Discovery Channel’s new scripted miniseries, “Manhunt: Unabomber,” has Paul Bettany (“Avengers”) playing Ted Kaczynski, the domestic terrorist known for a 17-year long mail bombing campaign that killed three people and injured 23.
There’s a thin line in regards to portraying a man who killed three and injured dozens of others. At TCA, the actors and executive producers behind the series talked about how to not cross that line and how they got into Kaczynski’s head without endearing him to the audience.
Writer and executive producer Andrew Sodroski told reporters that the series used “radical empathy” and not “sympathy” to allow the audience to connect with Ted but not to take his side in regards to his crimes.
“To do that with Ted is very difficult,” he said. “At the same time he himself is a victim too. He was a little boy with a bright future and something happened, what I was hoping for was a way to plug into that and feel the tragedy of Ted Kaczynski.”
“Manhunt: Unabomber” follows the hunt to find Kaczynski — aka the Unabomber — led in part by FBI Agent and criminal profiler Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald (played by Sam Worthington), who became known for pioneering the field of forensic linguistics during the investigation.
Bettany echoed a lot of these thoughts while talking about the research — and the reading — he had to do to get into Kaczynski’s head. The Unabomber is probably most remembered, besides his crimes, for his 35,000-word manifesto, which was published in full by The New York Times and the Washington Post. He also had an unpublished autobiography, which Bettany had access to and called “honest” and “revealing.”
“When Ted was arrested, the FBI itemized everything that was in his cabin I had access to his reading list and that was fascinating,” Bettany continued. “The novels that he had chosen to keep around his head were fascinatingly cliched… but they were all novels about the outsider, the man that feels like an alien in society and commits a crime that he can’t come back from, so that was useful for me.”
And even if we all wouldn’t send bombs to people or take extreme measures to deal with strong emotions or mental illness, Sodroski said that there’s something to be said about fear that the audience can relate to, even if it’s through Kaczynski.
“The show tries to investigate our feelings of powerlessness,” he pondered. “I think those are feelings that are shared by us, all us on stage and all of us in this room. It’s the same feelings — a lack of freedom and lack of autonomy in the modern world that many of us are struggling with that many of us are struggling with, militiamen or screenwriters.”
Plus, the fact that it’s a show and not a two hour movie allowed the writers and the actors to explore all the emotions and small, domestic details in the lives of both Kaczynski and Fitzgerald. Bettany speculated that the story would be a thriller if it was constrained to a shorter format and could’ve been handled incorrectly.
“Having eight hours allows you to spend time with Ted and what his domesticity was like and what his childhood was like,” he said. “The show is not trying to generate sympathy for Ted but certainly having empathy for his child and what happened to that boy was very damaging and somehow it can be separated from the monstrous acts in his later life.”