When Sam Worthington was first approached about starring in a limited series adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s true-crime book “Under the Banner of Heaven,” he was somewhat cautious. He had read the book years ago, but the crime at its center – the murder of a young woman and her child in a tight-knit Mormon community – was so horrific, he worried an adaptation might run the risk of feeling exploitative.
Showrunner Dustin Lance Black put those hesitations to rest, assuring Worthington the murder would be handled delicately and that the series would delve into the intricacies of the book. “The exploration of the patriarchal society and excessive use of being able to twist beliefs and faith to your own will, that was what was interesting to me,” the actor told TheWrap during a recent interview. “It wasn’t necessarily the whodunit aspect, obviously, it was definitely the how did something like this happen to such a devoted and pious community. And that journey was what I wanted to go on.”
The question of how someone could do something like this rested on the shoulders of Worthington and Wyatt Russell, who play brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty respectively – the perpetrators of the crime – in the series. Over the course of seven episodes, we get to know the Laffertys and also see how Dan’s embrace of fundamentalist Mormon views sets the family on a deadly collision course, all while eventual victim Brenda (Daisy Edgar-Jones) continually pushes back against her in-laws’ extremist views.
Knowing what Ron is responsible for at the end of the series, Worthington wanted to examine how he got there, and what pushed him into that position. For him, the key to his performance was unlocking the importance of family to Ron, and what happens when that starts to unravel.
“If Dan was the manipulator, the way I approached this Ron was that he was manipulated,” Worthington explained. “And obviously I think it’s not as simple as just daddy issues, I think there was something in their wiring, but you can’t play deluded you can only play a passionate pursuit of something. And to me, Ron was a man whose family was everything and the acceptance within his Lafferty family meant the world to him and to be continually pushed out is the catalyst for the quicksand that he was in.”
The actor continued, noting that his downward spiral leads to a scramble that puts him in a vulnerable position with his maniacal brother. “He would lose his religion, his faith, his wife, his kids, and that scramble to get it all back, and that search for this self-belief and faith in himself that he accepts and needs, that to me is something that I could play when we go into a scene.”
One thing Worthington found helpful was that the series was shot in sequence, so he could layer in aspects of Ron’s character that would pay off later.
“When I first sat down with Brenda at the picnic, I invaded her personal space, mainly because inside me, I knew that I’m going to invade her extremely at the end, and it was just an instinctive quality to sit that close,” Worthington said of the scene in which Ron and Brenda meet for the first time. “Straight away, you’ve kind of peppered in the feeling of dread, the feeling of overstepping boundaries.”
When it came time to shoot the finale and the murder scene, Worthington says they made the decision to depict Ron yielding completely to Dan.
“That whole episode, it goes from Ron totally buying into the fact that he’s The One and halfway it breaks and he’s back to scrambling again where the younger brother has usurped him,” the actor said of his relationship to Russell’s character. “And even the way we approached the murder scene was yielding to Dan. To me, that was kind of an interesting choice. None of us know what actually happened in that house, really. We only get Dan’s recollection of it and that narcissistic story that he’s told about it. But the approach we had, we had to find a unique way to tie that up so it wasn’t just exploitative.”
And while Worthington and Russell’s dynamic in the series is compelling, Worthington confesses he and Russell didn’t talk much about their characters beforehand.
“With someone like Wyatt, I trust that he knows where he wants to take his character,” he said. “So we were coming at it from two different points of view. And it’s exciting, I could see how he was taking this devious, serpentine kind of approach to it and I think he understood I was playing with the extremes of Loving Ron and Violent Ron and there was no gray area in between.”
Worthington kept that balance between the two Rons front and center throughout the entire production, leading to a surprising action Worthington added in the immediate wake of the murder scene.
“When we came out from doing the murder of Brenda and her baby, and we were covered in blood, for some reason, there was a like a blanket on the steps and I picked it up and put it in neatly and calmly into the stroller,” the actor recalled. “And whether you pick that up or not in the shot, it doesn’t matter, because to me that reveals so much about the character. Why I did it was because the character has got this struggle between this murderous unhinged quality that’s happening to him, but deep down he cares about his family.”
It’s a surprising bit of business from the actor that’s just visible in the back of the frame. But for Worthington as a performer, the surprise is what it’s all about.
“Surprising is always good. I think that’s what you’re searching for,” he said. “I always say if I can surprise myself, that means I’m going to surprise the other actors, surprise the director and then you hopefully can surprise the audience. It’s something I’ve been striving for. It’s taken me a long time to keep working on this craft. But that’s what I’m aiming for eventually.”
“Under the Banner of Heaven” is streaming on Hulu.