While shooting The Act, she said, she noticed that male directors would bring up the question of likability, while female directors wouldn’t. She started laughing, with increasing force, at how nonsensical it seems. “I said, ‘At the end of it, if you guys like Dee Dee there’s something wrong with you.’ [Giggling.] You can’t get away from the fact that this woman has her daughter have surgeries! [Full-on guffawing.] Stop! It’s almost absurd! [Wheezing through laughter, almost in tears.] I told them 19 times, ‘Stop with that silly talk.’ I really find it ironic.”
She pulled it together, kind of, and brought it back to Tilly. “Then I told them, ‘I just won all these awards for this lady no one likes! Leave me alone.’”
On set, Arquette forged a particular and profound bond with King that helped both actors get through their more grueling scenes. “After super intense scenes, a lot of the time we would both start laughing, because it’s so emotional,” King told me. “It takes everything out of you, and for it not to take that little last bit away, you’ve got to find some humor in it.” Arquette is enormously protective of King, in an unmistakably maternal way. During the TCA panel, when King mentions an app she uses, Arquette jumps in and shakes her head. “Don’t tell everyone! Don’t print that,” she says, motioning at the entire room. For The Act, King had to do nudity for the first time, and in those scenes, she said, even though Arquette wasn’t in them, she took over, making sure monitors were turned off and the only people watching were the people who absolutely needed to be there.
“It was so amazing,” King said. “Because I didn’t know what to ask for, I didn’t understand, and it was a big deal, and I was super nervous. And to know that she was in my corner and was fighting for me, it just felt so good.”
Onscreen, the closeness between the two actors makes for powerful chemistry, the kind that only makes the subject matter in the series more disturbing. Right before she started shooting The Act, Arquette’s youngest child left home, and she tried to use that energy—that feeling of worrying about her daughter and missing her—in her work, amplifying it to an extreme level. With Dee Dee, she said, “I don’t think about it as sympathy or empathy. Just: How does she think? Once I understand how [the characters] think, it feels like the truth to me.”
Up next, Arquette features in another project exploring the maternal imperative, the Netflix movie Otherhood. She describes it as a “comedy ... kind of a momedy,” about three women with empty-nest syndrome who decide to go to New York together to reconnect with their adult sons. (The other mothers are played by Angela Bassett and Felicity Huffman; the latter’s recent legal issues may or may not affect the movie’s release.) “It was just really fun to be a part of,” she said. “And it wasn’t heavy. And no one dies.” She’s exhilarated by how much television’s streaming wars have reinvigorated production in the entertainment industry: “The competition is for good content now and that only makes things better.”
What really gratifies her, she said, more than awards, are the opportunities she’s getting in this moment. She thinks of her career in different phases, different boxes, all confining in their own way, all encouraging her to limit herself. But now, at 50, a word she uses repeatedly to describe herself is liberated. “It’s really kind of a shocking time in my career,” Arquette said. “I didn’t see it coming.”