Interview: David Tennant On The "Unknowable Psychology" Of The Dennis Nilsen Case

David Tennant's new three-part drama Des, following the arrest and trial of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, launches in a few days time on ITV and ahead of the premiere, the press have published several interviews with David and other cast members and creatives involved with the show. Today The Guardian has spoken to David about what it has been like portraying Nilsen.

Dennis Nilsen murdered at least twelve young men in his two London flats between 1978 and 1983. The drama Des, which also stars Daniel Mays as DI Peter Jay and Jason Watson as writer Brian Masters, tries to throw light on the type of society that allowed him to operate unnoticed for so long. 

Writer Luke Neal and director Lewis Arnold were clear from then start that they did not want to sensationalise the story by showing the murders or by using flashbacks, which would only serve to reinforce Nilsen's version of events as the truth. Instead they chose to view events from the perspective of the police and Brian Masters, who chronicled Nilsen's life and crimes.

Here's what David had to say:

On his attraction to the story:

"I just thought the story was so extraordinary and unbelievable really. I’d read Masters’s book and found myself drawn to this kind of unknowable psychology – just the fact that it went on for years with nobody even suspecting that Nilsen was anything other than a rather boring and inconspicuous man."

On Luke Neal's take on the events:

"I was really intrigued when I read Luke’s script not only because it captured the period so brilliantly but also because the idea of coming into the story at the moment that Nilsen was arrested seemed like the perfect way in, because then you’re not dealing with this potential kind of gore-fest. It avoids being titillating and I think that’s incredibly important."

On differing perspectives:

"Involving Masters in the story is another masterstroke. Not only because it shows us how Nilsen was manipulating different people as they came into his orbit, but also because it allows us to comment on how society views serial killers and to examine our obsession with them."

On finding the 'real ' Dennis Nilsen:

"He...wrote a very extensive self-indulgent autobiography, which I read some of, as well as rereading Masters’s book and looking at billions of articles. But, you know, you study him and you stare at him and you try in some ways to replicate the way he talked or the way he moved, but you also have to get beyond that. Because it’s not just about impersonating a character. It’s about trying to get some sort of sense of him, not to relate to why he did what he did but to try to understand it. And it’s particularly hard with Nilsen because he’s someone who has written a lot about himself – but it doesn’t all tally up, so you have to find a space where all the things he said and all the things that other people have said about him can be true."

How society leaves the vulnerable open to predators like Nilsen:

"London is where people go to fall through the cracks, and it tended to be those people Nilsen preyed on. And it’s partly because society allows that to happen that he could get away with it. There was a lot of homelessness, a lot of disfranchised people, a lot of poverty and unemployment – in that sense it’s not impossible to imagine someone like Nilsen doing something similar today."

Read the full interview in The Guardian here.