In order to play Nicholas Godejohn, the man who committed the murder at the heart of Hulu’s hit true-crime drama The Act, actor Calum Worthy may well have done more preparation than Godejohn and his then-girlfriend Gypsy Blanchard did for the murder itself.
Co-created by Nick Antosca (Channel Zero) and Michelle Dean, who wrote the BuzzFeed article that inspired the show, The Act co-stars Joey King as Gypsy and Patricia Arquette as her mother Dee Dee, whose Munchausen syndrome by proxy drove her to medically abuse her daughter into a state of permanent, fraudulent “sickness” for years. This in turn drove Gypsy to seek a way out — by any means necessary.
She found one in Godejohn, a troubled young man (he was once arrested for masturbating in a McDonald’s) on the autism spectrum. The two met and fell in love on the internet behind Dee Dee’s back. After killing Dee Dee to free Gypsy from her clutches, the pair left a trail of clues a mile wide and were caught almost immediately. The tragicomic undoing of their scheme and dissolution of their would-be Bonnie and Clyde relationship dominated the back half of the anthology series’ tremendously powerful first season, the finale of which debuted on Hulu today.
Worthy, best known for comedic roles on Disney’s Austin & Ally and Netflix’s American Vandal, took no such chances. In a conversation about his pivotal and sensitive portrayal, he revealed the details of how he stepped into Godejohn’s shoes: months of research, round-the-clock Method acting, even training himself to write left-handed as Godejohn did, Maisie Williams style. Finally, he talked about being the sole male regular on a drama both about and primarily made by women who, in his own words, “are much more talented than I am.”
Nick Godejohn is a man with autism who committed murder at the behest of an abused woman. In terms of balancing empathy with honesty about what he did, that’s a role with a high degree of difficulty.
You hit the nail right on the head. It was a difficult process, because people who know the case know what this character ultimately does. But they know it from how the news is talking about him, and for a lot of criminals, becoming infamous dehumanizes them. I felt like it was my job to humanize Nick. So I spent the two months before we started filming immersing myself in the world of Nick Godejohn. It was very, very intense.
What did that entail for you?
It was kind of a two-part process, objective and subjective. The first part of the process was very academic. I spend a lot of time talking to Michelle Dean, who was one of the showrunners and had spent a lot of time working on the case as a journalist. She helped me understand more about his backstory. I researched every piece of him I could. I learned how he talked, how he walked, what he liked to eat, how he saw the world.
Nick is autistic, and since he is on the spectrum I wanted to make sure that I did justice to that community. I spent some time at a center for adults with autism, spent hours grilling all the specialists with questions. I read five books about autism, then wrote an essay about Nick based on all of the research that I’d done.
Then I spent a lot of time eating like him, walking around like him, doing everyday tasks as Nick. Nick writes with his left hand, so I learned to write left-handed; anytime you see a note that Nick wrote for himself to remember things, I wrote it with my left hand. I’d watch disturbing videos before bed, because I know he struggled with disturbing thoughts.
After we filmed the scenes where he had committed the murder, I knew that the images haunted him, so I made the crime-scene pictures that we had access to the background on my phone. They’re the first thing I saw when I woke up in the morning, the last thing I saw at night as I fell asleep, so I’d be haunted by those images myself.
The way you played him, it seemed like every moment he wasn’t actually saying or doing something, he’d be running through a script in his own head: “Okay, here’s what I’m supposed to do next.” You mentioned the actual notes he wrote for himself to that effect, like the one that lists how you’re supposed to treat a girlfriend. It seemed sweet, somehow, despite everything we know.
It’s interesting you say the word “sweet,” because that’s the exact word that the police officer who interrogated him used at his trial. When she was on the stand, they asked, “What were your first thoughts after you finished the interrogation?” She said, “I thought he was a very sweet, kind man.” That was a key piece of information for me: Oh, okay. She thought that in that moment, knowing what he had done? Then the audience has to feel that way, too.
It’s also interesting you used the word “script.” One of the notes I had from my research was that Nick felt like he was in a play, and everyone in the world had been given the script ahead of time except for him. He didn’t know where to stand or what his lines were or when to say them. That was the basis for how I dictated scenes for that character.
He’s also code-shifting constantly. Sometimes he’s Prince Charming, sometimes he’s Clyde Barrow, sometimes he’s a by-the-numbers BDSM dom, sometimes he’s just the pizza guy. Even putting aside his claim that he has multiple personalities, he’s a lot of different people.
Yeah, there’s many different sides of him. His reactions to different situations vary drastically depending on what they were and who they were with. Who he felt like he could be online was very different from him at the pizza place. So I spent a lot of time trying to figure out, Okay, in this situation, what would Nick do?
I wanted to see him transitioning into those moments as well. In the finale, before he actually committed the murder, it wasn’t something that he was able to do with the flick of a switch. He had to build himself up to get there. It’s not necessarily who he is deep down, but it’s something that he was able to do.
After the moment passes he’s completely at a loss, almost like a baby. Gypsy has to clean him off, the way her mother used to clean her.
I spent a lot of time thinking through what those minutes after the murder would have been like. Michelle had done a lot of research, and we’re able to map that out. But trying to track his emotional journey as to what he would be feeling immediately afterwards — what would that numbness feel like? What would that realization of what you’ve done feel like? How would that shock affect you? There was about a week straight where I only thought about those moments, and, um … it felt quite disturbing.
Nick also provides a lot of the show’s humor, even if it’s pretty dark.
He is often funny, but keeping in mind all these other factors it just seems real complicated to me. The way we approached those moments is we played it as seriously as possible, and even stuck to dialogue that he actually had said. Any comedy came out organically.
Often in comedy, you really map it out: Here’s where the laugh is going to be. Here’s where you’re really going for that moment. I ignored all of that. I would just stay in the character and react naturally as he would. It wasn’t until I actually saw the final edit that I thought, Oh, okay, that actually did end up being comedic. It never felt that way while we were filming. It felt just very raw and gritty. Even though we had the intent of some of those moments being comedic, we never leaned into that.
You are the sole male lead in a story that is about and starring and largely written and directed by women. Did you feel a responsibility to that fact?
I did feel a lot of gratitude for being amongst people that are much more talented and much, much better at their craft than I am. I remember getting the email saying who’s all going to be in it, and I was like, Oh my goodness, all of these actors are unbelievable!
And you’re right: In front of the camera and behind the camera, in all departments, it was a very female-driven project — from the actors to the writers to the directors to set dec to sound and hair and makeup. It felt like I was constantly surrounded by people working at the highest level possible, and it was very intimidating.
I mean, my first day on set, Patricia Arquette got nominated for a Golden Globe. I was already nervous to work with her because I was such a huge fan of all the work that she had done. So to work with her on the first day, knowing that she had just been nominated, I thought, Wow. Well, hopefully this works out! [Laughs.]