Why Amanda Seyfried Originally Turned Down the Chance to Play Elizabeth Holmes
Amanda Seyfried is prepared when our conversation turns to “the voice.”
Having signed up to portray disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes in the Hulu miniseries The Dropout, the actress understood why her colleagues and friends were so anxious to hear how she’d capture the Silicon Valley pariah’s peculiar manner of speaking — deep and distracting and strangely hollow. After all, as Holmes’ house of cards publicly collapsed between 2015 and 2018, it wasn’t just her business that turned out to be a lie. Holmes’ allegedly invented persona fascinated the media almost as much as the $10 billion grift she pulled on investors such as Rupert Murdoch, Betsy DeVos and Walgreens, and her seemingly affected voice proved a simple point of entry into a complex tale of mass deceit.
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“I knew my voice was never going to be as deep as hers because I’m physically not capable of it,” says Seyfried, before holding forth about vocal registers with a clinical specificity that goes over my head. “Besides, I promised I wasn’t going to give myself a hard time and try to completely mimic this other human being. It’d be impossible. And just not fun.”
Fun is not the word that jumps to mind when describing Holmes’ 15-year deception, which ranks among the most audacious financial frauds since Bernie Madoff. Beginning in 2003, she pitched a miracle innovation that could run hundreds of tests from a single drop of blood to some of the biggest names in business and technology and raised more than $700 million despite having never developed a working product. After Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou exposed much of the wrongdoing at Theranos in 2015, the content dam burst. There was a book (Carreyrou’s best-selling Bad Blood), a documentary (Alex Gibney’s The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley) and a popular podcast (The Dropout, from ABC News’ Rebecca Jarvis, on which much of the miniseries is based).
“I watched and listened to all of it, but I learned nothing about her,” says Seyfried. “It’s crazy that she can still be such an enigma with all the information surrounding her.”
The specifics of Holmes’ career are now public record, but her interior — like the machine she once hyped — long evaded the same scrutiny. Putting her at the center of a TV show would require finding new cracks in the facade that tricked so many people for so many years.
Screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether, best known for creating the millennial sitcom New Girl, was drawn to Holmes partly out of empathy. “I shared that experience of being in a position of power before I knew what I was doing and then getting in over my head,” says the Dropout showrunner, who was just 29 years old when she created and ran New Girl. “There’s something here that I hadn’t seen on TV before, a young woman enduring the pain and fear that comes with power — and not in an empowering girlboss way.”
For Seyfried, The Dropout is as much an interrogation of schadenfreude as it is an indulgence of it. “This is not just about showing all the points where this woman made bad choices,” says Seyfried. “We’re investigating why we love a fall from grace, why we want to watch train wrecks.”
Hollywood seems particularly keen to rubberneck these days. The Dropout will test the consumer appetite for such stories when it premieres March 3. Other upcoming Silicon Valley downfall dramas include Showtime’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, Apple TV+’s WeWork postmortem WeCrashed and HBO’s Facebook indictment Doomsday Machine. There’s even another Theranos project in the works: a long-gestating feature, from Adam McKay, with Jennifer Lawrence set to slip into Holmes’ black Issey Miyake turtleneck.
“There’s this ubiquity of the creations of Silicon Valley, yet there’s still a black box around how things there work and why it has gained so much power,” says Jarvis. “People are eager to understand that world.”
When The Dropout was ordered in 2019, Kate McKinnon was attached to play Holmes. But COVID-19 sparked years-long delays, and the Saturday Night Live MVP eventually departed for another ripped-from-the-headlines miniseries: Peacock’s Tiger King dramatization Joe vs Carole. Seyfried got the offer to jump in — and promptly turned it down.
“Listen, I was having a fucking moment, OK?” she explains, laughing, during our early-February Zoom. “I had COVID. I was isolating in the basement of a gross townhouse in Savannah, Georgia, because my husband was working on a movie there. And now an L.A. shoot? Pass!”
Photographed by DAVID NEEDLEMAN
The actress insists she’s got nothing against L.A. She merely prefers to stick close to home — which, for the past eight years, has been the upstate New York farm she keeps with her husband (Broadway vet and The Newsroom star Thomas Sadoski), their two children and a menagerie of animals.
Plus, Seyfried wasn’t exactly short on options at the time. The 36-year-old, best known for her breakout turn in Tina Fey’s 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls and a starring role in the blockbuster Mamma Mia! franchise, was doing the rounds for her performance as jazz age actress Marion Davies in David Fincher’s Mank. The film earned Seyfried her first Academy Award nomination — “a new foundation” under her career, as the actress sees it, and one with which she’s still getting comfortable.
But the next morning, her fever having broken, she called her agents with a change of heart. “It’s really going to be difficult,” she thought. “It’s a huge challenge. But I can’t believe that I get a challenge like this.'”
The announcement that a fresh Oscar nominee had come aboard put wind in the stalled production’s sails. But no one had yet heard Seyfried so much as attempt Holmes’ voice. Meriwether was already pegging most of her anxieties about The Dropout on whether her lead would get too hung up on perfecting an impersonation, unsure if she even wanted it to be that spot-on: “I was so worried that getting the voice 100 percent right would distract from the actual story, that it would become the focus.”
After watching deposition tapes and TED Talks, Seyfried began to get a feel for Holmes’ posture — at once awkward and confident. She found her version of the voice by recording memos on her iPhone while doling out hay to her various-sized equines (there are big horses and mini horses as well as a donkey and a pony). Producing director Michael Showalter got a few early previews — “She just immediately clicked into that character,” he says — but no one else on The Dropout knew what to expect until that first day of rehearsals. “The second she opened her mouth,” Meriwether recalls, “I knew we had a show.”
Tracking Holmes from high school through her ascendance and ultimate undoing required both a deep bench of supporting players — Naveen Andrews, most notably, plays former Theranos president (and Holmes’ secret lover) Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani — and a full eight episodes for the Searchlight TV/20th Television drama. One hour is devoted almost solely to Holmes’ assuming her identity, deepening her voice and shifting her wardrobe from Zuckerberg-esque hoodie and “fuck-you flip-flops” to one reminiscent of Holmes’ hero, the late Steve Jobs. Another episode, “Old White Men,” is told from the perspective of Walgreens executives as they agree to surrender $140 million to Theranos despite never having seen a proof of concept.
“You hear a lot of, ‘How did she get all these men on board with the company? They must have been in love with her,’ ” says Meriwether. “That’s too simplistic an answer for why everything happened.”
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Showalter has a different one. “It’s the cult of personality,” he says of Holmes and other tech-world maestros. “The obvious comparison would be our last president, but it’s everywhere in the culture. You get a charismatic leader like that, and suddenly everybody thinks they’re going to take them to the promised land. It’s a cautionary tale, but it’s also an indictment of us.”
To fill in the story’s many gaps — and show how one woman could construct a ruse that lasted so long, embroiling so many individuals — Meriwether and Seyfried worked closely with Jarvis, who served as an executive producer on the miniseries, before and during filming. They also conducted their own interviews with people in Holmes’ orbit.
In August, the federal trial, United States v. Elizabeth A. Holmes, began in San Jose, and overlapped with the production for six weeks. “It was always a little tense, knowing information could come out during the trial that could just change everything,” says Seyfried. “And then one night Liz just got this dump of text messages that nobody had seen yet.”
The texts, about 500 pages’ worth of exchanges between Holmes and Balwani that Meriwether received from ABC News producer Taylor Dunn as soon as they were entered into evidence, did nothing to absolve either executive. Yet the transcript did give the writer her first clear view into the relationship at the center of her series. “I was always more interested in emotional moments between them, so the revelation that she called him ‘tiger’ was really big for me,” says Meriwether. “You’ll notice a lot more ‘tiger’ in the second half of the series.”
Courtesy of Hulu
Production wrapped without any bombshells from the trial, and none came as courtroom proceedings stretched into the new year. After more than a week of deliberation, a jury found Holmes guilty on four counts of defrauding investors.
Jarvis covered the trial for a sequel podcast and was there Jan. 3 as the verdict was read. For her, the story has a resonance beyond the particulars of what Holmes did. “Elizabeth created Theranos at a time when young people without a huge amount of experience were suddenly being given millions or even billions of dollars,” says Jarvis. “She’s become this cultural touchstone in the genesis of all these companies and products that we just kind of take for granted.”
The Silicon Valley CEO, real and fictionalized, has shifted from hero to villain in pop culture. “This is a moment of reckoning for tech companies,” says Meriwether. “I’m 40, so I remember those candy-colored Apple computers, getting a cellphone in college and Facebook starting. There was a sense of awe around these companies, that they could do no wrong. We’re only just starting to question that mania. I fully bought into it, and I feel a little bit duped.”
Seyfried still wrestles with how she feels about her alter ego and the consequences she faces (up to 20 years in prison) at her scheduled sentencing on Sept. 5. The actress says she tried to withhold judgment while filming. And now, having put so much effort into humanizing a convicted criminal, she doesn’t like to think about what lies ahead for Holmes.
“It’s just a bummer,” says Seyfried, who keeps in touch with one individual still close to Holmes — though she declines to say whom. “She made bad choices, and she’s got to be held accountable. But it’s nuanced, like everything and everybody.”
Seyfried was herself something of a wunderkind. A working actress in her teens, she was only 20 when Mean Girls launched her onto the A-list. I ask her how much she relates to Holmes’ impatience to succeed, a character trait that The Dropout and ample reporting suggest played a key role in her con.
“I am the opposite,” she says, without taking a breath. “I have ambition and I work hard, but I’ve never felt like time was running out. As an actor, you’re always afraid that people are going to forget about you. But, in my experience, there’s always going to be a new generation coming up. I just want to hold my place.”
Seyfried would also like people to not get so hung up on “the voice,” and not even for reasons related to her performance. It’s Elizabeth Holmes’ one deception that the actress does not blame her for. “If you’re trying to be taken seriously by all of these powerful men, what else do you do? We all take on traits, subconsciously most of the time, to fit in and survive,” she says. “I caught myself doing some her mannerisms just the other day. You can’t help it. We’re sensitive. We’re absorbent. We’re fucking humans.”
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