Even in a television season rife with grifters, poseurs and con artists, Amanda Seyfried was very good at being bad. In the Hulu mini-series “The Dropout,” she starred as Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder and former chief executive of Theranos, a once-hot health technology start-up that promised an easy method for testing blood with a single finger prick.
Seyfried, a star of films like “Mank,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Mean Girls,” managed to fashion a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Holmes, at least at the outset: She begins the series as an ambitious college student with dreams of becoming the next Steve Jobs, and we follow her on her journey as she becomes ever more ruthlessly determined to realize her all-consuming goal.
When her downfall arrives, a viewer might almost — almost — feel sorry for Seyfried’s Holmes as her company collapses and she cuts herself off from former friends and colleagues. (A real-life jury, however, did not; Holmes was convicted in January on four counts of criminal fraud.)
On Tuesday, Seyfried received an Emmy nomination as a lead actress in a limited or anthology series or movie, the first Emmy nod of her career. She spoke by phone from the set of “The Crowded Room,” an Apple TV+ anthology series in which she will star with Tom Holland, to talk about “The Dropout,” Holmes, bad dancing and primal screams. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
This was an almost eight-hour-long story that took several months to produce. How does it feel to receive an Emmy nomination for it?
I’ve been making movies since I was 17, and this was different. I almost want to say, it’s different because it was seen. A lot of times, you do things and they don’t get seen, but it doesn’t take away from the experience of making it. With this, I was getting to explore a character in a way that I haven’t before. It’s a pretty insane true story, and it was pretty well-written. I’m glad it turned out the way it did and that people like it.
Were you surprised by how sympathetic your Elizabeth was, at least in the pages of “The Dropout,” when compared with what events might have suggested?
I wasn’t surprised at all. There’s no point in making this show if you’re not going to try to understand this person. In order to understand somebody, you need to have empathy. It doesn’t matter who it is. Everybody’s human. Everybody’s got layers.
Few of us have been in such high-stakes situations, but Elizabeth’s desperation to keep papering over one failure after another, and the escalation of that, felt palpable.
During shooting, the way I was able to justify the doubling-down that she did was that she really believed that she was sacrificing in order to actually find the answer. And, quote-unquote, save the world. People are willing to overlook many, many things for the sake of the bigger picture.
On a lighter note, at least, you got some opportunities to do some really bad dancing. Is that a form of acting in itself?
Well, no. Picture anybody alone in front of a mirror. And then start dancing. The intimacy of being alone and the possibility of what you’re not seeing — everybody’s a 13-year-old, trying on clothes. We can all relate to that. That dancing was a direct line into Elizabeth Holmes’s identity her, and it was a genius way of getting into her.
The final episode has an indelible moment in which Elizabeth is outside with her dog and lets out a primal scream. You must have had to shoot several takes of that — was it grueling to do over and over?
Ugh. Uh-huh. There was even the question of, do we need her to scream? Is it more like an implosion? What would that desperation look like? It was so much pressure, and I tried the scream, and the dog cowered, so we took the dog out. It was not kind to the animal. So that was pretty much the only take where you see the dog, right off the bat — the animal caregivers came over, and I said, I get it. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
You can’t really explain to the dog what you’re doing.
“Oh, no, we’re just acting, man. Everything’s cool.” I also get really nervous about losing my voice because I’m a singer. I was always in touch with my voice coach for anything, especially the deeper speaking. The scream, I was just like, I don’t think I can do anymore.
Since finishing the show, do you feel tempted to use The Voice in real-life situations?
To me, it’s an accent. For a long time, I refused to do it. And then after the trial, a couple months later, one of the doormen at the building where I’m staying, they’re like, can you do the voice? And I did it. And I was like, Hmm, it feels good. It’s done me well.