Creating a killer: how the writers and star of Born to Kill gave us chills
“Both being mums with boys, we thought about writing about a teenage psychopath, and asking some real questions as to what, as a mother, you would do about that.” Born to Kill is now streaming on Showmax.
BBC mini-series Born To Kill (2017, now streaming here on Showmax) follows Sam Woodford (Jack Rowan), a seemingly ordinary 16-year-old who is hiding a dark secret. Sam doesn’t seem to feel the way that other people around him do. In fact, he might grow up to be a psychopath and he has already found some vulnerable people to experiment on.
Kate Ashfield, who co-created and wrote the series with Tracey Malone after running into the fellow Brit at their kids’ school in LA, reveals, “Both being mums with boys, we thought about writing about a teenage psychopath, and asking some real questions as to what, as a mother, you would do about that.”
Tracey adds, “We’re both interested in people’s dark sides and where that darkness comes from. Is it nature or nurture? We’re fascinated, as many people are, with serial killers. We really wanted to subvert the classic idea of a serial killer, the man in his 30s living in a basement. Would we feel differently about a serial killer if he was a boy?”
An ordinary boy
“From the outside, he’s a normal kid – he goes to school, he’s part of the diving team, he’s a good swimmer, the girls like him,” says Jack. “But there’s a lot going on in his mind, and it’s essentially about to break. As the story goes on, he becomes increasingly cold and manipulative, while still being quite charming. He’s still capable of being quite normal, even relatable.”
Sam is already wearing a mask as he walks around his school.
“Sam is superior. He teacher tells his mum he doesn’t have any friends but really he doesn’t want any friends,” says Jack. “He can’t stand anyone in school; he’ll say hi but it’s all fake. He’s a narcissist.”
Part of his cunning is reflected in the way that he avoids being found out. “I made the choice to make Sam very neat. He’s not scruffy because he would care about how he’s perceived. I always thought that was iconic about Sam; he’s got this really sweet coat on but is doing these really terrible things. Clothing is part of the mask,” explains Jack.
Like Kate and Tracey did, Jack dove deep into the murky waters of what being a psychopath actually entails while preparing for the role.
“I watched loads of films and documentaries and read a whole lot of material – all stuff that the production team sent through to me. I also did some work by myself. But the research pack that production sent me was really useful. I took little bits from all of the psychopaths that I watched, both real and fictional characters, and I put it in a little box, shook it up and saw what came up with. That was Sam. What I would say about the research is that documentaries were the biggest help. Some of the documentaries blew me away,” he says.
“Sam lies all the time. He manipulates. He’s all fakeness, all day. But I always tried to find moments where he was a bit more real, where he dropped the more obvious elements of psychopathy, to make him more relatable. He just can’t empathise or sympathise with how other people feel. He wants to know about emotions, he wants to find out what love is like, but he just can’t feel it. He’s just sitting there, breaking.”
Kate was impressed by what Jack brought to the role thanks to his research, including touches that weren’t even in the script.
“He brought a lot to the part, I think. There’s a scene where Oscar (Earl Cave), his friend at school, offers him a crisp and he kind of looks at the packet and then takes a massive handful and you think, ‘That’s just so psychopathic, that idea of just having whatever you want…’”