Interview: Michael O’Neill Talks ‘The Grim Sleeper’, Working With Ernie Hudson & More

The Lifetime original movie The Grim Sleeper finally hits the UK tonight (Thursday July 3rd) on Lifetime UK.

The 90 minute movie is based on real life events and tells the true story of Christine Pelisek, a fact checker with the LA Weekly who, determined to become a fully-fledged reporter, starts digging into a series of murders. Through the assistance of a friend in the coroner’s office, she uncovers the existence of an African American serial killer who has been active for more than 25 years. After breaking the story in her paper, Pelisek finds herself working closely with the LAPD to track down the so-called “grim sleeper”.

The movie aired on Lifetime in the United States earlier this year and was well received. The cast is led by Don’t Trust The B—- In Apartment 23 star Dreama Walker, who plays LA Weekly fact checker-turned-reporter Christine Pelisek, and Bates Motel alum Michael O’Neill, who plays LAPD Detective Simms. The cast also includes Macy Gray as Margette, Ernie Hudson as Detective Gerry Claymar and Murry Peters as Ebony King.

Co-Lead Michael O’Neill was kind enough to spare some time from his busy schedule to talk to TVWise about The Grim Sleeper, working with such a strong cast and the pressures of doing a project which is based on real events.

TVWise: I understand that the movie is based on a real life serial killer in Los Angeles?

Michael O’Neill: This guy was the longest operating serial killer in the history of California. The reason they called him The Grim Sleeper was because he stopped for 13 years – so it’s a Rip Van Winkle effect. He stopped. He was sleeping. But when he woke up, he started again.

TVWise: You play Detective Simms, what can you tell us about your character?

Michael O’Neill: I play a character who, with what he believes is good intentions, keeps it out of the public eye as a serial killing. He’s afraid that’s going to move the killer away, out of the jurisdiction. He makes a mistake with that and he finds out that mistake through the community of people who have lost their relatives – the young women that this guy killed – and they take him to task. So the journey for this character is not just the journey of trying to apprehend a guy who had been killing for 25 years, but a personal change, understanding that there needs to be a certain sensitivity to what’s happening in the community. He’s an old school detective and often says “But it doesn’t help me catch the killer!” So he’s had to broaden his vision a bit, and it made, at least for me, a compelling challenge.

TVWise: Your have a nice storyline with the Christine Pelisek character where you go from adversaries in the beginning to a warmer and friendlier relationship by the time the credits roll.

Michael O’Neill: Yeah, there was a sense of having to make that adjustment and realise the contribution she was making, whether I wanted to or not. As is true of anything, the emotion follows the behaviour; once I began to work with her as a colleague I began to see who she was and developed a real affection for her – more like a daughter figure really. You know, she released that information in the press which I was ready to kill her for, but it changed things. It galvanised the search. Everyone gives her tremendous amount of credit for moving that case forward in a way that it was able to come to completion.

TVWise: The Grim Sleeper has a very strong cast. What was it like working with these great actors?

Michael O’Neill: She’s a lovely actress, Dreama, she really is. And Macy, oh my god, she’s terrific in this. I also got to work with one of my heroes – Ernie Hudson. You know, he’s funny! There were times in scenes were I had to bite my lip, ‘till it was bloody, not to crack up over something he had said 30 seconds before. He was just a riot to work with.

TVWise: Like a lot of Lifetime movies, The Grim Sleeper is based on a real case, effecting real people. As an actor did you feel that put any extra pressure on you, especially as the case has yet to go to trial?

Michael O’Neill: That’s a lot of pressure. It’s a tremendous amount of pressure, you know you don’t want to get ahead of the law. But I feel like they….the trial has not happened yet for a number of probably technical reasons and some manoeuvring. My understanding – then again I’m the actor not the scientist – but my understanding is that this is the first time that familial DNA has been used in a case. What I mean by that is that they were able to track this killer down because they apprehended his son – I believe on a weapons charge. And because of that, it leads to a very careful movement forward in the law.

TVWise: Given the “true” nature of the film, did you put any extra research into the role or did you just want to work from the script?

Michael O’Neill: I talked a lot with the producers about that very thing and because there was a sense that we had to stay inside boundaries, I researched what little I could in the original release of the story and then I tried to follow the guidelines of the script as carefully as possible. We had to be sensitive to the fact that the actual case had yet to go to trial. My character believes he finally apprehended that man responsible for this. There’s compelling evidence. Not just the DNA, but once they got into his home, there were hundreds of pictures – polaroids this guy had taken. So there’s a lot to work from, but outside of just trying to do fundamental research into case history, I tried to be careful not to get too far afield.

Michael O’Neill plays Detective Simms on The Grim Sleeper, which premieres on Lifetime UK on Thursday July 3rd at 9pm.