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Dark for Art’s Sake

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Seasoned actor Dylan Scott Smith plays a twisted artist and serial killer in TNT’s limited-series suspense drama, I Am the Night, an intriguing take on Los Angeles’ most mysterious murder, The Black Dahlia.

 

Photo by Wolf Marloh

Dylan Scott Smith’s dark role in TNT’s highly acclaimed six-part limited-series suspense drama, I Am the Night, is a career highlight for the eloquent and insightful actor. A period crime noir set in 1965 and inspired by actual events, I Am the Night unveils the enthralling story of teenager Fauna Hodel (played by India Eisley), who was given away at birth and grew up outside of Reno believing she was biracial. After making a profound discovery about her past, Fauna takes off for Los Angeles to dig deeper into the secrets of her family background and meets Jay Singletary (played by Chris Pine), a PTSD-suffering former Marine and down on his luck reporter. Gynecologist to the stars Dr. George Hodel (played by Jefferson Mays), a powerful man with a penchant for strange art and hosting debaucherous Hollywood soirées who could be possibly connected to the unsolved Black Dahlia murder, is the bizarre tie that brings Fauna and Jay together, given that he’s Fauna’s biological grandfather and he played a big part in ruining Jay’s career. Sepp (played by Smith) is a twisted artist and protégé to George, willing to go as far as humanly possible to earn his master’s approval, even mutilating women to fiendishly turn them into freakish works of art. The veteran of theater, film and television across the globe, who’s starred in Maze Runner: The Death Cure, The Mummy, Total Recall, 300, EastEnders and Murder on the Orient Express went into chameleon mode to transform into a sadistic serial killer for I Am the Night, created and produced by Sam Sheridan with Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins also producing and directing the first two episodes.

“It’s challenging and fun to explore what makes up a villain,” says Smith, who got into a depraved frame of mind to play Sepp. “He’s a psychopath pushing his art in the most extreme way, murdering in the name of art, trying to prove his worth to George Hodel, who he worships and who exposes him both to art and the artist’s lifestyle and how you have to perform your art in an almost altered state to reach an uncompromising truth. Sepp feels Fauna is an interloper who’s interfering with his relationship with George. Some lines were insane; I’ve never read lines quite like it. I had to imagine I was someone who found the human body appetizing and savor these insane words. Once you start turning the corner and having fun with it, it gets dark and starts creeping into your dreams, so I have to compartmentalize the work, and when it’s done go for a run and have a healthy smoothie and feel good from the inside out, rather than as soon as I’ve done this really dark thing go to the bar and drink myself silly. That would be a bad idea.”

A stellar cast and crew, an astounding story and sumptuous cinematography evoking a moody, mid-century L.A. vibe replete with actual vintage landmarks made I Am the Night a fabulous filming experience for Smith. “Patty and Sam gave me the part of a lifetime,” Smith says. “Patty tells stories incredibly well. Having Patty and Chris Pine (who also successfully teamed up for Wonder Woman and the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984) opened up casting to not necessarily have named, known actors. It was so well written, it was a luxury to speak this language. I got to do a very cool period piece in L.A., drive an old black evil-looking car and we got to film in Hawaii too. It was a happy set to be on. Both Patty and Sam, who’s her husband, are completely down-to-earth. Jefferson Mays is amazing. Chris is an incredible actor, like an old-time movie star, incredibly graceful with the right amount of youth and a very unique, funny man. India isn’t that old, but she’s an old soul, incredibly grounded and just a champion. Her character Fauna, who was a real person, is fascinating.”

I Am the Night was inspired by One Day She’ll Darken, Fauna Hodel’s memoir about being raised by a black mother thinking she was of mixed race, only to discover she was white and given away at birth and that her grandfather was Dr. George Hodel, who was possibly behind the infamous Black Dahlia murder, where Elizabeth Short’s gruesomely configured dead body shocked society in 1947 and still shocks today. TNT partnered with Cadence13 for a comprehensive companion eight-part documentary podcast Root of Evil: The True Story of the Hodel Family and the Black Dahlia, which premiered Feb. 13 and is hosted by Rasha Pecoraro and Yvette Gentile, the daughters of the real-life Fauna Hodel, to bring first-hand accounts of various key members of the Hodel family’s dark truths and their struggles of carrying the Hodel name to those interested in knowing more. “It’s a clever thing to do,” Smith says. “Chris’ and my character are fictionalized, but it’s staggering that Fauna’s story is true. Fauna’s two daughters were on set with us and are incredible rays of light.”

Smith was already familiar with the Black Dahlia murder when he landed the part of Sepp, but he researched plenty for I Am the Night, which debuted Jan. 28 with a March 4 finale. “Sepp is a surrealist artist, and the link between the Black Dahlia and our story is surrealism,” Smith says. “The Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, was found laid out in a very intentional way. Art historians have concluded that all aspects of her murder, being cut in half, the position of her arms, the specific things cut out of her body, are iconic images in surrealistic art pre-dating her murder. In real life, George Hodel was an ambassador for surrealism on the West Coast; he became good friends with Man Ray; he knew Salvador Dalí, so that’s where our story reveals its reasons. Many people feel this is the most likely explanation for who the Black Dahlia murderer was.”

Born in Montréal to a family with a serious background in film, Smith started on a different path as a talented athlete who received a college scholarship to play ice hockey. “I was ambitious to go to the NHL but more ambitious to use hockey to get a good education,” Smith says. He was promising at the sport and attended scouting camp, but, due to injury, his hockey dreams were dashed.

“My whole family was into film, and I was a jock,” he adds. “My dad, John N. Smith, was politically active and spent most of his career fighting the bully. His film about Catholics abusing orphans, The Boys of St. Vincent, was controversial, but, when Coppola and De Niro championed it and took it to Sundance, it won awards. Then my dad was recruited by Jerry Bruckheimer to make the film Dangerous Minds. My mom, Cynthia Scott, won an Academy Award for her short film, Flamenco at 5:15; my dad was nominated for an Academy Award; my uncle was a producer of animation nominated for Academy Awards; my older brother is maybe the most award-winning writer in Canada. But if you sat at dinner at our house, you’d never know we were a film family because my parents were essentially civil servants. For them, it was about politics and not fame. I was lucky and proud to come from them. I grew up in an interesting house and felt like I had a rooting in the real world; it wasn’t about make-believe but telling important stories. My dad tried to change legislation, and my mom was about affecting the human spirit to make people understand how beautiful human beings’ stories are.”

After hockey, Smith took a theater course at the University of Toronto that captured his imagination, and he started performing in plays and worked with the Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto. “I did a public performance for my family and it was terrifying, because everyone was in film, unlike your usual family audience, and they were like, ‘Yeah, okay, you’re really good,’ and my dad persuaded me to go get training,” Smith says. He was offered a spot at Webber Douglas, a top theater school in London, and he never looked back.

New Orleans tops Smith’s travel list. “I keep desperately asking my agent to find me shows that shoot there,” Smith says. “There’s mystery in New Orleans, and the music is filled with so much love, irrespective of the story behind the music and however much the artist was suffering. Any city defined by incredible music is unique, sophisticated and innately attractive. Coming from Québec, I find the correlation between the French Canadians interesting, combined with the Afro-American and Haitian influences. The more influences on a culture, the more intriguing it is. I can breathe in a diverse place, whereas, in a monochromatic culture, I feel claustrophobic. And I find the myths around voodoo and stuff like it to be terrifying and tantalizing.

“I consider Treme one of the greatest shows ever,” Smith adds. “What struck me is that in the wake of the hurricane how precious New Orleans is and that the strength of the community is why it exists. In Treme they made things without money but with heart and soul, telling a suffering story, some of it born of real pain, some of it born of real love, and they kept going when they had nothing; they kept trying to make a moment, whether it was two people picking up instruments and playing something, or whether it was entertaining just to get that dollar in the hat, they kept going, and, in that surviving, they created art. New Orleans is a city of art and of unbelievable culture, of pride of place. It’s world-famous because of its cultural definition, and there’s not enough of that around. My wife and I vowed the first chance we get we’re going to New Orleans.”

London is home for Smith, his wife Anna Ledwich, a theatre director, playwright and screenwriter, and their baby son, Leo, the center of Smith’s life. “We’ve been very lucky,” Smith says. “He’s a dream. We have a real character on our hands.” In his spare time Smith focuses on charitable endeavors, including environmental causes, and he’s an honorary celebrity co-chair for the Louisiana SPCA’s 40th Annual Howling Success Gala, which be held April 6 at The New Orleans Advocate. “If you can’t care for an abused, destitute, abandoned animal, then it’s hard to care for anybody,” Smith says. “Every bit of scientific evidence says pets are health benefits to us. Animals have a place in humans’ lives. If you want to learn about building compassion, start with rescue animals because they’re going to give back to you in spades.” @dylaniscurly, tntdrama.com, @iamthenighttnt, la-spca.org