I Am the Night Interview: Jefferson Mays Discusses The Black Dahlia’s Killer

I Am the Night's Jefferson Mays gives his impression of a surrealistic killer.

TNT’s limited series I Am the Night follows real life characters surrounding one of Hollywood’s most famous infamous, and still unsolved, crimes: the January 15, 1947 murder of 22 years old actress Elizabeth Short. Dubbed the Black Dahlia, Short’s body was found cut in half and mutilated in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. Authorities focused on about 25 suspects. No one was convicted.

I Am the Night is based on the book One Day She’ll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel, written by the granddaughter of one of the prime suspects, Fauna Hodel, played by India Eisley in the series. Her biological mother Tamar Hodel was one of eleven children the real life Dr. George Hodel fathered by five women. Fauna and Tamar weren’t the only family members to accuse the Beverly Hills gynecologist of the murder. George’s son Michael Hodel, who was on the Los Angeles Police force from 1963 until 1986, implicated his father as Short’s killer in the book Black Dahlia Avenger. He also accused his father of other crimes.

Former piano child prodigy Hodel was a physician who served as the Los Angeles County Health Director in the 1940s. He specialized in venereal disease, and was rumored to perform secret abortions. He beat a 1945 murder rap, when he was suspected of murdering his secretary, Ruth Spaulding, through a drug overdose over a blackmail attempt. Hodel threw wild parties at his home in Los Feliz. Known as “The Jaws House” to the locals, George Hodel was accused of raping his 14-year-old daughter Tamar there in October 1949. Hodel was the prime suspect in the Black Dahlia murder by April 1950, but he skipped the country.

I Am the Night mixes the violence with surrealistic art, just as the murderer of Elizabeth Short bisected the body and caved her cheeks into a morbid parody of a smile. The actor who plays George Hodel, Jefferson Mays, took all of this in to create an impressionist portrait of the renowned noir sociopath. Stage veteran Mays won the 2004 Lead Actor Tony Award for the play A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and was nominated for a Tony Award for his work in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright. He’s also appeared on such shows as Nurse Jackie. Mays sat down with Den of Geek to critique his character’s art.

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I Am the Night Episode 2 Phenomenon of Interference.

Den of Geek: You played nine roles in the play A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and MurderHow many roles are you playing as George Hodel?

Well, just one. I am playing George. Although, as you well know, everybody in his life plays many roles depending on to whom they’re talking.

Then, without giving too much away, in the climactic scene between your character and India Eisley’s, when you internalize in your George Hodel head, are you the artist, the doctor, or someone with a fractured mind?

God, that’s a real ponderable. I suppose his mind is fractured at that point. Not to give too much away, but through her intelligence and perceptions, India Eisley’s character, Fauna Hodel, is able to strike him where he lives and brings him down, not through violence, but through keen insight into his character, which is almost more violent and more devastating than any sort of active, physical harm.

Did you do a lot of research into Hodel for the part?

I did. I largely depended upon his own son’s memoir, his book The Black Dahlia Avenger. His son, as you well know, is ironically an LAPD homicide detective. But I largely focused on the early parts of the book to mine his descriptions of his father, how his father presented himself to the world, how he spoke, how he carried himself. The things that he read as a young man, and the art that influenced him. So I mined it for little clues that I could then use in performance.

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Did you do a lot of research into the surrealistic art?

I did. Hodel was a very good friend of Man Ray’s, who was over at the house on Franklin Avenue a lot and, I guess, was certainly involved in George’s salons that he would hold with people from the Los Angeles artistic community in the ’40s.

The dissected female torso of the Black Dahlia looks like Man Ray’s Minotaur.

Right. That’s a theory, yes.

Do you think that the Hodel situation informed John Huston’s role in Chinatown?

Yeah. I think there are certainly parallels to that. I’d say that’s a very keen perception.

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In The Second Manifesto of Surrealism, it’s written that, basically, the ultimate surrealistic piece is to run down the street with a pistol in hand and shoot into a crowd blindly. Do you think that is what Hodel is trying to pull off?

I think he did fancy himself a surrealist, and was curious about pushing the boundaries of art. I know he read the Surrealist Manifesto by Andre Breton, and steeped himself in a lot of philosophy and thinking surrounding it. I think he was very interested in the boundaries of art, and the boundaries of human existence. I mean, surrealism urges the artist to step foot in the unconscious, in the dream world, as a way to create, unfettered by the strictures of the intellect.

In the second episode, the woman that plays your wife says that the waking state is a distraction. Breton, as well as Salvador Dali, practiced automatic drawing, which was first explored by Austin Osman Spare, who was an artist and a cultist. The series keeps flashing back to that horned animal’s skeleton. Do you think Hodel was an occultist?

Was an occultist? I’m not sure. I’m not sure the answer to that. I’ve seen no evidence of that. In my research I did come across some testimony that he gave when he was brought to trial for another crime, in which he spoke about the dream world and hypnosis and how he didn’t know if these events happened or not, or if he had dreamt them. So either by accident, or because he was trying to do so, he seems to have lived in both the real world and the dream world simultaneously, as he saw it.

How do you stand on how the works may have inspired the real life crime?

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I’m not being coy or disingenuous in saying this, but sort of the more I learned about Hodel the murkier and grayer it all becomes to me. I, too, sort of live half in the real world and half in the dream world regarding that. I don’t know. It’s certainly an astonishing parallel. I think this is a belief of Steven Hodel, his son. Steven Hodel also introduces a lot of so called evidence in his book, which I don’t buy at all. There’s these pictures he found in his father’s personal effects after his death which he swears are those of Elizabeth Short’s, and I just don’t see the resemblance. I don’t think it’s the same woman at all. So I think Black Dahlia Avenger, although it’s an impressive accumulation of circumstantial evidence, it is circumstantial, and ultimately I found it inconclusive for me.

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His son also blames him for a bunch of other unsolved killings in Los Angeles and the Lipstick Killing in Chicago from around the same time.

Zodiac killing, as well.

Let me ask one more thing about the art scene of Laurel Canyon. They represent it with a nod to New York avant garde artist Yoko Ono. So how did you respond to the sets and the timing? What does that bring to your character?

The sets. We had the unique experience of shooting in the actual Franklin house designed by Lloyd Wright Jr., based on a Mayan temple. His wonderful, heavy, textile-block columns and monumental walls. Have you ever been there?

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No, but I was writing about it, and that’s also where the incest, the rape, was supposed to have happened, as well.

Allegedly, yes, it happened at one of the parties that he’d have. It was an amazing experience filming in that house. It’s a character, in and of itself, in the series, I believe. It looks like a monster. The entrance is a gaping maw, and you’re sort of literally swallowed up and consumed and then spat out in the central courtyard, which is like a penitentiary. The rooms are arranged like cells, windowless cells, that give on to the courtyard. So I felt like I was in a Panopticon. I felt like the head warden. You can kind of stand in various places and have the complete survey of the architecture of the place. There’s even a hidden bookshelf. I mean, a hidden room behind a bookshelf, I should say, in his study. It was very much a James Bond villain lair, and certainly the house of a control freak.

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Was there a surgical room?

Well, there was, supposedly, in the basement. He had a small operating theater where he would perform services, allegedly, for people in the motion picture industry and the police and politics, I think.

What do you know about the parties and how much do you buy about the rumors of the parties?

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I believe the parties happened, certainly. It’s a great house for entertaining, but he would have these salons, and a lot of artists would be invited there, and a lot of experimentation would go on there. Artistic experimentation, I think sexual experimentation, as well.

Yeah. It was renowned for that, and also his loving of the Marquis de Sade and things like that have been documented.

Yes, yes. He was very influenced. I tried to read de Sade. I think I read La Philosophie dans le Boudoir, or whatever. That sort of thin book. I think it’s his shortest book. The sort of primer. I could barely get through that. Then I tried to assail 100 Days of Sodom, but I could barely stand a weekend in Sodom. I never finished that. It’s titillating for maybe two sentences, and then you turn ashen. I get really sort of ill.

What are your favorite noir films?

Oh gosh. I love them all. Double Indemnity, I think is my favorite. I recently saw that with my wife in Journal Square, New Jersey, where they have this wonderful decaying, debilitated motion picture palace of the 1930s, and they screen period films there on this colossal screen with a mighty Wurlitzer organ playing beneath it. It was just such a great venue. I love Double Indemnity. I love anything with Barbara Stanwyck in it. 

What was it like working with India Eisley?

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Oh, she was a revelation to me. She has one of those extraordinary faces over which emotions and thoughts float like the shadows of clouds. I was so struck by her, working with her, and then seeing her performance on screen. But extremely intelligent actor she is. It’s so thrilling to see it in someone of her age. Very strong, self-possessed and fiercely, fiercely intelligent and curious. She was a joy to work with.

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When you were playing the character, did George Hodel kill Elizabeth Short, in your mind?

In my mind, did he? I didn’t think about that. I tried to put it from my mind, in all honesty. When you’re playing someone who’s considered villainous by a large part of the world, I didn’t think of him in those terms. I thought everything I did was right and rational, and everybody else just misunderstood me, that’s all. But I didn’t think about crimes past or crimes future very much. I tried to approach every scene with a free and clear conscious.

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Would you have had memory, in the character, of the actual cutting of her mouth, things like that, in order to play it artistically in your head?

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Yeah. That’s very shrewd of you. I did try to look at everything he does in the film, or talks about doing, as though it were an artistic act. I think that was his obsession. I think he wanted to be a great artist. He started out, as you know, as a child prodigy, and tutored by Rachmaninoff, among others. Spoke fluent French, educated at a Montessori school in Paris at the age of six or seven, I think, and essentially was brought up as a European aristocrat. It was rather an ill fit in a Pasadena high school. But I did try to look at everything as a means of artistic expression. I think that George very much wanted to live his life that way. He was very self-conscious about the way he presented himself to the world. His friends called him King George. He had a very stilted, almost theatrical way of presenting himself and of speaking, with his sort of courtly formality from another age and another country.

How do you then view him as the doctor, the gynecologist?

Okay. As the gynecologist, I think he was a superb doctor with a thriving practice, although I guess he was not a terribly moral one. I think he falsified some accounts, or overcharged patients. But I think he had a great reputation as a medical man.

What’s it like working with Patty Jenkins in a noir setting?

It was wonderful. I remember going in and meeting with her, initially, at Warner Brothers, to talk about the role right before we started shooting it. I said, “Oh god, what a heavy burden it will be to bear this character on our shoulders for these next few months.” She said, “I don’t think so at all. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun.” It’s true. The whole process was shot through with so much joy and so much playfulness and so much fun. But I find that often true. Whenever you’re dealing with morbid subject matter, that it tends to be a very light atmosphere surrounding it. You rehearse Ibsen as though it’s [Georges] Feydeau, and Feydeau as though it were Ibsen. Comedy’s very serious, to make a comedy. A drama, of this kind, had a great deal of lightness around it.

When I was watching the series through the first time, I saw you as Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. They save you for the end. 

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Yes, it’s lovely to be a character that people talk about, and you hear a disembodied voice. I felt a little like Harry Lime. Orson Welles’s Harry Lime in The Third Man. That’s one of my favorite films, as well. I love how Harry shows up in a dark Viennese doorway. You just see his shoes and the cat rubbing against his calves, and then the light comes on in the upstairs window, and you finally see his face, after people having been talking about him the entire film, and assuming he’s dead. Anyway, it was a lovely sort of late reveal for me, too.

I Am the Night airs Mondays on TNT.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.