Netflix’s propensity for docudramas is landing the streamer in hot water, this time courtesy of Rachel Williams — an associate of New York City con artist Anna Sorokin. She sued the company on Monday for defamation over her portrayal in Inventing Anna.
The series, based on a May 2018 New York article, showcases the scams and downfall of Sorokin, better known as Anna Delvey. In the show, Sorokin swindles her way into New York City’s upper crust by lying about being a German heiress and defrauds banks out of millions to fund her extravagant lifestyle. It includes a whimsical disclaimer: “This story is completely true. Except for the parts that are totally made up.”
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Williams — a former Vanity Fair photo editor who published an article about her time with Sorokin before New York’s feature arrived — argues nearly everything about her character in the show is made up. According to Netflix’s retelling of events, Williams gladly accepts lavish gifts and trips from Sorokin but sells out her friend to the authorities once she learns that Sorokin lied about her fortune.
“This action will show that Netflix made a deliberate decision for dramatic purposes to show Williams doing or saying things in the Series which portray her as a greedy, snobbish, disloyal, dishonest, cowardly, manipulative and opportunistic person,” states the complaint, filed in Delaware federal court.
In one scene, an attorney forces Williams to admit that Sorokin picked up the tab on every one of their outings. The lawsuit claims the intent of the cross-examination scene is to imply that Williams is a freeloader, which she maintains is false because she paid for drinks on occasion and split the bill on some spa treatments and dinners.
In another scene, Sorokin is abandoned by Williams in Morocco after her credit card is declined at a luxury resort. Williams says that in reality she told Sorokin before the trip that she’d have to leave on a specific date to travel to France for work. It’s implied that Williams only ended her friendship with Sorokin after Sorokin started to have financial difficulties, according to the suit.
“Williams did not stop being friends with Sorokin because Sorokin was having problems in Morocco, but rather because she subsequently discovered on her return to New York that Sorokin was a liar and a con artist whose statements and promises had induced Williams to incur liabilities of around $62,000 on Sorokin’s behalf were false, and who only reimbursed her $5,000 despite numerous promises to reimburse her $70,000 to account for the full debt and any late fees incurred,” the complaint states.
Alexander Rufus-Isaacs, representing Williams, says the lawsuit makes a strong case that his client’s character was intentionally misrepresented to tell a better story. He points to an interview from Shonda Rhimes, the executive producer and creator of the series.
“We wanted to know what we were making up,” Rhimes said in the interview. “We didn’t want to be making things up just for the sake of it.” She added, “We wanted to intentionally be fictionalizing moments versus just accidentally be fictionalizing them.”
In another interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Rhimes said, “There was stuff that we invented because it needed to be invented to make the story really sing and be what it should be.”
Katie Lowes, who played Williams in the series, also said during an interview that, “[The Rachel character is] a people pleaser. She’s young, naïve, and had a privileged life. I don’t think this is necessarily true of Rachel Williams in real life; I think this is true of the character Shonda wrote and what Shonda needed the character to be for the show.”
Rufus-Isaacs claims the statements constitute an admission that Netflix knew the allegedly defamatory statements and actions were false but proceeded anyway so the show had a villain. Rhimes and Shondaland aren’t named in the complaint.
For defamation cases against high-profile public figures to succeed, there must be a showing that the allegedly defamatory statements were made with actual malice. There must be an intent to harm with prior knowledge that what was said is false, or a reckless disregard for the truth. Several defamation suits, including ones filed by Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and a person who sued over his portrayal in The Wolf of Street, have failed to meet the standard.
Williams, who optioned the rights to her Vanity Fair article and unwritten book to HBO, tells THR, “Netflix purposely used my real name, and real aspects of my life, to create a totally false and defamatory characterization of me. The truth matters and portraying real people requires real responsibility. I am filing this lawsuit to hold Netflix accountable for its deliberate recklessness.”
Williams’ character is the only one in the show who’s given a real person’s full name, and who has the same employer, alma mater and home neighborhood as the real person, according to the complaint, which alleges defamation and false light invasion of privacy.
“The reason why we have had to file this lawsuit is because Netflix used Rachel’s real name and biographical details, and made her out to be a horrible person, which she is not,” Rufus-Isaacs says. “The devastating damage to her reputation could have been avoided if only Netflix had used a fictitious name and different details. Why didn’t they do this for her, when they did for so many other characters in the Series? Perhaps the reason was that she had chosen to play for the other team, i.e., HBO.”
In 2017, Sorokin, who was paid $320,000 for the rights to her story by Netflix, was arrested in a sting operation with the help of Williams. She was released from prison on parole after serving two years, after which she was taken into the custody of U.S. Immigrations and Customs for deportation to Germany.
This isn’t the first project based on real life to land Netflix in court. Alan Dershowitz, a former Soviet chess grandmaster and a Cuban exile organization have all sued the streamer over their portrayals in various shows and movies.
Netflix and Shondaland didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.