The finale episode of Tell Me Lies hit Hulu on Wednesday, leaving viewers gawping in shock as the toxicity of the story’s central relationship kicked up to a whole new level.
The show, based on the Carola Lovering novel, and written by showrunner Meaghan Oppenheimer, follows the all-consuming romance between two college students, Lucy Albright (Grace Van Patten) and Stephen DeMarco (Jackson Wright), as they navigate a devastating tragedy against the backdrop of their own family traumas and destructive behaviors.
Here, Grace Van Patten, who began acting as a child in The Sopranos and most recently starred in Nine Perfect Strangers, sits down with Deadline to discuss the reality of depicting a strong woman sucked into an emotionally abusive situation, what she hopes viewers will take away from this and her second season dreams of vengeance.
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DEADLINE: When we meet her, Lucy is this tough, numbed-out person who takes no prisoners. She’s not a pushover. I think it’s so important to show those types of characters getting sucked into toxic relationships. The common misconception is that this only happens to submissive, unaware personality types, which is so wrong, judgmental and shaming.
GRACE VAN PATTEN: It was so important for me to show that strong people can be fooled as well, and not a specific type of girl who gets sucked into things like this. It is so common and so relatable, and any type of person can be manipulated, especially at that age when the things that make you latch on to people are newness, new feelings and sexual awakening.
I think just observing the things that I was attracted to at a young age and I’m attracted to now, it’s such an evolution of what becomes your main priority in a partner. And I think at that age, at 18, you have no idea who you are yet, and you latch on to the most specific things that fill some hole in you. And for Lucy, it was filling the hole of just feeling. She was so numbed out, like you said. And I think the contrast of feeling nothing, to all of a sudden feeling infatuated and obsessed and intrigued, she mistook that for love.
DEADLINE: Stephen is so interesting too because yes he’s probably a sociopath, but you also understand that he’s his mother’s son, her behavior is so cold and cruel and manipulative and that generational trauma response is so real.
VAN PATTEN: Yes, because the audience sees where he comes from and gains empathy for him, but Lucy never knows his background. So, it makes it even more tricky because Lucy doesn’t understand… She’s already justifying his behavior because she’s so infatuated with him, but she has no idea where that comes from. She sees his mom call him all the time. But I always thought that that was interesting because he never really shares that with her.
DEADLINE: But he does with Diana [Alicia Crowder]. Diana’s his mama figure. Whereas he gets to be perfect, cool Stephen with Lucy, and he’s wanting to have both worlds.
VAN PATTEN: Exactly yes.
DEADLINE: In the finale episode we don’t have things spelled out, which I appreciated, but you know what’s happened to Drew. I like that we have to surmise some things for ourselves in that ending.
VAN PATTEN: Yeah, I agree. And it’s why I’m just hoping so badly that we get a second season so that we can explore those unspoken things that happened.
DEADLINE: In an ideal world, what would you have Lucy do in a second season?
VAN PATTEN: There’s so much. What is the rest of her experience with Stephen in college? I mean, she must have to go back to him. That seems like a relationship that’s just a constant push and pull. And then I’m like, how does she end up with Max? Because in the present day, she’s settled and living with Max and seems stable and seems like she has it together. And to watch that journey of her get there and then have Stephen just pop into her life again, I would love to see the process of that. It’s probably going to be so extremely painful because watching her get it together and heal and begin the healing process and then he’ll just get right back in there at the perfect time.
DEADLINE: You’ve said you didn’t read the book until you got the part, so what about conversations with Meaghan and reading the script got you locked in? How did you know you wanted to be Lucy?
VAN PATTEN: I knew right away. I was so drawn to it just from the log line in the first initial email.
DEADLINE: What was the log line? Do you remember exactly?
VAN PATTEN: It was just something so simple. Your first relationship that you can’t let go of, that still gets under your skin. Just basically describing a toxic relationship at 18 years old and how it affects you for the rest of your life. And I’m so intrigued by that, it’s the basis of all of my favorite movies like Urban Cowboy and Blue Valentine. I find them so fascinating—why two people get together and end up together, and what is the pull, and why people latch onto each other in that way. And especially at such a formative time of your life.
I remember Meaghan wrote this super detailed 30-page outline, and it was just so layered and deep, and she understood these characters so well and they popped off the page and it was so beyond the words of the script. And for me, that’s such an amazing opportunity as an actor to create what’s beyond the surface.
And reading the book was so great after I got the part because those are the bones of it. Those are the bones of Lucy, and helped me so much get the full understanding of her. And then there were things that I really wanted that were important to me. In the book, I feel like she is a little bit more of a victim in this situation. And in the show, I think it absolutely takes two to tango and Lucy becomes just as manipulative and just as out of control as Stephen is, and is just as in the wrong sometimes. And I think that’s really real to me. Sure, in the beginning he’s taking advantage of her, and she’s being whipped around, but she stoops to his level. He brings out the worst.
I was so just fascinated with her emotional journey throughout the 10 episodes because she goes through so much, and she goes from being so bottled up and in control of her emotions because that’s what she had to do because of her past trauma, to completely being out of control of herself and losing herself. And I’ve never seen that in a young woman’s part, and it was a dream to do something like that.
DEADLINE: Something else that’s really interesting about what this show is saying is that it has this recurring factor where the women are doing something that I think is something that is a real problem in our society and in dating. Simply put, the women think they have to play it cool. There are a lot of women in our society feeling they have to pretend they don’t mind poor dating behavior, because then you are the ‘crazy’ woman or the ‘hysterical’ woman.
VAN PATTEN: Yeah, like you’re not chill [rolls eyes].
DEADLINE: I love how this show handled it because actually, the moment where Lucy gets in Stephen’s face and says, “I’m done being made a fool of,” is the moment where he falls for her, I think.
VAN PATTEN: Yes, he gives her a level of respect. That’s what’s hard about the show is because there are moments of thinking, oh, are these two people on a path to understanding each other and working all of this toxic shit out just to come together strong? I think there are moments of that where they seem genuine with each other and they seem like they really get along, and Lucy feels seen and Stephen feels heard. But then it changes in a split second and it’s like, oh no, these two people are not meant to be together. They’re projecting their trauma on each other and they’re both scared out of their minds. I think it’s fear-based. I think once Stephen tells Lucy about what went down with Macy [Lily McInerny], whether it’s the truth or not, Lucy then shifts gears to prove her loyalty to him. To be like, “You can trust me. I will take this to my grave.” And Stephen gains this fear of, oh, this girl could ruin my life at any given moment if I don’t treat her how she wants.
Their relationship is just based off of fear and lies and manipulation. And it’s what makes them so close. But it’s also what makes it hollow. There are no real true love feelings. It’s just so convoluted. And I think both of them get tricked by that. And so easy to get tricked by that when you’re holding someone’s secret, or someone tells you a secret. You automatically feel closer to them and you want to protect them if you care about them. And I think it’s just really easy to mistake those things for closeness or destiny or love or whatever it is.
DEADLINE: What do you personally hope that people take away from watching this?
VAN PATTEN: I really do feel like everyone can relate to this and I do feel like there’s such a shame around being in a relationship like this, being in a toxic relationship where you’ve been manipulated, or you’ve been betrayed. It’s emotional abuse and everyone has experienced that in some way or another. And I think if you come out of a relationship like that, it’s really easy to be embarrassed and think it’s your fault and think, “Oh, I’m a pushover,” or, “I’m weak because this happened to me.” And I really hope that it shows that unfortunately it is so common. And just to be thankful that you’re out of something, or hopefully to inspire young women to get out of something like that. And to know that it’s not the fault of the person who is being manipulated. It has so much to do with the other person’s trauma.
I used to watch relationship movies where when it’s toxic, it seems sexy and passionate and fun and exciting. And I think the show does a really good job at proposing it as a cautionary tale as opposed to, “This is hot. This is love. It’s fiery and it’s exciting and it’s passionate and it’s fighting and that’s what it is.”
DEADLINE: How did you feel approaching these intense sex scenes and how did Meaghan support you through that?
VAN PATTEN: Yeah, I mean, I remember first reading the scripts and being absolutely terrified.
And my mind instantly went to my body and like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so scared. I’m going to be so insecure, and I want to feel so in my body so I’m able to portray this character as closely as possible.”
I think sex scenes can have the potential to be super exploitative and just to have naked people on screen because that’s what people like to watch. But I found all of the intimacy seems to be so necessary to the story and to the characters. And Meaghan did such a good job at writing that, and also it felt so safe and they just created such a safe environment with the intimacy coordinator, and how Meaghan would describe the scenes and Jackson and I making sure that we were comfortable so that we could be as vulnerable as possible to show the inner workings.
DEADLINE: Do you feel like Lucy stayed with you in any way?
VAN PATTEN: I definitely had to do a cleanse of Lucy. I’m like, I need to change.
DEADLINE: Is that why you changed your hair to brown?
VAN PATTEN: Yeah. After every job I do some drastic change, whether it’s a piercing or hair color or whatever.
DEADLINE: What did you do after Nine Perfect Strangers?
VAN PATTEN: I went blonde. I cut my hair. I really used to think that I was good at separating myself from the character. And the past few jobs I’ve realized, I think maybe just because they’ve been more intense characters, I’ve really gotten twisted up, and I only realized it after I finished the job. And I’m like, “Why am I sad?” I have to say goodbye now. And I think a physical change helps me. I look in a mirror and I can’t see Lucy anymore.
DEADLINE: So, we’re going to have to wait and see what happens with the potential season two. But let’s hope for a renewal. I would love to go see Stephen and Lucy both living in New York, both living separate lives but running into each other at work things.
VAN PATTEN: Oh my god, yes. It’d be cool if Lucy ends up as Stephen’s boss. Some dynamic where Lucy’s in charge but not in a relationship way.
DEADLINE: You were in The Sopranos as a child. How old were you?
VAN PATTEN: I was eight. My dad [Timothy Van Patten] had directed that show my whole childhood. And so, I was always around on set, and they were all family to us, that whole cast and crew. And I just remember being so in awe of these actors of Jimmy Gandolfini and Edie Falco and just watching them be these sweet people to me before they went on set and then completely transforming. And as a kid that was so fascinating to me to watch the transformation in real time. And I just was like, “I want to do that. I want to play dress up for a living.” I mean I was so young, I just remember being fascinated by that. I wish I took notes.
I told my parents, “I want to try acting,” and my dad’s like, “You can audition. I’m not going to give you the part, but you can wait in line. You can sign your name and you can go in the room and read for it.” And I waited in the line. I will never forget the feeling, just so nervous. And I go in the room, my dad’s in the back of the room, he just doesn’t even say hi to me. He doesn’t even speak. And he’s just there. I auditioned for it and my dad’s like, “I’m completely out of this. You guys make the decision.”
It was really cool. And then on set, I didn’t even know he was directing. I just thought, he’s my dad and he’s on set and he’s telling me what to do.
DEADLINE: What’s up next for you? What’s on the schedule?
VAN PATTEN: Nothing that’s really set in stone, but I’m really trying to produce more. I’m producing a movie right now and trying to get that together. It’s still being worked out, but I’m really excited to talk about it when I can.
I’m really into that and really want to start doing that more and I’m so inspired by women who are producing and writing and creating things and paving the way for other young women to do the same. I just would love to follow.
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