Richard Jenkins interview: ‘Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story’

When Richard Jenkins was first asked by Ryan Murphy to portray Lionel Dahmer, the father of notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, on Netflix’s “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” he had the same response you probably assume he’d have had. “I went, ‘Oh, god,'” the Emmy winner recalls during a recent webchat with Gold Derby (watch the exclusive video interview above). “And then I read it. [Murphy] said, ‘Well, just read these [first] three episodes.’ And I read them. It was enough for me to say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really interesting, I’d like to see what happens here.'”

“Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” is the first iteration of the “Monster” anthology series from co-creators Murphy and Ian Brennan and is about the titular serial killer and sex offender (played by Emmy winner Evan Peters). While the 10-part installment dramatizes the life and heinous crimes of the infamous mass murderer — who killed 17 boys and young men between 1978 and 1991 — it also delves into the stories of some of his victims, as well as into the police incompetence and apathy that allowed the Wisconsin native to go on a multiyear killing spree.

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One aspect that drew Jenkins to the project is how complicated a character Lionel was on the page. “One of the things I loved about it is that, in the text, in the script that we had, he is about five different things,” the actor says. “[That’s] so human, and it’s what we all are, but you don’t usually see that [on] television and [in] movies. It’s usually just — you’re one thing: You’re either the long-suffering father or the jerk father. Then everybody can say, ‘Well, that’s where it came from! Oh, that’s why he’s that way!’… But life is not that simple.”

What ultimately enticed the actor into signing on to the true-crime series is, however, one specific question he kept asking himself. “The thought [that] kept coming back to me is: ‘If Jeffrey Dahmer is your son, do you stop loving him?'” he divulges. For Jenkins, who gained further insight into Lionel by reading his 1994 memoir “A Father’s Story” and is a father himself, the answer to that question not only was a definitive no but also, he believes, had to be if we he was going to commit to this show. “If I had read that and found that his father didn’t love him or didn’t care about him, I wouldn’t have done it, I don’t think,” he highlights. “I think… it may have been the conclusion you come to after you do it, but I thought that was such an important element.”

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As the series progresses, Lionel is seen looking for someone or -thing to blame for the monstruous actions his son committed. As possible causes, he considers everything from the hernia operation Jeffrey underwent at the age of four to the medication his first wife Joyce Dahmer (Penelope Ann Miller) took while she was pregnant with their son to his and Joyce’s divorce. It’s not until the eighth episode, “Lionel,” after Jeffrey is sentenced to 15 life terms in prison, in which the distraught father openly acknowledges that he played a part in his son’s devolution into a killer. When asked how Lionel is able to arrive at a place where he can take responsibility for the course of Jeffrey’s life, Jenkins argues it’s because his character finally “pushed himself into a corner.”

“You exhaust all the other options, and then, if you’re halfway honest, you look at yourself. And it’s something he didn’t want to do — I don’t think any of us would want to,” the actor elaborates. “[Eventually] he had to face what he really subconsciously knew all the time: that, whether it’s true or not, he thought that he was the issue… But I understand that, I get that. Unless you’re a sociopath, or a narcissist, it’s got to come back to you, you know — ‘I wasn’t there for [him], I didn’t do anything to help this kid! He tried to tell me what was going on, and I didn’t want to hear it!’ Now that’s enough to blame yourself… And the fear was: his son was going to tell him that he was gay. That’s what [he] feared more than anything else. But his son was trying to tell him, ‘Something’s wrong with me. I have these fantasies, and it’s scary.'”

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UPLOADED May 3, 2023 9:30 am