It’s hard enough for the average person to try to empathise with the workings of a serial killer’s twisted mind, but imagine if you had to step in front of a camera and quite literally into a serial killer’s shoes. Could you do it?
With highly anticipated upcoming releases such as My Friend Dahmer, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Quentin Tarantino’s film based around the Manson Family murders, and season 2 of Netflix’s own 1970s crime drama Mindhunter, it’s pretty clear that serial killers are a hot topic that continues to fascinate us and dominate our screens.
With all of that to look forward to and more, we thought we’d take a look at some of the actors who have previously portrayed these infamous criminals.
Here are Vampire Squid’s top 7 actors who took on the roles of real-life serial killers onscreen – and totally killed it.
1. Michael Rooker as Henry Lee Lucas
You might be more accustomed to seeing him looking rather blue as Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy, but once upon a time, a young Michael Rooker took on the much weightier role of Henry Lee Lucas in John McNaughton’s docu-horror Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
Lucas was convicted of killing 11 people and allegedly confessed to killing hundreds. However, there is much speculation as to whether his ‘confessions’ were believable.
The American drifter was prison buddies and accomplices with Ottis Toole, another name synonymous with serial killing, who became known as ‘The Jacksonville Cannibal’.
Before turning to more comedic and brightly-coloured sci-fi roles, Michael Rooker was truly formidable as Lucas in the chilling Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which tells the story of Lucas and Toole’s dark experiences during the time that they lived together.
2. Mark Harmon as Ted Bundy
Most recognisable these days as Gibbs from NCIS, actor Mark Harmon once played notorious serial killer Ted Bundy in The Deliberate Stranger (1986), which depicted Bundy’s life.
Ted Bundy admitted to killing 36 people, but it is believed that he most likely killed many more. Having murdered a string of young women in various US states and been found guilty of his crimes, Bundy was sentenced to death. He fought long and hard for his life, delaying his execution date in exchange for information about unsolved murders, but was eventually executed in January 1989 via ‘Old Sparky’, Florida’s electric chair.
Ex-Disney star and heart-throb Zac Efron is next up to portray the serial killer in director Joe Berlinger’s film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, so it will be very interesting to see how Harmon and Efron’s performances differ in their portrayal of Bundy.
3. Reece Shearsmith as Malcolm Webster
Though not technically a ‘serial killer’, it seems highly likely that, considering the deviousness of his crimes, Malcolm Webster would have gone on to become one.
British actor Reece Shearsmith, best known for his darkly comic performances in Inside Number 9, The League of Gentlemen and Psychoville, became Malcolm Webster before our very eyes in ITV’s three-part drama The Widower (2013).
Former nurse Webster was convicted of the murder of his first wife in Scotland in 1994, as well as the attempted murder of his second wife in 1999. Both incidents involved drugging his wives in secret and staging their car crashes. To add insult to injury, he also attempted to claim over £1m in life insurance money.
Shearsmith does an unnervingly good job of portraying Webster in the TV mini-series, although Webster’s surviving wife Felicity Drumm has stated that it did not truly capture the ‘charm’ Webster used to ‘dupe women’ in real life.
4. Monica Dolan as Rose West
Monica Dolan was downright despicable as Rose West in the award-winning two-part ITV drama Appropriate Adult. The television mini-series chronicled the harrowing experiences of Janet Leach, who acted as Gloucester serial killer Fred West’s ‘appropriate adult’ during his police questioning in 1994.
Leach, who was training as a social worker at the time, was called down to the police station and asked to oversee interviews with a then-unknown Fred West, an illiterate adult whom she would be assisting during his investigation. Appropriate Adult tells the chilling story following the arrests of Fred and Rose West from Leach’s unique perspective, and details the horrifying truth that the police would uncover at the West’s home, 25 Cromwell Street.
Dolan’s depiction of Rose made for very uncomfortable viewing and really demonstrated the actress’s talent. To make a character so genuinely unsettling and easy to hate in just two episodes no doubt took a lot of skill and Dolan did this masterfully.
Dolan even had to deal with unpleasant comments from Rose West herself, who insulted her from in prison, demanding to know why “that dopey actress” was playing her.
5. Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos
One of the most remarkable onscreen serial killer depictions came, somewhat surprisingly, from Hollywood actress Charlize Theron in 2003. Theron, who is normally rather glamorous onscreen, proved just how adaptable she could be, when she transformed into infamous serial killer Aileen Wuornos for the biographical crime drama Monster.
Directed by Patty Jenkins, Monster documented Wuornos’ shocking killing spree throughout the 1980s and early 1990s in Florida. Once arrested, Wuornos admitted to killing 7 men, but was only convicted of killing 6 because one of the bodies could never be found. Wuornos, who was a sex worker, argued that the murders were done in self defence, but police found nothing to support these claims. She received the death penalty and was executed at Florida State Prison in October 2002.
In order to look like Wuornos, Theron gained 30lb, cut her hair, changed her eye colour from blue to brown, and wore a prosthetic designed to give her an underbite. She claimed that she was tired of getting typecast as the ‘attractive blonde’ in her career and that playing Wuornos was the most challenging work she had ever done.
6. Cameron Britton as Ed Kemper
Netflix’s Mindhunter shocked us all in 2017 with its eerie portrayal of various serial killers from the 1970s. The one that has stuck the most in viewer’s minds is that of Edmund Kemper, a recurring character in the first series, played by Cameron Britton.
Britton’s riveting performance as the literally larger-than-life Kemper had us glued to our screens and has caused the previously fairly obscure name to skyrocket in public interest.
Known later as the ‘Co-Ed Killer’, Kemper’s criminal career started early in life, when he murdered his own grandparents at the age of 15 and was committed to a hospital for the criminally insane. After his release at age 21, he went on to kill 6 students, his mother and her friend. Mindhunter explores the psychology behind the serial killer and provides us with a sinister (but educational) insight into Kemper’s mind and his personal life.
It seems as though Kemper couldn’t have been cast better – physically, Britton is scarily similar to ‘Big Ed’ (who stood at a whopping 6 feet 9 inches), but it’s his subtle mannerisms and way of speaking that make his performance particularly captivating. The makers of the show even took real dialogue from Kemper’s 1984 and 1991 interviews and added them to the script. Knowing that some of Britton’s lines came directly from Kemper himself makes for pretty chilling viewing.
7. Dominic West as Fred West
Along with his co-star Monica Dolan, Dominic West stunned viewers with his uncanny imitation of infamous Gloucester serial killer Fred West in Appropriate Adult. Best known for his role in The Wire, West was all too aware of the immense challenge he was undertaking when he agreed to play Fred. The actor later admitted that he suffered from nightmares while shooting the mini-series, due to its harrowing content. Nonetheless, despite struggling with the disturbing role, he stated that “It’s important these stories are told”.
Fred West committed at least 12 murders (including his own daughter), many with the help of his wife Rose. All of the murders were of young women, and many of them were done for the couple’s own sexual gratification. Throughout his investigation, West insisted that Rose had nothing to do with the murders, though evidence said otherwise. He eventually killed himself in prison in 1995. The true extent of the Wests’ killings still remain unknown.
Dominic West’s portrayal of the serial killer was so powerful that it was even praised by the Wests’ daughter Mae West. She said, “Although Dominic was obviously a lot taller, some of his mannerisms were eerily familiar. His behaviour in public was very different to how he was in private. Everyone who knew him liked him – overall he came across as fairly harmless … But there was another side to him, and every now and then something would trigger it. He’d have this cold, frightening look in his eyes that left you in no doubt that he could turn nasty. It was very scary, and I couldn’t believe how accurately Dominic managed to get that across.”