SALT LAKE CITY — Elizabeth Smart walked into a trailer on the set of Lifetime’s “I Am Elizabeth Smart” and ran into her worst nightmare.
“I just remember I saw him and it was just kind of like this moment of being taken aback because he looked so much like Brian Mitchell,” Smart said during an interview with the Deseret News.
It wasn’t Mitchell, the man serving a life sentence for kidnapping Smart 15 years ago. It was actor Skeet Ulrich — the man portraying Mitchell in the upcoming film about Smart’s nine months in captivity — in costume, preparing to start filming.
“(Ulrich) was lovely and kind, but it was just so surreal because he looked so much like (Mitchell), but he was just so opposite in mannerism and personality that it was just kind of a parallel world, parallel universe, kind of feeling,” Smart said.
Skeet Ulrich as Brian David Mitchell and Alana Boden as Elizabeth Smart star in "I Am Elizabeth Smart," premiering Saturday, Nov. 18, on Lifetime.
Smart’s name and face became recognized throughout Utah and across the country when she was taken from her home June 5, 2002, and found alive March 12, 2003, after nine brutal months of being physically and sexually abused.
Starting Sunday, Nov. 12, Smart will tell of the horrific circumstances she endured, her miraculous rescue and what her life has been like since, first in a two-part documentary titled “Elizabeth Smart: Autobiography,” airing on A&E on Nov. 12-13, and then in “I Am Elizabeth Smart,” which premieres on Lifetime on Nov. 18.
In “I Am Elizabeth Smart,” Ulrich as Mitchell, Deirdre Lovejoy as Wanda Barzee and Alana Boden as Smart give audiences an up-close, grisly look at the 281 days of Smart’s captivity.
Smart not only narrates the film but also helped produce it.
“(Executive producers Joseph Freed and Allison Berkley) tried to be as inclusive of me as possible,” Smart said. “Anything I ever said or felt like needed to change, they always tried to address, which I always appreciated and that’s kind of what made me feel like I ended up making the right choice because that’s probably what I was most nervous about.”
Smart has stated in previous news stories as well as in her testimony during Mitchell’s trial that he raped her daily during the nine months she was held captive — a harrowing ordeal to portray accurately on film without being exceptionally graphic.
Finding that balance, Smart said, is one of the things that made her most nervous about creating a film of her experience.
“It’s a pretty gruesome story,” Smart said. “Certainly a lot of very bad things happen, and I thought, 'How could you possibly show that without it either coming off as dark and terrible and give you nightmares at night, or sugar-coating everything and making it seem like, "Oh, this terrible thing happened but it really wasn’t that bad, and then a miracle happened?"’”
Smart and the other producers opted to strike that balance by showing the buildup to those traumatic experiences, effectively giving audiences a slight glimpse of Smart’s emotional distress, but then cutting to either Smart narrating or to a different scene.
Alana Boden, left, and Elizabeth Smart on the set of "I Am Elizabeth Smart."
Smart was on set with the cast and crew for part of the filming just weeks after her son, James, was born in April and was impressed with everyone involved in the project, especially Boden.
“She really did her homework beforehand,” Smart said. “She’d read my book, she’d watched YouTube videos of me, she really tried to get as much information on me as she could so that when we met and actually started talking about things, she was very well-informed on me.”
At one point after coaching the cast through a scene, they asked Smart if they could take a picture with her, and Smart found herself unsure what to do.
“We’re all standing next to each other, and in the picture, I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Do I smile? I don’t know if I should smile,’” Smart said with a laugh. “It was just this weird experience because I was sitting there like, ‘They’re lovely people, but I don’t know if I should smile because they don’t look like lovely people. They look like my worst nightmare.’”
Although “I Am Elizabeth Smart” is extremely difficult to watch at times, Smart doesn’t regret her decision to allow for and help make the film.
“It was a very serious, thought-out decision when I made it,” Smart said, ”and I am very proud of how it’s turned out, although I don’t think it will ever make it to my top-10 movies.”