Money. Romance. Tragedy. Deception. Hulu’s limited series The Dropout, the story of Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) and Theranos is an unbelievable tale of ambition and fame gone terribly wrong. How did the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire lose it all in the blink of an eye?
The creative team behind The Dropout does a lot of heavy lifting in bringing Elizabeth Holmes' story to life in this limited series about her rise and fall as a rising businesswoman in a male-driven venture capitalist world. I had the opportunity to speak with creator, showrunner, and writer Elizabeth Meriwether about what fascinated her about Holmes' story and character, the importance of setting tone, and creating and following her emotional journey as the anchor of the show.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What initially drew you to this story or this person that is Elizabeth Holmes?
Elizabeth Meriwether: I was really fascinated by the story I initially read in a Vanity Fair article, I think in 2017, when the company was kind of falling apart. And I remember just being fascinated by what had happened. And I think, obviously, because she was around my age, and we have the same first name [laughs] and we're both blonde, there was a lot of similarities in some ways; I think that made me think about the choices that she made, choices that I made, and the experience of being a young woman in a position of power without a lot of role models. In my case, I was 29 when I created New Girl, and I hadn't been on a television show before, so I really didn't know what was going on. And I felt like I had to fake it till I made it a lot [laughs] in a lot of situations and walking into a lot of rooms with only men in the room, and just feeling deeply uncomfortable a lot of the time. And so, I think that part of her story I resonated with and then of course, she goes on to commit fraud, and that's not something I did [laughs] but I think that's what initially drew me to this story. It felt like a mystery. But you know, not a “whodunnit” but like a mystery of what's happening in someone's mind, which I think is obviously a great place to start in terms of a story.
Also, another part of the story that really fascinated me was always the love story - the Sunny and Elizabeth story - I don't know if love is the right word, but that relationship also really fascinated me. And how they kept this relationship secret for so long, and that they were an unlikely pair in a lot of ways. That was a part of the story that hadn't been reported very much, because there wasn't a lot of information about it. So that felt like something I could do as a dramatist, there was room to dramatize things. We didn't have all of the information about everything, and so I felt like that was something that I could bring to it, trying to imagine what those conversations were like and what those scenes were like and just that relationship, which felt very unique.
Sadie: How did you approach shaping the foundation for the storyline and her character arc, especially for a mini-series?
Elizabeth: They brought me in, so a lot of things were already decided. I had never done a limited series, but I have to say I loved it. And I love that form of telling a story, because after coming off of a show that ran for seven seasons, I understood that feeling of not having an end and having to keep the audience on the hook for seven years, [laughs] to a ridiculous degree, where you're like, ‘Why are these 30-year-olds still living in a loft together?’ But to have an ending felt really good, but then also to have eight episodes to really dive into these characters and the story, which had so much scope and which covered so many years, I really enjoyed that form. I love being able to think about a particular moment in time in the story in an episode length, so that you're kind of forced to pick a theme or try to organize what happened between 2007 and 2009. For example, in episode three, trying to take two years and organize them around a theme felt like a good way of telling a complicated story that takes place over many years. And then to be able to switch points of view, like in episode four, we tell the story mostly from the point of view of the Walgreen's guys that are coming to Theranos.
I initially organized it around the podcast, which is incredible, it was a really great podcast. And I think that one of the best things about adapting podcasts is that they're already broken up into episodes. [laughs] And why I think they're probably so popular right now, too, as IP, because if you're a platform, you're kind of like, ‘Oh, that's what it is.’ It feels like it's already organized. But I mean, there was still a lot to unpack and figure out and I tried to approach each episode as a period of time and also really, a sort of emotional point A to point B for her. Less about what was actually happening, and more about her emotional journey or her change as a person.
Sadie: What was that creative collaboration process like with director Michael Showalter, in terms of setting the tone, the overall look of the show, and casting?
Elizabeth: I felt really lucky to work with him, I think mainly because of tone. I think he just really understood that something can be funny and dramatic at the same time, which seems easier said than done. And I think also, for me coming from comedy, having never done drama, I definitely felt comfortable. I felt like we had the same language. I think that was really helpful for me as well, and I think one of the really special things about him as a director is that he brings out incredible performances in actors because he has acted himself and so I think he really has faith in actors. He'll just create an environment on set where people feel comfortable and safe and respected and I think that always brings out the most playful headspace for everybody, which makes the best stuff I think. [laughs] That was something I was really happy about working with him was just his ability to find the tone with the actors on the stage. That was great.
Sadie: Once Amanda Seyfried came on board, how much were you both going back and maybe reshaping Elizabeth’s character voice and development?
Elizabeth: I wish that I could say that I had a lot to do with that voice. [laughs] But Amanda showed up at the first rehearsal with the voice. Our first conversation was when could you hear it the most, and when does it sort of fade in the background a little bit. And then just generally, something that Showalter and I talked about with her was just the feeling of the voice is important for this performance, but it's not everything and that it's so much more important to get the essence of the character in the scene right. And to feel like you're understanding what's going on for her emotionally than it is to get this like pitch-perfect imitation of the voice, because I think that could have actually been distracting.
If it had felt like it wasn't organic to Amanda, I think you would have been constantly aware of it in a distracting way. So, what was amazing was that Michael and Amanda both fully understood that and it had been one of my biggest concerns actually going into production because I had a real love-hate relationship with the voice [laughs] in my head where I was, like, 'I don't want it to take over the show.' But I do feel like it's this really interesting part of her character. I felt so lucky to have worked with Amanda and Michael in that way because I didn't have to explain that much. It felt like they just really got it and Amanda organically understood when it would kind of come out more and go away. And then the more that we got going with shooting, the more I think she just sort of understood that and made the choices on her own.
Sadie: Her performance is great and honestly kind of haunting how she's able to transition back and forth between those two head spaces.
Elizabeth: Her ability to hold two things at the same time is amazing. [laughs]
Sadie: In your writer’s room, I can only imagine the amount of research you were doing collectively, but on top of that, with this being your first drama, what kind of voices were you looking to bring to the room?
Elizabeth: I specifically was looking for really strong drama writers. Liz Heldens and Liz Hannah came on as those people for me, and they're incredible. The fact that we're all named Liz, and the show is also about Elizabeth is strange. [laughs] And it made for an interesting writer’s room where we all called each other by our last names. [laughs] But yeah, I was looking for great drama writers. I think that's something that's so special about Hannah and Heldens is that they both really come at it from a human level. They're not the kind of drama writers where it's all about the plot. As a comedy writer, I think I have a stereotype in my head of drama writers that are just perfect at story, that's the main thing they care about. And that's not Hannah and Heldens at all - no one in my room was like that. I think everybody came to it with let's think about these characters as humans and if that takes us into comedy a little bit, that's OK, and embrace the absurdity of what happened. We had Dan LafFranc, an incredible playwright, Matt Lutsky, Wei-Ning Yu, Hilary Bettis, and the amazing writer's assistants that helped us organize this incredible amount of research. And then also, we'd have to present to legal all the time. So it was like, collecting research and then getting questioned by legal and then having to explain the choices that we made and defend them based on our research. [laughs]
Sadie: Oh, wow.
Elizabeth: Yeah, it was a lot of work. And then on top of that, having to teach ourselves basic engineering and chemistry stuff that like, at least to the level, where we would be able to understand why choices were made about the machine. And at one point, we had all the different prototypes of the machine up on the wall, because we kept getting so confused about which prototype was for what period of time, why it changed, and who were the main engineers responsible for those changes? The main thing, I think that everybody in the writer's room kept in mind the whole time was that getting all of that stuff 100%, right was not as important as understanding why emotionally if she changes from the first prototype to the Edison, like, what does it actually mean for her character? How is that actually about her story as a person, and not about the actual machine?
What added further complication was that they never got the machine to work. So, we were constantly trying to figure out what did work and what didn't work, and then how they fix the problems but then created new problems. [laughs] It’s actually more complicated to understand failed engineering. [laughs] You have to understand what happened and obviously a lot of business stuff. It was all so new to me. I've never been somebody who had any interest or knowledge about business or venture capitalism. So, I listened a lot to the How I Built This podcast on NPR. It helped me get into the headspace of entrepreneurs and what these origin stories are, and to hear their voices and hear them tell the stories, that was helpful. It was a fun way of learning about business. [laughs]
Sadie: That’s such an interesting approach to how the different decisions behind the Theranos machines track her emotional journey.
Elizabeth: That was what we were trying for - make the engineering decisions feel like emotional decisions. Because otherwise, you're just watching people try to build a box. [laughs]
Sadie: What inspired you to become a writer?
Elizabeth: I always loved theater and was a huge theater nerd. In middle school, I adapted Matilda and made everyone in my eighth-grade class perform it. [laughs] But I thought of myself as an actor, I think like most kids going into college, and came to playwriting in college and immediately loved the feeling of being able to control it and make my own world and tell my own stories. The first thing I wrote was a girl talking to a piece of cotton or something. [laughs] And the girl was played by Zoe Kazan which was maybe part of my falling in love with writing.
Being able to write whenever I wanted to write, to tell stories, was wonderful, and never really thought of myself as a comedy writer, was more about just a playwright in New York. My plays had comedy in them and lived in a kind of like an absurdist world, but I never thought of myself as a joke writer. I was never a comedian, but then I think Hollywood has a way of putting you in a box. And so, I was a comedy writer in LA. It was a strange feeling of all of a sudden I was running a network sitcom and I really had been a playwright, running a comedy room and running joke rooms.
I think the Dropout felt for me, in some ways, a return to some of my earlier experiences with writing. I love writing jokes, but I never felt like I was that good at it. [laughs] I'm happy to be trying new things and I think getting away from putting writers in those kinds of categories, generally, that seems to be happening in the industry, I think that's great, because people can do a lot of different things. And it's mostly just telling stories and creating great characters, and people can be funny and not funny at the same time.
Sadie: Were you tapping into any of those skill sets as a playwright for this show?
Elizabeth: I don't even feel like a playwright anymore, because it's been so long since I've written a play. What I loved about writing the Dropout was there's so many secrets in the story. There are so many things that are withheld. And I think with New Girl and sitcoms, there are secrets, but they're like, shenanigans. [laughs] There isn't a lot of subtext in sitcoms, it's its own thing, but I love being able to go back to the actual words chosen become clues as to who that person is and those more character-based scenes. With comedy, it's so much about the game of the scene. You have to spend so much time figuring out the joke of the scene. It was such a relief that I could just write a scene with two people and not have to have a funny thing happen. [laughs]
The Dropout is now streaming on Hulu.