Michael Sheen stars as serial killer Dr Martin Whitly in Sky’s new US import Prodigal Son – and if his character seems unnervingly realistic, that could be because the actor studied several real-life serial killers to get the performance just right.
In Sky One and NOW TV‘s Prodigal Son, Dr Whitly – also known as “The Surgeon” – has been behind bars for more than a decade. But before his crimes were discovered, he was a loving father-of-two, a highly-respected thoracic surgeon, and a pillar of the local community.
The role is an interesting one for Good Omens star Sheen, who in 2016 announced his directorial debut with a movie about the Green River Killer (in which he also planned to star). The project, still in development, would tell the story of Gary Ridgway – a US serial killer who pled guilty to 48 murders during the 1980s and 90s.
“Even though that’s a very different case and a very different serial killer, character, to my character in it, just being in that world and spending so much time working on that project gave me a lot of help when I came to work on this,” Sheen told RadioTimes.com and other press.
“But I also looked at Harold Shipman – my character in this is a very well-respected surgeon, so the idea of a doctor who was very loved and respected by people and who took advantage of that and was killing them, I looked at that.”
British doctor Harold Shipman was convicted in 2000 of murdering 15 patients under his care, but the true total was likely closer to 250 people. He is believed to be the most prolific serial killer in modern history, and operated undetected for years.
Sheen then also drew inspiration from Ted Bundy, an American serial killer who kidnapped, raped and murdered at least 30 girls and young women.
“Ted Bundy, who people found very charming and likeable… his biggest weapon is that he’s funny, and that people like him and warm to him and enjoy his company,” the actor said.
“And he has cultivated that because he wants people to let their defences down and if he can make you laugh, he knows he can manipulate you. He knows it’s working, and if he can get you to drop your defences he knows he can kill you a lot easier. Makes it a lot easier for him if he seduces you in that way. So he sort of developed that ability, and I thought Bundy was sort of interesting in that respect.”
In Prodigal Son, Dr Martin Whitly has a grown-up son called Malcolm Bright – played by Tom Payne – who is the show’s protagonist.
Having had his childhood torn apart by the discovery of his father’s sadistic crimes, Malcolm now works as a criminal psychologist specialising in serial killer profiling. But all these years later, he still suffers from night terrors and psychological trauma; and when people find out about his father they look at him differently.
Payne, who previously starred in The Walking Dead, spent some time getting into Malcolm’s head.
“There was a podcast which I found which was absolutely specific and relevant to the show, called Happy Face,” he revealed. “It’s this girl who is the daughter of the Happy Face Killer, in America and she travelled around meeting relatives of victims of her father, and spoke a lot about how it made her feel, and it was exactly what my character would have gone through.
“So I listened to all of that and it was really hard to listen to, and just the deep deep pain felt by her and all of the doubts that you have about yourself and whether you, any of your relative within you. It all speaks to Malcolm and, was there a trigger for his father? Was it inherent to his character? And all of these things.
“And then it also helped me to understand how the outside world views you through the lens of what your father did before you were even cognisant of being in the world, your relative has been doing all of these awful things, and then that immediately reflects upon you and people cannot help but see you as the spawn of this monster.
“So that really helped me and put me in the position of understanding it quite exactly all of the pressures that are on my character and why he changed his name and moved away in order to get some distance.”
As for why we’re fascinated with shows about serial killers, Sheen has a few theories.
“It’s probably a good idea for sheep to take an interest in wolves, because they literally prey on us – so serial killers are our predators, one of our predators,” he explains. “We’re interested in sharks, aren’t we, and we’re interested in anything that can kill us and there’s probably a good reason for that.
“Back in the day we went round campfires and told stories about wolves in the forests, because there were wolves in the forest. But they also take on a kind of bogeyman element and become a sort of folklore. So I think there’s a lot of different things going on in our being drawn to serial killers.”
And one final thought: “I think we also like to think of the dark, of a monster being there – we know that the monster is in here,” he says, patting his chest. “We know that it’s us. As well as it being the other, it’s also us as well and that is a way to engage with the darkness in us, by making it outside of ourselves.”