Almost a decade into the true crime renaissance, appetites for fresh content – particularly of the white male serial-killer-next-door variety – remain insatiable. In December, “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” became the second most-watched English-language show in Netflix history, while Ted Bundy, the subject of two new movies in 2021, is more or less his own subgenre.
The latest hit is “The Good Nurse,” which debuted on Netflix in November and recently picked up a Golden Globe nomination for star Eddie Redmayne. Directed by Tobias Lindholm, it follows Charles Cullen, who is serving 18 consecutive life sentences for killing as many as 40 New Jersey hospital patients and is suspected of killing hundreds more.
All the reasons why his story was destined to be made into a movie – the number of victims, his unusual methodology, the fact that he hid in plain sight for so long – were the same reasons Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne were hesitant to star in it.
“When you’re telling a story about someone who did horrific things, and the families of the victims of those people are still hurting, you feel, in unimaginable ways, a great moral responsibility to tell the story for the right reasons,” Redmayne said in an interview with TheWrap.
“Where your attention goes, your energy flows,” Chastain added. “And if we’re focusing on violence and darkness and murder, in some sense, that means we’re celebrating it as a society.”
Krysty Wilson-Cairns’ script took them pleasantly by surprise. Instead of Cullen (Redmayne), “The Good Nurse” centers on Amy Loughren (Chastain), the real-life nurse who befriended him at Somerset Hospital and later assisted police with his arrest. By making Loughren the main character, the film became, as Chastain put it, “a hero’s journey, rather than a descent into darkness.”
What won Redmayne over was the script’s approach to not only its hero but its villain – namely, that Cullen isn’t the only one.
“It felt like there were two villains,” he said. “There was Charlie Cullen who had done these horrific things, but also was exposing a system that was broken.”
As the film extensively details, Cullen’s 16-year killing streak would not have been possible without the medical industrial complex. Everywhere he worked, death mysteriously followed; yet no matter how many times he was fired, investigated or flagged for misconduct, he continued to find employment. Thanks to a national nursing shortage and the liability hospitals would risk if they reported him, Cullen enjoyed total impunity.
“When [systems] become so big and so dehumanized, and often when they’re being run for the bottom line and for profit, human beings lose their humanity,” said Redmayne. “You become a cog in a machine, because there are people above you, and there are people below you, and you have a responsibility for everyone around you. And with that, one can lose one’s own individuality.”
“The thing that was extraordinary about spending time with the real Amy,” he continued, “was she always described how she felt like she did what anyone would have done, but actually, the courage of standing up in that moment is huge. The script certainly made me think about having the courage to do [that] in moments when you’ve become a cog in a machine.”
What made Loughren’s courage even more extraordinary was that she too was a victim of the system. In real life and onscreen, Loughren suffered from a life-threatening heart condition exacerbated by the stress of being a night nurse and single mother. In the film, her health insurance doesn’t kick in until she’s worked at the hospital a full year, which is months away when the story begins. Taking a leave of absence isn’t an option, but the odds of surviving long enough to get a heart transplant are shrinking.
“You can see how [in] her job, in some sense, she’s being taken advantage of,” Chastain said. “And it leaves an opening for Charlie to enter her life. Because she really is someone who’s struggling and needs the support of someone to help her survive.”
Considering all that she was dealing with, why go on being a night nurse? “‘I wanted my girls to think that they had a stay at home mom,’” Chastain recalled Loughren saying in one of their first conversations.
“I thought that was so incredible. I mean, I was raised by a single mom. I witnessed how difficult that was, especially in a low income family. And for Amy to be working all night, taking care of others, coming home, taking care of her kids… There really is no point that she’s taking care of herself.”
That was Chastain’s “way in” to the character’s emotional life. When it came to the physical elements of the performance, having Loughren on set was invaluable (though acting in front of her was admittedly “pretty stressful”).
From conversations with her and other healthcare professionals, Chastain pieced together an understanding of how cardiomyopathy feels during the intense flare-ups her character experiences.
Before “Action!” was called, she ran multiple laps around the set to achieve the right effect. “Your skin needs to get clammy, and your eyes get glassy, and you become really pale. There’s a sense of almost like you can’t get to the bottom of your breath,” she explained.
She also requested to wear an “earwig,” an earpiece that amplified the sound of her own heartbeat.
“I’d be doing a scene and all of a sudden, I would notice [Lindholm] had made it go faster. And then I was l trying to react to that. So I would be doing the scene with my scene partners, and then at the same time, I would hear [it] like, ‘Oh shoot, I gotta call my heart rate down. How am I going to get it to slow down a bit?’”
Redmayne, on the other hand, had the opposite challenge: Cullen’s physicality was much more external, and he wasn’t able to observe him in person. Instead, he worked with dancer and movement coach Alexandra Reynolds, his collaborator on “The Theory of Everything” and “The Danish Girl.” Also helpful were “other people’s interpretations” of Cullen, including descriptions written by “The Good Nurse” author Charles Graeber.
While studying footage of Cullen, what struck Redmayne was “this semblance on the surface of stillness, but actually that’d be continuous movement, tiny gestures. A lot of it was soothing, it was about touching the textures of things.”
“That was one element,” he continued. “The other real insight for me was this description by Charles Graeber of him looking like a question mark, this kind of folded-over quality and all of this tension found in the nape of his neck. It meant that he also looked, when he was wearing his glasses, [like] he was always sort of looking up at the world. There was this sense of being invisible and looking and observing.”
Both actors used their unusually long rehearsal period (one month) to finesse the script and their characters. Yet for some of their most explosive scenes – like when Loughren confronts Cullen in a diner – Chastain and Redmayne decided to just wing it.
“There’s sometimes moments where you want to just see what will spark and I think, intuitively, [Chastain] and [Lindholm] and I knew that if we had got the framework up until those moments right, then these scenes would reveal themselves. And I feel like that’s what they did,” said Redmayne. “And those days, although they were intense, they were thrilling, thrilling days of work.”
Chastain and Redmayne’s real-life friendship served more than just their own sanity or on-set morale. It also reflected the real-life friendship Cullen and Loughren shared, even after she helped put him in handcuffs.
Near the film’s end, Loughren tries to get Cullen to confess. Partway through their conversation, she notices he’s cold and instinctively puts her cardigan around him. Chastain said she can’t explain the action, but knew it made sense in the moment.
It’s the scene that captures the uncomfortable truth at the heart of the film, and what makes it so unconventional for the genre: that as Cullen was extinguishing so many lives, he was also saving one.
Why did Charles Cullen do the unspeakable things he did? Were there ulterior motives to his friendship? How can a person be both a cold-blooded murderer and generous friend?
These are questions neither Chastain nor Redmayne are interested in interrogating – not because there isn’t plenty to speculate about, but because in real life there are no answers.
“When I read the script, it was the question that I was asking,” Redmayne admitted. “And I felt ultimately that we as an audience feel the need to know why in order to other that person, to make that person feel other and to therefore make ourselves feel safe. And I love that this script doesn’t permit that.”
“It makes me feel more human to not know,” said Chastain. “I don’t know that anyone who is hurting other people [is] really able to clearly say why, you know? Because I have to believe that at some part it’s instinctual. It’s emotional. It’s reactive. And it’s unthoughtful.”
Chastain hopes audiences will see themselves in Loughren and Cullen, as products of circumstances they couldn’t control and choices they could.
“The reality is, so often when you hear of some really horrific thing happening, they talk to the neighbors or friends of the person who did it, and they’re always like, ‘He was the nicest person. He was such a family man. I never would have suspected that this could happen in this neighborhood, in this family, in this business.’ It just kind of goes to show that we’re all more connected than we think. I hope that inspires an audience to look at the choices they’ve made in their lives, and maybe feel closer to others,” she said, adding: “Check on your neighbors.”
“The Good Nurse” is now available to stream on Netflix.