[This story contains spoilers to the finale of Under the Banner of Heaven.]
Wyatt Russell tried to keep his portrayal of Dan Lafferty in Under the Banner of Heaven as authentic as possible, but there were times when he had to take a bit of creative license with the character.
The FX limited series is based on the true story of the 1984 murders of Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, at the hands of her brother-in-laws Dan and Ron Lafferty (Sam Worthington). Andrew Garfield plays the investigating detective.
When taking on the role of Dan, Russell says he wanted to do the story justice, help showrunner Dustin Lance Black make the story he needed to make and ensure that he played Dan honestly.
“Being that it’s a true story, you don’t want to veer too far off of what the character was like,” Russell tells The Hollywood Reporter of the true-crime drama, which is based on the Jon Krakauer bestseller. “I had a pretty rooted idea of what Dan was like because there was a lot of source material that was out there about Dan. So, you want to keep it as authentic to what you believe the reality is and was.”
But there were times, even with hours of footage, that Russell wasn’t sure what Dan’s truth was, or if he still believed a lot of the things he said back then. “It’s adding a couple things together and reading between the lines a little bit,” Russell explains.
In the below interview with THR, Russell opens up about getting into the mindset of a character who is “somewhat of a sociopath” and his experience in unlikable roles.
How would you describe Dan Lafferty’s journey in Under the Banner of Heaven?
The actions that he took are almost impossible to put into words, especially playing the person. So, the way that we were able to do it without encroaching too much into the gore aspect of what these things can be portrayed as sometimes — remembering they’re real people who died, that lives were lost — it was all about trying to portray him honestly. That came with him being a really nice guy. People really sort of liked Dan. You don’t follow people you don’t like. Those maniacal, manipulative cult leaders, they’re not people who people don’t like. It was important to see why Brenda and why these other people, his family included, would have been like, “OK, yeah.”
One of the things that I came across was my own feeling or finding, probably about halfway through, that I don’t think Dan even really knew what he was doing. I think Dan’s just a manipulative person who wanted his dad to love him and wanted to feel secure in the afterlife. He wanted to have some sort of security in life, and that was that, “All I have to do is be as true to the text as possible” thinking, and that assuaged a lot of his fears. He just tried to keep people at bay by manipulating them. Then, whatever crazy thought they had, a great manipulator will then say, “That’s a great idea. Sure, go. It’s not my idea, it’s your idea.” You just kind of keep going down that road until all of a sudden … I don’t even think he knew how he got there. There’s equal parts manipulative behavior and sort of evil and wrongdoing in him, and then equal parts where I don’t think he had any idea what he was doing.
How did you get into the mindset of playing someone like that?
It was odd at times and difficult, because there’s humor in it, right? It’s inherent. Mormons, their positivity and how they can come across, it can be funny because it’s so positive. There are a lot of great qualities to that, but for people who aren’t used to that, it can be funny. So, it was important to remember that it’s still humorous. Life is still humorous in the most horrible, evil, maniacal spots. People react in very different ways. I thought that was important, all while keeping the serious nature of what ends up happening. That was the reality. It’s stranger-than-fiction type stuff. And that balance of getting Dan down that rabbit hole. It wasn’t like you had the entire show to do that with Dan, specifically. So, it was latching on to each little moment that you could try to subtly maneuver him in ways that weren’t going to be overt down that rabbit hole.
What were your initial thoughts of Dan when you read the script and the book?
I read the book first years ago and then read the script. My initial thoughts about him were that of any sort of cult leader: he’s obviously very magnetic. Everything starts off with a kernel of goodness. He’s doing it in his heart out of love. It’s not out of pure hate. He thinks this is the only way they’re going to get to heaven, and that’s really the truth. That’s what he thinks. It’s sort of unbelievable how someone can get to that sense of this being the only way. My brain went to, “How can someone be so sure of something they don’t know, and what leads you down that road?”
With Dan, I think it all comes back to Dad. He wanted to please Dad. He wanted his dad to love him and wanted his dad to think he was doing a good job. If his dad would have been like, “You’re doing a great job, man. I know it’s hard, but you’re doing great. You’re dope,” I think things would have been very different. I think Dan’s brain and personality is also set up to be somewhat of a sociopath in a lot of ways. So, interesting guy, I mean, can’t say he’s not interesting. But, not a nice guy.
How did you wrap your head around being a part of such a chilling real-life story?
You take it for what it is. When it’s a true story, you want to do it justice; do your character justice, that’s all you really can do. You help the filmmaker make the movie or show they need to make. Lance is the one who’s got his fingers on all the buttons, and you need to be able to be the right button for him to use when he needs it. Being that it’s a true story, you don’t want to veer too far off of what the character was like. I had a pretty rooted idea of what Dan was like because there was a lot of source material that was out there about Dan. So, you want to keep it as authentic to what you believe the reality is and was.
There are times where, in these things that Dan had said in interviews and stuff, you don’t know if it’s the truth or not, or if what he believes now is different than what he believed then. So, it was trying to thread a needle sometimes where there is a bit of license where you’re like, “I think this is how he would have gotten there,” because it’s not exactly what he said. It’s adding a couple things together and reading between the lines a little bit.
What were some of the things you learned in playing Dan that you think you’ll take into future projects?
I have to understand the thought process of the line. Otherwise, it’s just remembering words, and then it doesn’t come out as good. This was really hard because I didn’t understand it. I’m not Mormon. I don’t know anything about it. So, I had to do a little bit more research than I normally would, and be like, “What the hell do I actually mean here? What am I really fucking saying?” It was really beneficial, and it’s something I will do even more now moving forward and really being able to forget that you’re saying lines, you’re just understanding the thoughts. That thought process was really important to wrap my head around, and it’s something I’ve tried to do in every project, but this one specifically highlighted that. I think I’ll try and take that into everything that I do even more now.
What’s it like taking on a character who’s not exactly likable?
I’ve been around for a while now, going on 13 to 14 years and, it’s funny. You’re around long enough, and you hear it all. There was a time where it was like, “Well, he’s the stoner. Everyone loves him as the stoner guy,” and I couldn’t get a fucking job as anybody else. (Laughs.) Then it was like, “Oh, he’s a green, young detective type.” Then, I do 22 Jump Street, and it’s like, “He’s a jock, friends with Channing Tatum.” I’ve been defined as many things many times in a pretty short career, which I take as a compliment.
[Unlikable] characters are fun to play because there’s a lot to them. You have a lot to do, and it’s always a challenge to be able to play someone like that and be able to make someone unlikable understandable. That’s an important part of playing somebody who is “unlikable.” The most unlikeable person in the world, Donald Trump, right? There’s a lot of people who like Donald Trump, and there’s reasons for that, and understanding why people like that person is an important part of understanding why those people are that way.
There’s a lot of people that are going to look at Dan on certain things he says, and be like, “Fuck, yeah.” That’s the reality. And whether or not you do or don’t, it’s just a matter of your understanding of how you’re looking at a certain subject or being able to really have a conversation or understand somebody. To really have a meaningful interaction with somebody, you have to understand where they’re coming from. So, that’s been the interesting part of playing people like Dan. And then trying to understand where they’re coming from when I don’t see it, but need to be able to portray it. And it usually comes from being heard, feeling misunderstood or not feeling heard.
What do you feel is the biggest takeaway of Under the Banner of Heaven?
In a show like this, I don’t love telling people how to feel. It’s not my job as an artist. But what I came away with, having done it, was thaat when you think you know the answer and you are 100 percent sure, and you feel that seed of doubt creep into your life or that seed of doubt creep into your thought process about whatever it is that you’re thinking about, let it creep in. It’s OK to doubt yourself. It’s what you should do. Look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Am I really going down the right road? Am I really sure about this?” We’ve all done it. We’ve all been like, “I know I’m 100 percent sure I fucking know.” And then you look it up 10 seconds later and you’re like, “I was wrong.” Right when you think you know, just double-check.
You and co-star Andrew Garfield have the MCU in common. Would you ever want to see a U.S. agent-Spider-Man crossover?
Sure. I’ll let you pitch that to Kevin Feige. If you come to Marvel, you can go pitch that to Kevin Feige and see if he likes it. I’ll do a crossover with anyone they tell me to do a crossover with.
I really enjoy playing the character and my experience working with Marvel was an unbelievable working experience and collaborative, working with Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan and Kari Skogland. The teams they have there are unbelievable, it’s why they make great things. So, anytime I get the opportunity or hear about the chance to reprise a character or work for Marvel again, it’s very exciting because the people are wonderful. So, hopefully, I’ll get to do it again. We’ll see.
Interview edited for clarity.
Under the Banner of Heaven is available to stream on Hulu.
Monica has a BA in Journalism and English from the University of Massachusetts and an MS in Journalism and Communications from Quinnipiac University. Monica has worked as a journalist for over 20 years covering all things entertainment. She has covered everything from San Diego Comic-Con, The SAG Awards, Academy Awards, and more. Monica has been published in Variety, Swagger Magazine, Emmy Magazine, CNN, AP, Hidden Remote, and more. For the past 10 years, she has added PR and marketing to her list of talents as the president of Prime Entertainment Publicity, LLC. Monica is ready for anything and is proudly obsessed with pop culture.