‘Escape at Dannemora’ actor transformed to become prison break’s ‘victim’

The cast of Ben Stiller’s “Escape at Dannemora” didn’t easily slip in and out of their on-screen roles during the months they spent filming.

They walked the same upstate New York streets as their infamous counterparts, strolled the prison turned crime scene and transformed physically to adopt the mindset of the 2015 prison break’s key players.

"You often end up playing a version of yourself on screen,” says actor Eric Lange, who appears as Lyle, the soft-spoken husband of Patricia Arquette’s Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell. “This was such a departure from me.”

Lange and Arquette both gained 40 pounds each for their husband-and-wife role in the seven-episode series, undergoing two of the crew’s most drastic transformations in a matter of months.

“Patricia and I would sit at lunch and just devour plates of food” to keep the weight on, Lange recalls.

"I mean, when you gain 40 pounds, it changes the way you walk, the way you breathe, it changes everything about your neck, your face. You just can’t really do it with makeup the same way,” he adds.

As Lyle, Lange portrays the loyal, albeit naive, husband of the woman (Joyce Mitchell) who aided in the escape of maximum-security inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt, on June 6, 2015.

The real Lyle made only one public appearance in the case — a June 23, 2015, Today Show interview — but Lange’s character gives us the chance to see fictional heart-tugging glances into the tattered shreds of his marriage.

Becoming Lyle Mitchell

Lange watched, and re-watched, that one brief sit-down interview with Matt Lauer to figure out how to adapt the mannerisms and physical ticks of a man who he’d never met.

"He’s pretty private and he was really angry at the time about the media coverage and what was being said about his wife and family. Understandably so,” Lange says, explaining why Lyle declined to meet with him in preparation for the role.

Instead, Lange hit replay on that Today Show interview hundreds of times. In it, the man who Lange describes as the “victim in all of this,” simply states his love and support for his wife: “Do I love her? Yes. Am I mad? Yes.”

"He seemed angry and he seemed confused and it was such an interesting part of all of it, the people who are left in the wreckage around these selfish acts," he says.

Lange took away what he could from the interview clip and brought to life a timid man who struggles with his words and chooses not to see the plot unfolding in front of him.

"I worked, gosh a long time, on the way he talks,” Lange says. That includes running out to a costume store to purchase a pair of false teeth to alter his own pronunciation.

While conquering vocal challenges, Lange was abandoning all vision of healthy eating to pack on the pounds within a three-month period, and then keep them on while filming.

“I’ve never weighed that much in my life and getting up off the ground and moving around the world and I would sweat more,” he says, about struggling to not shed the weight. Through brief run-ins with medical concerns (higher blood pressure and digestive woes), the actor says he sought out the advice of a doctor when trying to gain and lose the weight professionally.

“It was almost an entire year of my life,” he says. “My wife was thrilled.”

Filming in New York

Looking in the mirror and seeing an unrecognizable face staring back certainly helped Lange get into character, as did walking the grounds of the prison where Sweat and Matt sawed their way out of their cells.

“To be at a functioning prison, the sounds and the sights and the smell of it and the depressive tone,” Lange says, " … there’s nothing like that. There’s no acting required in that way."

Granted, Clinton Correctional Facility is still a fully functioning men’s prison, so they were unable to film inside. A number of other local prisons, including Broadway Stages’ Arthur Kill Correctional on Staten Island, and soundstages were used when creating cell shots.

“I can’t believe we got to walk out, you know, because prison is designed to keep people there and I can’t fathom spending more than a day. It was a really, really difficult place to be in,” he says. 

ON TV: "Escape at Dannemora" premieres Sunday at 10 p.m.

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