Jennifer Grey struggled to keep her weight up while playing Christian diet guru Gwen Shamblin
The first thing Jennifer Grey did when she received the script for Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation — Lifetime's upcoming movie about the founder of the Weigh Down Workshop and controversial leader of Remnant Fellowship Church — was hit the internet.
"I knew nothing at all," says Grey of Shamblin. "I Googled her, and I got the visual right between the eyes." That visual — of Shamblin's gaunt, heavily made-up face and towering beehive of bleach-blonde hair — caught the actress by surprise. "I was completely riveted. I thought, 'Why me?'" she recalls with a laugh.
But the more she learned about Shamblin, who died along with six other Remnant leaders in a 2021 plane crash, the more intrigued Grey became. Although she found the prospect of playing the church leader "terrifying," the actress ultimately could not say no. EW got the full rundown from Grey on the three conditions she had for Lifetime before taking the role, how her good friend Jamie Lee Curtis helped her get the right wigs for the job, and why she struggled to keep her weight up while playing the extremely thin megachurch leader.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The story of Gwen Shamblin and Remnant Fellowship is completely fascinating and bizarre. What, if anything, did you know about Gwen and her church before this role?
JENNIFER GREY: I knew nothing at all. So, when the script landed in my inbox, I thought, "Oh, okay, this is a real person that Lifetime is doing a story about." The first thing I did was I Googled her, and I got the visual right between the eyes of like, "What the heck going on here?" I was completely riveted. I thought, "Why me?" [Laughs] And then the next thing I saw was that there was this two-part, very clearly respected and serious documentary about a real person who died.
Lifetime Jennifer Grey in 'Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation'
I looked at the trailer of The Way Down, and I was riveted, I was horrified, and I was so sad. I felt so much heaviness around it. My first thought was, "Well, this is a terrifying prospect to play somebody so dark, who was a real person just recently on this earth." And the next thought was, how can I be part of a story that really corroborates a very powerful voice in our culture, which is about [the importance of] body size and perfectionism? I feel that as human beings living in this culture, we are all so vulnerable to the voice of Gwen Shamblin, which says there is a shape and size and number that we must hit in order to be worthy of love, worthy of God's love, worthy of attention, worthy of success… To me, it is one of the most virulent and dangerous ideas.
I said to Lifetime, if I do this, there are three conditions. One is I must be able to use this as a platform to counter the message of "it is best to be thin, it is best to aim for perfection." She was the personification of anorexia nervosa, which has one of the the highest or second-highest mortality rates [among eating disorders]. I thought, if I can do this and use this as a platform to raise awareness about seeking treatment, and to show the insanity and the misguidedness of her message, then I would be interested.
And because I'd never worn a wig before and because I'd never done a dialect before, I said I would need to have incredible wigs, which are very expensive. If you are not willing to pony up [for] that, I can't do it. And if you're not willing to pony up for as much dialect coaching as I feel I will need to be comfortable, I can't do it. Those were my terms.
In terms of the dialect, there is copious archival footage of Gwen –
Oh, there's more footage of her in the universe than the Kardashians! She is so happy to get her mug out there. [Laughs]
How did all that footage help you replicate her distinctive voice and cadence?
Nobody wants to have the accent acting at you. Because I was working so quickly and had so little time to prepare, I hired who I think is probably the best dialect coach in the world. Her name is Liz Himelstein. I started working with her as soon as I got the part. We would just do an hour every morning. She was able to modulate me from doing the accent to starting to feel the accent. By the time I was shooting, I was also trying to speak in the accent away from practicing and from the script. I felt so bad for my friends and my family because they would be like, "Can you please stop talking like that?" I'd say, [in Gwen's Southern accent], "Ah am trying!"
I would listen to her [appearance on] Larry King over and over. I'd be in the bathtub listening, and the way she would say "Gawd" was not how I would expect it. When she is trying to be very specific and perhaps performative, she wouldn't drop her i-n-gs. She would be like, "I am living." And then when she would be with the kids or whatever she'd say, "I am livin'." I wanted to notice the nuance between when she is being the rockstar and when she is just throwing down at home and giving people s---.
On its face, Gwen's initial concept for the Weigh Down Workshop — that Christians could lean on their faith to help them reach their weight-loss goals — seems like a harmless enough idea. Do you think she began with good intentions?
Because I didn't know the woman and because I don't know anyone who knew her, everything that I've constructed in trying to understand her is really cobbled together from research and my imagination. I'm thinking that somebody hurt her really bad — some church, some family member, whatever it is. At the beginning of the movie, even though it's written by a screenwriter and not her words, she is obsessed with losing those four pounds. And for her, if she could not control those four pounds, it was almost like she had no value. [I think] somebody told her that she was not of value or lovable or good in any other shape. The self-loathing is the underlying issue.
She discovered that if she asked God for help [with her weight], God would take away the desire to eat the cake in the middle of the night. I believe her brokenness led her to a solution, and then to share that solution with other people felt really gratifying [to her]. And because she was so charismatic, and she was so excited and passionate about her solution, that people were so drawn to her that they started to empower her and turn over their lives [to her]. They start to project onto her this love, this adoration, this idolization. It's powerful. She is basically being treated like a version of God. There's that famous quote: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." That's how I see it.
Lifetime Vincent Walsh and Jennifer Grey in 'Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation'
Your transformation is incredible. We must talk about the wigs — how much time did it take to get Gwen's signature high hair just right?
I'm very tight with Jamie Lee Curtis. I have talked to her most days and on this day I said, "Oh, there's this job I'm thinking of maybe doing." And then I sent her a picture of the woman and I said, "But I told them I need good wigs." And she said, "Okay, I'm sending you a number right now. His name is Rob Pickens, and he did my wigs for Halloween. He's got a wig making atelier where they make them by hand, hair by hair, and you've got to call him as soon as you get off the phone with me." And I said, "I haven't closed my deal." And she said, "I don't care. It takes a long time. This shoots in two weeks? You need to get a wig fitting today."
So, I call him immediately. He said, "Well, you need at least two wigs, probably four." There was one wig where he said, "We could repurpose Jamie's old wig from Halloween. We can use that as the base." So the first wig that I'm wearing [at the beginning of the movie], when Gwen is kind of like the church lady, that's Jamie's old wig from Halloween Ends. And then he then started making the other wigs. He measured my head with saran wrap and tape, and I've never done any of that stuff. I came in to try it on right before I left [for the shoot], and it was just like this waterfall of hair. He didn't want to cut it yet. Then they sent the wigs to Montreal and this woman named Lyne Lapiana, she's very, very good with wigs. She cut it and then she added extensions to it.
Was the big wig heavy to wear?
Because it's a really good wig, it was never heavy. It was light as a feather. But my hair had to be slicked and tightly bound to my head, and clipped and gelled and then the [I had the bald] cap. The wig was not uncomfortable, but the tightness under it [was]. That's a lot of hair to wrap up inside a wig cap!
Gwen's look began to get more exaggerated in the last few years of her life, after she married former actor-turned-handyman Joe Lara.
The hair got bigger and the body got smaller. Of course, she said that no one's allowed to be divorced because it's a sin against God. She controlled everybody's lives [in her congregation], and everyone did exactly what she said, or they wouldn't be allowed to stay [in the church]. And then she divorced her loving husband [of 40 years], and she married the handyman who was much younger than her. She had a very produced wedding. She produced the engagement. It was very much like her life was a reality show.
The trailer teases a scene from her wedding night, when Joe is in leopard print briefs and she's in a black lace bustier. What was that like to film?
Terrifying. Because there's just so much trust involved when you do these things. If it was me working with a director I knew for a long time [it wouldn't have been as scary]. I just was an actor for hire. And when you're just an actor for hire and they're saying, "Yeah, you're in a corset and stocking belts and he's in a leopard skin loin…" It's the most vulnerable thing in the world to be naked on the set or to have a sexual scene on the set. And this was not a sexy scene. [Laughs] But for them, it was the highlight of sexy. It was one of those things where you're like, "This is either the worst thing that's ever happened to my career, or maybe it'll be funny." [Laughs]
Lifetime Vincent Walsh and Jennifer Grey in 'Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation'
By the final years of her life, Gwen Shamblin was visually anorexic. You're already such a petite person, but did you choose to lose any weight for the role?
I've never had an eating disorder, and I feel very grateful to never have had an eating disorder. It's a very, very serious psychiatric disease. There is treatment for, and it is very hard to recover from. I've done a PSA with NEDA — which is the National Eating Disorder Association — and that will run with the movie. It's so critical that people seek help because it will kill you.
For me, I'm always the same weight. I've got one of those bodies that's just the same. It gets wrinklier as it gets older, and it needs surgery for, you know, neck and back and joints and things. It's changing, but my weight is very constant. My biggest issue is that when I'm working, I was doing two hours of hair and makeup, and then I was working 12, 14-hour days, and then driving to location. I'm not really good at eating crap food, so my biggest challenge was to try to keep my weight up. I did not try to lose weight, but I was losing weight, and I was not liking it. I like my boobs and my butt! But what happens is as soon as I lose weight, I just get, like, really bony.
One last question. When we spoke last year, you mentioned that the Dirty Dancing sequel script was in the works. Is it finished?
I'll tell you where it stands. It is not finished. There's nothing imminent I can share with you at this moment… I would love spill some tea, because it would be fun. I'm not being stingy, I just can't.
Gwen Shamblin: Starving for Salvation premieres Saturday, Feb. 4 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.