Killer casting: why Zac Efron is right man to play Ted Bundy
Why the former ‘High School Musical’ star is an inspired choice to help bring the serial killer’s story to a younger generation
When filmmaker Joe Berlinger turned his attention to one of America’s most notorious serial killers, the first thing he did was phone his two college-age daughters. “I asked, ‘Do you know who Ted Bundy is?’ And neither of my daughters did.” Nor did their friends.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, since Bundy, who raped and murdered more than 30 women in the 1970s, was executed three decades ago. But it was enough to convince Berlinger that his daughters’ generation needed to learn the lessons of Bundy. “They can’t be overstated,” he says. “Simply because somebody looks and acts a certain way, it doesn’t mean they’re worthy of your trust.”
The result was two Bundy projects. After creating the four-part Netflix documentary Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which comprises hours of audio interviews between journalist Stephen Michaud and the killer when he was in jail, Berlinger has delivered a Bundy feature film.
Taking on the roll of a serial killer
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile – a title that stems from the summation of the judge (John Malkovich) when Bundy was convicted – stars Zac Efron as the killer. Casting the former High School Musical star was nothing short of inspiring. “Here’s a guy whose real-life persona for a certain demographic is he can do no wrong,” says Berlinger. “Everywhere we go for this movie, there are hundreds of people who love Zac. They implicitly trust him, because of how he looks, because of how he acts, because of who he is.”
Efron had never considered playing a killer before, but this role was different. “It’s not a procedural where the body count stacks up and then we find out it’s Ted Bundy,” the actor says.
Instead, the story is told from the perspective of Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins), Bundy’s long-term girlfriend who was unaware of the horrifying crimes he committed. Her unsparing account of her life with Bundy, The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy (written under the name Elizabeth Kendall), provides the basis for Berlinger’s film.
Efron was vaguely aware of Bundy, but he soon learnt what the killer’s name meant to older generations. Efron recalls telling his mother he was considering a biopic for his next project. When he told her who the subject was, she stopped dead in her tracks. “She said, ‘Did you say Ted Bundy?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ She said, ‘And you will play Ted Bundy?’ The terror in her eyes was one of the motivating factors for taking the role,” Efron says.
'America’s most notorious serial killer'
The film was also a change of direction for Berlinger, who has spent the majority of his career as a documentary filmmaker with a focus on tales of dubious convictions. His masterful Paradise Lost trilogy covers the case of the West Memphis Three, who were jailed for the murders of three boys in Arkansas, while Killing Richard Glossip focuses on the fate of the eponymous Oklahoma resident, who is on death row.
“What is a wrongfully convicted person? It’s somebody who is actually innocent but the rest of the world thinks is guilty, but Bundy was exactly the opposite,” says Berlinger. “He was a guy who was actually guilty, but so many people around him thought he was innocent and incapable of these kinds of crimes.”
Handsome and charismatic, Bundy even had friends at the Mormon Church who protested his innocence when he was first arrested. “He eluded capture for a long time because of his demeanour,” Berlinger says. Showing little of Bundy’s violence against women, the director treads carefully in Extremely Wicked. “Even though it’s very salacious material – this is America’s most notorious serial killer, who raped and murdered dozens of women and did all these horrible things – it’s not the salacious aspect of it that attracted me,” he says.
Warning a new generation
Rather, Berlinger wanted to put young people on alert for what he calls “Bundy-type people”. In an age when people frequently pose as others to fool people on the internet, the dangers of misjudging people have already been made clear. Berlinger cites the murder of American student Samantha Josephson, 21, who was stabbed and killed in Columbia, South Carolina, in March after getting into a car she believed was an Uber. “We live in a world where people pretend to be one thing when they’re not,” Berlinger says.
Efron is all too aware how dishonest some people can be. “I’ve met some people who seem to be one thing, and you get to know them that you find out through another party that they’re not even that person,” he says.
I’ve met some people who seem to be one thing, and you get to know them that you find out through another party that they’re not even that person.
That’s why he wanted to explore Bundy’s duplicitous nature. “I want people to realise the depth of deception and experience it as I have. I would love to save people from going through that,” he says.
While Berlinger describes his Conversations With a Killer documentary as “a deep dive into the mind of a psychopath”, he says Extremely Wicked is more subjective. “What I hope happens for the audience is that I give them the same experience as the people who were betrayed by Bundy,” he says.
Chief among them is Kloepfer. “Everyone will wonder for the rest of time why Ted didn’t do this to Liz?” Efron says. “We will never know.”
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is in cinemas across the UAE from today
Updated: May 2, 2019 09:27 AM