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Discovery Probes the Backstory of Ted Kaczynski in ‘Manhunt: Unabomber’

The producers of Discovery Channel’s “Manhunt: Unabomber” limited series tried to bring “radical empathy” to the portrayal of Ted Kaczynski and the terror he inflicted through a bombing campaign that lasted more than 20 years.

Andrew Sodroski, writer and exec producer with Greg Yaitanes of the eight-part series that premieres Aug. 1, said the mini tries to explain why the highly intelligent mathematician was motivated to send bombs to people in a twisted effort to protest what he saw as the dangers of technology in the modern world.

Discovery is hoping to stir public interest in a the lesser-known aspects of a notorious modern criminal case in the same way that FX tapped a nerve last year with “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” The cabler aims to turn “Manhunt” into a recurring scripted franchise.

“This is a guy who mails bombs to people he’s never met,” Sodroski said Wednesday during a panel on the mini at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Beverly Hills. “At the same time he’s a victim too. He was a little boy with a bright future ahead of him, and then something happened.”

Unabomber saga that played out during the 1980s and ’90s is pretty much made for a TV adaptation. Kaczynski’s arrest in 1996 near his tiny cabin in rural Montana was spurred by the publication of his 35,000-word “manifesto” by the Washington Post. His older brother, David Kaczynski, recognized Ted’s writing style and turned him in to authorities, after much agonizing over the decision.

Actor Paul Bettany, who plays Ted Kaczynski, said the wealth of material available about the Unabomber and the reclusive life he led for decades allowed him insight into the character. He made particular note of the reading material found in Kaczynski’s tiny cabin — Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” and Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”

“They were all novels about the outsider — the man who feels like an alien in society and commits a crime that he can’t come back from,” Bettany said.

The work of the FBI team that caught Kaczynski is also a big component of the storytelling. The investigators used groundbreaking criminal profiling techniques and forensic tools to track down Kaczynski from clues left in the explosive devices and packages he sent to his victims. Most of them were targeted because they worked in the world of technology or in jobs involving the environment such as the U.S. Forestry Service. Kaczynski pulled their names from newspaper stories.

Mark Duplass plays David Kaczynski. Duplass’ long history of working with his brother, Jay Duplass, on movies and TV shows gave him the foundation for understanding the special bond between the Kaczynski brothers.

“I love him so much and I want to beat the s— out of him all the time,” Duplass said of his brother. “When Greg called to ask me if I would have any connection to this material, I said ‘Yeah we spiritually and emotionally Unabomb each other all the time. I think I can get into this.”

Bettany said the limited series format allows the project the time to delve into the psyche of not only Ted but those who worked to end his reign of terror. Sodroski called it a lens of “radical empathy.”

“If we were making this as a movie it almost certainly would have become a thriller about a dogged, maverick cop chasing a monster,” Bettany said. “Having eight hours allows you to spend some time with Ted Kaczynski. We’re not trying to generate sympathy for Ted but we’re certainly asking you to have some empathy for this child. What happened to this boy is very damaging.”

Other key cast members are Jane Lynch as U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, Sam Worthington as lead Det. Jim Fitzgerald, Chris Noth as FBI honcho Dan Ackerman and Keisha Castle-Hughes as Det. Tabby Milgrim.

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