Through Tell Me Lies, Grace Van Patten Found Herself

The actress tries on the role of troubled student with a tumultuous love life for her biggest project yet.

by Iana Murray

A selfie of Grace Van Patten
Grace Van Patten selfie taken exclusively for W magazine. Image treatment by Ivana Cruz.

Like most trendsetters, Grace Van Patten hopped on the low-rise jeans train long before everyone else caught on. She was filming Tell Me Lies, Hulu’s dark romantic drama which, crucially, is set in 2007—when the iPhone was in its infancy and fashion was, to put it lightly, risky. At her wardrobe fitting, the actress was met with pairs of True Religion jeans that rested far below the belly button; she felt nauseous at the sight. But as production carried on, her apprehension at the throwback wardrobe turned into appreciation.

“By the end, I was buying [low-rise jeans] on Depop,” she recalls. “I had multiple Ed Hardy shirts in my wardrobe. I got completely brainwashed.” But after accumulating some distance from the character she’d thrown herself into, she experienced another change of heart. “I’m slowly realizing that may not be me,” she laughs. “The further I get away from it, [the waists] just get higher and higher.”

With cascading brown locks that frame her full-beam smile, Van Patten calls from inside her Toyota Tacoma parked on a street in Los Angeles. Dressed in a vintage Steely Dan band tee, she curls her legs up on the passenger seat as if she’s joining a friendly FaceTime chat. Moments of thoughtfulness are interspersed with laughter—her bubbly personality a far cry from her latest role in Tell Me Lies. The actress plays Lucy, a cold and reserved college freshman whose barriers have hardened after a traumatic childhood. At one of the many parties where she drinks her sorrows away, she meets Stephen (Jackson White), another student a few years her senior, whose charisma captures her attention and lust.

Like most teenagers, Lucy spends most of the series figuring out who she is, a process made all the more difficult by her tumultuous love life. When Van Patten was that age, she gave up schooling for her career, and her soul-searching happened in front of the camera. As her biggest role yet, Tell Me Lies arrives at a point in a career that continues upwards, from her idiosyncratic turn as a balloon-wearing entertainer in Under the Silver Lake to a scene-stealing role opposite Nicole Kidman in Nine Perfect Strangers.

Based on Carola Lovering’s page-turner of the same name, Tell Me Lies tracks Stephen and Lucy’s destructive relationship; Van Patten says she jumped at the chance to tell the kinds of romantic stories that are muddled by complexities. “It reminded me of all my favorite movies, like Blue Valentine and Urban Cowboy, where it’s this character study of people who fall into toxic relationships,” she explains. “It’s always fascinated me, for some reason.” The manipulative tactics that Stephen deploys, like gaslighting and love-bombing, feel of the moment, but in the show’s timeline, they occur during a pre-social media era, when that terminology had not yet entered society’s vernacular. Despite his denials, Lucy is confused by signs of his infidelity—a stray hair tie on his bedroom floor, a used condom—and wrestles with what she’s experiencing alone. Still, the toxicity of dating culture has grown like a pernicious rot long before we had the words for it.

“I think everyone in the world has gone through some version of this,” she says, crediting showrunner and writer Meaghan Oppenheimer for mining the book’s universal truths. “I think it shows that you don’t necessarily see the red flags when you’re in it. Especially at that age, when you’re so enamored with someone, and it’s easy to mistake desire, passion, and newness as love.” It’s something she’s witnessed close friends endure. “I think every age is guilty of it, but it’s easy to mistake new feelings for something really deep. Then it all becomes clear once you’re out and you get to look [back] on it. It’s a really frustrating part about the show—you’re watching and you’re just like, ‘Run!’”

Reading the script for the first time, Van Patten instantly connected with Lucy on a molecular level. “It definitely held up a mirror to my younger self, especially my high school self,” the actress says. “I related to the emotional wall that Lucy has built and [her] being afraid to be vulnerable. Looking back, I see the journey I’ve taken to discover that vulnerability is the most powerful and beautiful thing.” Lucy finds herself trapped within a power dynamic made uneven by Stephen’s age, experience, and authority—but it was important to Van Patten that she wasn’t portrayed as a victim. “Any type of person can fall into a toxic relationship, it’s not just the weak girl who gets sucked into this monster of a man,” she adds. “It’s so much more complicated than that. You can be the strongest person in the world and be fooled.”

Lucy (Grace Van Patten) and Stephen (Jackson White) in Hulu’s Tell Me Lies.

Courtesy of Hulu

Unlike her character, Van Patten never got to have a typical college experience, since she put her higher education plans on hold for acting—but that rite of passage is depicted with all its intensity in Tell Me Lies, a show that practically radiates the stench of booze from its darkly lit frat party scenes. “I’m kind of happy I didn’t go, if it was going to be anything like that,” she says with a laugh. Filming at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta was about as close to the real thing, “without the homework.” Like a bright-eyed, intrepid student, she drank the middling campus coffee, walked the grounds with a backpack on her shoulders, and discovered how “anxiety-inducing” the party scene could be.

“It definitely made me think about who I would be in that situation,” she says. “What faces I would try on if I got the opportunity to reinvent myself with all of these new people who didn’t know my history.”

In the late noughties, the likes of Amy Winehouse, Avril Lavigne, and Blink 182 were on constant rotation for a pre-teen Van Patten. To return to that time for Tell Me Lies, the actress refused to listen to any music made before 2008 (a journey that, she says, “made me so angsty.”). Nostalgia reared its head in other surprisingly illuminating ways. In the show, technology is limited to the occasional text message via Blackberry while Lucy and her group of friends lounge on campus lawns and in dorm rooms. “I thought it was so refreshing, not seeing the Apple logo everywhere,” she says. “Drop Instagram in this story, and it’s a whole other set of problems.”

“A huge message of the show is, if everyone just communicated and were honest with themselves and their feelings, none of this would have happened,” Van Patten tells me. “But that’s not a common mindset. At 18 years old, you don’t even know who you are yet.” There’s a certain responsibility to set the very worst example—so those red flags no longer go unnoticed. Then again, she just feels fortunate to be on the ride. “There’s this fear [that] I’m never going to work again, just because this business is so unpredictable,” she says, crossing her legs on the car seat. “But it’s so important to tell those stories, and I’m happy that I get to tell Lucy’s.”