There’s always a degree of interest when someone takes on the role of a true life figure. Not least when that true life figure is a serial killer, and has haunted the minds of so many. Amber Sealey’s No Man of God charts the friendship that grew between FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood), and serial killer Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby). Far from his on screen role, FilmHounds has the luck to sit down with Kirby for a talk about his method, the world of true crime and his career at large.
With Ted Bundy, almost more than any other serial killer, he’s so well known in the public mind – his court case was televised, he wrote a lot about himself – as an actor do you dive head first into that or do you look at the screenplay and take that as your only text?
I don’t generally dive head first into anything, I’m a pretty reluctant, scared person. But, there are some roles that you really look forward to that immersion and relish. This one didn’t have that, so it was more dipping my toe and seeing what was there. My own personal sense of it was, as complicated as this person was, because in the wake of violence that he left, it reveals a kind of shallowness. There was a kind this presented facsimile of himself, sort of born of this sociopath’s mind. He really knew, clearly, how to use the camera as a device to make himself a version of a celebrity.
But, really, to me it revealed a guy obsessed with optics. I don’t know that he presented his true self, he was playing a kind of character, and seemed to fancy himself in those interviews as a kind of cowboy swagger, that I think was born out the era that he was born into. The idea of the rugged American individual, but underneath it was a sort of frightened person.
Having spoken with director Amber Sealey, she said that when she approached you for the role you turned it down originally. Was that a worry about humanising or glorifying someone who has done these awful things or was it a disinterest in the material?
Yeah, it was more, there exists this kind of world, out of my control where these things get branded. It’s a marketable product, like anything. But, this is one that sometimes dives into the realm of ghoulishness, and I feel sometimes is sensationalised. It’s not something that appeals to me, so I was concerned about that. But, Amber has similar conflicts with that potential and really wanted to try something a little different. I think she brought them into the film that she made, which when I saw it I thought was a high achievement.
Then, the other thing is, just what it is to absorb that kind of material in terms of research and getting to learn about someone. It felt like a world I didn’t want to enter. But, the more I fought that impulse to evade it, the more I felt like a weird parallel with how he was evading his culpability. Suddenly this guy who fancied himself as this great and upstanding person was denying his involvement in the violence of the world. I just felt like that feeling you have with work when it’s bigger than you. So, when I had that kind of confidence that Amber presented as an authority I felt a lot better about following her wherever she wanted to take us.
Also, of course, there was the virtue of having Elijah [Wood, who co-stars and produces] already on board, and the kind of excitement that comes with getting to work with a legend like that.
For you own method, do you stay in character between takes or are you someone who can switch between the two? I can imagine being in that head space can really take a toll on you.
I don’t know how to define that thing, you know the bridge that you have to cross to a character, always appears to be a very far away thing. It looks like a giant river that you have to cross, and the longer you do it, the shorter the bridge gets. So, there’s sort of that feeling. More than anything it’s whatever you need to do so that you can traverse that bridge.
In terms of shooting this, it was really me and Elijah in a room. In fact, you barely felt that camera. There was the operator, and we really had this amazing space to be in. So, it wasn’t really a case of staying in character because we had this space that informed all of that. There’s also this thing where you want to be available to the person opposite, and that involves being a generous listener between takes.
So, for me and Elijah, it was really just talking about food between takes. I had a very limited appetite when we were shooting, but I thought about good a lot. So, we talked about food, believe it or not.
That must be really strange. Murder. Murder. Murder. “Hey have you been to this restaurant?” Murder. Murder. Murder.
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s right.
So, what is it that you personally think is the appeal of true crime? At the moment the most listened to podcasts are true crime podcasts. The most watched documentaries are serial killer documentaries. What do you think is people’s attractive to that world?
I’m not sure. I often look at it and think it’s supremely bizarre. I wonder about it, I know when I watch those things, my wife loves that stuff, so I sit down and I’m like “Oh, this again?” But, then i’ll get into it. There’s a conversation to be had, you know your own dime store psychology. The why and the how. I also think, and I think it happens with crime shows, it kind of excites a viewer out of the doldrums of work-a-day life. You watch that and take the dog out for a walk and every bush looks a little more suspicious. It kind of awakens the body to something that civilised places don’t provide because generally they’re safe places.
I hope that the obsession is a reflection of people’s concern for other people. I haven’t seen anything where anyone is able to say why people behave this way. I’ve seen theories, but there’s no answer. It’s this peculiarity of the human being. So, I don’t know.
Hopefully it doesn’t turn people into psychopaths. I guess that’s the only concern, that it makes people more pathological. That would be a problem. But, I don’t think there’s any evidence that that’s the case.
Well, they’re all so widely watched that if they did turn people into crazed killers we’d be living in The Purge.
Throughout your career, as I looked through it, most of your films are directed by women. You’ve worked with Sarah Polley, Nia DaCosta, Kari Skogland. Is this a conscious decision on your part? Or is it that you’re being offered roles, they’re roles you want to do, and the director happens to be a woman?
I have really worked, for the most part, with work that has been presented to me. More than anything it’s been a luck of the draw. So, I don’t really have a strong perspective on the why of it. Really, I’ve had the good fortune of working with exceptional directors and writers, and I’m happy that it turned out that way. But it wasn’t really something that I was consciously in pursuit of.
It retroactively makes you look ahead of the curve.
Yes. It’s not easy being on the vanguard, but somebody had to forge that path.
Finally, you’ve won rave reviews and awards for playing Lenny Bruce on The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, and the reviews for No Man of God have been positive for your performance. Do you feel it’s harder or easier to play a real person?
I don’t know. I mean I think the thing you’re granted if they were around after the 1930s, generally if they had any degree of fame, there’s footage of them. Which is a great resource in terms of the sort of external features – the physicality, the voice, the cadence of their voice, the rhythm, their breathing habits. That provides you a kind of in, so that you can make their vessel your vessel. That’s really fun, and I enjoy mimicry, but the thing is you can’t just be a parrot. You have to be a parrot that understands. It greases the wheels, but then there’s the other stuff.
The method into the character.
Yeah, but you know any time you get to play in the realm of make believe beats the salt mines for sure.
No Man of God is released digitally in the UK on September 13th.