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Two murderers’ shocking escape from a New York prison, and the 22-day manhunt that ensued, dominated headlines nearly two years ago — and the backstory of the smitten seamstress who aided them was ripe for a Lifetime movie.
“New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell” stars Penelope Ann Miller as the married mom of three, a worker in the Clinton Correctional Facility’s tailor shop who smuggled hacksaw blades and other tools to convicts Richard Matt and David Sweat, later acknowledging flirtation with both inmates.
Miller spoke with TODAY about taking on the TV dramatization.
“I think when you see a woman who is an unlikely suspect in this situation, who’s making a decent living, who most people would assume is in a fairly happy marriage and had three kids, no one really saw any signs that there would be any foul play on her part,” she said. “When you see someone going to that extreme and doing something so insane, it’s hard not to be fascinated by it. What was going on in her life that would compel her to do something so extraordinary and risk her life and her family’s life? I don’t think she was thinking of those consequences. I think she got caught up in the obsession of the relationships.”
Though timing and location didn’t allow Miller to meet her prior to filming, Miller says she’d have had plenty of questions for the real Mitchell, who is currently serving up to seven years behind bars for her role in the breakout.
“I would have asked her about her home life and her marriage and what was going on with her at the time and why she was attracted to not just one of these guys, but both of them. Supposedly she was romantically involved with one and then physically, sexually involved with the other. I really wished I had a chance to talk to her.”
Miller credits the flick’s costume department for capturing Mitchell’s dowdy appearance, and the actress carefully watched Mitchell’s trial and television interviews — including those with TODAY’s Matt Lauer — to study her mannerisms.
“I had to wear a padded suit and then the clothing definitely helped. Really no makeup and then the sort of deteriorating look, making me look more pale, and with circles under my eyes,” she said. “I knew that I would never look exactly like her or sound exactly like her, but I really wanted to get the essence of her, just the essence of her frame of mind, the way she thought, or just a sense of her personality.”
While the movie’s final moments reveal the fates of Matt, killed by a team of law enforcement officers, and Sweat, shot and captured alive, much of its running time is devoted to the love triangle that unfolds between Mitchell and the two men as they plan their escape. Mitchell’s disenchantment with her home life is evident as she drowns out her husband Lyle’s conversation with recordings of erotic novels and fantasizes about running away to Mexico with Matt and Sweat. Ultimately, she has a panic attack and backs out of a plan to accompany them.
“I think she became infatuated with the danger of it all and the excitement,” said Miller. “She was obviously going through a very serious midlife crisis, and probably thought ‘What would my life be like?’ It would be very different, obviously. But then again, you don’t know if she would still be living had she actually been there with the getaway car.”
Miller says she tried to understand Mitchell’s emotional state throughout the film.
“I really did try and grasp what was going on with her psychologically and emotionally, as a woman who is in a lackluster marriage or bored in her life and feeling like everything’s just a routine,” she said. “Someone who isn’t trying anymore. She didn’t necessarily care about looking good. She starts to try to look better; she starts to lose weight. She starts to put on makeup, wearing shirts showing her cleavage, when something excites her. And there are so many women you hear about who go through these midlife crises and then leave their marriages or have affairs — certainly not necessarily with convicts who are murderers.”
Miller said one of the most striking moments she saw with the real Mitchell occurred on a TODAY interview.
“When Matt Lauer said, ‘You realize these guys chopped people up and threw them in the river and these guys were hard-core,’ and she said ‘Yeah, they really even showed off about it.’ She says it just so plainly! Like she was fully aware. You can’t make this stuff up,” Miller added. “It’s funny how life is stranger than fiction. Because if anyone made these stories up, no one would believe that this would actually happen.”
"New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell" premieres Sunday, April 23, on Lifetime.