Jefferson Mays Likes Playing the Villain in New Series


Jefferson Mays stars as George Hodel in "I Am The Night," which airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. on TNT. (WikiMedia)

By Ryan Di Corpo

Jefferson Mays welcomes confrontation, at least in his roles.

In 2003, Mays starred in the Broadway production of “I Am My Own Wife,” a solo play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Wright.

The production, which won Mays the 2004 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play, saw him portray — along with 34 other characters — a transgender woman living in Nazi Germany. In the 2013 Broadway production of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” Mays performed nine separate parts and earned a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical.

Mays recently completed another television role: physician and murder suspect George Hodel in the current TNT limited series “I Am the Night.” Directed by Patty Jenkins, most recently known for her work on “Wonder Woman,” the show explores the wild, unsolved caper of the widely-discussed 1947 Black Dahlia murder through the eyes of a young girl (India Eisley) and a journalist (Chris Pine).

The series, which airs the fourth of its six episodes this Sunday, provides a new experience and unique challenge for Mays. He is stepping into the life of a man who may have committed one of the most disturbing murders of the 20th century. The Fordham Ram spoke with Mays on how he chooses his roles and how he approached Jenkins’ new series.

“I try to leave myself open to roles that are looking for me,” Mays said. It is apparent, based on his previous work, that Mays has little reservation in tackling difficult, or even unsavory, characters. Yet these are not necessarily parts for which Mays searches. “I much prefer to be ambushed or mugged by a project,” he said.

Accordingly, Mays detailed the process of being ambushed by the unsettling mystery of “Night.” “I was approached to do it about a year ago,” he said. While Mays had some awareness of the Black Dahlia murder — he had viewed the horrific crime scene photographs at a young age — before accepting the role of Hodel, there was more work for him to do.

“I had cursory knowledge of the Black Dahlia case,” said Mays. He conducted research on Hodel and the crime using Steve Hodel’s book “Black Dahlia Avenger” as a reference. “[I] tried to steep myself as much as I could in [George Hodel’s] life,” said Mays. He explained, with some unease, how he came to view the frightening exploits of Hodel,.“They don’t seem… villainous at the time — they seem necessary and right.”

The Ram asked Mays if he was hesitant to embody a man accused of such inhumane actions. “It did trouble me initially,” said Mays. He also expressed concern regarding the emotional toll the role might take on him, but found comfort in director Patty Jenkins. Jenkins is no stranger to directing actors in challenging roles; she directed Charlize Theron as a prostitute-turned-serial killer in the Academy Award-winning “Monster.”

Ultimately, Mays found playing Hodel to be a type of catharsis. “If you get an opportunity, play a villain,” said Mays, explaining that portraying sinister characters may help one “exorcise [their] own demons.”

Despite his initial hesitance to view “Wonder Woman,” Mays has nothing but praise for Jenkins. At his first screening of the film, Mays began to weep less than fifteen minutes from the start, finding the film “so joyful and hopeful and good.” “[Jenkins] is very permissive,” said Mays. “She lets you try anything you want to try.”

In his performance, Mays honed in on the minutiae — such as Hodel’s stance and his pronunciation of “Los Angeles” — to craft a more accurate portrait of the man. Mays discovered his attention to detail was mirrored by Jenkins’ direction. “She’s also one of the rare directors for whom everything is important,” said Mays.

While Chris Pine leads the cast, Mays worked most closely with India Eisley, who stars as Fauna Hodel. Eisley, daughter of musician David Glen Eisley and screen legend Olivia Hussey, is also known for ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.” “[Eisley] was a revelation to me,” said Mays. He mentioned how Eisley possesses “this extraordinary face across which emotions… pass like cloud shadow.”

No stranger to television himself, Mays appreciates the six-episode length of “Night.” “It’s like being in a novel,” he said.

Further, Mays enjoys the elements of true crime that mark the show. “True crime has a special appeal to me,” said Mays, who understands the genre as bereft of clear explanations.

“With true crime — it’s sloppy, it’s grey, it’s unexplained,” he said. “I Am the Night” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on TNT.