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Anna Chlumsky delves into a scammer's story for 'Inventing Anna'

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

The new Netflix show "Inventing Anna" follows a journalist trying to uncover the story of an Instagram fashionista, Anna Delvey - or is it Anna Sorokin? - a German heiress, maybe, who scammed her way through New York's most exclusive social scene, stealing money and nearly succeeding in borrowing $40 million to build a social club in Manhattan. That journalist, played by Anna Chlumsky, needs to get to the bottom of this story. She's got a baby on the way and the added pressure of shaking off a past story gone wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INVENTING ANNA")

ANNA CHLUMSKY: (As Vivian Kent) I thought I was going to have it fixed - my reputation - (crying) before there was a tiny person I'm required to keep alive and pay attention to. I want her. I do. It's - I thought I would have my career saved.

NADWORNY: Anna Chlumsky joins me now. Welcome.

CHLUMSKY: That is intense to listen to without video (laughter).

NADWORNY: Takes you right back?

CHLUMSKY: That's amazing. Anyway...

NADWORNY: So each episode starts with the text, this whole story is completely true except for all the parts that are totally made up...

CHLUMSKY: Yes.

NADWORNY: ...(Laughter) Which I love.

CHLUMSKY: Yes. I love, too.

NADWORNY: But this does come from a true story. I mean, Anna is a real person. She went to prison for grand larceny.

CHLUMSKY: Yep.

NADWORNY: Were you familiar with the story before you took on the project?

CHLUMSKY: I was apparently living under my own rock that I shared with no one because everybody else knew about (laughter) this story, and I did not. But I got to come to it fresh, which is - which has its own perks.

NADWORNY: The real Anna Delvey has an unusual accent.

CHLUMSKY: Yeah.

NADWORNY: But I just want to play a clip of how actress Julia Garner plays it on the show because it's incredible.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INVENTING ANNA")

JULIA GARNER: (As Anna Delvey) Why do you dress like that?

CHLUMSKY: (As Vivian Kent) Like?

GARNER: (As Anna Delvey) Like that. What you're wearing - you look poor.

(LAUGHTER)

CHLUMSKY: I'm telling you, just hours ago, my husband and I were walking around the house just going, you look poor. You look poor. You look poor. Like, that's all we were doing. It's delicious.

And it's also very - it's very spot on. Like, every viewer can just rest assured that that is an excellent rendition of the speech patterns (laughter) of the real person.

NADWORNY: You play Vivian Kent, who is a version of a real-life journalist, Jessica Pressler.

CHLUMSKY: Yes.

NADWORNY: Did you prep with her? Kind of - how did you get into the part?

CHLUMSKY: So my character is one that is fictionalized, very, very much inspired by Jessica Pressler because she is the writer of the article on which this entire program is based, so...

NADWORNY: For New York Magazine.

CHLUMSKY: The New York Magazine article - and Jessica is also a co-producer on our show, so we had the benefit of her blessing all the way. And I definitely wanted to build Vivian on her own merit in a way, but very much pulling from what Jessica was making available to me.

NADWORNY: I have to point out because I am a journalist...

CHLUMSKY: Yeah.

NADWORNY: ...That the version of journalism that is in this show is not exactly what I might consider ethical.

CHLUMSKY: (Laughter).

NADWORNY: I mean, Vivian goes out on a couple limbs here, right?

CHLUMSKY: Now you see why we had to fictionalize a bit.

(LAUGHTER)

CHLUMSKY: Not necessarily because it wouldn't happen - you know, I think we present a very plausible character and a very plausible journey among the ethics (laughter). And also, we were - you know, that was one of the reasons it was really great for us to give Jessica her space because we needed the creative license to be able to take the story wherever we needed it to go.

I love how I say we. I didn't write it.

NADWORNY: But you're part of it. That counts.

CHLUMSKY: (Laughter).

NADWORNY: Well, OK, so this actually brings me to my next question, which is - I want to talk about the relationship between your character and Delvey because, you know, you visit her in the show multiple times in prison.

CHLUMSKY: Yep.

NADWORNY: There's a lot of push and pull. Like, who has the power? Are you friends?

CHLUMSKY: Yeah.

NADWORNY: Do you trust each other? Like, what's that all about?

CHLUMSKY: That's - I mean, really, what's that all about, Alfie?

NADWORNY: Yeah.

CHLUMSKY: That's the whole question. It's - you start off thinking that this is about, you know, crimes and fraud and all the things that are on the rap sheet, right? And it's definitely about that, and that's all up for debate as well.

And really in the bottom of all of this is relationships and how we treat one another, how we value one another. And I feel like we really get into the mess of human value and human relationships in this show. What is a friend? You know, we meet a lot of people who consider themselves friends, and then they have to question what that means to them. And they all have a different definition, and they may all mean it, right?

And then we have the professional relationships that - you know, we think that they're all completely compartmentalized, which, by now, I think we know it does not exist. And you have to ask yourself, well, what's this relationship? It still affects me, but I can't call it a friendship. I can't call it a romance. I can't call it any of these things. What is it? Because it's affecting me, you know? And that is so much the human experience, and I think that is so much why when we discover that maybe we can't rely on one another, it becomes so scary, you know?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So I heard or read that you read Janet Malcolm's 1990s "The Journalist And The Murderer."

CHLUMSKY: Yeah, I'm like...

NADWORNY: Is this true?

CHLUMSKY: Yeah.

NADWORNY: You're going to get it (laughter).

CHLUMSKY: I know I have it. For anybody listening, even if this makes the edit, I'm, like, walking around in my library trying to find it. It's here. But yes, I did.

NADWORNY: What did you take from it, though?

CHLUMSKY: I think a lot of what I took is what you and I were just talking about. When we are asking to have access to somebody's life and the intimacy with which you have to navigate that relationship, where do you find the lines, right? And I think that that is why that is such an invaluable book, and I think that that is why I think, in the journalistic realm, people know it so well because it is something to be aware of at least - right? - is just that questioner-subject dynamic. You know, even if we don't have as much control over it as we'd like to think, we at least can be aware of it.

NADWORNY: Well, I think that also speaks to this idea of who is inventing Anna. Like, that's the name of the show, but...

CHLUMSKY: Totally.

NADWORNY: Is the journalist doing this? Is Anna doing this? Kind of...

CHLUMSKY: (Laughter) I think that's what brings them together every time - right? - is, like, they're both writing this story together (laughter).

NADWORNY: Yeah, they can't kind of survive without the other, it seems.

CHLUMSKY: Yeah. And, you know, they're the only ones doing it. Like, they're - they think...

NADWORNY: Yeah.

CHLUMSKY: ...They're the only ones doing it. But really, everybody...

NADWORNY: Yeah.

CHLUMSKY: Yeah. I mean, now we get into the philosophy of all this, which is where...

NADWORNY: Yeah.

CHLUMSKY: Danger - you're talking to Chlumsky. Like, that's where I'm going to take it. Like, everything's a story that we write about ourselves or someone else, right? And sometimes, there's stakes all around. Somebody is telling their version of what really happened. And to them, it's absolutely fact.

NADWORNY: Anna Chlumsky plays journalist Vivian Kent in Netflix "Inventing Anna." It is out now. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHLUMSKY: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHROMEO SONG, "OPENING UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
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