There’s been no shortage of films and television series analyzing serial killer Ted Bundy, especially in recent years. With the release of No Man of God, a new film depicting Bundy (played by Luke Kirby) and his relationship with FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood), anyone would be right to question what the point even is of rehashing this troubling figure yet again, after it’s already been done so many times.
For writer Kit Lesser and director Amber Sealey, the relationship between these two men offered an interesting portal into a time of Bundy’s life that we haven’t seen before, and the opportunity to push out beyond that, even questioning our own fascination with him at the expense of others whom his story has impacted.
Premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, No Man of God has earned mostly positive reviews from critics, including our own Joey Magidson, who in his review singled out Kirby’s performance as “the definitive Ted Bundy” on screen.
I spoke with Kirby, the star of projects such as Rectify (another fascinatingly nuanced examination of capital punishment) and the currently running Gossip Girl revival, about the difficulties of taking on a role as intimidating as this one, and how Sealey gave him confidence that this was a film being made for the right reasons.
Mitchell Beaupre: Ted Bundy is somebody we’ve seen in films before, particularly in recent years. What did you feel stood out about No Man of God that brought a new angle worth showing to audiences?
Luke Kirby: Yeah, that’s certainly true, and after a point one starts to wonder why we are participating and engaging in this conversation still. You have to ask if we are running the risk of sensationalizing it in some way. But, I had met with Amber many months before we shot the film. We didn’t know that we were going to have to wait so long, because I met her on March 16th, the day before New York shut down. I got up the next day, saw the news, and got on the next available flight. Then it was time to sit inside for four months.
That timing worked out in a way, because I was able to sit with her, six feet apart, and express those very same curiosities and questions about the how and why of it, about the material, and that kind of ugliness of it all. With Amber, I really felt heard when I talked about it, and it turned out that she shared the same feeling. We felt a shared responsibility to try something a little new, and I know that Amber had a really interesting take on it. At that point, I adopted her as an authority to carry us into this journey, and see it through to the end. Then, as it happened, we were all forced into isolation for a long time, having just had this conversation about a man in isolation.
MB: While you certainly had more luxuries than someone confined in prison, did being removed from society in that way help you get into the headspace of this man who was very isolated? Who then had this guy, Bill Hagmaier, come in, and he felt that he could build a relationship, and what he felt was a friendship, with.
LK: I think that’s possible. When we finally got shooting, it was August 2020. There was a real feeling of being alive, being together in that room, and being with the crew, that was a sensation akin to a summer camp vibe where you’re just so happy to have new material, and a new narrative to lean into. Maybe that informed the play of it, because I imagined that when Bill Hagmaier showed up, this guy Bundy must have bizarrely felt a kinship, and didn’t want him to go away.
MB: What do you think it was about this time in Bundy’s life, and that relationship between him and Bill, that made it so ripe for exploration?
LK: It’s hard to know the pathology of a narcissist, or a psychopath, because someone like Ted was so self-serving, so desperate to find any way to alter the narrative of his life In the public eye in order to save his own skin. It’s hard to know exactly where the humanity lies. Bill was somebody who clearly had no selfish stock in this game. He was in it for the right reasons. He has not used this story to sensationalize his own life to his benefit. In that regard, Ted was meeting somebody totally different, and to himself found something that came close to friendship.
MB: You were able to speak with Bill Hagmaier, and pick his brain about his relationship with Bundy. What insights was he able to provide for you that helped with your performance?
LK: He humanized the story in a way that I didn’t really understand prior to that, which helped me feel a little more confident in exploring that. It also asserted everything that was written on the page, because he was able to confirm everything that was there. He went through the whole experience, and it was almost like he was speaking the entire script to me. That was another great confidence boost going in because without that I might have looked at the script and thought that something maybe seemed a little too much, or didn’t seem legitimate. It turns out that wasn’t the case, because Bill was there confirming all of these things. That helped to find the authenticity in the story, and to show us that we were on the right track.
MB: I imagine that humanizing a story like this would be pretty tough. As an actor, you want to be able to get into the headspace of a character, and empathize with them. Does that idea get pushed to its limit, perhaps even beyond its limit, when you’re playing somebody like Bundy?
LK: I think when you’re playing a psychopath, things become something different than the usual game of the actor. Figuring out what your intention is, and where your needs lie is much more complicated. You’re looking at a cracked mirror with somebody like this. Sometimes it was necessary to relinquish those exercises, and instead play puppet to the game. With the space that Amber afforded us, we were able to throw shit at the wall, and see what stuck and what didn’t. We were trusting her to do the best she could with what we gave her. It was definitely an interesting new experience in that regard. In a way, I also feel like it would be a disservice to play someone like this as inhuman, because then you get into the realm of granting them more power than they’re worthy of. It’s tricky to talk about. It’s a tricky game to play.
MB: It speaks a lot to the complexity of playing somebody like this, and how it’s not as black and white as you would initially think.
LK: I will say, narcissism is a word that gets bandied about a lot these days. We’re exposed to a lot of it, and certainly we’ve been exposed to versions of it when people are, you know, in high seats of office and power. I’m not just speaking to the one obvious one, but that was present for me in shooting this. We’re seeing someone who will continually shirk responsibility and accountability when they’re afforded a kind of power. They’re caught abusing that power, and they immediately blame something else, blame society, blame other people.
MB: There’s an interesting shift about halfway through the film, when Bundy gets the date of his execution. There’s a real change in his energy and behavior. How did you want to alter your performance from before that point into where his headspace is at once he gets that date?
LK: I think that’s something we can all relate to in a way, that fear of whatever frightens you, whether it’s going to the dentist or getting on an airplane or anything. The closer you get to that time, the more you feel the velocity, and the more you feel like you’re trying to separate yourself from that velocity, making excuses, trying every way you can to slow down the inevitable. We’re seeing how that manifests, that feeling of the walls closing in on this ugly little creature who is about to have something horrible done to them. It’s a really peculiar thing, state killing. It’s so paradoxical, just by virtue of what murder is.
MB: Amber included real life footage in the film showing people outside of the prison, essentially throwing a party to celebrate Bundy’s execution. Do you feel there’s some observations there to be made about that contradiction of state-sanctioned murder?
LK: The movie’s not afraid of living in paradox. I’m sure Amber has her own feelings about that. I have mine as well. It points out to me how we can respond to horror. It’s sort of that standard pitchfork mob thing. Choosing villains from the outside, and not reflecting on our own participation in that villainy is a curious dynamic, and I think worthy of attention.