Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story debuts Jan. 19 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime. The movie follows Nellie Bly, played by Christina Ricci, a pioneering journalist who has herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York to expose the terrible conditions and mistreatment mentally ill patients. Judith Light plays the strict Matron Grady, who tortured her patients inside the asylum. HollywoodLife spoke with the two-time Tony Award winner and asked why the role was one she knew she had to take on.
“[It was because of] the script. Helen Childress, the director. Christina Ricci. And this story about two things: an investigative journalist of that time, a very brave woman [Nellie Bly]. In this time of talking about women, we have forgotten that there are all of these women that came before us and who really did courageous things and made changes,” Judith told HollywoodLife. “Not only out of their ability to know that what they had to do was really shine a spotlight on something, but the level of courage that it took for this woman to get herself committed to a mental institution I thought was something that was very important for me to talk about. Also, the other issue is mental health. We’re dealing with a lot of that in our country now. It’s still here. I thought it was really important to do a project about that [mental health] and women journalists.”
To prepare for the role of Matron Grady, Judith went to Blackwell’s Island, which is now Roosevelt Island. She admitted that “the stories that came out of this place were horrific. The way the women were treated and how they were treated by people who were supposed to be taking care of them. Nellie made herself sound what people defined as ‘off’ or ‘crazy.’ She was incredibly sane and the women that she met when she got herself committed to the asylum, she said many of them were as sane as she was. They drove them to insanity by the way they treated them, and I play one of the women who was the matron to the whole place who treats these women despicably.”
The real Nellie Bly was actually named Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman. Nellie Bly was her pen name. She stayed in the asylum undercover for 10 days and later published the book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, about her experience. She was a pioneer for women in the investigative journalism field.