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.
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.