TV - Born to Kill

Born to Kill, Channel 4’s intense new psychological thriller from Line of Duty producers World Productions, starts this month and Channel 4 have released interviews with the drama's stars...

The four-part thriller stars Romola Garai (The Hour, Suffragette) and Daniel Mays (Made in Dagenham, Line of Duty, Rogue One: A Star Wars story,) as the single parents of two out-of-control teens. 

It is a haunting exploration of the mind of Sam, played by newcomer Jack Rowan, a teenager who’s on the verge of acting out hidden psychopathic desires. He lives with his protective mum Jenny (Romola Garai), a geriatric nurse, and thinks his dad died in a car crash…

While working at the local hospital, Jenny meets the charming Bill (Daniel Mays). New to town with his moody teenage daughter Chrissy, played by rising star Lara Peake, Bill’s trying to reconnect with his elderly mother Margaret (Elizabeth Counsell, Song For Marion). Just as Jenny and Bill start to hit it off, their kids meet at school and also form an instant attraction. Sam feels like he’s finally met someone that he can relate to, but does she really share his desire… to kill?

At the same time, Jenny learns that her ex, Sam’s dad, a violent man named Peter (Richard Coyle, The Fall), is nearing his parole date. Jenny must now face telling her son that not only is his father alive, he’s also a convicted murderer.

As this menacing four-part drama unfolds, decades of deceit unravels as Jenny, Sam and Peter’s long buried past comes back to haunt the fractured family. Will Jenny discover, despite her best efforts, that Sam and his dad are more alike than she could have ever imagined?

Born to Kill is written by Tracey Malone (Rillington Place) and first time TV writer and BIFA-nominated actress Kate Ashfield and starts on Channel 4 this month.


You star in Channel 4’s new thriller, Born to Kill. Explain who you play.

I guess you’d call it a psychological thriller, of sorts, but it’s not a ‘whodunit?’. It follows a young man, Sam, played by Jack Rowan, who is a very disturbed boy. I play his mum, Jenny, and at the beginning of the show, Jack’s psychopathy (if that’s what it is, although it’s not named) starts to progress very severely, and he kills somebody. And we also eventually learn that he is a survivor of domestic abuse, as is his mother. And, at a very formative age, he was witness to his mother being abused by his father, and other stuff, and so there’s a question in the show about whether he is genetically predisposed towards violence, or whether his early childhood traumas have ignited those violent tendencies.

So we’re talking about the nature/nurture debate?

Yes, in an individual and specific, rather than a general clinical way. There is that question about whether he’s been traumatised or whether he’s genetically vulnerable to his impulses.

What attracted you to the role?

I was really interested to play a character who was a survivor of domestic violence. The show had been written in such a way that you learn that she had been very damaged by the violence that she survived, but also that has possibly made her unaware, or not sensitive enough, to violence in other people. She’s maybe become inured to it, and not picked up on the possible warning signs from her son. I think it’s interesting to deal with issues surrounding domestic abuse – there’s something of an epidemic in society, and yet it’s very rarely depicted onscreen.

This is pretty dark stuff – you’re dealing with a serial killer in school uniform…

And he’s the protagonist, that’s the main source of discomfort. Because it’s not told from the perspective of a hero. It’s very difficult to write a show with an anti-hero protagonist, and to do that responsibly. I think it’s a very brave decision, and I think they’ve been very successful in doing that in a way that does not glorify his violence. The victims are very clearly characters, they’re not nameless victims. You see the consequences of his actions, but also where some of his desires come from. I think it’s been very successful in treading a very difficult and complicated line.

And there are moments when you feel quite drawn to Sam, and quite sympathetic towards him.

Yeah. I think that’s something I felt very uncomfortable with when we were making the show. How much were we presenting a violent man who kills as a victim of his desires? I had many in-depth conversations with the director and producers about it, all of which I’m sure they found incredibly boring! But I think it’s important to talk about those things, and to think about what we’re saying, and whether we’re making him a victim. And the truth is, while not the primary victim of the violence he wreaks on people, he is a victim of sorts, in that he is a child, a survivor of abuse, and somebody who, had he been able to access psychiatric help, might have been able to process the feelings that he had. Although actually, psychopathy is a very difficult condition to treat, there is some debate about whether someone with that condition could have been helped. Luckily it’s also a very rare condition.

Did you do much in the way of research for the role? Or was it all there on the page?

I don’t think you can go into jobs like this without doing some proper research. I would feel very uncomfortable doing that. When I met with [director] Bruce [Goodison] to discuss playing the role, he had done a huge amount of research, and had a research bible. He and [writers] Kate [Ashfield] and Tracey [Malone] and Jake [Lushington] the producer had all gone to meet clinical experts in psychopathy. There was a lot of research done. Because Sam’s a child in the show – a child would never be diagnosed with psychopathy, because your personality has not been fully formed yet – so the word is never used in the show, except to say that this is a ‘potential diagnosis’. But there was lots of research done, it was very interesting, a lot of it was quite conflicting and contradictory. But people worked very hard to make sure they were dealing with this subject responsibly. Which isn’t to say it won’t be controversial, but I don’t think people went into it lightly.

You worked very closely with Jack Rowan (who plays Sam) – what did you make of his performance?

I think it’s extraordinary; really extraordinary. It’s one of the finest pieces of acting I’ve ever seen from someone I’m working with, actually. It’s so hard to play a character who’s that different from the norm, and in no way be signalling that. I think an actor with more experience – and I include myself in this – would have tried to draw attention to the oddness more. And he absolutely never does that. He’s very subtle and sophisticated in the way he empathises with his character, and doesn’t judge him. I was full of admiration for his performance when we were working together, but now even more so, having seen it, and seen the bits of the story I wasn’t involved with. Now, having seen it all together, it’s just really, really magnificent.

Did you find filming some of the scenes with him unnerving?

No, I’m not that kind of actor. I think if you’re asked to do something very, very emotional, and you have to become emotional, that’s hard. But I tend to treat it quite academically. Jack, Bruce and I spoke a lot about the ideas and how to play the story, so we didn’t feel like we were making anything twisted that was going to make people feel uncomfortable. It was talked about a lot. But I think it takes quite a lot of emotional strength to play parts like Jack did and not feel weird and creepy at the end of the day. I suppose he’s a very strong person to be able to play a part like that.

Does it take an emotional toll, filming this sort of thing, or are you able to put it in a box and get on with things?

I think mainly I’m able to put it in a box and get on with things. As I say, there’s a couple of scenes in the show where things between them become very emotional. If you have to do something like that, as far as your body is concerned, physically, your body doesn’t know that something terrible hasn’t happened. You’ve been crying. So you can feel quite strange afterwards, like something really bad has happened, except it hasn’t. But I think the thing I really enjoy about my job is it gives you an outlet for your feelings in a safe and protected environment. So I suppose it’s a positive thing in that sense, rather than a weird or dark negative thing.

How did you enjoy working with Daniel Mays?

Oh, so much! TV’s nicest man – he’s lovely. He’s someone I’ve genuinely really, really admired for a long time, and it was a real treat for me to work with him. And it was a lovely love affair that was depicted in the show. They’re both quite broken, and you see a real potential for love between them, which feels really forlorn. I really liked that love affair.

The show is, in a large part, about estranged and difficult relationships between parents and their kids. As a parent yourself, is that an unnerving role to play?

I don’t think so. My own feeling is I think I could have played a role like this whether I was a mother or not. I think that Danny [Mays]would have done just as good a job if he hadn’t had children. You do so many things when you’re an actor. I’ve never been to 19th Century England, but I’ve acted roles from there. I think your imagination can take you for a lot of places. Whether or not you do a good job can be influenced by a lot of factors, but not whether or not you’ve experienced the thing involved.


How would you describe the drama?

I’d describe Born to Kill as a ‘study in psychopathy’, it’s very much in the heads of our main protagonist, Sam, a young boy dealing with dark, twisted psychotic desires. It’s also a coming-of-age story. He falls in love with my character’s daughter, and my character tentatively begins a relationship with Sam’s mother as well. As you can imagine, with the horrible dark thing running through the drama, there’s a very complicated domestic, family dynamic as well. It’s a very difficult project to define, it seems to exist between genres. It’s sort of a thriller, sort of a crime drama, but at its heart, it’s a drama about relationships, and the premise of nature versus nurture. I was blown away with it, the filming of it, and the getting into Sam’s headspace. It’s a disquieting, foreboding but deeply compelling watch. They drip-feed you information, and there’s a horrible sense of dread. It’s a very accomplished piece.

And tell us who you play?

I play a guy called Bill, who is somewhat at a low ebb when you first see him in the show. At the beginning of the piece he’s returning to Ripley Heath, where the drama is set. It’s where he grew up, he’s not been there for over a decade. He’s returning with his only daughter. He’s there to reconnect with his mother, but like characters littered throughout the piece, he’s got a really interesting back story. Bill is a widower who has lost his wife to cancer, and you get the sense that there’s a huge void in his life. That’s caused havoc with him, and there’s a sense that he might have suffered with depression. He comes back to look after his mother, who’s broken her hip and is in hospital. He’s lost his job, and he’s sort of making it up as he goes along. Throughout the course of the drama, he meets Romola’s character, and everyone’s wires get crossed.

It’s a pretty dark subject matter, isn’t it? Do you think drama is more interesting when it deals with the dark side of life?

I think so; I think there’s always an appetite for that. Whenever anyone said “What are you doing next, Danny?” and I said “I’m doing a psychological thriller for Channel 4,” they love it. There’s a dark fascination with the macabre sense of things in life. I guess that’s why, when you see a car accident, there’s a tailback and everyone wants to slow down to have a look at it out of the window. I think we embrace the darkness in the piece. It’s a compelling watch, but we’ve certainly not shied away from tough subject matter.

Did you do much in the way of research for the role? Or was it all there on the page?

I’ve played a lot of mixed up characters on the edge in the past, and what was appealing about Bill was that there was a simplicity about him. He’s just a regular guy and a regular dad trying to make the best of things after the death of his wife. Ultimately his journey throughout the piece very much ends up being about saving his daughter, who becomes mixed up with this guy who’s completely off the rails. But it’s also so interesting that his relationship with Jenny is never allowed to materialise. Nevertheless, they have a real, instant connection. They’re two lost, lonely souls. He makes her laugh, and they’re both looking for companionship. I thought that was something really interesting in the drama, how their relationship can never materialise into anything else because of events elsewhere.

Your daughter Chrissy is played by newcomer Lara Peake. How did you enjoy working with her?

I thought she was absolutely top drawer, a really fantastic new talent. Obviously the roles of Chrissy and Sam were key to cast, and I know that [director] Bruce Goodison and Channel 4 searched far and wide to try and find the best two actors to fill those roles. I think they’ve both hit it out the park. They’re both fiercely talented, incredibly committed, and just care deeply about the project. I think you can really see that in their performances. And their relationship and chemistry onscreen is fantastic, but individually they really stand up, and I just think they’ve unearthed two gems, really, two stars of the future.

It must be quite exciting, seeing talent like that coming through.

Oh, it really is. I actually did a radio play recently, and I was talking to some of the guys in it about this series, and about Lara and Jack [Rowan, who plays Sam] and about how refreshing it was to work with a new talent that has no baggage and no preconceived ideas about them. It’s gold, really, because as a viewer, having not seen them in anything else, you can invest totally in their performances. I think they've both done an incredible job. Jack’s performance really carries the whole piece. It’s such an unsettling performance. At times I felt sympathy for him, and it feels like a sort of modern day Psycho. He’s a bit like Norman Bates, with a rather off-centre outlook on the world. He plays it absolutely pitch-perfect, as far as I’m concerned.

Had you worked with Romola before?

No, I never had. I’d met her socially a couple of times, and obviously we were both in Atonement, but she was in the middle section of that movie and then she sort of passed the baton over to me in the Second World War section. So I literally passed her in the make-up bus. But I’ve always been an admirer of hers; She’s consistently brilliant in everything she does. And she really didn’t disappoint to work with. She’s got a fierce intelligence, she really fights her corner, and she’ll really stand up for the character she’s playing. She just had a deep consideration for her character, and she just wanted every beat and every nuance of her performance to compliment the whole piece.

The show is, in a large part, about estranged and difficult relationships between parents and their kids. As a parent yourself, did that unnerve you?

Yeah, it’s every parent’s worst nightmare, to lose connection with your children, to not fully engage with them or have an understanding of what crowd of people they’re mixing with, what they are watching online. I think it just cements the importance of trying to look after and raise your kids the best you possibly can, in a nurturing and loving relationship. Obviously Sam is carrying around this incident that happened years before with his dad. And it triggers the whole debate about whether individuals are born evil or whether they’re shaped by their experiences. It’s a very tricky subject to focus in on, and I’m not really sure what the answer is.

Do you think your interest in the dark and difficult aspects of life is what led to you becoming a Leyton Orient fan?

[Laughs] Someone had to. It’s a bit dark and dangerous at the moment at our club!

Images & Info - Channel 4