Taryn Manning Talks Playing Ariel Castro’s Kidnap Victim Michelle Knight in Gruesome New Lifetime Movie, Cleveland Abduction

Taryn Manning
Taryn Manning plays Michelle Knight in Lifetime's Cleveland Abduction. Bob Mahoney

The brutal, gruesome, and oddly uplifting tale of Cleveland Abduction feels more like a film worthy of the Oscar race than something you'd see on Lifetime. The network’s newest — and arguably most graphic — film is based on the true story of Ariel Castro, the man who kidnapped three women between the ages of 14 and 21 and held them captive for more than a decade. Orange Is the New Black actress Taryn Manning stars as Michelle Knight, Castro’s eldest and first victim. 

“There’s a part of me that’s like, why is this being rehashed?” Manning, 36, told Us Weekly of recreating the women’s disturbing story. “And then obviously you realize, of course, these women survived. It’s a story of survival and triumph and willpower. I think this is a movie about how strong you really are — the willpower that God gave us all.” 

To prepare for the grueling role, the seasoned actress researched what actually happened at that house in Cleveland back in 2002, the 2013 court case, and ultimately met and befriended the real Michelle Knight. 

“It’s your duty, in a sense, to do this right,” she explained. “I also spent hours trying to put my all into this. Anytime [Knight] was available to hang out, even if I was exhausted from set, I just took every opportunity to be around her.”

Michelle Knight in court
Angelo Merendino/Getty Images

Knight’s story had a different level of pain from her fellow captors, Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus. When she went missing, her mother and the police officers involved in the case thought she had run away and made little attempt to find her. While the other girls, who were teenagers at the time, had search parties and candlelit vigils held in their honor, no fliers were put up or events held for Knight. Still, the single mother managed to survive a dark decade that included torture, rape, a forced abortion, delivering a fellow captor’s child at gunpoint, and endless emotional and physical abuse. 

“She’s a very nurturing person,” Manning explained of the real-life Knight’s will to survive. “I could see her having a position in that house that she was the caretaker. She was the most abused, she definitely endured the most physical abuse. She also took a lot of abuse, she would throw herself in front of Ariel before he was going to abuse [another girl].”

And these days, Manning counts Knight among her friends. She said Knight’s influence in her life has changed her for the better. 

“She’s very smart, very wise,” Manning said. “I just lock in on her when she speaks to me. She’s very powerful. People come up to her and they drop to their knees — I’ve seen two women do it — and cry, and express how her strength gives them strength to get out of abusive situations. She has the most beautiful words for everybody — all unique to the individual person. [She’s] always positive, always smiling, she just loves life. She’s just really happy to be free. That’s what changed my life, just seeing someone go through something so horrifying and to see her now. It’s really incredible.”

Raymond Cruz as Castro
Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic; Bob Mahoney

But Manning is also used to tackling roles that have countless layers. As the meth head-turned-born again Christian Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, she can shift from playing the comedic relief to embodying a ruthless villain all with a flash of her rotting teeth. And she wouldn’t have it any other way. 

“I play roles that require a lot of depth, perhaps it’s because there’s genuine depth in me from things I’ve experienced,” Manning said. “I wouldn’t have them any other way, but they’ve shaped who I am. I hate saying ‘troubled,’ or ‘edgy,’ or ‘prisoner.’ It’s roles that require you to kind of go there, really get dirty, get ugly. I’m not anything like Pennsatucky, and I’m not much like Michelle Knight, but I’m a professional actor and I’m able to lose myself. It’s like a sweet spot that you hit, and it’s magical. This is the greatest job ever.” 

In 2013, Castro was sentenced to life in prison plus 1,000 years, and ended up committing suicide just one month later. Knight was the only one of his victims to testify in court with her captor present. She channeled her experience into her memoir, Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, a Life Reclaimed: A Memoir of the Cleveland Kidnappings. 

Cleveland Abduction airs on Saturday, May 2 at 8 p.m. ET on Lifetime. 

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