NEW INTERVIEW: David Tennant On Bringing Des To The US And Why He’s Relieved Dennis Nilsen Isn’t Around To See It

David Tennant's gripping true crime drama Des aired on ITV in the UK last month to universal acclaim and netted the channel its biggest drama ratings this year. Also starring Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins, the three part series documents the arrest and trial of Dennis Nilsen, one of the UK's most notorious serial killers. Known to his colleagues and acquaintances as Des, the unremarkable civil servant Nilsen encouraged at least a dozen vulnerable young men and boys back to his flats where he murdered them before dismembering their bodies for disposal. 

Now North American audiences will have a chance to watch the series when it streams on Sundance Now, with the first episode dropping on 15th October, with the remaining episodes following over the next two weeks. 

To promote the series coming to the service David has been talking to the New York Times about becoming Dennis Nilsen. 

Why do you think “Des” was so successful in Britain?

There’s the legacy of it. I’ve always been aware of Dennis Nilsen’s name, and that he was someone who did terrible things. I was 12, 13 when he was arrested. So he cast a long shadow over British culture. And as people, I think we are eternally intrigued and seduced and appalled by how extreme our fellow human beings can become.

And telling these stories is an attempt to understand them, to possibly exorcise the demons of them. And it’s also to memorialize those victims. There were people who really slipped through the cracks in society — that’s who he preyed on — people who didn’t have the means or ability to look after themselves. It’s an interesting time to be doing this in a way, as we’re entering another phase of economic turmoil where you sense the number of people who aren’t supported by society is growing again.

Was it hard playing a serial killer who everyone said seemed normal without making him relatable?

Well, no, as there’s two different things going on. There’s the job you’re doing as an actor, to portray this individual and make as much sense as you can of a human being who appears to make no sense. Then there’s what you’re doing as a larger member of the group making the show, where you’re trying to tell the story appropriately so it doesn’t become a kind of macabre titillation event.

You have to spin the plates and separate off those challenges in a way. On set, playing Nilsen, you’re just trying to justify his choices from his perspective.

You did a lot of research for the role, meeting people involved in the case, reading Nilsen’s writings, watching home video footage of him. Does immersing yourself in a killer’s life like that affect you?

“I don’t know” is the answer, because I’m probably a bit too close to it. If you asked my wife, she’d probably say the research section was more disturbing than filming, because that’s when you’re discovering stuff anew, and it can get a little all consuming. But I have five kids, and they can bring you back to reality quite quickly because they really aren’t interested.

But it was a little different making this. On set, I separated myself a bit more than I normally would. Normally I like to enjoy being at work, but with this I didn’t want to be larky. When you’re wearing the weeds of the killer, as it were, it felt like you had a responsibility to not be taking that lightly.

Nilsen was a bit like an actor in his daily life, playing the role of a normal person and hiding his crimes. Does that similarity to your own profession worry you at all?

I suppose, but aren’t we all actors? Isn’t that part of the human condition? The idea that Nilsen could be having this appalling existence, and then go to work and apparently be rather good at his job, and apparently be rather well thought of too? His friends at work refused to let the police search his desk without a warrant because they didn’t believe he could be capable of the things he was accused of. So he clearly had the very definition of a double life.

But I think that’s the thing with all these stories, those tiny moments when your own life has a similarity: How close are any of us from stepping into an abyss from which we can never get over again? It’s impossible to ever know, but I think it’s one of the duties of drama to try and unpick why we do what we do.

One thing you do make clear in the show is Nilsen was a narcissist. He’d clearly have loved a show being made about him. Does that make you feel bad having done it?

I am relieved that he’s not around for that very reason. I think perhaps we were liberated by the fact that he’s not here. Because he gets no joy out of this, which is right and proper.

But at the same time, I’m aware that as much as he would have loved it, he would have been furious that we weren’t telling the story from his point of view. That would have infuriated him.