Why would any actor want to portray such a pathetic figure as Wichita's notorious BTK killer? For Gregg Henry, who plays Dennis Rader in tonight's "The Hunt for the BTK Killer," BTK became a fascinating enigma.
"He thought of himself as a decent husband, father, Scout leader and church leader," Henry said during a phone conversation from Los Angeles.
"But this is a guy who wore many guises. He rationalized his behavior. We all rationalize to some degree, but this guy wore his masks extremely well. He shifted gears very quickly."
Henry said movies, TV and plays offer ways to go beneath the surface to try to understand the human condition.
"And this is a study of evil."
The original CBS movie, based on the book by Wichita lawyer Robert Beattie, airs at 8 p.m. today on KWCH, Channel 12.
Robert Forster, an Oscar nominee for "Jackie Brown," plays the chief detective, Jason Magida. Michael Michele, familiar from "ER," plays Ellen Bains, another detective instrumental in bringing the killer to justice after he resurfaces in 2004 after a long gap.
Neither plays a specific, real-life person; rather, they are composites of all the law enforcement officers who worked on the case over the decades.
While the film's approach focuses on the quest for the man who killed 10 people and terrified a generation of Wichitans while eluding police for 30 years, Rader is the dramatic focal point, giving Henry a lot of face time.
But the actor, currently a semiregular as a newspaper mogul on WB's "Gilmore Girls," was determined not to glamorize BTK.
"Reading what I did and watching videotapes of his guilty plea and sentencing, I think he's a man who lived in a fantasy world. He is a man of tremendous hubris and ego who lived out his sexual fantasies totally psychopathically without regret or guilt," Henry said.
"His attempts to explain himself with 'demons' is just so much BS. His own ego is why he was caught. It was his own stupidity."
Some actors playing bad guys say villains don't think of themselves as villains, so the actors look inside the role for some likable or relatable personality element to build upon.
Henry said that wasn't possible with Rader because he couldn't find anything redeemable.
"This is a technical performance from the outside in. I begin with the circumstances and come back to the person. I don't understand this guy. I don't think anybody does," Henry said.
"I play him in his relationship to the police and the community. Hopefully, we have come up with some insights into the type of sociopath he is."
Despite the volatile topic, the film, directed by Stephen Kay and written by Tom Towler and Donald Martin, isn't sensationalized.
A couple of the murders are re-enacted, but the scenes are slightly out of focus to keep them from being too graphic. They are also heavily fragmented, a la Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," to create the aura of violence without actually showing much.
For the most part, the film has a ring of authenticity through the use of real people and street and place names. The curious exception is that while The Wichita Eagle is specifically identified because of BTK media communications, call letters for all Wichita TV stations — including CBS affiliate KWCH — are fake.
None of the movie was filmed in Wichita, but the locations, buildings, homes and street scenes — all in Canada — are credibly representative. There are no glaring background mistakes.
Henry's performance as BTK is remarkable as he lets Rader's murderous urges flare in intense eyes behind glasses stuck on a smiling, nondescript face. Many of the scene finales come down to Rader by himself in his workshop, and Henry shows us the silent turmoil and slick malevolence in his manner.
Forster underplays his role as chief investigator, becoming mostly just a device to explain needed details. And beautiful Michele is only a token presence whose raison d'etre is to look concerned and supportive.
"The Hunt for the BTK Killer" is one of the best movies made about Kansas, but, like "In Cold Blood," it's too bad it's about our dark side.
Henry, 53, is no stranger to playing real people in made-for-TV movies and miniseries. He has a string of ripped-from-the-headlines titles under his belt, such as "Victim of Love: The Story of Shannon Mohr," "When Love Kills: The Seduction of John Hearn," and "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom."
Unlike some actors who say they can't get away from their character until a project is over, Henry said he was lucky to be able to leave his BTK persona behind.
"When you spend five or six hours a day with such a dark and depressing character, you do become quite depressed," Henry admitted.
"But I've been lucky. I've always been able to leave my work at the 'office' when I go home."
But filming proved to be a particular challenge because the makeup was extreme to turn the blond, blue-eyed actor into balding, mousy Rader.
"They dyed my hair brown, gave me brown contacts and gave me this huge mustache for a while, then a goatee," Henry said.
"They shaved down my eyebrows to make them thin. To make my face look wider, they shaved part of my sideburns. It was a shock to see myself in the mirror."
Henry, who vaguely remembers hearing about Wichita's BTK killer in the 1980s through unsolved-mystery specials, became caught up again when BTK resurfaced in 2004 after a long silence.
"When he came back, it became a national story. It wasn't an everyday thing here in Los Angeles, but there was a story every time he communicated again. I became well aware of BTK."