‘Dahmer – Monster’ Co-Star Michael Learned On How She Got The Role As The Killer’s Grandma
Dahmer – Monster may have been a dark series about a serial killer, but Michael Learned thinks she got the role as the cannibal’s grandmother by showing off her wry sense of humor.
While shooting a self-tape for the role of Catherine Dahmer, Learned’s manager suggested that she include a full body shot as part of the audition.
“I said, ‘oh God, if I’d known you were gonna do that, I would’ve worn a bra,” Learned recalls to Deadline. “I hiked up my boobs. I thought my manager was going to cut it out. But he left it in and I think I probably got the part because it just made them laugh.”
Netflix's 'Dahmer' Wins Best International – BAFTA TV Awards
An ability to put viewers in stitches wasn’t exactly a requirement of the job. Instead, Learned was hired to portray Dahmer’s rather tolerant grandma who takes the young man into her home in episodes 4 and 5.
Learned was thrilled at the possibility of working with Ryan Murphy, who co-created the limited series for Netflix with Ian Brennan.
“Sarah Paulson is a friend of mine and I watched her become a star through him,” says Learned, who first befriended Murphy’s muse while they both worked on Broadway’s The Best Man in 2000. “He has a lot of courage because he works with people who are unknown and he turns them into superstars.”
That’s hardly the case for the Emmy-winning Learned, who is best known for playing the matriarch Olivia on The Waltons in the ’70s. Besides reprising the beloved role for multiple reunion movies, Learned kept busy doing episodic work over the last few decades on shows like St. Elsewhere, Murder She Wrote, Profiler and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
In 2011, Learned was asked to temporarily fill in for the late Jeanne Cooper on The Young and the Restless. (Cooper died two years later).
“It was a wonderful experience,” recalls Learned. “They were so nice to me, especially since everybody knew you don’t fill her shoes on a show like that. But I did the best I could. I was the understudy and I went on. It was a fun blip for me.”
When the call came to try out for Dahmer, Learned felt a little off her game (ergo, the blunder with her boobs). “That’s the first audition I think I’ve done since The Waltons in 1972 because most people know my work, you know?”
Learned did her own research on the real-life Catherine Dahmer — though there wasn’t much to draw from. “There were a few home movies of her walking around, holding a cat. There was no sound that I can remember. But I got a sense of who she was, just an ordinary Midwestern grandma. And I’m kind of like that, just an ordinary grandma. I just happen to have a different profession.”
The actress did, however, watch old interviews with Dahmer, which she found “harrowing.” “He was so detached from the reality of what he did. It was like he was trying to figure it out himself.”
At first, Catherine Dahmer tries to overlook her grandson’s strange trips to the basement, where he was dismembering his victims. He would then remove the body parts from the house in large bags.
“Denial’s a very powerful mechanism,” says Learned. “I have a grandson living with us at the moment, who’s gorgeous and sweet and dear and marvelous. But if he was dragging garbage bags full of something heavy through my kitchen, I’d wanna know what the heck it is. If I was sniffing dead smells coming from my basement, I would go down and investigate. And at least in the series, for some reason she, she didn’t. Oftentimes, you don’t want to know. And I think she probably was a woman who didn’t want to know.”
Working with a thoughtful and generous actor like Evan Peters made the job easier, Learned admits. “He played him so sincerely. He’s very unassuming, very down to earth. I felt like I was my grandson.”
But as much as she respected her co-star, Learned couldn’t bring herself to watch the rest of the limited series. Dahmer – Monster consists of 10 episodes.
“I’ll be honest, I only watched the stuff I was in,” Learned admits. “It is not my cup of tea. It’s not something I would normally watch. I’m also an actor, so I watch my stuff partly to find out if I did a good job or not. Most of the time I hate what I do.”
But not this time, she admits. “In this case, I really got into it without worrying about what I was doing wrong. You know, I did okay.”
Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is currently streaming on Netflix.
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