“I think there a couple of things we haven’t seen much on TV. This is somewhat grounded in a college relationship experience but it’s also what a real emotionally and mentally abusive toxic relationship looks like,” said Oppenheimer who, as writer/executive producer/ showrunner adapted Carola Lovering’s 2018 novel of the same name. (Emma Roberts is also an executive producer).
“We went into this knowing it was going to be a very polarizing story,” she said. “It’s definitely not an aspirational love story and we’re not trying to glamorize this sort of relationship.
“We’re just trying to show it as authentically as possible.”
The relationship in question revolves around Lucy Albright (Van Patten) and Stephen DeMarco (White), who meet-cute on Lucy’s first day at college. (Exteriors were filmed at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta.) Lucy is newly single — having broken it off with her high school boyfriend — and is settling in with her roommate Macy and her new across-the-hall friends, Pippa (Sonia Mena) and Bree (Catherine Missal). Lucy is a bit aloof and has a rocky relationship with her mother; Stephen says he’s “polarizing” and is obviously attracted to Lucy — but still intermittently involved with his ex, Diana (Alicia Crowder), and dealing with his own issues at home.
“The series takes place in flashbacks and we see Lucy as an adult who has sort of ‘gotten clean’ from the addictive relationship and is now about to see her ex for the first time in years,” Oppenheimer said. “We flash back and see her as a very naive but secretly troubled 18-year-old and Stephen is the first person, in her mind, who sees her and doesn’t judge her … but as the series continues you start to wonder if he’s good or bad.
“I don’t think we’ve seen this a lot, especially with this age group,” she said. “Usually if it’s an abusive relationship it’s very obviously physical abuse or he ends up being a murderer … but not these tiny little things we do to each other. When I read the book I was very caught off-guard by the visceral reaction I had. I absolutely had a relationship that cause me to undermine every bit of my own happiness and self-respect at times.
“I think that, if we’re honest, a lot of people have been there. The pursuit of love can sometimes be amazing — but can bring out some really painful, desperate, sad behavior.”
Oppenheimer said that Van Patten, 25, was cast first. “I think it’s Lucy’s story when it comes down to it,” she said. “We only read six girls and everyone was an accomplished actor, but Grace was just Lucy. She goes to some pretty dark places and does some unlikable things over the course of the series — so we needed an actress that, no matter what, you still want to watch her and be with her even if you don’t like what she’s doing.
“Grace is so likable and authentic and she’s just cool. Lucy is a character where a lot is thought and not said — everything is in her eyes.”
Oppenheimer said White, 26, was one of the last actors cast in the series.
“He was actually the first self-tape I saw and I knew I wanted him to be Stephen immediately,” she said. His [audition] was utterly bizarre and so weird; he broke all the rules. He was playing music and dancing and I was like, ‘This guy certainly has the confidence to play Stephen.’ I mean this in the most complimentary way … Jackson is a very odd performer. I don’t always know what he’s doing but he’s got the most charming way about him — and I can’t stop watching him.”
And, she said, she hopes that “Tell Me Lies” will have the luxury of a second season.
“This is not the completion of their story, at all,” she said. “It’s really a coming-of-age story about this group of friends creating who they are; when you go to college it’s a first attempt at playing adult and getting to start over. No one knows you from high school and you can be whoever you want to be. There’s a lot of freedom in that, and a lot of untruth.
“I do feel that it’s a pretty relatable story,” she said. “Everyone remembers that first relationship that kicked their ass.”