It was 15 years ago that the teenager Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her home in Utah in the middle of the night. For nine months she was held captive by an ersatz holy man and his wife and subjected to torture, rape, and attempts at brainwashing.
The true version of that ordeal will be revealed in a docu-drama premiering on Lifetime Saturday. Unlike earlier attempts, this project, “I Am Elizabeth Smart,” arrives with Smart’s participation and her blessings. She not only serves as a producer, but also provides the show’s narration.
“When I got home, I swore up and down that I was never going to write a book, I was never going to do a movie. I wanted it all to disappear,” says Smart, smartly dressed in a black pantsuit and white shirt, her face burnished with rosy cheeks.
“I wanted it all to go away, and honestly, I think that’s a pretty natural response. And for years I felt that way,” she says.
“But little by little, I started to become more involved in advocacy. And I started meeting more survivors and meeting other people who had gone through similar things. And as I got older and I became more involved, until eventually it’s kind of my world now. I realized that I have an opportunity. I have a unique opportunity to share my story because there are so many other survivors out there who struggle every day because they feel like they are alone.”
Smart felt desperately alone when Brian David Mitchell and his wife, Wanda Barzee, imprisoned the 14-year-old in a mountain campsite where they sometimes forced her into a pit covered with boards or chained her to a tree.
Smart says throughout the incarceration, her religion and family background helped fortify her. “I grew up in a conservative Christian home. And having had 14 years of a wonderful family, of coming from a very secure background, having been taught from my parents from as far back as I can remember, to all of a sudden being taken, being told that God commanded them to hurt me, God had been commanded to do all these terrible things to me, that was just sort of night and day for me,” she says, her long, blonde hair cascading over her shoulders.
“So it never changed my view on God because the 14 years prior to that, I’d always been told, ‘You’ll know a person by their actions. No matter what they say, if they’re a good person, they’ll be doing good things.’ And these people weren’t good. They were hurting me. So clearly they weren’t people of God. So that’s, fortunately, how I was able to kind of maintain the separation.”
In the film, Smart is played by 20-year-old British actress Alana Boden. Skeet Ulrich, who portrays the demonic Mitchell, says he was tormented by doubts before filming began. “He was a very complicated guy to figure out, and I had nightmares every night,” says Ulrich, who’s starred in projects like “As Good as It Gets,” “The Newton Boys,” “Jericho.”
“I fortunately had access to his psych analysis, which was about a little over 200 pages while they were trying to figure out if he was competent to stand trial. And all of the reading, reading Elizabeth’s book, everything going on, I couldn’t sleep. I’d get nightmares every night. And then, fortunately, we had shot all of the stuff in the encampment in the first couple of weeks, and then we had a four-day break,” he recalls.
“So I flew back to L.A. to see my family. And I had one last nightmare that I had a hair stuck in my throat, and I was pulling it out. And it became a massive bunch – more hair and a bunch more hair. And then it turned into the rope that he wore to hold the key that she was locked with …
“And I woke up panicked, and then I realized it was letting him go … It’s one thing to play the killer in ‘Scream,’ and it’s a completely different thing to play Brian David Mitchell,” continues Ulrich. “It was complex. But, ultimately, I think there’s great value in accepting challenges like that. The hope for me was always that those out there – probably your hope as well – will find courage in their own voice if things are happening to them or if they suspect things could happen or … to trust their instincts. I think that, to me, was the value that won out over the fear of playing him or trying to play him.”
Smart, now 30 and the mother of a 2-year-old daughter and a 7-month-old son, says anyone caught in a horrendous experience like hers should not give up. “Trust yourself, and find your hope, and hold on to it, and don’t let go, ever,” she says.
“And keep holding on, and just do everything you can to survive, because you can be happy again. And you can move forward in your life, and you can … have a normal life. It will be different, but you can have it again.”