It was an unusual pitch.
Amber Sealey, the director of “No Man of God,” couldn’t shake the feeling that Luke Kirby, best known for playing Lenny Bruce on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” was the perfect person to embody a very different historical figure: None other than Ted Bundy, one of the most infamous serial killers and a man responsible for the murder of more than 20 people.
“I’m sure you can imagine the delight that I took in being told that I should play this role,” says Kirby with a laugh. “It’s definitely not the first thing you want to hear when meeting somebody.”
But he ended up sitting down with Sealey, and after a long discussion on the pros and cons of joining the drama, signed on the dotted line.
“We sat together hashing out the challenges, concerns, peculiarities and nausea that would come with doing something like this,” says Kirby. “The good news is that I didn’t feel beholden to him as a person or to his legacy, because I don’t think he had a legacy at all. It was just a path of destruction. Not feeling that responsibility was freeing.”
What followed is one of the more unorthodox serial killer dramas in recent years. It’s a movie that unfolds as a series of conversations between an imprisoned Bundy, waiting out his remaining days on death row, and FBI agent Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood), an upstanding, deeply religious man, who is able to get the murderer to open up about his crimes. “No Man of God” premiered this weekend at the Tribeca Festival and will open in theaters this August.
“I’m not a religious person, but I think Bill really is and he believes in morality and doing good things and god,” says Sealey. “That enabled him to look at Bundy as a human and not look at him only as a criminal. That’s why he was able to do his job so well. He was able to find love in his heart for Bundy and that’s something that I don’t think a lot of people could do. I’m not saying that Bundy deserved that or didn’t deserve that, but it’s just a special quality that Bill has.”
Wood, who produced the film in addition to appearing as Hagmaier, says it also helped that the FBI agent didn’t see talking to Bundy as an opportunity for career advancement. He just wanted to gain insight into Bundy’s psychosis.
“Bill was not trying to use Ted and he made that very clear,” says Wood. “So many of the law enforcement officers that Ted came across were operating because there was something to be gained by their interactions. There was a claim to be made or information to be exploited. Bill took a different approach.”
Making the movie also presented an acting challenge for Kirby and Wood, one that was akin to performing on stage, with the two stars locked in long, uninterrupted scenes together.
“It was liberating to get into something and stay in it,” says Wood. “It does feel exploratory and you’re sort of finding it and feeling it. And then there’s the mechanics of these scenes where these two men are kind of performing for each other. There’s so much subtext. Playing with all these elements was so much fun. We were often surprised by the joyfulness of the process despite the darkness of the material.”
Bundy has been the subject of numerous films and documentaries over the years. So why, nearly 30 years after he was executed, does he remain such a figure of fascination? In some respects, the stars and director argue, it’s because despite the brutality of his crimes, he was able to maintain the facade of being normal.
“Bundy, more than any other mass murderer, serial killer or disturbed individual, managed to live a relatively successful double life,” says Wood. “He was relatively attractive and he didn’t fit the typical profile that many of these people do where they are not successful members of society. They are shut-ins or hermits. He was this confident individual, who was involved in local politics, studied law and was outwardly gregarious with a big personality. For many of us, it’s easy to separate ourselves from the monsters because we can’t relate to them. But we’re more fascinated by the killer who is seemingly more like us.”