The new Lifetime film Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story takes a true story of an incredible woman journalist named Nellie Bly and runs from there, crafting a psychological nightmare resembling a horror film in its shock factor. “Her story starts in a mental asylum in about 1890. She doesn’t know how she got there,” says Christina Ricci, who plays Bly. “We sort of follow her to discover that she is a journalist who went undercover, and something happened to her while she was in there that has left her with no memory and no way to prove who she is and get herself free.”
The real Nellie Bly did in fact go undercover in a mental hospital to expose the terrible abuse and mistreatment that occurred, writing a revolutionary report that was later published as a book, Ten Days in a Mad-House. But contrary to the film, Bly only stayed 10 days before being whisked out by her publishers. While the movie does take liberties with Bly’s story, Ricci preserves her courage and integrity. “I certainly admire her strength and survival. Those places were actually horrific, and to have lived and survived in one of them is something. To come out with your sanity and be able to coherently express your experiences is certainly something huge.”
This marks Ricci’s return to Lifetime after starring in 2014’s Lizzie Borden Took an Ax and its follow-up series, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles. After playing so many dark characters throughout her career, she doesn’t let them influence her state of mind. “[On the] set, really, you end up laughing and arguing over who gets the last candy in craft service much more than dwelling in any kind of horror. … In this case, it was a bunch of ladies all together in linen slips, joking and taking their Uggs off together.”
The film shot in Manitoba in Canada. “We shot in Winnipeg — not very long, less than five weeks — and it was below 12 degrees every day. It was a little bit unpleasant. [The costumes] were like sacks, dirty and gross, and we all had boots on. Lace and boots.”
The cast also includes Revenge’s Josh Bowman as Bly’s doctor and stage legend Judith Light (Ugly Betty, Transparent) as the head nurse inflicting all manner of torture. “Judith is such an amazing actress, and to get a chance to work with her was really an honor,” says Ricci. “I was with all these wonderful actresses and women all day long and we just laughed and had fun and were totally silly.”
Next up for Ricci are a few films, all releasing in 2019. “One is called Faraway Eyes, and also an independent movie comedy [called 10 Things We Should Do Before We Break Up]. I have another drama with Christopher Walken called Percy that should be coming out also in the fall. … every time I see Chris I’m a little starstruck.”
(In case you were wondering: The real Nellie Bly followed her harrowing asylum visit by attempting to break the record of the protagonist in Jules Verne’s book Around the World in Eighty Days. She succeeded, making the journey in only 72 days.)
Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story airs Saturday, Jan. 19 on Lifetime.