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Penelope Ann Miller on her role in true story

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Actress talks “New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell”

Inspired by the true story that gripped America in the summer of 2015, Lifetime’s “New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell” tells the disturbing saga of a prison staffer who helped two murderous convicts escape, leading to a fatal manhunt. The film premiered on April 23 and is available free on demand through May 23 with Roku and via www.MyLifetime.com

Tony Award nominee Penelope Ann Miller (“Our Town,” “Awakenings,” “Chaplin”) portrays troubled prison seamstress Joyce Mitchell, an employee of the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, currently up to seven years for her role in assisting inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat during their dramatic “Shawshank Redemption”-style escape nearly two years ago.

“Just an escape in and of itself is fascinating to me, the fact that someone can actually break themselves out of prison,” Miller told me during an interview. “Then, to find out that this woman, who was married with three kids, who operated a tailor shop at the prison, was also involved with two convicted murderers – what does it take to get to that place?” 

Miller says she studied existing video interviews and interrogation footage of Mitchell in preparation for the role. 

“The trial was public, so I got to watch the hearing,” she says. “The producers were able to obtain all of the transcripts from interviews and her interrogation and trial. She had also done some filmed interviews, including one she did with Anderson Cooper and a couple with Matt Lauer on ‘The Today Show.’”

Had she been granted the opportunity to interview Mitchell herself, Miller says she would have asked many questions connected to the woman’s state of mind during the time leading up to the escape. 

“If I had been able to meet with her before we started filming, I would have picked her brain to try to find out how and why she got involved with these two criminals. 

What state of mind was she in? Why was she attracted to these guys? Why was she willing to give up her life to run off with them? What was going on in her mind? She claimed that she never would have gone through with it and she didn’t. She ultimately had a panic attack on the night of the escape and didn’t show up with the getaway car. And they were also supposed to kill her husband, which she was aware of.”

Miller says that Mitchell’s involvement with the criminals is the ultimate example of getting involved with the bad boy.

“But these were two serious bad boys. One of them (Richard Matt) was nicknamed ‘Hacksaw’ because he cut up his boss and threw him in a river. They were cocky about killing people. He had tattoos that were about the things he did. When Matt Lauer asked her ‘Why would you have hidden these tools and snuck them into the prison?’ she answered ‘Yeah I know. People say I’m too nice.’ You can’t help but sort of laugh because it’s so sad and pathetic.”

In addition to having sexual contact with Richard Matt, Mitchell provided Matt and Sweat with a drill bit and hacksaws that she smuggled into the prison, disguised in a load of meat. The prisoners used the tools to cut holes in their cells and then cut through underground pipes leading to a manhole. 

“It was an obsessive love crime,” Miller continues. “She was convinced that they were interested in her romantically and that they wanted to run off with her and somehow she was willing to give up her whole life and take that risk.”

Portraying Joyce Mitchell in “New York Prison Break” was a risk, Miller says.

“It’s scary and a real challenge as an actor, where I can disappear into a role where people don’t really recognize me and they believe that I’m that person. I’m not making this character up so, as much as I can, I have to try to be as realistic to the real person and that makes it that much more challenging.”

After nearly three weeks on the run in June 2015, Richard Matt was ultimately shot and killed by a tactical team while David Sweat was shot and recaptured.

In a unanimous decision, Mitchell was denied parole earlier this year. 

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