Beverly Hills, Calif. • Almost exactly 15 years after she was abducted from her Salt Lake City home in the middle of the night, Elizabeth Smart came face to face with a re-creation of her kidnapper, in the form of actor Skeet Ulrich.
The Utah woman walked into the hair-and-makeup trailer during the filming of the TV movie "I Am Elizabeth Smart" and was startled by Ulrich, who was outfitted with the long hair, straggly beard and robes donned by kidnapper Brian David Mitchell.
"I just saw him for half a second, and I was, like, 'Oh my gosh! That looks just like him,' " said Smart, who serves as narrator of the TV movie. "It was such a surreal experience because I was sitting there looking at him, thinking, 'You look like the devil. You look like the worst human being I know. But I know you're not him. You're being so nice.' It was so weird."
It was also an uncomfortable moment for Ulrich, who said he debated with himself for a couple of weeks before he decided to accept the role.
"She looked stricken when I started approaching," he said.
Smart and Ulrich appeared before the Television Critics Association to promote the upcoming Lifetime TV movie, which will be paired with a two-part "Elizabeth Smart: Autobiography" on sister network A&E.
Ulrich, who said he had nightmares throughout the shoot, expressed amazement that Smart not only visited the set, but also helped re-create the scene for the actors. He recalled when she "explained where she was in one scene in particular and she sat down on the bucket that she had sat on in reality — I mean, it was all I could do not to bawl."
"It's one thing to play the killer in 'Scream,' and it's a completely different thing to play Brian David Mitchell," he said.
The TCA can be a tough crowd, but Smart was treated with respect and even compassion during the questioning.
"I'm amazed at how well you're able to talk about these experiences, in detail and in an insightful way," said NPR's Eric Deggans, who expressed some surprise that Smart would "even allow a project like this to explore the worst thing that could happen to anyone."
Smart said that, when she was rescued, she vowed she would never write a book or participate in a movie — she's an executive producer on this one — but she came to believe she has "a unique opportunity."
"This is going to sound crazy, but I feel lucky because what happened to me was a stranger who abducted me. It was a stranger who abused me," she said.
"I've met so many victims who, it split their family in half. I feel like I need to speak out because I can. Because mine was a stranger. I don't have to go home every day and see a picture of the man that kidnapped me. Of the woman who sat there and watched me being abused."
The upcoming movie, which will air sometime this fall on Lifetime, depicts Smart's kidnapping so accurately that she had difficulty watching a rough cut of the production on her laptop.
"I kept thinking, 'I could just close the lid. I don't have to watch it right now.' But it was like, 'No, I do have to watch it right now,' " she said with a laugh.
Smart called it "the best worst movie I've ever seen. I'm very proud of it, but I hate it at the same time."