When Emma Roberts and Meaghan Oppenheimer read Carola Lovering’s 2018 book “Tell Me Lies,” they were hooked, likely for the same reason that fans were: It told the story of a woman falling for a very toxic man who turns her life upside down. The show, however, took a bit of a different approach.
Instead of being told from both points of view, the Hulu drama is told strictly from Lucy’s (Grace Van Patten), as she falls for manipulative Stephen (Jackson White). The other difference is that the leading man is a less controlling than in the book — he’s toxic and abusive, Oppenheimer admits, but they had to find a way to make him likable.
“He has to walk such a fine line and he’s going to be polarizing, no matter who you cast in this role. Not everyone is gonna like him and they shouldn’t. But getting everyone on board with the idea, being like, not everyone’s gonna like the lead character, is a little scary for some people to hear from a writer,” she tells Variety.
In fact, that line Stephen walked was “probably the thing we talked about most in the writers room,” she says.
“We don’t want to glamorize an abusive character, because he is abusive at times. We also can’t hate him. He’s our male lead. I think it was just about being honest and being realistic and not making anything too heightened or too ridiculous,” she continues. “In real life, people do some really bad things, and the key was to try to understand why he does the things that he does and at any point to understand his motivation.”
While in the book, she says, Stephen is very confident, that’s not the case on the show.
“I think the Stephen that we created is coming from such a place of fear,” says Oppenheimer. “Our Stephen is really terrified of a lot of things and when you are terrified, you treat everyone like an enemy. You treat your enemies badly. It was hard. There were some scenes where we went way too far, and we were like, we’ve gotta bring it back.”
Roberts, who was excited to step into the producer role on the drama instead of the star, also weighed in on trying to find the balance.
“You don’t want to hate him completely. It’s kind of like Penn Badgley on ‘You,’” she says of the Netflix drama. “You need to love something about him or at least, understand why he’s doing what he’s doing — whether you agree or not, have some understanding. I think Jackson did a really amazing job of giving us this mysterious, obviously toxic person, but then you see him with his sister and it’s like, ‘Oh, now I like him.’”
She notes that each one of the characters stretch the truth, not just Stephen.
“They’ve all lied about something. They’ve all done something that’s selfish. They’re also all in college. We cannot necessarily be accountable for our worse thing that we did in college. Or can we atone for it? All those questions will hopefully be evoked and some answered,” says Roberts. “Toxic relationships go past romantic; we’ve all had friendship relationships that we’re like, why am I feeling anxiety all the time around this person that’s supposed to be my friend? I think that this show, you feel like you’re looking in a window at certain behaviors we’ve either done or we’ve seen. I think that can be very cathartic.”
That complexity was what attracted White to the role.
“I was drawn to the complexities of someone who on paper would seem like a villain or an antagonist. So I think it’s the most fun challenge to see someone who is written as a bad guy and then try and give that some humanity, some depth, some different tones,” he tells Variety. “It’s literally seeing so many different sides of his life and what’s going on inside his head — in his moments alone, in his moments with every individual character, and it was just a dream to get to play someone like that.”
The first three episodes of “Tell Me Lies” are now streaming on Hulu.
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