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From Mean Girls to The Dropout: Amanda Seyfried’s chaotic career

Hulu’s The Dropout premiered its first three episodes on March 3 to acclaim from critics. Currently sitting at an impressive 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, the series attracted major praise for the performance of its leading lady, Amanda Seyfried, with virtually every critic raving about her career-best work. In many ways, The Dropout is the crowning achievement of the actress’ career, an unnerving performance that deftly balances allure, absurdism, and desperation, much like Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced entrepreneur and subject of  the series, did in real life.

Split image of Amanda Seyfried in Mamma Mia, The Dropout, and Mank

Seyfried has had a fascinating if unexpected career. Ever since her film debut in the now-iconic Mean Girls, Seyfried has been a constant presence on the big screen, experimenting with numerous genres, from the erotic thriller to the wholesome musical. Peaks and valleys abound on her resumé, granting her filmography an undeniable sense of chaos that nevertheless remains appealing, mainly because of her. Even in her worst-received movies, Seyfried remains magnetic, a constant high in the lowest lows. Her beauty is obvious, but it’s her aura, a unique mix of spotless innocence and unspoken experience, that keeps audiences engaged.

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She’s a mouse … duh!

The main cast of the movie Mean Girls posing for a promo photo
Paramount Pictures, 2004

Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Seyfried made her acting debut in the popular soap opera As The World Turns before rising to prominence with Mean Girls. When it premiered in April 2004, hardly anyone anticipated Mean Girls to become such a success. Infinitely quotable, acidic, and insightful, Mean Girls revitalized the struggling teen genre, cemented Lindsay Lohan as the undisputed queen of the early 2000s, and launched the career of scene-stealer Rachel McAdams.

Seyfried plays Karen Smith, the ditzy third member of The Plastics who doesn’t know how to spell “orange.” In more ways than one, Seyfried has the most difficult task among the cast. Virtue and denseness are two of the most difficult things to portray, and many who attempt to do so fail miserably. Yet Seyfried makes Karen’s stupidity seem natural and harmless, inviting audiences to laugh with her instead of at her.

A song to sing

Sophe singing in her balcony in Mamma Mia!
Universal Pictures, 2008

Following the success of Mean Girls, Seyfried played supporting roles in the dramas Nine Lives and Alpha Dog and the television series Big Love. And then Mamma Mia! happened. The plot, built around the timeless hits of Swedish band ABBA, follows a young woman who invites three men who could all potentially be her father to her wedding, much to her mother’s chagrin. Mamma Mia! is Meryl Streep’s film through and through, but Seyfried is a clear standout. Her angelic voice brings flirty youthfulness to “Honey, Honey” and charming hopefulness to “I Have A Dream,” all while holding her own against the likes of Streep, Christine Baranski, and Julie Walters. Mamma Mia! finished the work that Mean Girls began and elevated Seyfried to leading lady status.

The actress followed the musical’s uber success with Jennifer’s Body, Diablo Cody’s pop-culture-soaked take on the teen horror genre. Marketed around Megan Fox’s sex appeal, the film underperformed critically and commercially, but still did wonders for Seyfried’s career. Jennifer’s Body would become the blueprint for many Seyfried projects in which the actress became the film’s sole saving grace, at least in the eyes of critics. Indeed, while Jennifer’s Body has been rediscovered and reappraised as a feminist classic in recent years, future Seyfried projects didn’t have the same luck.

Chasing the acclaim

Marius and Cosette close to each other in Les Misérables
Universal Pictures, 2012

Seyfried began the romantic lead portion of her career in 2009, starring in harmless yet forgettable films like Dear John and Letters to Juliet. Ever experimental, Seyfried mixed these with erotically charged stories – –Chloe, Red Riding Hood – -where she played irresistible coquettes.

Praise came in 2012 with Les Misérables, Tom Hooper’s ambitious adaptation of the stage musical, in turn an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel. Seyfried played the virtuous Cosette, arguably the most thankless role in the story, not as flashy as Fantine nor as sympathetic as Éponine. Like the other actors, Seyfried’s singing attracted some criticism, and the actress herself regrets her choices, confessing on Variety Studio: Actors on Actors that she was “very unhappy with (her) singing.” Still, Les Misérables became her most successful film since Mamma Mia!, critically and commercially.

Seyfried then took several roles that seemed promising on paper but turned out disappointing in execution. Based on the life of iconic porn star Linda Lovelace, Lovelace received mixed reviews. Praise went to Seyfried and co-star Peter Sarsgaard, yet another familiar but underrated actor, but the film itself was called forgettable. Seyfried joined the massive cast of The Big Wedding, a film that critics panned despite having the talents of Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, and Robin Williams. Lastly, she played a supporting role in A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane’s highly anticipated follow-up to Ted that failed to match its predecessor’s critical and commercial success.

The actress then appeared in smaller films with varying degrees of success. Fathers and Daughters and The Clapper were critically reviled, with the latter earning her a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Actress. On the other hand, First Reformed received rave reviews, and although most of the praise went to star Ethan Hawke, Seyfried’s performance attracted muted acclaim. In 2018, she reprised her role in the sequel to Mamma Mia! — subtitled Here We Go Again. Once again, she played second fiddle to the Donna role, this time played by Lily James.

And the Oscar goes to …

Critics and fans praised Seyfried’s casting in David Fincher’s Mank. A passion project for the director, Mank follows Herman J. Mankiewicz as he writes the screenplay for Citizen Kane. Seyfried plays Marion Davies, adn iconic silent star and William Randolph Hearst’s longtime lover. A profoundly gifted comedienne with the natural ability to light up the screen, Davies saw her career decline after Hearst insisted on turning her into a “serious” actress. Her legacy suffered further damage because of her association with the character Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane.

Seyfried plays Davies with charming feistiness. Unfiltered yet approachable, her Davies is a perfect foil for Gary Oldman’s confrontational Mankiewicz. Mank is uneven and perhaps too long for its own good, but the film lights up every time Davies appears, and Seyfried knows it. Her face remains fresh and amazed in every frame, with eyes so wide and expressive they would make Bette Davis jealous. Yet, her Davies isn’t inexperienced; Seyfried remains superficially unassuming, hiding profound wisdom within and only seldomly revealing it.

For her performance in Mank, Seyfried earned her first Oscar nomination. The actress had a classic narrative in her favor — the seasoned, hard-working actress who finally gets that one role that showcases her long-gestating talents. Alas, while it worked for the likes of Charlize Theron and Natalie Portman, Seyfried went home empty-handed, but the prize was the nomination itself. To the eyes of Hollywood’s elite, Oscar still means prestige, a legitimization that few other things can grant. The words “Academy Award nominee” still carry considerable meaning, dignifying even the most questionable projects.

Only the beginning

Amanda Seyfried looking shocked in The Dropout.

Seyfried’s post-Mank career was somewhat quiet until The Dropout. Initially set to star Kate McKinnonThe Dropout is the perfect vehicle for any actress. It fits into the true-crime drama craze that currently dominates the entertainment landscape, while its stranger-than-fiction real-life story seems tailor-made for a television serial. Seyfried seems poised for Emmy recognition, and while victory might seem unlikely, the nomination will provide her with yet another steppingstone on her road to eventual glory.

“Chaotic” might be the best word to describe Seyfried’s career. Yet, there’s beauty in the chaos, especially when such a compelling figure is at its center. She has no major franchise to her name, no role in any superhero movie or critically acclaimed vehicles. Still, she remains one of the most alluring actresses of her generation, fitting seamlessly in period pieces and modern-day romances, comedy and drama, leading a story or merely supporting it. Time and again, in movies of widely varying quality and prestige, Seyfried has proven her versatility, talent, and resilience, building a career that refuses to recede. And honestly, Hollywood is much better for it.

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