ScreenPicks recently spoke with Jefferson Mays, who plays the central character of Dr. George Hodel in the current TNT noir thriller I Am the Night, a mini-series inspired by true events. Hodel was an actual person upon whom allegations have swirled that he was involved in the infamous 1947 Black Dahlia murder, one of Los Angeles’ most notorious unsolved crimes.

The series also features Chris Pine as a reporter and India Eisley (daughter of Olivia Hussey) who plays Fauna Hodel, another actual individual upon whose life the series is also inspired. Several of the episodes of I Am the Night were directed by Patty Jenkins who of course directed the recent feature Wonder Woman.

In addition to his work in film and television, Mays also has had tremendous success in theatre, winning the 2004 Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play. He also had a memorable run in the Broadway musical A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder,  in which he played nine different roles.

I Am the Night continues to air on Monday nights on TNT.

How did you become involved with I Am the Night and what was it about the character of George Hodel that particularly interested you?

Mays: The project sort of found me. I was doing another film at the time and received word that Patty Jenkins had reached out with some interest. And so I skyped with her and she told me a bit about the story – not too much – and a bit about the character. And then I read a little bit and that was that. But I only had a cursory knowledge of George Hodel and indeed of the Black Dahlia murder for which he had been accused. I think that I had seen the crime scene photos at a tender age and alas if you have seen them you realize very quickly that they can’t be unseen. So he was sort of in the back of my mind for many years but I never expected to portray him.

What intrigued me was his being a real person which is always a particularly inviting challenge to an actor because it involves extending beyond yourself and trying to remain true to someone who actually existed, and [having] a sense of responsibility to them. So it allowed me to seek myself as much as I could in his history, to read the memoir written by his son, who ironically enough was a retired LAPD homicide detective, and mine it for various character traits and behaviors that I could use in performance to evoke the man.

Hodel was a musical prodigy and also had a very high IQ – reportedly 186. How did these factors inform your understanding of him?

Mays: I think he was very much an outsider. You picture this boy – the son of European immigrés – professional people, very cultured people who moved to Southern California. He grew up in a Francophone household – I think that French was the first language that he spoke. He was a child prodigy, accomplished at the piano, performing in concerts at the age of seven. He was sent off to Paris and studied at a Montessori School which was indeed being run then by Madame Montessori herself – and was hosted by Russian aristocrats. So you have this boy, this precocious boy who is essentially being raised as a member of European aristocracy and then was sent off to high school in Pasadena. So I think that he must have always felt like an odd duck – an outsider and indeed he was.

What was it like to work with Patty Jenkins?

Mays: It was a joyful experience. It’s strange because the seriousness and indeed morbidity of the subject matter you would think would lead to a gloomy atmosphere [on the set] but it was shot through with such playfulness and laughter. Maybe that’s out of necessity to sort of dispel the high tension of some of the scenes and the unpleasant things that we had to do. But it was such a joyful experience.

Another thing that I observed about Patty – and I have observed this quality in a very limited way in other people – but I think that it’s the hallmark of a great artist – is that she is able to hold the big picture in her mind at the same time she is focused on the smallest detail. Everything matters to her whether it be the color of my socks, or the length of my mustache, or the coloring of a line [of dialogue], or a particular story arc in the entire script itself. Everything matters to her – she’s able to deliver a thoughtfully considered opinion on every little thing. And I think, as I said, that is the hallmark of a great artist.

Can you describe what it was like to work with Chris Pine and India Eisley?

Mays: Unfortunately, I didn’t really work with Chris Pine – we were on set together. I got to watch him here and there. I always loved the anarchic sensibilities that he would bring to things. He was extremely playful and inventive. This anarchic, loose cannon [quality] – part of that is his character but I also think that it’s something that is true to the core of Chris Pine and imminently watchable and thrilling.

India Eisley, with whom I had most of my scenes, was a revelation to me. Such a gorgeous, gorgeous person – those extraordinary luminous eyes of hers – she’s almost a spitting image of her mother Olivia Hussey. She’s one of the most intelligent actors I’ve ever worked with. Her face – her emotions and thoughts would pass across it like cloud shadows. I would behold this working with her and then I would see it on the big screen. A lot of the times actors you will work with will be sort of guarded in some ways – you’ll never be able to appreciate the performance until you see it for the medium for which it was intended. Not so India – she was as compelling in life as is her performance on the screen.

Do you have a preference for acting in film or theatre or do you enjoy both equally?

Mays: I enjoy both equally I would say. There is a particular enjoyment to acting in live theatre in that you as an actor are in charge of the performance – in charge of telling the story from its beginning to its end nightly. You’re responsible for it all – you’re self-editing.

Whereas in film and television, although probably the acting is more or less the same, it’s in the hands of somebody else ultimately – in the hands of the editor of what makes it in and what is left out. So that’s a fascinating process to behold and be involved in. I am learning more about it as I go. It’s the film actor’s responsibility to generate raw material that can then be edited and manipulated ultimately into a performance. You’re not in charge of its overall arc. It’s a curious place to be but I find it thrilling and new.

Is there anything, in general, you would like to tell audiences about I Am the Night?

Mays: I’ve never seen anything like it myself. What I love about it – there are a number of things – one, it takes it’s time. It’s akin to reading a particularly rich novel for me. I love the pace at which the story unfolds. And I love that it honors an audience’s intelligence. It doesn’t force its way on an audience – it casts a spell and steals upon them.

I also admire the way in which it re-investigates the genre of noir – and it seems like a very new way. You can recognize many of the tropes from noir – and I think I largely credit Sam Sheridan [writer and an executive producer of the series] for this – but the language itself feels freshly minted. It feels modern, and yet true to its noir traditions. It never feels like warmed over Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane – but there is something really seductive about the language.

I also think that it’s thrilling to see a part for this strong, intelligent young woman engaged in this almost mythic journey of self-discovery. I think that we should have more stories of that nature.

Would you like to tell us what your future projects are for both stage and film?

Mays: This, I think, is a problem that I have as an actor – so many of my friends have a laundry list of things they want to do, people with whom they want to work, roles they want to play – and I admire them. Is it through my own laziness or indolence, but I love to be ambushed or mugged by my next project. I Am the Night stole upon me without my being aware of it, so I like falling into things. I think I am much happier that way than planning ahead.

So I don’t know what’s next – I just finished doing a play here in Los Angeles which I hope to do in New York. There are a lot of things hovering in the ether but I have no master plan and I don’t even know what I want for lunch.