How to Talk Like a Real Life Scammer
Recreating the unique voices of Elizabeth Holmes, Anna Delvey, and Adam Neumann is a balancing act of perfection and impression.
It’s Scammer Season, baby! This three-month period in 2022—in which a trio of unrelated limited series about prominent 2010s scammers premiered within two months of each other—started with the arrival of Netflix’s Inventing Anna from Shonda Rhimes on February 11 telling the true story of Anna Delvey (or is it Sorokin?). A few weeks later, on March 3, Hulu dropped (sorry) the first three episodes of The Dropout, following the rise and fall of Theranos and its founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Friday, March 18 marks the beginning of the end of Scammer Season with the premiere of WeCrashed on Apple TV+, which charts the co-working space WeWork's financial mismanagement at the hands of founder and CEO Adam Neumann.
Delvey, Holmes, and Neumann are big, polarizing personalities. Each has a unique accent (or voice) plus a depth and darkness beyond their shiny public facades. For these performances, the line between perfection and impression is thin, particularly when it comes to their accents. On top of that, these scammers are (albeit on very different levels) morally corrupt people who lied, schemed, and in some cases, committed real crimes to get what they wanted. Recency adds additional pressure: All three of these scammer stories unfolded in the mid to late 2010s, with podcasts and books, YouTube videos, or documentaries about each readily available. Thrillist spoke to actors and showrunners from Inventing Anna, The Dropout, and WeCrashed about creating these characters and their voices in an authentic way that didn’t cross that fine line.
Ensuring these characters come across as human beings started with the writing. The first several episodes of The Dropout, which follow the early life of Elizabeth Holmes as a teenager, her brief time at Stanford, and the early days of Theranos, have a light, comedic tone that creator and showrunner Elizabeth Meriweather “knew was going to be challenging,” especially coming from a comedy-writing background. (Meriweather created the network comedies New Girl, Single Parents, and Bless This Mess.) It helped to approach the beginning of the story as that of a young woman trying to start a company, Meriweather says. “It was important to me that it wasn't presented purely as this dark, dark, dark story. It gets really dark, but I don't think it starts out in that spot.”
WeCrashed creators and showrunners Lee Eisenberg and Drew Crevello knew that the best way to make sure WeWork's Adam Neumann didn’t feel like a parody was to simply do their job as writers. “The more we learned about Adam, you can't help but empathize,” says Crevello. “We learned about his childhood and some of the things that went into making him the person he was. Our job, we thought, was to balance that with the fact that there was collateral damage in this story. That there were employees and investors and people that really got hurt by the fallout. So it was really balancing empathy with some objectivity, but both of those things kept us away from just making him a silly caricature.”
The first episode of WeCrashed shows what Neumann’s life was like before WeWork. While Holmes had one idea for an invention she was convinced would change the world and stuck with it, Neumann had too many ideas he was convinced would change the world. In the first episode, a struggling Neumann is selling ridiculous inventions such as onesies with knee pads for babies to make crawling more comfortable—something he really did. This accomplished two things at once: The idea is so stupid that you feel a bit sorry for him, but also establishes the fact that he was in over his head.
Inventing Anna, beginning each episode with text that reads This whole story is completely true, except for all the parts that are totally made up, takes a different approach than The Dropout or WeCrashed by portraying Anna Delvey as a sympathetic figure with a redemption arc. It villianizes men and Rachel DeLoache Williams, one of Delvey’s victims and former friend, while portraying Delvey as a brilliant, inspiring though untrustworthy woman who outsmarted New York City’s elite. The series concludes with an exploration of her family and childhood in Germany, and thus ends on an emotionally grounding note rather than the other shows which begin with it.
"I think she’s a young woman who tried to get over in a world in which we celebrate getting over,” showrunner Shonda Rhimes told Shondaland. “We celebrate it when people do it and do it right. The Instagram image of your life is the life you’re supposed to be leading. And we celebrate the people who can get it."
Every actor playing these roles had a challenge: On top of portraying complex, generally unsympathetic figures, they had to create and perform accents that could, if done wrong, drain the entire series. Or worse, their careers.
For Julia Garner, who played fake heiress and scammer Delvey/Sorokin on Inventing Anna, the biggest challenge was creating an authentic blend of regional inflections that changed depending on her character’s environment. Delvey speaks in a fake German accent spoken by a native Russian, which is already complex on its own. But Delvey is fluent in other languages, learned British English (which Garner notes is different from American English), and lived in the United States, all of which influenced her speech patterns.
In her research, Garner noticed that Delvey’s “consistently inconsistent” accent changes with her surroundings: where she is, who she is with, and if she’s been drinking, which she used in her performance. “It's such a unique accent, it's sometimes hard to believe that she actually sounds like that. But she does,” Garner says. In one early scene, Anna is vacationing on a yacht with her boyfriend and some friends. She’s been drinking, and Garner noticeably makes the accent a hint more Russian. Another guest on the yacht asks her if she is Russian, and Delvey, caught in her lie, adjusts back to her German accent.
To perfect that “hybrid,” Garner pored through hours of exclusive video recordings of Delvey’s interviews with journalist Jessica Pressler. “I was able to really listen to how she was speaking and mirror how she was speaking,” Garner says. She worked with dialect coach Barbara Rubin, who helped fine tune her character Ruth Langmore's Missourian drawl (ie. "Missuruh") for Netflix’s Ozark. Garner visited Delvey in prison when working on the role, but not to research the accent, which Garner had already created by the time they met. “It was really just to get her energy and her spirit.” Garner says. “I just wanted to see how Anna was without any recording devices or feeling like she is being watched every five minutes. I just wanted to get her essence.”
Garner is confident that Delvey’s accent is the "most challenging accent" she will ever perform. “With Ozark, it's just a Missouri accent. My [Delvey] accent was different accents. It wasn't just one accent," Garner says.
Amanda Seyfried had a similar approach to Garner’s in recreating the infamous, mysterious, and forced baritone voice of Theranos' Elizabeth Holmes for The Dropout. “I listened to her speak so much,” Seyfried says. “For so many hours.” Listening to Holmes’ voice—specifically her 2017 depositions—helped take the pressure off, because it allowed Seyfried to focus on depth rather than the voice itself. She focused on the depositions over public appearances or speeches, such as Holmes’ TedTalk, because those recordings are where Holmes’ voice is the most authentic. By that point, Seyfried suggests, the voice was her real voice. “There’s so many hours of her being herself, or that version of herself,” she says of the deposition. “It wasn’t as performative.”
Rather than an imitation, Meriweather was looking for something that captured “the emotional spirit” of Holmes' voice. “I was afraid,” Meriweather says. “I didn't want the voice to be too perfect.” The role of Holmes on The Dropout was originally supposed to go to Kate McKinnon of Saturday Night Live, with shooting to begin in March 2020. McKinnon eventually dropped out of the project, and Seyfried stepped in.
Working without a dialect coach, Seyfried practiced everywhere, including in her car while driving in upstate New York where she lives. “It started to feel really natural,” she says, though Seyfried was aware that her voice could not physically reach the exact deep tone of Holmes. “It was all about how I can make this work for me emotionally and psychologically as well as have it be effective for the audience. My body just kind of absorbed it after a while. It becomes muscle memory.”
Seyfried, over Zoom, demonstrated her Holmes voice, describing how she did it. Amanda Seyfried disappears as she pulls back her jaw, almost transforming it into a different shape, her eyes bulging. “Now I’m making my tongue flatten against my teeth in the back and that’s how I really can connect to this feeling and it makes me feel closer,” Seyfried said in her deep, authoritative Holmes voice, which is equally as chilling over a late morning video call as it is on The Dropout. As her Holmes voice progressed, Seyfried—who noted this was a collaborative process with Merriweather and director Michael Showalter—would send voice memos of her progress to Showalter.
Meriweather recalls her “whole body kind of celebrating” the first time she saw Seyfried do the voice at the first rehearsal. “I think that she is a really rare actor, I'm really excited that she got a chance to play a character this complicated,” Meriweather says. Instead of inserting moments where Holmes loses her deep voice into the script, Meriweather let Seyfried decide when Holmes would break, usually when she is the most vulnerable and in environments that make her feel more at ease, such as when she’s with her family or alone with her partner, Sunny Bulwani. In a scene in Episode 6, Holmes and Bulwani are on their way to her 30th birthday party. Holmes, irritated with Bulwani, speaks to him using the voice. “Don’t talk to me like you talk to other people,” he says. Until they enter the party, Seyfried speaks in a softer tone.
“The context where you can really hear it is important,” Meriweather says. “Like where she's really trying to be a leader. Where she's in rooms with mostly men, or where she's dissociating a little bit. That's where it comes out more. The voice ended up being a tool in the storytelling where you could feel where [Holmes] is emotionally by what her voice sounds like. Amanda just intuitively knew what I was trying to do and went for it.”
For WeCrashed, Eisenberg and Crevello knew that the best way to tell Neumann’s story was to have the right actor play him. They only had one person in mind when conceptualizing their limited series about the WeWork saga, which they did on socially distanced walks in 2020 long before they even knew if they’d sell it. It took some pushing, but they got their dream casting in Jared Leto, who wanted to make sure the show would not vilify Neumann. “There's nothing silly about Jared Leto,” Eisenberg jokes.
“And [Leto] exceeded our expectations,” Eisenberg says. “My dad is Israeli and so the Israeli accent was a particularly sensitive and important aspect to the show for me. He absolutely blew me away.” Leto worked with a dialect coach on his accent and had an Israeli scene partner he rehearsed every scene with “exhaustively.”
“He did not preview his accent for us,” Crevello says. “I remember he just showed up for the first Adam scene and it was this fully formed character, the prosthetics, the accent. And he just joined our production as Adam Neumann. It was spot on and it was electrifying.”
Leto is a method actor, which meant that while shooting WeCrashed, Jared Leto was gone. Jared Leto was Adam Neumann. “We started calling him Adam,” Eisenberg says. “I would say Shalom to him every morning when I would come in and the show ended four months later. We were in editing and we met Jared Leto again, talking about the post [production] process and about how we're going to market the show. Our friend was back.”
Eisenberg and Crevello were onto something: The role of Adam Neumann is ideal for a bombastic scene-stealer like Leto and the performance does exactly what they imagined it would. “Adam is a cult leader. He's messianic,” Eisenberg says. “He is a rockstar and he is so engaging and mesmerizing. We needed someone that could capture all of that. Jared Leto has charisma to burn and he is mesmerizing, and those were the same qualities.”
Inventing Anna, The Dropout, and WeCrashed fictionalize the juicy, addictive, and completely true (maybe not in Inventing Anna’s case) scammer stories to varying degrees of success. In particular, Seyfried’s voice work on The Dropout has earned her long-deserved respect as a performer, with an Emmy very likely in her near future. What unites them, from page to performance, from narrative to accent, is the idea that everyone has a backstory, that everyone is human: even a fake German heiress, a Steve Jobs wannabe, and a guy who walked around New York City barefoot.