By Nick Romano
April 30, 2019 at 04:09 PM EDT
IFC Films

If you ask Matt Smith to give his take on Charles Manson, chances are he might not have an answer for you.

Playing the infamous cult leader for Mary Harron’s Charlie Says, the actor researched the role, read books, watched documentaries, and consumed the script from Guinevere Turner to get to the heart of what makes the man tick. But, even now while Smith is on Easter break in between filming the Spider-Man vampire blockbuster Morbius in the U.K., he is still mystified by the one who compelled his Manson Family of followers to commit a string of murders in 1969.

“I still have absolutely no idea who he is,” Smith says over the phone from London, “and there’s something about that that is fascinating.”

Smith’s Manson, mind you, isn’t the primary focus of Harron’s new film, currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s his victims, specifically the women he brainwashed. Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendón) sit in an isolated cellblock. It’s been a few years since they murdered for Manson, and they are still under his spell. In flashbacks, told through therapeutic visitations with graduate student Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), the illusion of Manson in their minds slowly begins to break down.

Speaking with EW, Smith tries to unpack the “beguiling” nature of Manson, what made his victims succumb to his charms, and the performative nature of this real-world villain. “I don’t know where the true Charlie and the false Charlie ends,” he says.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I know that you said initially you didn’t think that you were physically right to play Manson.
MATT SMITH: Yeah.

What compelled you to chase after this character?
I was in Mexico on holiday with my girlfriend and I knew that this part was around. There’s something about the temperament, and just him that I’ve always been intrigued by. It was one of those, “I couldn’t really say no,” to. But I definitely had second thoughts about it, so much so that I rang Mary and said, “Look, this is amazing, but I don’t know if I can do this.” And she was like, “Oh go on, you can. You should.” And so I said, “Oh all right. That’s fine.” I’m easily persuaded.

Over the years, has your process of pinpointing earlier on the kinds of stories and roles you want to be involved with changed at all?
It’s a funny thing, acting. To a certain extent you simply have no control over that. You can only tackle what’s in front of you because that’s the opportunity you’ve been given. I’ve always tried to seek out parts that I suppose on paper I wasn’t quite right for. In many respects I’m not great casting for Prince Philip. I don’t look that much like him. I’m better casting for Charles Manson. I suppose parts that feel quite far away from me I’ve often been quite interested in.

What specifically is beguiling about him for you as an actor?
All the people who are real that I’ve played — whether it be Chris Isherwood [in Christopher and His Kind] or Prince Philip [in The Crown], Robert Mapplethorpe [in Mapplethorpe] — I’ve played them and come away with a sense of them. With Charlie Manson, having looked into him and researched him in some depth and spent some time with him, I still have absolutely no idea who he is and there’s something about that that is fascinating. All I could really land on, in the end, was he was just really annoying and he liked annoying people. I still can’t go, “He’s this sort of guy,” which maybe is a mistake having played him, but I think it’s true. I don’t know where the true Charlie and the false Charlie ends, or vice versa. Everyone at some point when they’re having a shave or brushing their teeth or whatever, they have to deal with themselves, they have to look in the mirror and go, “I’m that type of guy.” I don’t know if Charlie ever did that.

What was your biggest resource in conceptualizing this specific take on Manson?
There are a couple of autobiographies that are useful. With Charlie, more so than anyone, you’ve got the internet because there’s so much video footage of him, but the type of footage, whether it’s him in prison or him in various moments in his life, he tends to often be in a mode of performance, which he was the majority of the time. What’s interesting about this story and what I was interested in was we meet him before all of that. We meet him, in many ways, at his least performative mode.

I think he would’ve probably always ended up in prison at some point, but there is a version of this story in which all of those ladies didn’t commit those crimes, they didn’t go to prison, and they sat around nowadays and said, “Remember that really crazy guy named Charlie, who we spent that summer with? Whatever happened to him?” I guess my point is there was a version of a time on the ranch where they just were having a good time in life. Charlie, I think, was having a good time and really what’s fascinating about him in the film, I think, is he started as a musician and that was the catalyst for all this odd behavior. When he started to feel people were finding him out and moving away from him, he needed to go to more and more extreme lengths to keep them around because, ultimately, he was scared of being on his own.

IFC Films

With Zac Efron, who plays Ted Bundy in another film at Tribeca [Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile], some of his fans were commenting about how sexy he looked playing the character. And it got me thinking of this larger conversation about that line between illustrating why these killers were able to lure in their victims, but also not sympathizing too much with them. How do you walk that line?
It’s tricky, isn’t it? They’re very different. Is Charles Manson a serial killer in the way Ted Bundy is? No. Charlie didn’t kill anyone, Ted actively went out and murdered and raped people. They are in slightly different categories of killer. But it’s a funny thing, as an actor. There are elements of Charlie – I think it’s different with Ted – where you go, he’s kind of making sense. And there are bits of him where I can say he was clever. There are elements of his personality — sympathize is the wrong word – that if you look into and if you play someone and you get to know them, you begin to go, “Well, I understand an element of his behavior.”

I think the worst version of these movies is to go, “Oh my God, these people are so bad. Let’s just make a story about how bad they were.” I think we need to go, “How do we understand what was going on in their brains? What drove them?” I watched a documentary on Ted Bundy on Netflix and, ugh God. It was insane what was happening across America and how he was allowed to get away with that. But [with] Charlie, it was a period of unrest in America. What Charlie did was very sad, he took advantage of people that were vulnerable, particularly young girls. The worst version of these films is a damning of them. No, it’s going, “How can we understand what human elements of them there are?” But he’s a tricky man, Charlie Manson. That’s what I meant when I started the conversation, I still don’t really understand him.

Do you think that’s partly why filmmakers are still fascinated with Manson’s story? Quentin Tarantino is coming out with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and playing with the subject.
I also think the period, politically in America, is quite interesting — what was going on with race and culture, what was going on with music, what was going on with fashion and drugs, what was going on with the emergence of Los Angeles and the type of city that was becoming, the celebrity and film. As a period it’s quite rich, interesting, and there’s a lot of stories in there. Charlie is, like I said, beguiling. Why did they stay? They stayed for some reason, all of those people stayed for some reason, that’s the point. They stayed on the ranch with him, and you go, “Why? What was it?” I think there’s a lot there that’s unanswered.

Charlie Says opens in theaters on May 10.

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