Entertaining AF: Star Carrie Preston on ‘To the Bone,’ Netflix’s Portrait of Anorexia

The extreme warning on Netflix’s new film is absurd. Watch it

Welcome to Entertaining AF, a new celebrity column from Hollywood reporter Emily Bicks. 

Carrie Preston in To the Bone. Netflix

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 30 million people suffer from anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or binge eating. These are all highly complex mental disorders for which there is no simple cure, and continue to bewilder much of America. But telling someone with an eating disorder to “just eat” is like telling an alcoholic to “just not drink,” and without treatment, can lead to death. It’s a topic that needs to be brought into the public forum, and Netflix’s latest film, To the Bone, officially released on July 14th does just that.

As someone who’s been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in the past, and has long since recovered, I can say with all honesty that I was not nervous to watch To the Bone. Triggers are everywhere. That’s life. My only concern was that it wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal of how nasty this disease can be, how it affects not just the person who’s suffering, but all of his or her loved ones as well.

Within the first fifteen minutes, my worries abated. In fact, my only wish was that I could’ve watched this movie in high school, when I was 4’11, weighing in at 73 pounds fully clothed.

Written and directed by Marti Noxon, To the Bone is a brutally honest, albeit beautiful story about Ellen (Lily Collins), a 20-year-old girl deeply troubled with anorexia. Noxon, who’s spoken out about her previous battles with both anorexia and bulimia, handles the tricky, hard-to-understand disease with extreme care. Noxon, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer producer and co-creator of Lifetime’s hit series UnReal, managed to infuse To the Bone with spurts of humor, which makes the movie an entertaining watch, and not just 107 minutes of depression and tears.

There are definitely parts that were tough to watch. Seeing Ellen’s naked, skeletal frame, her backbone protruding through her skin like that of a reptile, it made me shiver. But this what anorexia nervosa looks like. It’s gross and scary. The masterful calorie counting, secret workouts, family therapy sessions, none of it is cute. I cried at least four times watching this movie, but it wasn’t because painful memories resurfaced. It was because I was so deeply moved by truthfulness of the film, and the cast’s incredible performances.

Among those who have spoken out to put an extreme warning on this movie, Jason Trethowan, CEO of headspace, a national youth health organization. He put out a statement saying, “The concern is about portrayal of behaviours associated with an eating disorder – and whether this may be providing a ‘how to guide’ for adolescents who may be at risk. We don’t want any representation or discussion in the media, on TV, or anywhere else, that has the potential to place young people at risk.”

I’m sorry. But with the constant amount of useless, obscene shit shown on TV and in movies these days, waving a red flag for To the Bone is quite outrageous. This is a film that could serve a utilitarian purpose to the world. Even if it helped just five of the 30 million people in America currently suffering with an eating disorder feel less alone, or help their loved ones finally understand what it is they’re going through, it’s a movie worth watching.

The statement Noxon recently put on Twitter in response to the public backlash was perfect. “I know firsthand the struggle, isolation and shame a person feels when they are in the grips of this illness. In an effort to tell this story as responsibly as we could, we spoke with other survivors and worked with Project Heal throughout production in the hopes of being truthful in a way that wasn’t exploitative.”

I got to speak about this controversial issue with actress Carrie Preston, who portrays Ellen’s stepmother in To the Bone. The Emmy award-winning actress, who currently stars as Polly on TNT’s Claws, can attest that the film handles this sensitive topic responsibly and that forging a conversation about this is much more productive than ignoring it altogether.

What initially drew you to this role?

Carrie Preston: It happened so quickly. Suddenly, I got this script out of nowhere and they were like can you start next week. I was just so floored that I was available, and that they thought of me for such an extraordinary part. Sometimes you have to jump through a lot of hoops for these kinds of offers. I was also very taken with how Marti Noxon was able to deal with that subject matter in such a sensitive way and being unafraid to bring in humor and a sense of levity to it. It’s based on her experiences and she’s such a stellar writer.

You play Susan with such a likeable nuance. She never feels like stock caricature of a stepmom.

Thank you. You know, stories like this, to use a generalized the term, that deal with an issue,  it can easily go towards the stereotypes. The evil mother. The absentee father. The bully or whatever it is that helps the stakes of the situation. But I always want to find the complications in the character and play the positive choice. And I think with most parents, they want to do well. They want to help their kids, they just don’t always know how. Nobody wants to be a bad parent. I think for the most part, their intentions are good.

So, even though Susan is only Ellen’s stepmother, she’s really the only adult woman figure this girl’s life. And she tries to do the best she can even though she doesn’t quite understand it all. 

How do you feel about the public outcry saying the film is too graphic, or irresponsible?

We’re in a very sensitive time right now where people are being triggered by all kinds of things. And we are all feeling very vulnerable. I think it’s important to have conversation about things instead of shutting things down. I know that’s what Marti and Lily have talked about a lot in the release of this movie, is creating a conversation. But in order to have a conversation, you have to bring the topic to the forefront. You have to release a piece of art like this that asks people to participate. And if they don’t want to, they don’t have to. And I think it’s our responsibilities as artists to create opportunities for dialogue.

Absolutely. I think a similar type of dialogue was spawned after 13 Reasons Why.

And in the same way that this production of Julius Caesar triggered a lot of people. They are having reactions to the reaction. And they haven’t seen the movie yet! They’ve seen the trailer and are making some uneducated points. I think once they see the movie, they may have a different opinion about it. And I don’t think the way anorexia and eating disorders being handled in the movie are being done in a gratuitous or irresponsible way at all.

In the film, Lily looks so frail. Was she really that emaciated?

It was a very healthy loss of weight. She had a nutritionist and people working with her in a healthy way. The actors were eating but they just had a special diet. That, in combination with computer generated images and makeup. She had prosthetics on her cheeks to make her look more gaunt. They had brilliant makeup and special effects artists to help create that illusion. But yes, it was disturbing. But I wasn’t worried for the actors. We’re all responsible people who are trying to do things in a healthy way. It was disturbing for the character. Not the actors.

With both Lily and Marti having dealt with eating disorders in their past, how was the vibe on set?

We’re all professionals. It never got out of hand,  In my experience on set, there was a lot of laughing, a lot of dialogue, and a lot of joy in the creation of this. We were in great hands with Marti and she would never take us to a place in which we felt uncomfortable

Was this filmed before, after or during Claws?

Before. I think it was last summer. It’s been a while! I was coming out of True Blood and The Good Wife at the time, in fact I didn’t even know about Claws then. But now we’re wrapped. It was glorious experience. We shot in New Orleans which was really fun. It’s a great city. The people there are so welcoming. We’re waiting right now to see if we get a second season.

And will we see Elsbeth again on The Good Fight?

I don’t know. I hope so! They don’t start shooting the second season until the Fall, so I’m hoping they’ll find a place for me, and that I can do a little arc like I did in the first.

Yes, please. The more Carrie Preston on TV, the better. Entertaining AF: Star Carrie Preston on ‘To the Bone,’ Netflix’s Portrait of Anorexia