New Girl creator Liz Meriwether was only 29 years old when her Zooey Deschanel-led show, now a household name, went into production and she suddenly found herself at the helm of a crew of hundreds there to execute her mission. Over a decade later, she dove into Hulu’s limited series on disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes (played by Amanda Seyfried), and Meriwether says her New Girl learning curve helped her click right away with the Stanford dropout-turned-billionaire CEO — even Holmes’ infamous deep voice, which many suspected her of faking, had a special connection to Meriwether’s early days as a boss.
“I lost my voice the first week of New Girl and I went to an ear nose and throat doctor,” Meriwether tells SheKnows. “And they said, ‘Have you been drinking a lot and/or trying to sound authoritative?’…I actually sort of understood changing your voice, or thinking you need to change who you are in order to be taken seriously.”
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Meriwether’s (now five times Emmy-nominated) The Dropout follows Holmes (Seyfried) from her childhood through her Stanford enrollment, meeting Sunny Balwani (brought superbly to life by Naveen Andrews), the man who would go on to become Theranos’ president and COO and face trial alongside Holmes, and her meteoric rise charming investors like Rupert Murdoch, Henry Kissinger, and George Shultz. The series also covers the Wall Street Journal exposé that starts to bring her empire crumbling down and includes scenes from Holmes’ 2021-2022 trial.
I don’t see the word humanizing as making that person into a victim or hero. I see that as just exploring all the elements of their humanity.
While most exposed to the story of Elizabeth Holmes, either by tracking it in the news or listening to the podcast upon which The Dropout is based, found themselves baffled by everything from Holmes’ bizarre affects (the voice, the daily uniform of a black turtleneck) to her ever-increasing deception, Meriwether was uniquely positioned to understand how the power Holmes attained at a young age could have influenced her next steps in unexpected ways.
“I felt like there’s been a lot of stories about female CEOs that feel like — good for them, all women need is to be empowered and then we can just take off from there,” Meriwether explains. “I feel like that just doesn’t cover a lot of what it is once you get in the door. What is it when you actually have power? What does that feel like and what are the responsibilities and how does it change you? So I was excited about telling a really complicated story about women in power.”
Read on for our full conversation with The Dropout creator Liz Meriwether — why she connected to this story, how and when she deviated from real-life events, what she thinks of critics who accuse re-tellings of “humanizing” their subjects, and more.
SheKnows: What attracted you to telling this story?
Liz Meriwether: It’s just such a complicated, complex story… I think you rarely see stories that feel so hard to pin down. And I think that really stuck out to me. And then I think as a woman who is around the same age as Elizabeth, I did feel like I understood a lot of — at least I felt like I understood where she was coming from, and that really drew me to the story.
I was 29 when New Girl started and I didn’t have a lot of experience in TV so I found myself suddenly managing 100, 200 people and I had to walk into rooms that were filled with men and tell them what to do and it was definitely a learning experience for me. I actually — it’s a story I tell a lot but I lost my voice the first week of New Girl and I went to an ear nose and throat doctor and they said, ‘Have you been drinking a lot and/or trying to sound authoritative?’
I actually sort of understood changing your voice, or thinking you need to change who you are in order to be taken seriously. And I wanted to bring my experience to this story but also really just dig into all the complexity. I felt like there’s been a lot of stories about female CEOs that feel like — good for them, all women need is to be empowered and then we can just take off from there. I feel like that just doesn’t cover a lot of what it is once you get in the door. What is it when you actually have power? What does that feel like and what are the responsibilities and how does it change you? So I was excited about telling a really complicated story about women in power.
SK: How do you decide how much to stick to the truth when telling a story like this?
It’s interesting because the whole story is about truth. I tried to do as much research as possible and then I tried to look at, what is the best way to tell a story in an episode length that gets across an idea that I want to get across. I had to constantly make sort of informed decisions about leaving the actual timeline and oftentimes it was compressing events or just changing the order slightly so that it feels like you’re building toward one particular dramatic moment as opposed to something that, in real life, kind of trickled out. It’s just better storytelling for something to all come to a head.
But when I did go away from the facts, I tried to always do it for a reason and also do it in a way where I felt like it represented what actually happened, just not exactly what happened. It had the spirit of what happened in it. But yeah, when you’re doing a story from real life, that’s the constant struggle: what to change and why, are you doing a disservice by changing it. I had to really ask myself those questions throughout the process. Especially because most of the people involved are very much around; these are real people who are alive right now, so I took that really seriously.
SK: What do you think of the take that shows like this one and Inventing Anna are humanizing people we don’t necessarily want to be sympathetic toward?
Well, both of those people are humans. I think the word humanizing is really good to think about — I don’t see the word humanizing as making that person into a victim or hero. I see that as just exploring all the elements of their humanity. What were the factors that shaped them and motivated them? I think actually thinking of some of these people as humans helps us learn more from it, because these people don’t feel as distant from us. We can’t push them away from us and say that they’re not like us. We have to engage with the ways that they are human.
SK: How did you approach Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani’s relationship on the show?
I knew the least about that relationship. That is the most dramatized of anything in the series. But I was fascinated by it — the fact that it was secret for so long, the fact that he met her when she was 18. There were so many things about it that were just really odd and interesting and toxic. And I thought Naveen did such an amazing job of making sense of this man who really purposefully has held a lot of himself back in the press. There’s a lot written about Elizabeth Holmes; with Sunny, there’s almost nothing out there about it. Naveen had very little to work with and did so much with it. There is amazing chemistry between them. And the toxic power dynamics that we show as part of the relationship in the series — there aren’t easy answers to them, and both Amanda and Naveen really engaged with all the layers of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
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