're wrong. And this is what has to be done.

So it was very weird getting in her head because there is a scene where Gypsy comes in and she's walking. And during action and cut, hopefully, as an actor, your thoughts are whatever your character's thoughts are. And so in that moment, Dee Dee just kept thinking, you don't understand. Your legs are going to break. Your legs are like toothpicks. They're just going to snap. You don't understand how weak they are. So that was a weird thing - getting into that headspace. But also, in that - in those moments, I could kind of feel that panic and fear.

GROSS: So you obviously were not able to talk to Dee Dee Blanchard because she's dead. She was murdered. However, there was a documentary made about her that has, you know, film and video footage of her. And it was - this documentary was on HBO. It's called "Mommy Dead And Dearest." Did you look at that to see what the real woman looked like and...

ARQUETTE: I did.

GROSS: ...How she interacted with her daughter?

ARQUETTE: Yes, I did. I did watch it. But there wasn't that much video footage, really, of Dee Dee. And the thing was there was a lot of anecdotal information about Dee Dee from her family. But this was after the fact. At this point, Dee Dee had become the bad guy in the story in everyone's eyes, and the perspective of Dee Dee and who she was was seen through this perspective of her being this monster. So in a way, I had to kind of think of who Didi was outside of all of those judgments people had after the fact.

GROSS: So before being in "The Act," you co-starred in "Escape At Dannemora," which is also based on a true story. It's based on the story of two male prisoners who escaped with the help of a civilian prison employee, Joyce Tilly Mitchell, who you played. And she ran the prison tailor shop where these two prisoners worked.

As the story's portrayed in the film, both of the prisoners have sex with her. And it makes her feel sexy and desirable to have sex with them. And she does favors for them, including eventually getting some of the tools that they need to escape. She was even supposed to drive the getaway car, but she had a panic attack at the last minute and failed to show up.

I want to play a clip from the very end of the series when she is in jail - your character's in jail - on the day before her trial. She's with a guard, and she asks him if it's OK if she read the statement that she's written to read for the judge. So here's my guest, Patricia Arquette.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA")

ARQUETTE: (As Tilly Mitchell) Hey, would you do me a favor? Would you listen to this and tell me what you think about it? It's for when I have to give my statement to the judge.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) OK.

ARQUETTE: (As Tilly Mitchell) Please allow me to start by saying how much remorse I have for everything that's happened with my part in Matt and Sweat's escape. I am 51 years old. This is by far the worst mistake I've ever made in my life. I not only let myself down but my family. I love them more than life itself, Your Honor. None of this was ever my intentions. I'm not a bad person. I realize I need to be responsible for my actions, but I am hoping you will have mercy on me, Your Honor.

My lawyer said I have to sound apologetic. Does that sound apologetic to you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It's worth a shot. Hey, sometimes, I like to throw an inmate a little party the night before she gets out of here. Something you'd be interested in? I'll be around. Think about it.

GROSS: Well, that was a great performance (laughter).

ARQUETTE: Thank you.

GROSS: How were you able to find something to relate to in her character? Like, what did you find you could pick up on and really understand?

ARQUETTE: Well, I felt like Tilly was a real triangulator. I saw that Tilly was getting her needs met by these three different men. Like, in a way, if she could put these three men together, she would have her ideal mate. She has this Lyle version when he's younger and who she thinks he's going to be - the savior - and this man is going to take care of her.

GROSS: That's her husband?

ARQUETTE: Yes, that's her husband. But years later, we see that they've kind of fallen into this rut where she takes him for granted, and she's become basically his caretaker in some kind of way. And there's a resentment about that. And then with Sweat, she has this very adolescent feeling - this excited feeling like as if she was the cheerleader, and he's the football player. And it's, in a way, innocent, but it's also weirdly maternal. But she just thinks he's really a good guy. And she has a huge crush on him, and she's crazy about him.

GROSS: He's the prisoner played by Paul Dano.

ARQUETTE: Exactly. And then, there's the third man - who is Benicio Del Toro's character, Matt - and I felt like with him, he scares her. But he's also the most alpha male she's ever been with. And she's used to being the alpha, so it's very strange for her to get thrown off her game. There's a part of that that she really likes, and it's confusing to her.

You know, she's living upstate New York. It's very cold. It's very harsh. You're working in this dangerous place, this prison. And she's in a marriage that - at that moment, all she can see is coldness. And where's her life going? And she's not feeling anything, and she doesn't feel alive. And then, all of these men are there, and suddenly, I think she feels alive and seen and beautiful and sexual and desirable.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Patricia Arquette, and she stars in "The Act." And the last episode starts streaming on Hulu Wednesday. So we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIO ADNET'S "EXCERTO NO. 1")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is actor Patricia Arquette. She stars in the new Hulu series "The Act." Last year, she starred in the Showtime series "Escape At Dannemora" based on a true story. She played Joyce Tilly Mitchell, a civilian worker in a prison. She ran the tailor shop. She had sexual relationships with two of the male inmates she supervised and then helped them escape.

You had to physically transform yourself to play Tilly. You gained 40 pounds. You wore prosthetic teeth. You had brown contact lenses. How does it feel to be in a different body when you're in a role? I mean, I feel weird when I put on clothes that make me uncomfortable. (Laughter) I don't feel quite myself. So, like, if you put on a body that's not yours, what does that feel like?

ARQUETTE: Well, conceptually, as a woman, I was really excited to explore this middle-aged woman being a sexual being and being really comfortable with her body and being sexual and, you know, in general being comfortable with her body, even though, later, she wants to lose weight and do all this. But in her sexuality, being in her body completely - which is so different than me because I've grown up in this Hollywood structure that's always telling you you're not right no matter what the hell you look like. No matter how young and beautiful you are, you're not beautiful enough. And there's always something wrong with your body, and there's always something wrong with the way you look.

So the idea to play someone, a middle-aged woman, who is unapologetic about her sexuality was very exciting to me. But to do that for months - and some people in the business said, you don't have to really do that. Have them get you a fat suit. And I was like, I'm doing real love scenes, and I actually want to go for this. And I want people to see that. So I want to have that conversation. But in my real life, walking around for the many, many months - I think it was about a year, really, with all of this, even longer - it was hard. It was physically hard, and then people treated you really crappy. People treat you different.

GROSS: Tell me about how people treated you differently.

ARQUETTE: They would look at you like, oh, oh, are you still working? Or, you know, they would just ignore you. Honestly, there's people who didn't know who I was at all. And they would ignore you in line. Or they would just push past you. You were kind of an invisible person, which, I think, helped me with that part - her frustration of feeling invisible and wanting to be visible. But, yeah, it's really weird. I think people do respond differently to people.

GROSS: So this is a strange question to ask. But there's a lot of actors who - a lot of women who are actors who are already the weight that you had to become in order to play the role. And they probably very rarely get leading roles. Did you ever feel a twinge knowing that there were actresses who probably could have done the role without having to physically transform themselves and who don't get to work much?

I know you're so into inclusivity and diversity, so I ask in that spirit. And I should preface this by saying I love your work. And I'm so glad you got this role because you're fabulous in it. But still, I know it's a question.

ARQUETTE: No. No I get it. I think there's probably a lot of truth to that. But the truth is, also, this business is a really weird business. And that's not an excuse. I mean, you're right. There's not enough inclusivity. And there's not enough opportunities for people of all different shapes and sizes and races and gender identifications.

And I think the business is worse for that because they don't tell the stories of real human beings all the time. Having said that, Ben thought of me first, I think, because I physically look a little like Joyce - or could. And then...

GROSS: This is Ben Stiller, who directed the series.

ARQUETTE: Yes. And we'd worked together before. And we'd always wanted to work together on a project. But even with me on board, we couldn't get it greenlit. We had to keep waiting to get guys with bigger names than me.

GROSS: It must be so hard to always - I mean, you're lucky. You really have a successful - you have a great career now. But it's - there's so many reasons not to hire somebody (laughter). You know? For a role...

ARQUETTE: There's so many reasons not to hire somebody...

GROSS: ...It's so hard to succeed.

ARQUETTE: And I'm going to tell you something, I am a successful woman. And before this, I'd won an Academy Award already. And I'd been on TV shows that had 18 million people a week watching them. And I've worked with the greatest directors. I've had, you know, three decades of great work, you know, behind me in movies that people still remember. And still, I got to wait for the guy to sign on all the time.

GROSS: It's funny. Like, Hollywood has a reputation of being, like, this hotbed of liberalism. But when it comes to, like, gender equality, it's not exactly been ahead of the game.

ARQUETTE: No. It hasn't. And that's part of what's really was exciting about "The Act." I mean, this is really a female-dominated project. Most all the characters are females. The majority of our episodes were directed by females.

So that was a really different kind of thing. You know, one of our show creators was a female. And a lot of our crew are females. I have to say, having been in this business this long, it's so nice to start seeing more and more crew who are women.

GROSS: You know, we were talking about gaining weight for a role. And I read that when you got the part - the leading role in the TV series "Medium," it was not long after you'd given birth to your daughter. And you hadn't lost all of your baby weight yet. And they insisted that you needed to lose weight to start the series and you declined to do that. So how did you make your case?

ARQUETTE: Well, I was having that conversation with one of the producers. And I said, no. This woman is in this marriage. She has three kids. I look perfectly normal - like a normal person. Why does she have to look like that? I mean, what is going on?

She's not a part-time centerfold model. I don't understand (laughter). Why does she have to look like that? And then I ended up going to the show creator Glenn Caron and he was like, I think you look fine. I was like, OK. Then it's settled. We won't talk about this anymore.

And I was able to kind of parlay my success in other things at that moment. A lot of people from film were not doing TV. I thought that TV was kind of a radical thing to do at that time - and it was, as a film actor. But my great grandparents were in vaudeville. And they were performing for people for, you know, a dollar or something. So this idea of being able to perform for people on network TV, I felt, was a valuable experiment.

GROSS: And a regular job too, which I'm sure was kind of nice.

ARQUETTE: Yeah. It was nice. But again, it was - at that time, it was very looked down upon as a film actor. Like, a lot of people felt like...

GROSS: Especially indie films. You made so many indie films.

ARQUETTE: Yeah. A lot of people felt like - you're going to kill your film career. People are not going to take you seriously as an actor if you're going to be doing TV.

GROSS: My guest is Patricia Arquette. She stars in the Hulu series "The Act." The final episode will start streaming Wednesday. After a break, we'll talk about spending a few years of her childhood living in a spiritual commune her parents helped start. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROB DIXON TRIO SONG, "WISHING WELL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Patricia Arquette. She's now starring in "The Act," a limited series on Hulu based on the true story of a woman who abused her daughter by convincing her daughter and her daughter's doctors that the daughter was terribly ill. She was kept in a wheelchair, subjected to surgeries, fed through a feeding tube. The final episode will start streaming Wednesday.

You've gotten a bunch of awards. And you've kind of become known for, at the end of your acceptance speeches, saying something about social justice or making a political statement or gender equity. And so we've put together a little collage of the ending of...

ARQUETTE: Oh, no.

GROSS: ...Of some of - (laughter).

ARQUETTE: I don't want to hear it. Oh, no.

GROSS: You can put your hands over your headphones (laughter).

ARQUETTE: Please, no. (Laughter) OK.

GROSS: You don't have to listen. But our audience will hear it. How's that?

ARQUETTE: OK.

GROSS: Is that OK?

ARQUETTE: All right.

GROSS: So - but...

ARQUETTE: OK (laughter).

GROSS: Just so you know what our audience will be hearing, listen as I describe what the collage is. So this is, like, the end of three award speeches. And we're going to hear them in chronological order, ending with the Screen Actors Guild award you won for your performance in "Escape At Dannemora." That will be preceded by your Oscar speech for the 2014 film "Boyhood." And we'll start with your Emmy speech for your performance in the TV series "Medium." This was in 2005, a month after Hurricane Katrina.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ARQUETTE: I know my mom and dad, you can see this. And I really want to send my respect and gratitude to all the volunteers who are helping out right now in the hurricane. They need so much help. We cannot give up when - even when it starts creeping off the news. We have to do so much for these people still. And the soldiers in Iraq, I know I'm here on stage. And I know you're still over there. And my prayer for you is that when you get home, you can come home safe and sound. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

ARQUETTE: 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 our time to have wage equality once and for all...

(CHEERING)

ARQUETTE: ...And equal rights for women in the United States of America.

(CHEERING)

ARQUETTE: Everyone, one order of business - some production companies are not paying people their overtime and their meal penalties. So start taking pictures of your Schedule G and your call sheet because actors depend on that money to survive.

(APPLAUSE)

ARQUETTE: So we have to stop that practice. Oh, thank you, Robert Mueller and everyone working to make sure that we have sovereignty for the United States of America.

(CHEERING)

GROSS: OK. That was Patricia Arquette at the end of some of her award speeches.

ARQUETTE: (Laughter) God.

GROSS: Did you listen or did you take your headphones off?

ARQUETTE: I did listen, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, OK. Why were you reluctant to listen to that? You didn't complain when we played your TV performances. But when you were appearing as yourself, speaking as yourself, that's when you wanted to not listen.

ARQUETTE: Yeah (laughter). Yeah, I guess that's true, although I guess I am actually glad I did hear them. I haven't heard them or even really remembered what I said in some of those things in a long time. So thank you for playing them.

GROSS: Sure. I'm sure you stand behind everything you said.

ARQUETTE: I do. Yeah. I do. I do, and I'm excited. I mean, a lot is happening now. Like, you know, we had two states finally ratify the Equal Rights Amendment after 36 years. And we're about to have a congressional hearing about the Equal Rights Amendment again, for the first time in almost four decades. And Beto O'Rourke was talking about it yesterday. And Kamala Harris has been talking about it the whole time she's been running. So it's a very exciting time, really. So much needs to happen for women in America.

GROSS: How did you decide to start ending with, you know, political or social justice statements?

ARQUETTE: I really didn't. And I don't want the pressure to have to do that.

GROSS: Yeah, right. What you going to do next?

ARQUETTE: I mean, I want to go just, like, and be like - hey, y'all, thanks a lot (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah.

ARQUETTE: See you later (laughter).

GROSS: Were you raised with an understanding of social justice? Was that an important thing for your parents?

ARQUETTE: Yes. My mom was a civil rights activist and a anti-war activist. And our dad was also very political. And we grew up - I remember going to Diablo Canyon when they were going to build a nuclear power plant on a fault line in California, and going with my dad to union protests and being on picket lines, and helping my mom - you know, watching her organize things for the boat people who were needing help.

So, yeah, we grew up in a household like that. They always were talking about politics and the news were - was always on. And there was a lot of lively conversations about all of that.

GROSS: You spent part of your childhood living on a commune with your parents. And this was a kind of spiritual community, if I understand correctly. These were followers of - or practitioners of - and I'm not sure what word to use - of Subud. And it's a spiritual practice that was created in the '20s in Indonesia. I tried to go online and learn about it. I found it, like, just a little vague and confusing because there isn't a specific practice associated with it. So could you explain it a little bit?

ARQUETTE: Well, really, it's non-denominational. And there is actually a spiritual practice. I don't know how to explain it, other than it's sort of like meditation but with spontaneous movement. But it's really about kind of awakening this part of yourself so that you can have a direct connection to God and be connected to God, even in the chaos of the world.

GROSS: And were you raised to practice that?

ARQUETTE: When I was little, I mean, my parents were practicing that. We weren't told we had to practice anything. And actually, my mom was Jewish, my dad was Muslim. And I went to Catholic school. And I wanted to be a nun. And at one point, my brother was Buddhist.

And so my parents believed there was only one God and that, really, we all had the right, as people, to decide spiritually what our own paths were. But I do think that they derived a lot from their exercise - their spiritual exercise - and from being a part of Subud. And I do feel that it really grounded me and made me feel very close to God. Like, I loved God and God loved me, and I had a relationship with God. I still feel that.

GROSS: How old were you when you moved there?

ARQUETTE: That's a good question. I think 4. We didn't live there that long. We lived there for a few years. But it was very - a very pivotal time in my life. And it really - growing up in the country, in the wildness of the woods, playing outside and running around the base of the Appalachian Mountains and seeing poverty in the South and racism and - it was really an intense way to grow up and also, on another hand, very, very beautiful.

GROSS: You mentioned your father was a Muslim, and he converted from Catholicism. Did he convert because of Subud?

ARQUETTE: He actually converted from Christianity. No. I mean, it's ridiculous. (Laughter) This story is crazy. My dad and my mom - I mean, their bond was really their spirituality and their politics and their minds. But at one point, my dad said, you know what? I'm going to convert to Judaism. And she said, oh, that's great. And so he went to go convert. And he got lost. And he came home. And he said, hey, I have something to tell you. I converted to Islam today.

(LAUGHTER)

ARQUETTE: And she said, only you. You've got to be kidding me.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ARQUETTE: Only you got lost and ended up in a mosque and converted to Islam. OK. OK (laughter).

GROSS: Did you ever talk to him about that - about what happened at the mosque that made him change his mind?

ARQUETTE: I did a little bit. He said, you know, I got lost. And I ended up at this mosque. And I went in to look - ask for directions. I ended up talking to the imam. And then, you know, we got into a really deep conversation about religion. And it really felt right. And so that's what I did. I mean, you know, we were raised to really respect all religions and all peaceful people and people that love God and even people that don't love God. We were raised to have a lot of tolerance for religious differences.

GROSS: You've described your father as having been an alcoholic when you were young and your mother as being prone to violence. So how does that fit with the serenity that they were reaching for?

ARQUETTE: Well, thank God they were reaching for that. I mean, I think that's a healthy instinct. And I do think they both improved throughout their lives. I mean, I think I would have a different concept about them if they hadn't really changed so much in their own lives and tried to take on...

GROSS: You saw them change?

ARQUETTE: Yeah. My dad ended up getting sober. And my mom became a therapist and helped a lot of people. And I know she carried a lot of guilt around by her - about her subconscious behavior and her expression of her anger when she was - when we were growing up. So...

GROSS: Was that anger directed at you ever?

ARQUETTE: Well, yeah. All of us experienced it. And, you know, I think a lot of America experienced it. We also grew up in a time where, you know, it wasn't weird to be seeing people spanking kids in supermarkets. It just wasn't talked about - about it being a destructive thing as much. But I definitely had friends who also didn't experience it. So I knew it wasn't really everyone's experience, either.

GROSS: So I want to take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is actor Patricia Arquette. And her new series is called "The Act." The final episode starts streaming on Hulu on Wednesday. And all the other episodes are streaming, too. So if you haven't seen that and want to start from the beginning, it's easy. So we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOAM WIESENBERG'S "DAVKA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is actor Patricia Arquette. She stars in the new Hulu series "The Act." She also starred in "Escape At Dannemora" last year and, in 2014, won an Oscar for her starring role in "Boyhood."

So your film history goes back many years (laughter) to the '80s. You grew up in a family with a history in acting. Your father, Lewis Arquette, played J.D. Pickett in "The Waltons." His father, your grandfather, was Cliff Arquette, who was known for his folksy character Charley Weaver. And he used to come on the late-night talk shows, like the Jack Paar show, in character as Charley Weaver and tell folksy stories. And then his father, your great-grandfather, was in vaudeville. What did you think of the acting life based on your family history?

ARQUETTE: My mom was really sad that I decided to be an actor because my principal at my school said, Patricia's so smart, she could be a doctor. She was like, why do you want to do this life? Because, you know, my dad was able to provide for us all. But it's really hard to make a living as an actor. And so there would be times where he'd be working a lot, times that he wouldn't be. And they'd be worried about paying their rent or buying food or, you know, being able to buy us new pair of shoes that someone had grown out of. All these kinds of things were reality.

It was hardest when we lived on the commune, honestly, because part of it was - a lot of people were contributing most of their money to the commune. And there was not that many people that were away working. My dad was one of them. So he ended up getting frustrated toward the end and just saying, I'm not going to be gone all the time working and contributing all this money when other people - other grown-ups aren't. But, yeah, growing up, really, with a struggling actor, my mom couldn't understand why I would want to do that.

GROSS: So you ran away from home when you were 14. Is running away from home the right word to use?

ARQUETTE: It sort of is. I don't think my mom wanted me to go. I definitely was in the habit of leaving home. (Laughter) So yeah, I had a best friend. My best friend died when I was 12. And I went away with her sister. Yeah. We ended up having this crazy three days where we ended up spending the night at the carnival, which I wouldn't recommend to anyone (laughter).

GROSS: What did your friend die of?

ARQUETTE: She was crossing the street. She got - she stopped - the first car stopped for her. And the second car didn't see her. It was actually a nurse who had worked all night at Cedar Sinai. And so she hit her, and she died.

GROSS: That must have really haunted you.

ARQUETTE: Yeah. It was really an intense thing, you know? We were just starting our lives and talking about kissing boys or having a crush and what was that going be like? She'd had her first kiss at, you know, summer camp that summer. And it was weird.

It did haunt me a lot in my life. When I lost my virginity, when I gave birth, I thought, you know, I'm doing this for you too, Melinda. Part of it, I think, was just my struggle to kind of come to terms with my friend's death.

GROSS: So you got pregnant when you were 19. And then you and the father of your son split a month after your son was born. Had you expected that you'd stay together? Were you surprised that suddenly you were a single mother?

ARQUETTE: Yeah, I was. We were so young, you know. It was really intense. A lot of our friends were not going down that road. But we've remained really great friends.

GROSS: Must have been, like, a huge swerve in your life, suddenly having to, you know, like, raise a child, make a living to support yourself and your child, and to be on your own.

ARQUETTE: Yeah, it was. It was really terrifying, honestly, because also, I had just started acting. And then I kind of had to stop that momentum and walk away from some important projects. And I didn't know if I would have an acting career to go back to. And after I had my son, I wasn't booking any acting work.

And I was just getting broker and broker. And I didn't really have much money to begin with, anyway. And so I ended up telling my agent, listen, I'm going to have to give up this acting thing. Honestly, I have a kid I got to feed, and I'm just going to have to do this. And I'd had a couple auditions.

I went to this place. I said, listen, I don't have that much experience waiting tables. I've worked at a - for a caterer. Occasionally, I worked at a juice bar. But I'm smart. I could pick things up. And I have a kid I have to support. You only have to tell me things once. And I'm good with people. And I'll be a really good employee. And I need this job. I have a little baby.

And so they said, OK. We're going to give you a shot. Start on Wednesday or something. And then Tuesday, I got a phone call that I got a job. So I called them back and I said, thank you for the opportunity, but I booked a part. And because everyone there who was waiting tables were actors, they were like, that's great, so happy for you.

Anyway, what happened - that good ending to the waitressing story then took a terrible turn because - so I booked this part. And in this thing, the premise is that there is a camera in a closet. This guy secretly tapes women he's with. And then the director said, you know - I said, well - he wanted to talk about the sex scene - or I did, I don't know how it started. But I said, well, what do you want to see?

Now - meanwhile, I'm breastfeeding, you know? So I was feeling pretty vulnerable. And he was like, I don't know. I just want you to sign something saying you'll do whatever we want. I was like, I can't sign something saying I'll do whatever you want. What do you want to see? Do you want - this camera's not moving around. It's in a closet. What exactly do you want to see? And he said he wouldn't work that way.

And so even though I was broke and I had a baby, I had to walk away from that job. I'd say, well, I can't do your job then because I don't feel comfortable just signing something saying, I'll do whatever you want with my naked body.

GROSS: Wow. Good for you.

ARQUETTE: But you know what? It sucked. It sucked that I was a poor mom with a little baby at home, and that this director just didn't know what the hell he wanted and couldn't be just a human being about it.

GROSS: You know, you walked away from two roles early in your career - because the one you just mentioned, which I didn't know about - but the last time you were on our show, you talked about when you were pregnant, early in your pregnancy, you walked away from "Last Exit To Brooklyn," which was made in '89, based on a Hubert Selby Jr. story.

And you play a sex worker who's gang-raped. You would have played a sex worker who was gang-raped. And you walked away from that because, after you got the role, you found out you were pregnant and didn't want to do a gang-rape scene while pregnant. So did you think for a while, like, you're going to be getting these roles and have to walk away from everything you get?

ARQUETTE: I did think, like, oh, my God. You know, those producers, actually, on "Last Exit," were very cool people. And they were actually willing to work with me. And they were so sweet and supportive. But I also didn't want to worry about throwing up or having - you know, holding up production or worrying about gaining weight or making choices that I didn't think would be good for my baby, ultimately.

But yeah, after the second thing, I did feel like. What the hell's going on? What - I don't know. I don't know if I can do this business. But then I was lucky. I got a job not too much later. And I didn't have to compromise like that.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Patricia Arquette. And she stars in "The Act." The final episode in this series will start streaming on Hulu on Wednesday. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY AMADIE'S "YOU'D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Patricia Arquette. She stars in the Hulu series "The Act." The final episode starts streaming on Wednesday. She co-starred in "Escape At Dannemora" on Showtime and in the film "Boyhood," for which she won an Oscar.

So I want to ask you about another subject that's probably pretty personal. So just tell me if this is OK. I'd like to talk with you a little bit about your late sister, Alexis, who was trans. And she died in 2016 of causes related to HIV. She was 47. When you found out that she was trans and wanted to transition, were you surprised? Did you have a sense of that?

ARQUETTE: I mean, looking back, I think, after the fact, it made a lot more sense. She was very androgynous in the '80s. You know, it was the whole Boy George, Adam Ant kind of time. And there was a lot of space for androgyny, David Bowie, and all that. But at the time, I think it freaked me out, you know - freaked me out, the world that she was going to be having to deal with, all the bigotry and the danger that she might encounter.

And, you know, we were incredibly close. And we had really deep conversations about it. And I was so grateful Alexis taught me so much about opening my heart and understanding things that I didn't really understand from my own experience. But I knew that we'd already lost a lot of our family by that point.

And a part of me realized, like, I don't know what shape or body anyone comes in with, but I love you, you know, and I trust you. I don't know what it feels like to be trans, but I trust you. It's eventually where we came to, you know.

But it was a lot of - there was a lot of feelings. And I think if people don't, you know - I think Alexis was tough enough to work it through with all of us and let us have our feelings and our questions and our fears and our concerns and our, you know - even things that were probably not the greatest. Alexis was really down for us having that whole process and conversation.

GROSS: Was it hard for have - to have, like, the person who you thought of as your brother become your sister?

ARQUETTE: Yeah. Yeah because, I mean, even though it's just ideas in your mind, you have all these memories of growing up together, you know. And it took a while for me to - actually, it was Rosanna that was like, oh, she's like a butterfly. It's just a transition, you know. And that was really beautiful.

GROSS: Well, I know that - you know, sadly, our time is up together. Thank you so much for talking with us. It was really a pleasure. And I appreciate your generosity and everything you shared with us.

ARQUETTE: Thank you so much. Thanks.

GROSS: Patricia Arquette stars in the series "The Act." The final episode will start streaming on Hulu Wednesday. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Erin Lee Carr. Her new memoir, "All That You Leave Behind," is about her relationship with her late father, journalist David Carr, who wrote a media column for The New York Times and had a huge and devoted following. He also wrote a memoir about his addiction to cocaine and alcohol when he was younger. He was still addicted when Carr was born. Her book is about being raised by her father and how she dealt with her own drinking problem. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER TRIO FEAT. CURTIS FOWLKES AND BOBBY PREVITE'S "LET THE BELLS RING ON")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER TRIO FEAT. CURTIS FOWLKES AND BOBBY PREVITE'S "LET THE BELLS RING ON")

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