Star Elle Fanning takes us inside this true crime drama about a teen who got lost in the digital world

In 2017, the case against Michelle Carter, a high-schooler from Plainville, Massachusetts, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for pressuring her boyfriend into committing suicide over text, set new precedent for prosecuting the encouragement of suicide and one’s protection under the First Amendment.  

A then-17-year-old Carter exchanged countless interactions with 18-year-old boyfriend Conrad “Coco” Roy III, that ranged from suggestion for how he could end his life to a final call where she, by her own admission, asked him to return to the car in which he poisoned himself using carbon monoxide fumes.  

The Girl From PlainvilleW NetworkThat complex story, better known as the “texting suicide case,” is the subject of Elle Fanning’s new foray into both starring and executive producing. The Great actress was drawn to this project not only because of the notoriety of the case, but her own experiences with technology. “What attracted me was that relationship that I have with my phone, and with that false sense of intimacy and false sense of reality that it creates,” she says. “For me, it was diving deeper into how technology affected these two people. Especially with Michelle, she was very much alone. And that relationship [with Coco] sparked instant gratification. That can be a dark place to live in.”  

To research Carter, Fanning started with the article written by Jesse Barron for Esquire magazine. She also delved into the 2019 HBO documentary I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter. “I had a lot of research to pull from in creating Michelle, but, at the same time, we don’t know everything and I think that’s what this show is hopefully going to do, is look deeper into those headlines and put ourselves in those characters’ positions,” says Fanning, for whom the real-life aspect of the character added pressure. “It was definitely a big challenge, wanting to be sensitive and feeling a responsibility of playing real people, but having to create a character that is feeling these emotions, from a truthful place.”   

The Girl From PlainvilleW NetworkFor showrunners Patrick Macmanus (Dr. Death) and Liz Hannah (The Post), the intention was not to relitigate the case when they started working on the series. “We were very much in line from the beginning that we didn’t want to present a specific point of view as to guilt or innocence,” says Macmanus. “Our goal was to present a dramatization of this story and to use all the thousands of text messages, all the hundreds of pages of depositions, all the hundreds of pages of interviews as our guidepost to be able to present a full and true story.”  

While the Carter family did not participate in the project, Roy’s mother Lynn, played by Chloë Sevigny, spoke to the writers about what happened. “The opportunity to talk with Lynn Roy was an extraordinary experience for all of us involved,” says Macmanus. “To have the opportunity to get into what her headspace was, not just then but today, was extraordinarily valuable.”  

Big Love alum Sevigny was drawn to the project for its examination of a mother’s grief. “I thought that this was a real opportunity to examine forgiveness and finding peace,” she says. “There was so much there to the character and what Lynn went through. Seeing her being interviewed, the strength that she showed, I just thought she was someone I really wanted to play and, also, bring awareness to the case.” 

The Girl From PlainvilleW NetworkSomething that struck both cast and creators was the sense of loneliness felt by both Carter and Roy, who both suffered from anxiety and depression, and, despite their exchange of thousands of messages, only saw each other twice in person. In the series, Carter’s real-life obsession with the show Glee is used to illustrate how she identified with nerdy outcast Rachel Berry, played by Lea Michele. “So much of the show is about loneliness and for every character involved, from Lynn to Michelle to Coco, there’s a real sense of isolation either via what the case does to the families or through technology,” says Hannah. “What Glee did was make people who were lonely feel included, and it was something that was really bittersweet to explore through Michelle’s character—this idea of inclusion through this show when she couldn’t do it in real life.”  

Although a dark role to dig into, Fanning loves immersing herself in a challenging part. “I love feeling terrified—that feeling of just being thrown into something and you’re so scared, but you’re making something happen,” she says of getting into a character. These days, she is equally enthusiastic about throwing herself into the role as exec producer. “I think, now that I’m a bit older, getting to see the machine work and getting to have a say in that, is something that I’m really interested in. I’ve always felt like I wanted to see how a show is made. Now, I’m getting to do that.”

The Girl From Plainville airs Thursday at 9 p.m. on W Network