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For Grace Van Patten, the surreal sense of isolation swallowing the fictional wellness resort Tranquillum House in Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers wasn’t hard to conjure. She felt it every day when she awoke on set, sleeping in a row of houses built specifically for the quarantined cast around the grounds of the real-life resort SOMA. (Van Patten’s unit was right by the little homes Samara Weaving and Tiffany Boone shared with their husbands.)
The Brooklyn-based actress, 24, had been planning to spend her summer filming in Los Angeles; in fact, she’d already signed an apartment lease. But when the coronavirus pandemic began, the Perfect Strangers team told Van Patten to pack her bags and jet off to Australia, a continent she hadn’t visited since she was 10 years old. She’d be leaving her family and friends in the midst of a global crisis, and she wouldn’t be able to see them until production had wrapped.
“My stomach dropped a little bit,” Van Patten admits now. “The weeks leading up to leaving were really scary for me. And in addition to the role I was about to dive headfirst into, it was a lot of emotions circulating.”
But once she’d stepped foot on the plane, Van Patten found it easy to enjoy the “masterclass” of working with actors including Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy, Michael Shannon, and Regina Hall. Furthermore, she felt she had to steel herself; if no one else, she owed it to her character, Zoe, whose parents in the show are still reeling from her brother’s recent death by suicide. Drawn in by the complexity of a grieving, guilt-ridden teenager, Van Patten had more than enough keeping her grounded at SOMA.
“It’s the most beautiful place I have ever been to,” she says. “It felt very real, being thrown into that environment. We had a kickoff dinner with the whole cast, and everyone was so great—there’s no shortage of humor [in that group], and it always helped. I tried to separate [my work] from what [was happening in the world] as much as I could, but that was the most challenging part of the whole thing.”
By the end of Nine Perfect Strangers, which dropped its series finale on Wednesday, Zoe has had the opportunity to talk—literally—with the specter of her brother, thereby releasing herself from the burden of holding both his legacy and her family’s sanity together. Instead, she can grieve freely, openly, and with the ultimate goal of healing. Van Patten found her stay at SOMA similarly freeing; her time on set taught her a new way of interrogating herself and what her own mental state brings to her roles. As the young actress who first stepped onto a set at eight years old—her first acting job was in The Sopranos—Van Patten has matured into a Hollywood up-and-comer, an insightful talent whose next project, the Emma Roberts-produced drama Tell Me Lies, promises to impact her just as significantly.
Below, the actress discusses the emotional cocktail that went into filming Nine Perfect Strangers, as well as how her childhood passions are shaping what comes next in her career.
Each character in Nine Perfect Strangers has unique, sometimes even deceptive reasons for going to Tranquillum. What, in your opinion, did Zoe need from her time at the resort?
I think when you first see Zoe, she’s such a broken bird, and she knows that she needs help. She knows that the family needs help. But at this point they’ve tried everything; this retreat is something of a final attempt for her to reconnect with her family. They’ve been so disconnected from each other and all grieving separately, and I think she’s absolutely desperate [to grieve with them]. After this traumatic event, she lost her parents too, in a way.
How did you develop a relationship with your fictional parents, Michael Shannon and Asher Keddie, that could hold the weight of this trauma?
We had to really dive into some emotional stuff. We all had to be in this headspace for five months; that was challenging for all of us. But it was a miracle that everyone was amazing. Everyone got along so well, and it felt like a family by the end of it, especially because we were all shipped off to Australia, and it was everyone’s first time working in months. It made the experience so special.
As someone who grew up in a family deeply entrenched in entertainment, did you yourself always want to be an actress?
I have always loved it. I did my first job on The Sopranos, and I remember being so in awe of those actors. But then I went through that rebellious phase of wanting to go so far away from it because my whole family is a part of it. I was really into sports—I wanted to play basketball or volleyball—and I wanted to go to a high school that was very competitive in sports. I decided to go to [Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts] instead, and I fell in love with it. I can’t imagine a normal high school experience after that.
Was there a particular film or TV series that convinced you to try acting?
My first favorite movie was Jaws. [Laughs] I mean, that’ll tell you a little bit about my young self. Some Like it Hot is still one of my favorite movies. And It’s a Wonderful Life. And then it kind of led into the ‘70s—Urban Cowboy, and honestly anything John Travolta did, I just loved so much.
In your relatively short career, you’ve done theater and film and television, drama and romance. But is there a medium or genre you haven’t done yet that you’re desperate to try?
Yes. I would love to do a comedy. I did a farce in high school; it was my senior play that we put on. And it was a Georges Feydeau farce called A Flea in Her Ear. I had the best time doing that. I think I tend to go inward, so I tend to be drawn to roles that are more internal. But I want to try to break that.
What about an actor or director you’d love to collaborate with?
I mean, Nine Perfect Strangers kind of knocked them all out. [Laughs]
Who’s left? I love Elisabeth Moss. I know she’s directing a little bit more now, and that excites me, and I’d love to work with her. Charlize Theron is one of my favorite actresses. These women are so talented and also carving the way for younger women to follow their lead and make great strong female roles. I think Michaela Coel is a genius. I could not believe [I May Destroy You], and I’m dying to see what she does next.
What can you tell us about what’s next for you—Tell Me Lies, in particular?
I’m so excited about Tell Me Lies. It’s based off of a book that came out two years ago. And it’s a character study about this toxic relationship, which I think everybody can relate to. [The story] is so captivating and exciting and sexy. I’ve never come onto a project this early, so it feels good to have the time to really think about it and dig into it. I’m excited for that journey.
Having grown up in New York City and leaving for five months during the pandemic, what was it like to return to Brooklyn and find your home so changed?
Coming back was very much a slap in the face; it was scary. What I feel very thankful for is the reconnection I’ve had with my old friends, or even gaining a deeper relationship with my friends now. I feel like [the pandemic] really sparked conversation that we wouldn’t normally have had, and everyone was in such need for connection.
I learned a lot through that, and then going to do this project playing Zoe, [I realized] that support is so important. Support is an active job. It’s not just being there for someone when they need you; it’s checking in; it’s having conversations. It’s been a really hard year for people.
How do you feel you’ve changed as an actress over the past year?
I do feel that this role pushed me to go deeper than I’ve ever gone before. That commitment I found is, you’ve got to go there. You’ve got to go there even if it’s tough, because coming off of this role, I’ve never had such an issue [separating fiction from reality]. And as challenging as that was, it also made me feel like I did the work. I almost want to have that feeling after every job. To just not be afraid to go there, even though it can be scary.
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