Less than ten minutes into the first episode of The Dropout, an 18-year old Elizabeth Holmes dances to “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” by Alabama in her bedroom. The dance begins innocently with the running man move, and a poster of Steve Jobs in between two Macbook desktop computers is in the frame. As Elizabeth starts dancing toward the Steve Jobs poster, her face tenses up, her eyes bulge, and her movements get slightly more seductive, creepy, almost sinister. Her eyes get even brighter and her mouth tenses up as she manically reaches toward Jobs with her hands. Every teenager has had a comparable experience, albeit in front of a sexier poster and to a sexier song. For me, it was a Josh Hartnett poster, and the song was probably by Britney Spears (and I was not thinking about an invention that would make me famous and simultaneously change the world). This scene establishes everything we need to know about Elizabeth Holmes at that moment and about who she will become: the Theranos CEO who would go on to defraud investors and lie to patients about their health for years. This moment represents actress Amanda Seyfried’s ability to capture Elizabeth Holmes’s peculiarity and her eerie, dangerous ambition to, in the words of Alabama, “get things done.” Seyfried’s performance in this scene is so much more than just a silly glimpse at the life of a nerdy teen in the early 2000s: it’s a portrait of a person who will do anything to emulate their hero.
Amanda Seyfried is one of the most underrated actors of her generation. Seyfried’s breakout role as Karen Smith, the simpleminded “Plastic” from 2004’s Mean Girls is still, after all this time, the role she is most associated with generally today. The role is synonymous with Seyfried for good reason. It is the best performance in the movie both for her physical comedy (“my breasts can tell when it’s already raining”) and for the way she says Taco Bell. Since Mean Girls, Seyfried has expanded her profile with a wide range of roles in a variety of projects with prominent filmmakers and writers including HBO’s family drama Big Love, a lead in Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body, Cosette in Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables (one of the film’s only good performances) and a major role in 2008’s Mamma Mia and the 2018 sequel Mamma Mia Here We Go Again, in which she starred opposite Meryl Streep.
Seyfried’s filmography is stacked and consistent, but she’s never celebrated as much as some of her peers, including Mean Girls co-star Rachel McAdams (also an underrated actress in her own right who got on the awards track sooner than Seyfried). In late 2020 when David Fincher’s Mank came out on Netflix, Seyfried gained some loyal fans dedicated to campaigning for her performance as actress Marion Davies. While Seyfried received an Oscar nomination, she was never one of the frontrunners and her performance never dominated the conversation. Mank was more about the story behind it: both the story of the making of Citizen Kane and the story of the film itself, which was written by Fincher’s late father. As a result, Seyfried’s performance took a backseat since it wasn’t the splashiest Mank narrative. After a long, interesting, wide-ranging career, The Dropout is finally giving Amanda Seyfried her due.
Initially, the role of Elizabeth Homes wasn’t even Seyfried’s. Kate McKinnon of Saturday Night Live was originally supposed to play the character on The Dropout but dropped out (yes I see the irony here) in early 2021. No reason was cited for McKinnon’s departure, but she can be seen as Carole Baskin in Peacock’s Joe vs Carole, which premiered the same day as The Dropout.
Seyfried’s performance as Elizabeth Holmes indicates that she was meant to do this and that no one else should do it (ahem, Adam McKay, whose feature film Bad Blood starring Jennifer Lawrence as Elizabeth Holmes has been in development since 2016). The Dropout opens with Holmes giving a deposition in 2017. While recognizable, her performative image is completely stripped away, disheveled. In lieu of her signature Steve Jobs-inspired black turtleneck, black eyeliner, and red lipstick, Holmes wears a light blue button-down blouse and no makeup. Her confident, condescending demeanor is still lurking underneath, but it’s only a fraction of what it once was. Then the episode flashes back to Holmes’ childhood. Through facial expressions, body language, that signature fake deep voice and the Steve Jobs dance (and in just the first few minutes of the series’ first episode) Amanda Seyfried conveys the emotional journey of a woman who went from corrupt innocence to completely corrupt.
Seyfried’s sharp emotional intelligence in her approach to the role becomes more obvious as Elizabeth Holmes gets deeper into her CEO persona as The Dropout goes on (new episodes drop on Hulu every Thursday). As the series goes on, as Theranos grows, and as Holmes gets more tangled in her lies, Holmes becomes more selfish and disturbing but as Seyfried portrays it, more like herself. In every aspect of the performance, Seyfried went for interpretation instead of impression, which is why her version of that baritone voice we all know so well works so well. But most vitally, Seyfried is playing Elizabeth Holmes the way Elizabeth Holmes was meant to be played: without judgment, but without too much empathy, either.