Lifetime’s new TV movie “The Gabby Petito Story” is shocking, for obvious reasons.
Not just because the made-in-Utah telefilm, which premieres Saturday, portrays the infamous killing of the young Florida woman. It’s also shocking because of the actors cast in it.
Skyler Samuels looks a lot like Petito. And Evan Hall resembles Petito’s boyfriend/killer, Brian Laundrie, so much it��s startling.
“Evan and I hopped on a Zoom call before we got to Utah,” Samuels said. “We wanted to just sort of introduce ourselves to each other because it’s just me, him and a van. And the first thing I said to him was, ‘You know, you really look like him, right?’ … The resemblance is uncanny.”
Hall said he didn’t follow the case closely and didn’t realize he looked like Laundrie until he landed an audition. “I started doing research and realized fairly quickly how similar we look,” he said. “And when I told my family that I was leaving for Utah to do this film, my sister was, like, ‘Oh my God! You look just like the guy!’”
Samuels got hair extensions and temporary tattoos to match Petito’s ink. Their clothes, Petito’s jewelry and the van in which they traveled were replicated.
“That not only sort of puts you in it, but it reminds you every day that it is so real,” Samuels said. “And it’s very humbling to sort of feel as close to them as we can with all those little details that make us really Brian and Gabby.”
Filmed in Utah
“The Gabby Petito Story” was filmed on location at various Utah locations. The infamous police stop that became a media sensation was in Moab, and Big Cottonwood Canyon stands in for Wyoming, where Petito was killed in August 2021. About two-thirds of the production crew were Utah locals, and director Thora Birch said they’re “the smoothest, best and sometimes most fun crew that I’ve been on in quite some time. I feel so happy that we’re shooting in Utah, honestly.”
The TV movie recounts Petito and Laundrie traveling cross-country last year in a small van, while Petito documented their trip on social media. Her happy social media posts hid an abusive relationship.
Petito disappeared, and Laundrie returned home to Florida without her. Petito’s body was later found in Wyoming and, according to an autopsy, she had been strangled — and Laundrie later killed himself in Florida. The search for Petito became a big story nationally, and coverage intensified after her body was found.
And there’s something undeniably eerie about “The Gabby Petito Story,” both because of what happened and because it was filmed just 9-to-10 months after Petito’s body was found. And the movie’s stars say that felt a burden of sorts.
“There’s an enormous responsibility involved in portraying a real person,” Samuels said. “We are not actors playing characters. We are actors portraying real people.”
The actors had reservations
They both said they had reservations, but that they didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. Hall was cast two days before filming began; Samuels was cast a day later.
“We sort of got shot out of a cannon and came to Utah,” she said.
Which didn’t really leave them time to digest what they were getting themselves into.
“I don’t think anyone has,” Hall said. “And that’s why I think we’ve been even more aware of the amount of respect that needs to be paid to the story, and to the people that we’re playing. We both talked extensively about the responsibility that we both feel in portraying these people that lived, and lived not that long ago. And whose families are still deep in grief and dealing with the horror that they’ve experienced.”
It’s something they talked about every day during filming, Samuels said.
“I mean, it would be ignorant of me to sidestep the fact that Gabby and Brian were alive this time last year,” she said during filming in Big Cottonwood Canyon in August. “They were in Salt Lake City about this time last year. And it is haunting to be here sometimes, especially when we’re in the van, that is a perfect replica of their van. And we are in their clothes and their tattoos. We’re in them. I think it humbles us every day.”
Everyone involved knows they are courting controversy with this TV movie.
“It’s tough to tell a story of this magnitude, period,” said director Thora Birch, who also co-stars as Petito’s mother. “Everyone is very cognizant of the fact that everyone is still reeling from the repercussions of the outcome. The Petito camp, the Laundrie camp — everybody’s still living in the fallout of all of this. We’re trying to be as respectful as possible to all of the people involved.”
Samuels said she thinks about Petito’s parents “every single day” and “just can’t imagine the nightmare that they have to live through.”
Hall said he thinks about Laundrie’s parents “a lot, but it’s very delicate for me.” He’s playing a man who became a villain to millions, and left behind an admission that he did indeed kill Petito.
“My job here is to not is to not build a monster. What Brian did is monstrous, but my job here is to make him human because he was,” he said. “My task is to build him into the three-dimensional person that he was when he lived. He loved this woman. He cared for her in his way. It’s really hard to put into words, but I’m doing my job as best I can.”
Birch was out of the country when Petito and Laundrie were in the headlines, but when Lifetime pitched the project to her, “I started doing a deep dove of my own. And as I was doing that, I realized that there were a lot of elements that were incredibly intriguing about the story — about them and their relationship and trying to peel back and find the truth behind her highly curated, stylized, online representation of their relationship and their van life and their journey. And to really try to discover what was going on once she wasn’t filming.”
Her goal is “to paint a true-to-life, as much as we can, representation of what happened in a more human level. Essentially try to sort of bring her back to life, and experience her story through her eyes.”
Birch, Samuels and Hall all said they see “The Gabby Petito Story” as a warning to women to get out of abusive relationships.
“Gabby Petito’s story is a cautionary tale. So, therefore, the movie is a cautionary tale,” Birch said. “This happens every day. We just don’t hear about it.”
The movie is part of Lifetime’s Stop Violence Against Women public-affairs initiative, and the cable/satellite channel has teamed with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence to create public service announcements that direct people to that group’s helpline.
“The approach that Lifetime has taken related to the movement about domestic violence awareness, I think is the right thing to do,” Samuels said. “In some ways, it might feel too soon for people, and I completely understand and respect that. I also think that there are people who are trapped and who need to maybe see something that helps them process something in their own life. And if this story helps one person get out of a relationship that is similar to what Gabby was in then, this was all worth it.”
“The Gabby Petito Story” airs Saturday at 6 p.m., 9:05 p.m. and midnight on Dish and DirecTV, and 8 p.m., 11:05 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Comcast. Lifetime will also air the hourlong documentary “Beyond the Headlines: The Gabby Petito Story” at 8:05 and 10:59 p.m. on Dish and DirecTV and at 10:05 p.m. and 12:59 a.m. on Comcast.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, you can contact the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, at 1-800-897-LINK (5465), 24 hours a day, or go online to udvc.org. If you or someone is in danger, call 911.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.