It is difficult to discuss TNT’s latest mystery mini-series I Am The Night without referencing back to what might be Hollywood’s most famous and infamous murder cases. Although the crime itself lingers in the background of the series, it’s one of the suspects in that crime who plays an integral role in this story: George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), the relative our lead Fauna (India Eisley) contacts and sets out to meet in Los Angeles when she first learns her true identity. Unfortunately, the innocent teenager knows nothing of the reputation that precedes Hodel – an unparalleled doctor with eccentric tastes who keeps company with Hollywood’s elite.
Raised as a child prodigy with a verified I.Q. of 186, Hodel believed he was superior to others. His surgical talents and confidential knowledge repeatedly and historically kept him unscathed from the various scandals that befell him. From the first moment Mays’ Hodel appears on your screen, chills run down your spine.
Here is a character that is so creepy, you don’t even have to see him to get spooked: his backstory alone makes everything about him eerie. Understandably, portraying such an unnerving character took its toll on Mays–with the accomplished actor relieved to rid himself of George’s negative mojo once the series finished production.
During our candid interview for Bleeding Cool, Mays discusses his process of getting into character, expresses his opinion of Hodel’s looming legacy, and shares stories from his time on set.
BLEEDING COOL: How are you feeling after playing such a heavy and intense role?
JEFFERSON MAYS: Oh yes! It took me a month to get over George. I’m feeling much more like my old self, thank you.
BC: Oh good! Glad to hear it.
JM: To get into a character like that and live with him for so long – it starts to affect your soul to a certain degree. Actually…I had to go to a physical therapist just to get all the kinks out, as it were.
BC: Oh my goodness it even had a physical effect on you – just the tension probably of carrying that kind of energy…
JM: Absolutely! Precisely, I’m not generally given to be spooky about my craft or profession, but it was bizarre.
BC: It is. He’s such an eerie character. George doesn’t have to be onscreen for long and you just get the heebie-jeebies from watching him.
JM: Thank you. I couldn’t be more thrilled.
BC: I read one of your recent interviews and you said you didn’t want to approach playing George as a villain. Not giving any spoilers away here – As you ease into the series, you know Fauna Hodel has some relation to George Hodel. The way the story unfolds, you never know what his intentions are from the start because his behavior is contradictory. He’s welcoming to Fauna and at the same time evasive. How do you rationalize his behavior and interaction with Fauna at the beginning of the series?
JM: Yes, I think from what I’ve managed to glean about the man – and I did consult his son’s own peculiar memoir about his father, The Black Dahlia Avenger – I find that the case is a confusing one. There’s a reason why it’s remained unsolved for 70 years. But what I used the book mostly for were his impressions and memories of his father – his behavior and his character traits.
But it is my impression, Tiffany, that the man was most likely at best a sociopath and a narcissist. That’s my amateur diagnosis. There’s no one better at rationalizing one’s bad behavior away than a narcissist…
JM: The world revolves around them and their every whim. So I tried to approach it as an unrepentant narcissist. That he was curious to see this relative of his… He had a sort of God-like relationship with her – or he fancied himself as a god and could manipulate her.
I think he was a master manipulator of people throughout his life and assumed any number of different guises depending upon who he was with. So he was sort of a shapeshifter. As you know, narcissists have no conscience, when it comes to their dealings with other people. So I tried to approach it with a complete absence of conscience. As if everything I were doing was utterly justified and the right thing.
BC: That makes perfect sense. Just researching him must have been haunting.
JM: Yeah…there is no question in my mind that he was a sick ticket.
… I find his son’s book suspect in many ways. I think it is a great accumulation of circumstantial evidence. But it is circumstantial and ultimately unproven. A lot of it seems a bit of a stretch…
That was the weird experience I had. Having the cursory knowledge of the Black Dahlia murder and the more you learn about it – the foggier and murkier and indistinct and ambiguous it becomes. So I feel like I know even less now.
BC: Oh, yeah. I read that his son thought George could even be the Lipstick Killer and the Zodiac Killer as well.
JM: Exactly. That’s when he starts to lose me. When he becomes every famous serial killer.
BC: Do you think George had it in him to have been that kind of serial killer? Or do you think he would’ve just kept it within his own circle?
JM: I don’t think he was a serial killer at all. The I Am The Night series takes liberties. It’s based on true events but it’s a work of art and pursues certain narrative lines that may be based on the truth but aren’t the actual truth. I think that “The Black Dahlia Murder” just looms mysteriously in the background, it just haunts the piece.
BC: Yes. The series is more about Fauna’s journey of self-discovery to learn about her family. Given how haunting George is – Did you have a process to help shake the character off at the end of the day?
JM: I’d always take a hot bath when I got back from the set and I’d fix myself a martini.
JM: And try to think pleasant, happy thoughts. I mean it’s an actor’s job to act. It’s not real. But it’s just that I found I had to dwell and think about this character to be much more invasive than doing a play, for instance. You sort of leave the character at the stage door at the end of the night.
The amount of time I had to spend thinking about George Hodel and walking around as him – it got under my skin.
BC: That makes sense. What else would you like to share about your time spent working on the series? Is there something you want viewers to take away from it?
JM: The odd thing is I had a really great time doing it. No matter how I felt at the end of the day. It was a joyful experience. I recall there was a lot of laughter while we were doing it. That makes sense to me because I found that whenever you’re rehearsing tragedy like comedy, you’re doing the right thing…Probably just to ease the tension, there was a great spirit on the set. It was a great deal of fun.
Patty Jenkins quite deliberately and quite naturally infused the experience with a great deal of joy and playfulness. So that was a wonderful counter-balance to the subject matter we were dealing with.
BC: That’s good, especially with someone as young as India.
JM: She was amazing. She’s a subtle and intelligent and wonderful actor to work with.
BC: She’s doing an amazing job throughout the series. It’s very heavy.
JM: Yeah, she’s worked her whole life. She did it with such grace and ease.
BC: I Am The Night has been riveting and disturbing to watch. Every episode really leaves you hanging. I feel bad that viewers will have to wait a week in between each episode.
JM: Thank you very much. That’s wonderful. Sam Sheridan did such an extraordinary job with noir. It never fell into cliché or noir tropes. He was able to reinvent it. The very dialogue sounds new and fresh, not like…Raymond Chandler…I think the writing is one of the true stars of this production.
BC: Yes because it feels natural, instead of staged to feel overly dramatic.
JM: It doesn’t sound hackneyed. That is a remarkable achievement.
BC: Exactly. And it is surprisingly funny at times.
JM: Yes. Chris Pine is such a natural clown. He brings levity to grimmer situations. He is so wonderful to watch.
BC: Definitely. There’s a little bit of everything in this. I’m excited to see what everybody thinks when it comes out.
JM: As am I.
Inspired by true events, I Am the Night tells the gripping story of Fauna Hodel (India Eisley), a teenage girl who is given away at birth, and grows up outside of Reno, Nevada. Fauna lives more-or-less comfortably with the mysteries of her origin, until one day she makes a discovery that leads her to question everything. As Fauna begins to investigate the secrets of her past, she meets a ruined reporter (Chris Pine), haunted by the case that undid him. Together they follow a sinister trail that swirls ever closer to an infamous Los Angeles gynecologist, Dr. George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), a man involved in some of Hollywood’s darkest debauchery, and possibly, its most infamous unsolved crime.
Jefferson Mays has worked with some of the industry’s top directors including: The Coen Brothers (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Steven Spielberg (The Post), Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice) and Hal Hartley (Ned Rifle). In film, Mays has also appeared in Rebel in the Rye, Alfie, Kinsey, The Notorious Bettie Page and Cousin Bette among others.
On Broadway, Mays won a Tony for his singular performance as a vast multitude of characters in I Am My Own Wife and for his lead role in Oslo. He was nominated previously for his multiple roles in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. Other theater credits include The Front Page, Pygmalion, Journey’s End and Of Thee I Sing. For his extensive stage work, he has earned many accolades including: Tony, Drama Desk, Obie, Outer Critic’s Circle, Helen Hayes, Elliot Norton, Lucille Lortel, Theatre World and Drama League awards.
On Television, Mays has enjoyed big recurring roles on The Americans and Law and Order: SVU, as well as guest starring roles on The Knick, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Good Wife, Mildred Pierce, Lie to Me, Fringe, Nurse Jackie and The Closer.
TNT’s I Am The Night premieres Monday, January 28 at 9 p.m. EST.
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