Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer became one of America’s most horrifying figures after he murdered 17 men and boys — killing and eating many of them to satisfy a twisted sexual kink — over the course of 12 years. But in writer-director Marc Meyer’s “My Friend Dahmer,” the future monster’s just a troubled teenage outcast. Meyer’s meticulous late-’70s period drama, based on the graphic novel by Dahmer’s old high school acquaintance John “Derf” Backderf, takes a revisionist approach to Dahmer epitomized by the casting of Disney star Ross Lynch in the lead role.
Lynch, best known for the Disney Channel series “Austin & Ally” and the “Teen Beach Movie” series, buries his pop-star stature in a messy mop of hair, thick wireframe glasses and a dull stare. The movie follows the 17-year-old Dahmer as he copes with an isolated life in Akron, Ohio, where he deals with high school bullies and plays around with roadkill in his father’s shed. The story sets the stage for the evolution of a psychopath, and while it stops of short of Dahmer’s transition into a murderer, it nevertheless finds Lynch inhabiting an undeniably spooky role defined in part by foreshadowing of his future.
Disney-certified stars have made the leap to adult-themed fare before (think Selena Gomez in “Spring Breakers”), but Meyers claimed he never intended to subvert Lynch’s celebrity for the part. “Some people think it’s a stunt — from Disney to Dahmer,” the filmmaker said in a Q&A discussion followed a screening of the movie at the Williams Center in Rutherford, New Jersey last week. “It really wasn’t.”
Meyers first began developing the project in 2012, when Backderf’s graphic novel first came out, and the adapted screenplay landed on the Hollywood Blacklist. Over the years, Meyers met with around 100 actors for the part. After the Blacklist seal of approval, Meyers said, “A lot of young actors started reading the script. I narrowed down the choices to do some auditions. I knew a lot of those guys would not be a Jeff. They look like me or you.” He kept them in mind for other teen roles in the movie.
Then he met Lynch in the lobby of a New York hotel. “Like most of these young actors, he had never really even heard of Jeff Dahmer,” Meyers said, noting that Lynch was born in 1995, a year after Dahmer was killed in prison. “For him, it was just a role, and I just immediately felt like he had all the elements I was looking for.” The physical resemblance was key. “He has enough of the likeness that I could pull it off, and it got even better with the glasses and the wardrobe,” Meyers said. “But he’s also a dancer, singer, and performer really trained by Disney, so he’s just really versatile. He has the posture, the gait, and he really got it.”
Lynch submitted a video audition for the part, studying interviews with Dahmer available on YouTube, then spent another two hours in New York auditioning in character for Meyers and his producers. “That proved to everyone else involved with the film he was the right choice — even with the Disney connection,” Meyers said.
The movie was shot on location in Akron, with scenes involving Dahmer’s home life shot in the actual house where he grew up. The resulting naturalistic drama plays like a cringe-inducing dramedy about the travails of an awkward teen life, more in the vein of “Welcome to the Dollhouse” than the horrific connotations of its protagonist would suggest. “I felt like we were making a high school movie in which one guy just happened to be a future serial killer,” Meyers said. “That was the flavor on set. Ross just inhabited it.”
The actor brought his own process to becoming Dahmer — they called him “Jeff” on set — before each scene. “Every time before the camera went on, he just rolled his shoulders into this posture,” said Meyers. “He came to understand the cadence of the way he spoke. After a couple of days, we realized there was no fear of imitation. We realized we could just do the movie now, and let it be his Dahmer.”
Meyers knows that the very idea of a movie that attempts to humanize the character could be misconstrued as a defense of his crimes. “He was a human being, too,” he said. “I’m not making excuses for what he became, but he slips through the cracks. The community missed the signs. He’s an example of looking in history at a troubled white male who becomes a monster. It’s relevant today. If we don’t understand with some empathy how that could’ve happened, we’re missing the signs of someone who might be in one of our own communities.”
“My Friend Dahmer” is now playing in select theaters nationwide.