Lizzy Caplan on 'Fatal Attraction', strong female roles and the 20th anniversary of 'Mean Girls'
Lizzy Caplan can’t quite remember when she first saw 1987‘s Fatal Attraction, but she does recall that she wasn’t old enough to be watching it. “I definitely did not understand some of the more nuanced parts of it,” she recalls with a laugh, pouring herself a cup of Earl Grey. “It was at a sleepover, it was on someone’s dad’s VHS and I remember it being very scary.”
We're having tea together in a bright London hotel room, her curled up on a sofa in relaxed tailoring, where we're discussing her starring role in the new TV adaptation of the cult thriller. Like Caplan, many people will likely recall Glenn Close's Oscar-nominated performance as similarly terrifying. Images spring to mind of a hysterical, knife-wielding Close with her wild peroxide perm; her white dress soon to be stained with blood. She was the undisputed anti-hero – a femme fatale so dark and twisted that her psychotic behaviour coined a new term: bunny boiler.
“At first, I thought, 'hold on, why are we remaking such a wonderful movie?'” Caplan says. “The more I thought about it, and I read the first script, I realised that Fatal Attraction is actually a great story to revisit. Glenn Close herself has said that she feels like Alex Forrest was given short shrift.”
In a 2013 interview Close said that, with the benefit of hindsight, she would read the role “totally differently now”, and that it had played into the “stigma” of mental illness. She recalled finding it “astounding” how, when speaking to psychiatrists for her research, “never did a mental disorder come up, never did the possibility of that come up. That, of course, would be the first thing I would think of now.”
In contrast, Caplan’s preparation with psychiatrists and forensic psychologists was nuanced and empathetic, and she spoke at length with the series’ writer Alex Cunningham on how to delve deeper into the character's psyche. “[Cunningham wanted to take] a more measured and careful look at Alex and where she was coming from – her childhood, her relationship with her father, her mental illness struggles – to hopefully get us to a place of finding some compassion for this woman. Or, at least, to see her in a light that was different to how audiences saw her in the film, which was as this evil monster who deserved to be crucified. That doesn't really vibe with how audiences feel about female characters, or really characters in general, in 2023.”
Rewatching the film today, the premise is clear cut: Alex is the villain and Michael Douglas’ high-flying, smooth-talking lawyer Dan is the victim. The advantage of now being able to tell the story over eight episodes, as opposed to one feature-length movie, means that the writers, actors and producers were given the space to really scrutinise and explore the backstories of both lead characters. But Caplan is keen to stress that the new adaptation still has the spirit of the original Fatal Attraction at its core: “It's a thriller; she remains the bad guy. But there's more to the story.”
The character of Dan, now played by Joshua Jackson, was also extensively redeveloped. “[Cunningham and I] talked a lot about Dan and how he doesn't even apologise in the film. [It’s portrayed as though] he makes one mistake when he's the married one, he's the father. The affair wasn't a one off; there were deliberate decisions being made. Josh was very adamant that he didn't want to let Dan off the hook. In one of our earlier episodes, Dan gets into a car accident and somebody cleans it up for him. He's used to people swooping in and doesn't recognise that this is because he is a white man in a position of power.”
As with the film, the series shows Alex and Dan embarking on an all-consuming affair, spending a weekend together complete with dinners, dog-walking and heartfelt talks. Forging that connection with her co-star was easy, says Caplan, because the two actors get on so well. “You hope that you don't find the person you're going to be spending all that time with, and doing some of these insane parts of your job with, annoying,” she says with a smile. “I feel very lucky that Josh and I share a very similar ethos about what it is to do this for a living and how it fits into our bigger life. We both have families and little babies now. We have both been doing this since we were kids, so we have that evolution.”
Caplan welcomed her first child, a son, with the British actor Tom Riley in 2021. The family have been in the UK capital for the past three months, where Riley is currently starring in Dancing at Lughnasa at the National Theatre. Caplan says that motherhood has helped to improve her boundary-setting, explaining that, prior to giving birth, she’d often take roles home with her. “Now, as soon as you're home, there are a million things to do for the baby, and you want to be there with them, especially if you've been gone all day,” she says. “I remember one day, we were doing a very intense scene and then I had to race back home to go trick-or-treating for Halloween. That was the quickest way to switch everything off!”
Fans of the original will recall the fervent fight scenes as much as those more sexual in nature. Caplan describes shooting the sex scenes as “a walk in the park” in comparison to the physical altercations. “If you [rehearse a fight] for hours and hours, to a certain extent your body doesn't know the difference. There's adrenaline and shakiness. We rehearsed them in very specific detail and we did it each action at a time until it was done. We weren't doing extra takes for fun in any way... [We just did] what we needed to accomplish each day, hopefully as quickly and as painlessly as possible. But you still get banged up and it's hard. And it was really hard for Josh too.”
Playing Alex Forrest is the second major role for Caplan this year, following her critically acclaimed performance as the apathetic suburban housewife Libby in Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble – a polar-opposite part. “The biggest thing [I ask myself before signing up for new roles] is, ‘Is it different to something I've done before? Is it scary? Am I scared to say yes? I just want to take as many big swings as I can while they'll let me.”’
This craving for variety in her roles is evident from Caplan’s acting resumé – from an Emmy-nominated turn as sex pioneer Virginia E Johnson in Masters of Sex to her breakout role as the young student Sara in cult comedy Freaks and Geeks. But for a certain demographic of Millennial women she will always be fondly known as the acerbic Janis Ian in Mean Girls, a film which will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2024 – something Caplan can’t quite believe.
“It means a lot to me,” she says, with a beam. “When it came out, I was so proud to be a part of it and so proud to see it become part of the zeitgeist. But [it came out] during a period of time where it was really easy to get typecast, especially if you were the sarcastic best friend. I was young and just starting out so I wanted to distance myself from it as much as possible. But, now, it's totally come full circle for me.” She pauses and takes a sip of tea. “I am just endlessly proud to be in something that means so much to so many people. I really can't believe that it's been 20 years. We [the cast] were young and free, we lived in a hotel in Canada for two months… that level of adventure and freedom, you never get to have that. I'm very grateful that I got to be a part of something so special.”
Fatal Attraction is out weekly on Paramount +.
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