Celeste Beard was an outrageous woman. Her actions were without a doubt reprehensible, but at the same time riveting and fascinating. Now, they will be unveiled in movie form when Julie Benz takes on the real-life role in Lifetime’s Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer, based on the book The Fortune Hunter by Suzy Spencer.
“Celeste is very believable when you watch her in an interview,” Benz told reporters during a junket for the Lifetime movie. “At least for me, I would watch her interviews and be like, ‘She’s right. Everybody was out to get her. This is a total lie. This didn’t happen. She’s so innocent.’ And then you read the transcript from the trial, you hear the recorded messages, and all of that, and you’re like, ‘Well, wait a second.’”
As the story opens, Celeste works as a waitress at a country club in Austin, Texas, where she manages to catch the attention of Steven Beard (Eli Gabay), a retired broadcasting executive, who falls hard for Celeste and makes her his wife. He lavishes her with homes, cars, designer clothes, and jewelry, but it isn’t enough.
Eventually, Celeste is committed to a mental health facility for depression. There, she seduces a fellow patient Tracey Tarlton (Justine Warrington) and convinces her that the only way they can be together is if Steven is dead. And she might have gotten away with Steven’s murder if Tracey hadn’t finally come clean.
Following is more of Benz’s thoughts on playing the convicted murderer, who is serving a life sentence at the Crain Unit in Gatesville, Texas.
What did you do to prepare for this role?
Julie Benz: The great thing about these types of roles is you can get all that anger and aggression out on set. For me, I did a lot of research. We shot in Vancouver, so I had a 14-day quarantine. I spent that time watching all the video footage I could find of Celeste, going down every rabbit hole of the case and just really trying to wrap my head around this woman.
She was extremely outrageous, so it was challenging for me. It allowed me basically to take the lid off of her. Most people live with a lid on to keep certain emotions in check, and Celeste just vomited however she felt. And so, it was just being able to release the valve and let it all out and let it go. There were some days after filming all day where I’d be exhausted from the amount of the emotional journey that she was going on, but the jumping around in the shooting schedule as well. It was exhausting, but it was exhilarating as well.
When you get a colorful character like this, you can go high and wide at the same time. Is the challenge to moderate so you don’t go too far? How was that process for you as you approached the character before anybody else gave you direction?
Julie Benz: In approaching Celeste, I spoke to Robin Hays, our director, and I was like, “I’m going to chew the scenery. I’m going to just let it go. It’s up to you to tell me when and where I need to pull it back. Help me craft the performance because the only way I know how to play her is to just go from zero to 60 in under a second.” So, it was really in Robin’s hands to help tell me, “Take it down a little bit. Let’s try a different approach.” All of that. So, Robin really helped me craft the performance of Celeste as well.
Were there days when it was too much?
Julie Benz: I will say there were some scenes that really just broke my heart as an actress, where I really scared Roan [Curtis] and Georgia [Bradner], who played my daughters. Literally after every take, I would just hug them and just be like, “I’m so sorry.” They loved it. They were just like, “No. We were terrified.” Robin would yell “cut” and I would immediately grab them into a hug just to make me feel better because there was a lot of ugly energy that I had to live in.
How challenging was it to get Celeste’s accent perfected?
Julie Benz: I’m good at it, so it wasn’t that challenging for me. For me, it was really getting Celeste when she talks. She has kind of a flat tone, and it was really trying to get some of that flat tone. She flattens A’s a lot. Also, I can lean too heavily into the accent, so they were constantly backing me off from it. So, it was getting that flat tone, but still being able to show emotion through it. So, it was being able to do that, but also still have the emotional range and have that go through your voice.
Going into a role, you’ve got to find something redeeming about the character, something to like about her. Was there anything you found redeeming about her? And do you think she was doing it for her kids?
Julie Benz: When I entered into this project and started researching Celeste, I would go back and forth between: Was she guilty? Was she innocent? Because if you watch her in an interview, she still claims her innocence and she’s so believable. I really tried not to pass any judgment on her and really, I think in her mind, she did it for her family, her children. Like, this is what you do. But I think at the end of the day, she really just did it for herself and that’s speaking now that I’m removed from the project and she’s out of my system. But while I was in it, I would have big arguments on set: “I don’t know. I think she’s innocent, guys. I watched another interview.” And [executive producer] Barbara [Lieberman] would be like, “No, she’s not.”
If you could talk to Celeste, what would you ask her?
Julie Benz: The obvious question is, “Come on, did you really do it?” But I don’t think I would ask that. I’d be too afraid.
Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer premieres Sunday, June 13 at 8 p.m. ET/7c on Lifetime.