Following The Mist on Spike and The Dark Tower in movie theaters, the summer of Stephen King continues this week with the premiere of Mr. Mercedes. The adaptation of the novelist’s 2014 bestseller (and self-proclaimed first hard-boiled detective story) follows a computer savvy serial killer named Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway) who starts taunting the retired detective (Brendon Gleeson) who failed to catch him.
For Treadaway (Penny Dreadful), getting to play a villain of King’s invention — and the titular one at that — was a childhood dream come true. “After watching The Shining as a fairly young kid, I became an instant fan and would have done anything with King attached,“ says the British star. “I then became a fan of his writing and the fact that it was this novel in particular really made me want the job. He weaves such tense storylines and psychological fear into such domestic residential settings. That is what is so scary about it. You just expect everything to be normal and then it gets very dark, sick, and twisted.” Read on for more of Treadaway’s thoughts on the intense new thriller.
Unlike most of King’s novels, Mr. Mercedes doesn’t take place in Maine. Producer David E. Kelley thought it was really ironic that when he finally got a chance to work with Stephen King, it had no connection to King’s beloved home state, which also happens to be where David grew up.
That is funny. The book is set in Ohio, which is not where we are shooting either. We are shooting in Charleston. Not that it matters for me. For me, they are all very American and therefore different from where I am from. But we avoid anything that looks too Charleston. It has been a really hospitable place to work. The people are friendly. The crew is talented. It’s nice to be surrounded by all this water and to be in a smaller town than London for a change. But to me, it is so pretty and so quaint that it feels like the perfect backdrop for a Stephen King novel as well. The kind of place where bubbling just under the surface are some dark tales.
Let’s say you are trying to explain the show to someone who has never heard of this book. How would you set it up for them?
It is basically the story of two characters who are worlds apart but connected in a terrible way. The audience has a microscope on both of their lives. One has committed a horrible unthinkable massacre. He is an incredibly troubled psychopath who committed a massacre by automobile. He stole a Mercedes and ran over a group of people seeking jobs at an employment fair. The detective in charge of that unsolved case, Hodges, who is Brendan Gleeson’s character, is the other point of view. It was his last big case and he didn’t solve the crime. He is haunted by it. So where our story begins is a few years down the line and Hodges is now a retired cop, out of shape mentally and physically. He is washed up and at a low point in his life. Brady, on the other hand, is charging along on all cylinders having got away with the murder of his dreams.
Now two years down the line, Brady decides he wants to start taunting detective Hodges for his next bit of fun. He is a genius on computers and he starts to wind him up with untraceable emails and videos. He really wants to get Hodges to kill himself. That’s Brady’s goal. But what he doesn’t expect is that the taunting and manipulation wakes up and reignites Hodges. It gives him purpose again. It is also a massively stimulating game for Brady as well.
What makes Brady tick?
He is a very troubled and very smart victim of sexual abuse and mental abuse. He has sought out creating acts of violence and complete carnage as a way to suppress his feelings of anxiety about the world. He and his mum (Kelly Lynch) have this overly close relationship that involves sexual abuse.
This is a dark place to dwell for a couple of months.
A couple or six. But who’s counting?
Assuming you aren’t a mass-murdering psycho in real life, how do you prepare to play this evil man?
Yes, please take that as a given. But in all seriousness, the book really was my bible. I’ll be honest. It was all there. Normally, you have to find the roots in the script and you dig in to find the history and backstory and grow the character from there. Here we could dig deeper with the novel and then build on more with the script. I constantly found myself going back to find the part of the book scenes and characters were based on or coming from. I did a lot of psycho-pathology research on children who have killed, humans who have no empathy, serial killers, sexual abuse, and even on high-end businessmen who are deemed psychopaths in suits because they would sell their friends under the bridge just to help themselves. The only difference is that they don’t do it with violence.
I also watched a lot of confessional videos of serial killers and there are so many that it started to depress me. it is all too f***ing close to home. The day I came to Charleston was the day Dylann Roof was sentenced [for killing 9 church members]. That was just down the road and he shot a load of people based on his own psychology and beliefs. It made sense to him. It’s f***ing scary. You do all this research beforehand and it is textbook, but suddenly you are in the town and cycling past the church where a year ago a man killed all of these innocent people. I couldn’t help but put the two acts together.
The absence of guilt and not really thinking that what you did was wrong is really the worst part of the pathology for me. It is so grim to think about it.
That is the creepiest thing; that for them none of this is scary. As Brady talks about in the book, everyone else is born wearing what he calls lead boots — what you and I call a conscience — and he was born wearing none so he can soar above the clouds. He lives in a dark place. There is no hope for him because he doesn’t believe such a thing exists. And what a brilliant character to make as an ice cream man in the local neighborhood… This is easily the most complex and layered being that I have had the pleasure of playing.
Which is saying a lot as you recently finished playing crazy Dr. Frankenstein on Penny Dreadful.
That was just a bit of gothic romance compared to this. I love that series and it was completely dark and twisted. But we watch that show and think, “Oh wow, that’s wild. Imagine that.” But this is more real. People do these things. It is far too easy to imagine that someone would do all the things Brady does.
But it’s not all dark. I promise. You’ve got Holland Taylor as a wonderful next-door neighbor to Hodges. Hodges is physically all washed up and has let his house and his garden go, but he lives next door to Holland with her prizewinning lemons, apples, and roses. She has taken amazing care of her house and they have this wonderful humor between them. She adds a very bright spot to the story. These are the moments when David E Kelley ‘s dialogue really gets to shine. Their conversations, which often include propositions by Holland, lighten it up. Like all great stories, if you can make people laugh, cry and scared, then game on.
What’s it like to work with Brendan Gleeson?
He is genuinely one of my favorite actors. It is a really cool thing, but then I realized because of how this story is told, I haven’t had any scenes face-to-face with Brendan so far. We have had some video chats and phone calls where the other person has fed in their lines and that has been cool, but we are almost like two ships in the night. I’ll be driving out when he is driving into work and vice versa. Hopefully that will change by the finale.
Maybe it ends up being helpful because you aren’t supposed to be chummy in the series, and it is easier to torment someone you don’t really interact with on a personal level.
Maybe. I have many scenes with Kelly Lynch though, and have really enjoyed getting to work with her. She plays my mum and you really have to be so trusting to do the sort of stuff our twisted relationship requires, and she has been so professional and prepared and goes all in to get it right. She is a brilliant person and actor.
If you’re too good in this role, people may start crossing the street to avoid you in real life.
That does happen, doesn’t it? I guess I will just have to do too good a job at a totally different role and then do it forever so that people don’t only think of me as a serial killer. But then again, I think this novel and this program are both so good that if people only remember me in this, I would find a way to march on.
Mr. Mercedes premieres on Aug. 9 at 8 p.m. on the AT&T AUDIENCE Network. It will also be available to stream on DIRECTV NOW.
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