There are many qualities that can make an actor or actress stand out among their peers. Some are loud and theatrical, some are born to be action stars and do their own stunts, and some even become their character to an alarming degree.
In the new TNT drama miniseries I Am The Night, actor Jefferson Mays portrays Dr. George Hodel, the prime suspect in the infamous Black Dahlia murder. Jefferson embodied another quality of a great actor in this series: The ability to portray pure evil as a character while being a genuinely kind and lively human being.
I got the chance to speak with him about his experience working on this series and about what inspires him in his evolving career.
Mays first came across I Am The Night while doing The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. He was in Nebraska where the Coen Brothers’ Netflix film was shooting and afterward got informed that Patty Jenkins (director of Wonder Woman) wanted to meet with him about her new project. The two talked over Skype and Jefferson was able to read a bit of the script before he was officially offered the part. He said:
“I started off from a place of complete ignorance. I guess I knew a little about the Black Dahlia murder and I had unfortunately seen some of the crime scene photos, which just can’t be unseen. But that was about it and I knew nothing about Dr. George Hodel.”
Mays, despite a diverse career, had never crossed paths with Jenkins before. He elaborated that he hadn’t met her personally, but her work had spoken to him over the years. Her 2003 film Monster was Jefferson’s first look into Jenkins’ abilities as a filmmaker.
But it wasn’t until seeing Wonder Woman right before leaving to film Buster Scruggs that Mays felt the full power of Jenkins’ talents.
“I remember begrudgingly going to see Wonder Woman because I wasn’t terribly into superhero pictures, and then 10 minutes in I began to weep uncontrollably, and I was moved by it in this weird way. It was like some sort of spell was cast over me, it was very emotional.”
Mays leaves traces of his performing spirit everywhere
— the small screen, the big screen and the stage. He has acted in like Kinsey, Inherent Vice and The Giver. He has even won a Tony in 2004 and nominated in 2014 and 2017. As to whether the stage influenced Mays’ performance of the maniacal Hodel, he said:
“There was something about Hodel that was theatrical. The way he’s described as speaking by his son Steve Hodel was a formal and stilted way. He had an IQ of 186, but there was something about him that struck me as being very charismatic and a control freak. He was raised almost like a European aristocrat, his friends even referred to him as ‘King George’.”
Mays also talked about Hodel’s son, Steve, who ironically is an LAPD Homicide Detective. There was no face-to-face meet, but Mays was able to read his book Black Dahlia Avenger to look for descriptive passages that will aid the performance. That said, the actor got to directly encounter Hodel’s great-granddaughters, who are daughters of Fauna (India Eisley in the show). They were able to share with him some anecdotes and how they are connected to their great-grandfather.
Speaking of family relations, Mays shared that the production got to be Hodel’s actual house.
“We got the opportunity, which rarely happens, to film at the actual house where Hodel lived on Franklin Avenue. It was thrilling to go there where these events may or may not have taken place and to be where the man actually lived. The house was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son and was inspired by a Mayan temple. It’s constructed with big heavy blocks, no windows, and the door is like the gaping mouth of a shark. You really get swallowed by the house.”
Any strange occurrences while filming, though?
“A lot of people felt it was spooky, but I found it strangely peaceful which may have been because I was playing the guy. However, there were cadaver dogs a while back that had detected human remains on the property, but they were never located.”
To those who know, to this day the Black Dahlia murder hasn’t been solved. No suspects, either. On whether Hodel could be the killer, Mays too drew a question mark, even if he had done the research and, for the show, walked in the man’s shoes.
“The more I learned about Hodel, the grayer and murkier he became. I do believe that he was probably a sociopath and that he was involved in some shady business. But whether or not he committed that murder I’m still unsure of. Even with the fair amount of circumstantial evidence. He did leave the country and traveled around Asia and they never got around to arresting him.”
I Am The Night is a six-episode series currently airing on TNT. Also appearing alongside Mays are Chris Pine, India Eisley, Leland Orser and Connie Nielsen.