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Elijah Wood has but one regret from his experience starring in and producing the new film No Man of God — that he didn’t get to meet the man he plays, acclaimed FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier.
Though Hagmaier, who served in the agency’s Behavior Analysis Unit before becoming chief of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crimes, is far from a household name, he became somewhat of a legend in his field thanks to his work with notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. Hagmaier spent hours over the course of years interviewing Bundy during his final days on death row, and the film — written by Kit Lesser and directed by Amber Sealey — centers on their conversations.
The intense chamber piece pits Wood’s Hagmaier opposite Luke Kirby’s Bundy as the two actors recite lines pulled from the actual transcripts of their real conversations, which have long been studied by profilers, analysts and true crime enthusiasts. The COVID-19 pandemic sidelined any and all travel plans that would’ve allowed Wood to visit Hagmaier in person so instead, they relied on phone calls, which Wood said Hagmaier generously offered to the film’s creative collaborators.
“I certainly had questions, and he answered those questions, which was super helpful in terms of my preparation prior to shooting,” Wood explains. “But there’s just so much more that comes out of spending time with someone in person where conversations can go in a variety of different directions. I do look forward to that eventually happening cause he’s a lovely, lovely person, and he has so many incredible stories that extend far beyond Ted Bundy and his relationship with Ted.”
After premiering at Tribeca Festival in June, the film was released Aug. 27, a day when Wood spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his biggest challenges on the production, what it was like to play a father for the first time (after becoming one himself), and what he learned about himself during the pandemic.
Where are you in the world right now? I saw that you’ve been filming Toxic Avenger, is that still going?
I’m back home in Los Angeles and wrapped The Toxic Avenger [a few weeks] ago. We were shooting in Sofia, Bulgaria, so I was there about five weeks.
How did that go? I know that it was a reteaming of your friend Macon Blair, who directed you in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore…
So, so great. I missed the first few weeks of shooting because my character wasn’t involved yet, so I missed being able to work with Peter Dinklage. I’m so bummed about that because I’m a huge fan of Peter and I would love to have met him. But it was great, I got to work with Kevin Bacon. The tone of the film is really, really wonderful and funny. For fans of Troma and for fans of the original, there’s a lot that they’re going to be really pleased about. It’s so great to work with my friend; I love Macon so much and he’s an incredible writer, a great filmmaker, and I was honored to get to play with him again. Macon, also, really makes it his own. I’m really excited about it and it’s going to be a lot of fun.
I love that. It feels like the Troma films represent an era that doesn’t necessarily exist in the film business any longer. Speaking of, Hollywood is making fewer of the adult drama, character studies like your new film No Man of God. Were you aware of Bill Hagmaier before reading the script?
I wasn’t. I’m sure I probably had seen him be interviewed in true crime documentaries in the past, but as it pertains to his relationship to Ted Bundy, it was not a part of Ted Bundy’s life that I was familiar with. So, it was a completely new chapter, if you will, in the Ted Bundy story for me — and it was fascinating. I have been interested in true crime since, I guess, I was as young as 14 or 15. I still have the Time-Life Serial Killers book. Ted Bundy is someone I knew a fair amount about and I’d watched interviews and read a little about him over the years.
But again, this particular section of his life on death row in the four years leading up to his death and this relationship was new to me. The script, which is largely based on transcripts of their conversations and recollections of Bill Hagmaier, was so incredibly fascinating and to get to depict that was an exciting prospect.
Did you listen to all the conversations or do any more research? What was your process?
I did and there were a lot of audio interviews, too, with Bill recounting a lot of what he experienced. Then in addition to the audio of their time together that I pored over, and then, obviously, the document of the script itself. Also, Bill availed himself to everyone on the film. The only unfortunate aspect of shooting the movie was that we shot it COVID-compliant so nobody was allowed to travel. The plan was to go back east and spend time with Bill prior to shooting and that was not possible. It’s really my only regret about the entire experience is not being able to meet Bill in person, as of yet, or be able to spend time with him. A phone call can only sort of glean so much.
I certainly had questions, and he answered those questions, which was super helpful in terms of my preparation prior to shooting. But there’s just so much more that comes out of spending time with someone in person where conversations can go in a variety of different directions. I do look forward to that eventually happening cause he’s a lovely, lovely person, and he has so many incredible stories that extend far beyond Ted Bundy and his relationship with Ted.
Do you know if he’s seen the film and what he thinks?
He has seen the film and he really likes it from what I’ve heard, which is fantastic. When you’re portraying someone that’s still alive, a fear, of course, is that they’re not going to love what you did or your interpretation of them. He really enjoyed the film and he also understands the way that films are, too. I mean, he’s savvy enough to know that there’s some artistic license. One of the things that was important for Amber and us in telling the story, that is less apparent on the page, is just the emotional and internal life of what Bill’s experiencing. That’s a little up for interpretation because Bill’s honest and open about his experience with Ted, but in terms of unpacking the effect that Ted may have had on him, that’s a little bit more difficult to discern explicitly. It was important that the central character of the movie being Bill, that there is a journey that he goes on and that is somehow depicted. That really falls on those sort of in-between moments between these conversations to sort of show that there is a kind of effect that is being put upon Bill as he’s spending all this time with Ted.
It’s a testament to your performance that that is so apparent based on your reactions to him, which is internalized or shown in these intense looks. What was your biggest challenge as an actor?
The challenge is in that restraint, trying to find ways to articulate the internal, emotional life of Bill. He does keep his cards relatively close to his chest and so the challenge working within those confines. My job was made so much easier by working with Luke so those scenes were a joy to shoot. The conversations, really, are the backbone, the meat and potatoes of the storytelling. Getting to have that with Luke as a team was a total joy. He really did make my job easier. We couldn’t have a formal rehearsal process because of COVID so we were doing it all by Zoom, but we broke down each of those scenes which are extremely important in terms of what’s being said, what’s not being said, what is subtextually being said. Working out the architecture of those conversations in advance with Amber to identify structure, dynamic shifts, things that Ted said or what he’s really trying to say, and vice versa, became the real fun, I think, of the entire process.
What was your time like with Luke when you weren’t filming? Did you stay in character, or hang out at all?
It was great. We spent all of our downtime in between shots together, because it was COVID-compliant and we had to be cordoned off into like a little room off the set with a fan that was blowing air out of the room, but that’s where we could go and hang out. It was really helpful for both of us to not just talk about the scenes, but we would talk about everything else, which was lovely. So much of the process of making movies is a shared creative experience that allows for a connection with your fellow actors as people. There’s room for plenty of downtime and laughter which was important. Levity was a thing that, I think, we yearned for given the kind of material that we were dealing with.
You pulled double duty by acting and producing. What was the biggest challenge in that, particularly managing a COVID-compliant set?
I have to say, I really took my producer hat off shortly before physical production started so that I could primarily focus on playing the character. My producing partners handled the lion’s share of the logistics as it pertained to the COVID-compliance of it all. As far as the development of the screenplay and working with Amber and being there for those choices prior to shooting, absolutely I was there. But in the few times that I’ve worked on any of our films as an actor, there’s generally a time when I need to shift gears so that I can focus on the task at hand.
Both Luke and I were tasked with a lot. There was a lot of dialogue, a lot of prep, and that was my primary focus. I was able to kind of get back into the producer role a little bit in post, where I was able to be present for notes and so on and so forth on the cuts as things were moving forward.
Which is understandable as you have so much to do in this film. Back to your acting, it was so interesting to see you playing a father, even if we don’t see the kids. You’re playing a middle-aged man, lugging around a briefcase. What was that transition like for you to see yourself in that way, especially considering you’ve been on screen since you were very little — really your entire life?
It’s kind of lovely. I mean, it is the first time that I’ve played a father and, obviously, like you said, it’s not expressed onscreen except for a phone call at the end of the movie. But it’s lovely to be in that space. I’m a father myself now, too, so it feels appropriate to be in that realm playing those kinds of characters, and it’s a whole new realm for me.
As far as the recollection or perspective of looking back on my life and how I’ve grown up, I don’t often think about it. I don’t often think about playing a role now and weighing that against the past. I am who I am now, and the only time it’s ever brought to my attention is, I guess, when something from the past resurfaces from when I was a kid. I have this sense of forward momentum and I feel like such a different person now so that feels like ages ago.
The point is you find yourself in a new era expressing yourself in that new time, and that’s the way that you are, that’s the realm you’re in because of the collective experience that you’ve had that got you there. The unique perspective or the unique situation that I am in is simply that my entire life, certainly from when I was eight years old, is expressed on some level in cinema. It’s just kind of wild. To be honest with you, it doesn’t occur to me often. It’s not something that I think about unless it’s asked of me and I kind of go, “Oh, fuck yeah, I guess that is true.”
I understand that. I wanted to ask you the same question I’ve been asking almost everyone that I’ve interviewed over the past year and a half: What have you learned about yourself during the pandemic? I am interested to hear from you because you turned 40 and have entered a new decade. Any revelations?
Yeah. I have to say that my time has been defined by turning 40 and being a new father. This experience for so many people has been so different. There are people who have been isolated by themselves and they have their own experience. There are certainly families that are together. There are couples, new couples in some cases that have been sort of locked down together. There’s any variety of combination of the human experience that people have endured and experienced over the course of this year and a half.
I feel fortunate in that I have my girlfriend and our son and I turned 40 as a new father, and my focus has been on family. It has been defined by seeing my son turn into nearly a two-year-old in a couple of weeks. The intimacy of experiencing that in lockdown has been a joy. That has been the silver lining for me. In some ways, I don’t know if I will ever have that uninterrupted time again. When do you have the ability to just be at home 24/7 for such an extended period of time, and then also be with a child that’s growing and changing? I don’t know if I’ll ever have that intimate focused one-on-one time, quite like it ever again. It’s been such a joy and so lovely. And of course, like everybody else, I made sourdough bread.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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