Michael Showalter had a very simple motive for agreeing to direct all eight episodes of Hulu’s latest biopic, The Dropout.
“I was curious to see how it all played out,” he tells UPROXX over a Zoom chat that keeps freezing every time we dig too deep into the unbelievable life of Elizabeth Holmes – the 20-something Stanford dropout who would scam millions from venture capitalists and global power players in her bid to become one of Silicon Valley’s youngest tech titans.
Those Streaming glitches do nothing to dampen Showalter’s enthusiasm for the project – the second “based-on-real-events” drama he’s pulled from a podcast in the past year. The creative force behind Search Party, The Stateand Wet Hot American Summer has found himself in the director’s chair more frequently, helming the Oscar-nominated Tammy Faye biopic and the Apple TV+ series The Shrink Next Door. With The Dropout – which sees Amanda Seyfried transform into Theranos’ young, strangely charismatic founder – he continues that trend, crafting a wild look into an even more outrageous true-crime tale.
UPROXX chatted with Showalter about his interest in the iconic scammer and why he wanted to ask some tough questions of the show’s audience.
What hooked you about the Elizabeth Holmes story?
She is just a very, very endlessly fascinating figure. Her background, her voice, her appearance, the extent to which her ambition took her so far. There’s nothing fringe about it. She had General Mathis – five-star generals — she had presidents singing her praises. She was a global figure. We hear about con artists all the time that are conning in a sort of small scale and, then you have this person who managed to convince major power players on a global stage of what she was doing. And the disparity between what she said she was doing and what was really happening is mind-boggling to people.
You have The New York Times putting her on the cover of the Sunday magazine and you have every single news outlet fawning over her, and you have major international figures getting in line to shake her hand and sing her praises and all of this stuff. There was nothing there. They never got it off the ground. It’s not just like it was close. They were faking it.
What about her do you think was so compelling she was able to convince power players to buy into her idea?
It’s all about the very careful way in which she built this cluster of people around her to validate what she was doing. And we all know how this works. It’s essentially the basic rules of how a trend gets started. It’s like one cool person says ‘Bell bottoms are in,’ and all of a sudden, bell bottoms are in. That’s sort of how it started. She got Channing Robertson to say, ‘She’s great.’ And Channing Robertson tells two friends and then they tell two friends and so on and so on. And then all of a sudden, everybody wants in, everybody wants a piece of it and it takes on a life of its own.
It’s like, where I went to college, my sophomore year, first semester I auditioned for every play, every play. I did not get cast in anything. I couldn’t get even two lines in a stupid show. Then I got into the improv group at the end of my first semester, which was very popular on campus. I couldn’t not get cast after that. It was like, people were fighting over me. I was no different. Nothing had changed about me at all. I was exactly the same person as I was three months earlier, desperately trying to get cast to do anything. And now, I’m getting offered the lead because I’m in the popular improv group on campus. So, it’s that phenomenon — and that’s where I think there’s a lesson to be learned or some introspection on the part of the audience. We’re all responsible here. We can’t just put this all on her. Everyone who didn’t call it out is responsible. Everyone who enabled her and looked the other way or didn’t do their own homework bears responsibility.
The voice has become such a big part of her story. Why do you think we’re all so fascinated by what she sounds like?
It really is a voice that doesn’t match the face. She’s this kind of cute blonde, big blue eyes and then the voice was like, [motions] all the way down here. It’s not an alto. It’s like a deep base. It’s like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. And, that’s so weird, right? So she has an iconic voice, people remember her voice, and then to find out that she might have been faking it? It makes the whole thing so insane. It’s like, she’s going to have a meeting with George Schultz, the former secretary of state, and she’s pretending she has a lower voice than she does. It’s comical.
In episode three, you really lean into her transformation from college undergrad to corrupt Silicon Valley titan. She dons the turtleneck, deepens her voice. A colleague likened it to watching Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader.
Oh, 100%. No, it’s the birth of a supervillain. Yeah. It’s the origin story of a supervillain. But it also makes you sort of go ‘How could she have thought she was going to get away with this?’ How was she able to go to sleep at night, knowing that she was doing this, deceiving in this way? How rash is it to think that you could fool people like this? If I think even one person is mad at me, I’m like, ‘I can’t sleep.’
Some people might walk away from this admiring, or at least, respecting Holmes’ hustle. What are your feelings about what she did?
I don’t think I have respect or admiration for it. If we’re not being honest with each other … it’s that whole thing, like if there’s no such thing as the truth, then we’re really fucked. So, I can’t say that I have any respect for her, nor do I think she’s just an awful person. I think that she’s a very misguided person. And I feel sorry for her in a lot of ways.
This is the second show you’ve directed that lived as a podcast before coming to TV. Are you a podcast junkie? More importantly, do you have any good recs?
I am a huge podcast junkie. I love the podcast, You Must Remember This which is all about Hollywood. It’s all deeply researched stories about Hollywood through the years. It’s often about corruption and deals with the mistreatment of women. Karina Longworth who does it is this incredible film historian. So every season of that show is a different sort of brilliant story where she kind of finds connections. I would love to see one of her podcasts turned into a show.
‘The Dropout’ begins streaming on March 3rd via Hulu.