Domhnall Gleeson on How ‘The Patient’ Avoids the Sexy Serial Killer Trope

“There’s a deep well of pathetic self-loathing there which is really at the heart of a lot of what’s happening,” the actor told TheWrap

the patient domhnall gleeson
Suzanne Tenner/FX

“The Patient” star Domhnall Gleeson loves that the FX series, which hails from “The Americans” co-creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, doesn’t glamorize serial killers. Unlike past crime projects — most notably Zac Efron’s much-critiqued turn as Ted Bundy, whom people accused of leaning too heavily on the infamous murderer’s charisma — Gleeson’s Sam Fortner paints a “pathetic” portrayal of violent offenders, something the actor relishes as the antithesis of the “sexy serial killer” trope.

“I think the series is responsible about not just making him a sexy serial killer who’s interesting in all these ways, like, Oh my god, isn’t he fascinating? It’s like, no, there’s a deep well of pathetic self-loathing there which is really at the heart of a lot of what’s happening,” Gleeson told TheWrap in an interview. The limited thriller series is good at not “mythologizing [killers] and making them these ciphers,” he added, and instead exposes a “very sad nugget of humanity” in its premise.

“The Patient” follows the mental unraveling of Dr. Alan Strauss (Steve Carell), who is held against his will by a serial killer who wants to be therapized out of his compulsion to kill. The series traces Sam’s capacity for real change, as he struggles to engage with the most traumatic aspects of his childhood. Meanwhile, Strauss contends with the possibility of his escape and fantasizes about the things left unsaid between himself and his estranged son, Ezra (Andrew Leeds).

For Gleeson, the character’s defining trait is a “massive blind spot,” wherein Sam fancies himself a “good person” for being willing to engage in an attempt to break the violent cycle that first began with the abuse he faced from his father. It’s more about whether Sam actually wants to change — which in Gleeson’s view would be turning himself in — rather than his capacity for it. 

“He’s obsessive, and he is controlling in a huge way,” the “About Time” star said. “He just doesn’t understand that if he just hands himself in everybody else’s life would be better — his mother’s life will be better, his ex-wife’s life will be better. The people who he won’t kill — their lives will be infinitely better. He doesn’t even consider it because he’s incapable of it; because if he does, he’ll be confronted by his own lack of responsibility [for] true goodness.”

When fine-tuning his performance, Gleeson said he didn’t look to one individual for inspiration on how Sam carries himself, rather imbuing the role with a degree of awkwardness reminiscent of a “younger version of myself.”

“A lot of it is about the pressure exerted on him,” the actor explained. “There are aspects of his character which are very teenage, like his ability to deal well with a situation where he doesn’t feel comfortable. I think just the way that somebody pours into themselves, the way their speech patterns change and the way that they’re able to conceal that — I think he’s very bad at concealing that. He probably imagines himself to be a master manipulator, and he just isn’t. That’s not who he is. He’s not the brightest, he’s not particularly interesting in lots of ways.”

Speaking about his and Carell’s handling of fraught and tense scenes, Gleeson said the duo would stick to the script and attempt different approaches in a “push and pull” environment where their reactions would ricochet back onto each other and inform the performance.

“He’s so amazing at that,” Gleeson said of his scene partner. “He’s so light on his feet even though it’s such a heavy-hearted character. The joy of the job, really, was getting to do that every day.”