Dylan Smith is a multi-talented Actor and Dancer with a background in theater. He recently portrayed the villainous Sepp in TNT’s mini-series, “I am the Night” alongside Chris Pine and we had the privilege of speaking to him about it. If you haven’t seen this incredible show, it is available on TNTdrama.com or on Itunes.
This interview contains spoilers.
“I watched Mike Tyson’s eyes, almost every day during his fighting days, the eyes of someone who welcomed violence like a gourmet meal, almost nothing was enough.”
TV Series Hub: Hi Dylan! Thank you so much for your time and your frightening and memorable performance on I am the Night.
With shows like I am the Night which blend mystery and intrigue with unrelenting violence and horror, its more important than ever to have actors that can perfectly emulate their roles and not show any signs of their natural empathy. On that note, you sir –were terrifying. How did you get into character?
Dylan: Wow, in a strange way, that is really wonderful to hear. It’s been said before but when you play a villain, you have to find something to love about them. I chose to get into that by understanding his heart. I don’t think Sepp woke up one day and said, “I want to mutilate people.” I think he is a very lost soul, and in a city like Los Angeles, there really is the space for a lost soul to start to dream of grandeur whatever road that leads them down. Sepp, as written, was so desperate for Hodel’s (Jefferson Mays) love and approval, that he was clearly a man in-action. When the need is so great, you go into intense problem-solving. And combined with that was the culture of Surrealist artists at the time, which Sepp was one of. There was pressure for all Surrealists to push morality and ‘safety to its limits.
Women were objectified in frightening ways amongst the surrealists, so it was very understandable that an artist seeking attention, moreover, love, would push the art form to its horrific conclusion which is what he was intending to do to Fauna (India Eisley). And in fact I thought it was rather brilliant of Sepp to attempt a cadaver art piece using Hodel’s daughter. What a way to get his, attention, but also get back at him. If Hodel were true to his word, he would have to find the mutilation exquisite, if he didn’t then Sepp would know he had risen above him.
On a more detailed note, I watched Mike Tyson’s eyes, almost every day during his fighting days, the eyes of someone who welcomed violence like a gourmet meal, almost nothing was enough. I also tried to think about the lines Sepp has to say and turn them from shocking violent descriptions to delicious ideas and treats to speak in the mouth. Basically, I did a lot of work to get beyond my empathy.
TV Series Hub: Wow! Mike Tyson, That’s pretty clever!
We are very curious about what elements of the character you personally brought into the mix that wasn’t necessarily in the script. What strategy did you come up with when auditioning for the role?
Dylan: I think I brought his heart. I am essentially this completely non-violent, lover of art, dance, music, and sometimes you trust that there are aspects of you that inevitably color the character in the right way. Personally, I think I brought my stage background into it in terms of poise, and language (the few times I do speak!). I really tried to make him care about everyone, Hodel, even Fauna, even Jay (Chris Pine) a bit, which I don’t think was necessarily in the script.
For I am the Night, I auditioned 3 different characters for Patty Jenkins (Director), and it wasn’t until I got to Sepp that Patty said “Now we got him, that’s who he is!” which I will be honest, I found a bit confronting… how was I so ‘right’ for such a violent dark character? And I don’t think Sam Sheridan (Creator) or Patty was absolutely clear on the full scope of the role Sepp would play in the story, so there was, in fact very little to audition for, but in my experience that is when you have to do the most background work — walk your character around a bit, sound him out a bit, live with him a bit. And then let it all go when you audition and hope the work comes through.
TV Series Hub: Well, it definitely came through!
As the apprentice to the infamous Black Dahlia Killer, could you tell us –what exactly was Sepps’ intention in pursuing the young Miss Hodel? It seemed at first he was following orders to keep an eye on her, and then something snapped. From an acting standpoint, how did you approach that sudden chance in Sepps’ behavior?
Dylan: Well, that came during the process in discussions with Sam Sheridan. And I was not clear on this issue at the start of the shooting. Why am I (Sepp) following Fauna, and to what end? But Sam Sheridan just told me that Sepp’s intentions would become clear as it goes along. Sepp is jealous of George Hodel starting to care about Fauna so much, was she becoming a ‘favorite child?’ – the position Sepp was actively trying to become in Hodel’s eyes? And as I said before, Sepp came up with a brilliant solution.
But as an actor, it was hard to make that turn with so little screen time to do so. On one hand, I knew I was a conceit of the Film Noire aspect of the show, the man in the shadows, but then suddenly we are let into Sepp’s world and intentions and then he becomes a character of action, not set decoration. And in fact, it was in the reshoots where they wanted to learn even more about why Sepp might do to Fauna what he suddenly decides to do. And I was relieved to see that, I think the story needed it. But at the time when I steal the chess piece, I just had to go on faith, that they would figure it out. Patty and Sam have so many elements to think about, there often is a time and place to raise questions like, “Surely we need a greater explanation of why he’s decided to go against Hodel?”.
TV Series Hub: That fight in episode 4 with Jay Singletary (Chris Pine) was tremendously suspenseful and exiting. Did you handle your own stunts?
Dylan: Yeah, most of it was Chris and I! I think we were both pretty experienced with fights to know what we could or couldn’t do, and I loved doing it with Chris because he is always fighting as Jay, thinking like Jay, with reactions to hits and throws that Jay would have. But, as they always should, they did some takes with the stunt doubles, who were amazingly violent with each other. I loved that fight, it was loose, fast, brutal, and unexpected. And we tried to keep all of that in there.
“I go for villains, but the truth is, the more interesting casting for me is the quiet type, the sensitive, or the conflicted every man.”
TV Series Hub: Even though you played arguably one of the creepiest characters we’ve seen on TV so far in 2019, we of course know you’re not actually creepy. Here’s the perfect chance for you to tell everyone a little about yourself! What do you look for in the roles you take?
Dylan: Creepiest of 2019, I’ll take it! More and more recently I go for villains, but the truth is, the more interesting casting for me is the quiet type, the sensitive, or the conflicted every man. I played Ice Hockey up to a scouting stage, but that was pure nature. I loved the game, the team, the bang, and the rumble of it all. Not in a macho way but in an innate way. In fact, when I was at a school in the states on scholarship for hockey, I had to give it up due to 10 dislocations of my left shoulder and 2 operations.
Luckily I was captain of 2 other sports teams so they didn’t revoke my scholarship, but it was at this school, the incredible Choate Rosemary Hall where I was allowed to switch to the arts, and when I did so I felt a gust of oxygen hit my lungs like never before. I started to remember the locker room as claustrophobic and the friends I was making in the arts, photographers, theatre-makers, writers –they were so warm and open-minded and original thinkers. I tell you this to sum me up, I am both a very physical creature, greatest regret is that I didn’t study ballet and contemporary dance, and a deeply artistic soul. Both of my parents were film directors, one nominated for an Oscar and the other actually won an Oscar. But my parents were civil servants working for the Canadian National Film Board. So our house was about politics, art, and sport. So I come by all of it by nurture as much as nature
TV Series Hub: Wow! that’s a lot of dislocations! Almost sounds like one of Sepp’s surrealist paintings =p
I am the Night has decided to take some creative liberties in regard to the actual Black Dahlia Murders. Did you read the book by Fauna Hodel that the show was based on?
Dylan: No, I have not read the book yet. But I did read the book by Hodel’s son, the retired LAPD detective, who wrote a thick case for why he believed his father was the Black Dahlia murderer. I was always aware there were fictionalized elements to our ‘truth’ to serve the story, but that is one of the first rules of film-making, that the story is what you have to grab people’s attention. Let them be sucked into the story and then go research the actual truth and conclude for themselves who the Black Dahlia killer was. But I think it is a pretty plausible version of ‘who did it’. The main reading I did was about the surrealism and serial killers.
TV Series Hub: Television and film set crews are unparalleled in their ability to turn a studio into a different time period. I am the Night takes place in the 1950s. How has it been acting in what essentially amounts to another world?
Dylan: It was a dream alright. ‘Hey you got a job, shooting in LA, on film, set in the 60s, you’re going to wear a fedora and drive a mean vintage black car, shoot all over LA, get access to places you can’t believe exist like the Sowden House, and then go shoot on the legendary Warner Bros lot a bunch as well. I mean come on, I still can’t believe I had that experience! But yes when we were in the studio both for the regular shoot and again during reshoots, it was incredible how economical the crews were to make space feel straight out of the ’60s. Props especially were key, costume as well.
They obsess over every detail, half of which you don’t even notice, but which set the tone and the place so you are reminded this is a different era. Also, we were acknowledging the Film Noire intention of Patty Jenkins and Sam Sheridan, so at times things are very quiet, and other times even the style of acting becomes a little ‘period’.
By the way, this is the Snowden House.
TV Series Hub: Definitely jealous.
Can you tell us about one of your favorite stories from on set?
Dylan: When we were shooting in the Snowden house the head of sound by accident left a mic on overnight, and the next day he was freaked. He played back the recording for us, and indeed at some point in the night, something or someone is moving around the Snowden house. And considering what may have transpired there, something or someone may still be actively looking for revenge.
TV Series Hub: Yikes! And On that note… Thank you for being a part of this gruesome, but fascinating series and for regaling us with tales of your incredible experience!