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How do you tell a sensational story without, well, sensationalizing it?
Such was the issue for writers, executive producers, and co-showrunners Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus as they set out to make The Girl From Plainville. The eight-episode Hulu limited series is inspired by the shocking true story of Michelle Carter's unprecedented "texting-suicide" case that ignited a media firestorm. Based on the Esquire article of the same name by Jesse Barron, the series explores Carter's relationship with Conrad Roy III and the events that led to his death and, later, her conviction of involuntary manslaughter.
Elle Fanning stars as Carter (see the exclusive first look below) in addition to serving as executive producer, and according to Macmanus, it was the star who wanted to take particular care with how the story was told. "She did not want this to feel sensational," he tells EW. "She wanted it to be an honest portrayal of not just these families and what they went through, but from what people are going through in general on a day-to-day basis when it comes to their mental health."
Steve Dietl/Hulu Michael Mosley as defense attorney Joseph Cataldo and Elle Fanning as Michelle Carter in 'The Girl From Plainville'
A common challenge of the true-crime genre is how much to alter the actors' looks in order to resemble the real people they are playing. In the case of Fanning's character, Hannah and Macmanus lucked out. "The first time that I met [Fanning], I was really struck by how eerily similar they actually looked just naturally. It was something that around the table when we all met, we all talked about," Macmanus recalls.
Still, some makeup and hair work was required, but Hannah says it was important to everyone involved with the production that the end result would not be "distracting," but would instead "fit into the storytelling." In the end, it only required a wig, some light makeup, and a small forehead prosthetic to move Fanning's hairline back a bit. The result, as these first look pictures show, is indeed uncanny, but Hannah says she was most impressed by the other physical attributes Fanning took on to portray Carter. "The physicality that Elle found in playing Michelle — she studied all of the courtroom tapes, she studied the documentary [HBO's I Love You, Now Die] — she really threw herself into making sure that the movement and the way she spoke was authentic, as well. So I think that in tandem with the change physically really brings it all together," she says.
FAITH NINIVAGGI/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald /Getty Images Michelle Carter in court in 2017
As for the subject matter, Hannah and Macmanus enlisted the consulting help of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Eating Disorder Association to help them thread the needle of dramatizing the events in a way that's both entertaining and informative, but is also a fair and accurate portrayal of mental illness.
"We wanted to show that dealing with mental health, being depressed, having issues with anxiety — it doesn't look the same for everybody, and it doesn't look the same every day for everybody," Hannah explains. "There's a lot of variables and variations in that for our characters, and not just Michelle and Conrad, but for the parents, for their friends, that felt like we could tell a story that was a little more well-rounded of a conversation of mental health as a whole, rather than saying that everybody deals with this specific issue or everybody presents this specific issue this way."
And although mental health is always relevant, Hannah says the role technology and the media played in this case also gave a surprising urgency to the material that she was not expecting.
"There's something very timely to how it is tied into technology in this," she admits, adding, "and I think with Michelle in particular, there's also a timeliness to how we look at young women, how we treat young women in the media, how we take the time later to reflect upon whether or not that was fair and whether or not they were depicted accurately instead of analyzing that at the time."
Ultimately, Macmanus says they didn't have to look beyond the confines of the story to make it accessible or relatable, and that's what drew him to the project and what he hopes pulls audiences in as well. "At the end of the day, yes, I do want people to be entertained by the story, but more than anything, I hope that it's the beginning of a conversation — that we help the conversation for everyone who's affected by mental illness, not just teenagers."
Steve Dietl/Hulu Elle Fanning in 'The Girl From Plainville'
In addition to Fanning, the series also stars Chloë Sevigny (as Lynn Roy), Colton Ryan (Conrad "Coco" Roy III), Cara Buono (Gail Carter), Kai Lennox (David Carter), and Norbert Leo Butz (Conrad "Co" Roy II). It hails from UCP, a division of Universal Studio Group. In addition to Macmanus, Hannah, and Fanning, The Girl From Plainville is also executive produced by Echo Lake's Brittany Kahan Ward. Consulting producers include Barron and Erin Lee Carr (I Love You, Now Die). Kelly Funke will oversee for Macmanus' Littleton Road Productions.
The Girl From Plainville debuts this spring on Hulu.
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