Recalling scenes shot many months prior isn’t always the easiest task, but when you’re trying to do so from the recesses of a labyrinthine restroom within a suspected serial killer’s house, well, it’s a bit harder still. Chris Pine and Patty Jenkins, the star and director of TNT’s limited series “I Am the Night,” are trying to remember one such scene while tucked inside a corner of the Sowden House — a shooting location for the show and former home to suspected Black Dahlia killer, George Hodel.
“It is absolutely written on purpose,” Patty Jenkins said, perched on the edge of a cushy chair that doesn’t really belong in an ornate master bath. Lounging next to her is Chris Pine, who just a few moments ago — while using his excellent Hannibal Lecter impression — joked about the nearby koi pond being part of his preposterous movie star demands.
“Wait a minute,” he said, getting back to the scene in question. “Are we talking about what happened down below? When I’m in a knife fight with Sepp?”
Indeed we are: In the fourth episode of “I Am the Night,” Pine’s paparazzo Jay Singletary finds himself in a scuffle with the aforementioned henchman (played by Dylan Smith). While trying to protect Fauna Hodel (India Eisley) — a young woman whose search for her grandfather deepens an investigation into the Black Dahlia murders — Jay tackles Sepp, knocks him to the floor, but then his opponent draws a knife.
Yet the unarmed Jay doesn’t react like most people. He’s not cautious when he sees the blade or hesitant about finishing the fight; he’s not quiet or scared. Instead, he starts shrieking. With two loud, excited cries — not unlike an athlete reacting to a big win or Homer Simpson reacting to anything — Jay eagerly beckons his attacker to come at him.
“Yeah,” Pine said. “That wasn’t in the script.”
It wasn’t planned, either. Pine’s enthusiastic screams aren’t the only improvised aspects of his ebullient, no-holds-barred, no-fucks-given performance, but they are one of the most telling. Without much time to prepare and little historical ties to adhere to, Pine shaped his character in the moment, as he was shooting, making instinctual choices based on the research he’d done while working on other sets. Those spontaneous shrieks weren’t in the script, but they are a symptom of Jay’s PTSD — a disorder given to the struggling ex-Marine by the actor-producer himself.
“Interestingly, that came from Chris,” writer Sam Sheridan said in a separate interview, conducted far-removed from George Hodel’s creepy former home. “He was very critically involved with Jay, [and] he’d been interested in exploring a guy with PTSD.”
Jay, in a sense, was born from Karl Marlantes’ 2011 nonfiction book, “What It Is Like to Go To War.” Pine had read it while on the set of “Wonder Woman,” where he was playing another war veteran, and the actor was telling stories with Jenkins when her husband’s script first came up. At the time, Sheridan’s project didn’t feature a male lead (since the series was based on Fauna Hodel’s memoirs), but Pine’s interest got Sheridan thinking about a different way to approach the story’s structure.
“There were characters that were like the character, Jay Singletary,” Sheridan said. “There were reporters who were sued for libel, and George [Hodel] won that case — he rocked some newspapers pretty badly. […] So it wasn’t completely fictionalized, but he was definitely an invention.”
In a series filled with real people, Jay isn’t. While Fauna’s arc is tied to history, Jay can go off and do whatever he wants. Need someone to explore George’s ominous art collection? Jay’s your man. Need a guy inside the morgue to get the autopsy scoop? Jay will find a way. Even if the show just needs someone of age to buy booze or get into a nightclub, Jay is here. He adds the pulp to this pulp fiction, even when everything around him holds at least somewhat close to the truth.
And Jay feels real because of the team who brought him to life. Jenkins met with the real Fauna Hodel before her death in 2017, kicking off a decade-long development process for her husband. Sheridan read “What It Is Like to Go to War,” as well as more of Marlantes’ books, all while doing research into Hodel’s past. He even saw the link between the protagonist and antagonist long before Pine said yes.
“I thought [Jay] was a great way to explore a counterpart toward Hodel; a guy who maybe had some of the same dark impulses and dangerous urges, but is coming at them from a very different place,” Sheridan said. “I think Jay Singletary and George Hodel recognize each other on some level.”
Still, he said the three of them built the character “together”; in no small part because Jenkins and Pine were already shooting when he was writing the last three episodes.
“I didn’t have much time to make a lot of distinct choices,” Pine said. “I had a beard and I was in chain mail [for ‘Outlaw King’] on a Friday. Then I was in tiny shorts with my bare little white legs in Malibu on Monday. So, the whole thing was just like: Let’s party.”
Sheridan credits Pine with blending the more outrageous elements of Jay with the haunting discoveries in his investigation. Whether that’s the manic mood swings, his disheveled look, or medicinal drug habit — “Jay does drugs but drugs aren’t his problem,” Jenkins said, reciting the mantra for approaching his PTSD-fueled drug habit — Pine finds a way to bring them into a wholly realized, empathetic character.
“One of his many, brilliant talents is he can find lightness in darkness,” Sheridan said. “He has this seriousness, but he can also find wry humor, or ironic humor, or self-mocking humor in a lot of situations in very small, subtle ways.”
Pine said he had “pillars and foundations” of Jay to build on, and he started construction in the pilot. There were takes where he got into a fight with the surfers on the beach — where he knocked their surfboards down and shouted at them. In the bar, he made up an ongoing bit involving lifesavers and added to period-appropriate dialogue.
According to Sheridan, the actor was given the line, “If you’re feeling froggy, you go ahead and jump” — a made-up bit of slang the writer cobbled together from research into “massive lists of [real] jargon” from the 1940s. Pine added, “We can do this dance. Just pick a lily pad.”
That’s how Jenkins described her working relationship with Pine, too — a dance, not a lily pad.
“I don’t like to symbolize what the characters are doing with camera,” she said, noting how she wouldn’t make the camera shake to symbolize Jay’s anxiety. “It’s almost like a dance. There is tension between the camera and the actor but you have to be with the actor. You have to be tracking the actor’s story to do that dance.”
Their ongoing dance could lead to more Jay Singletary adventures. Jenkins and Pine unexpectedly reunited for “Wonder Woman 1984,” and all of primary creatives on “I Am the Night” seem eager to extend this limited series to another edition.
“He’s so tragic,” Pine said. “He is just blissfully running into this brick wall over and over and over again. I had the deepest compassion for him. I just wanted to give him a big hug. I like Jay a lot. […] I’d definitely talk to Sam about it.”
Sheridan said he’d love to continue the series. “I love Jay Singletary. […] He’s that crazy friend at the party who’s gonna wear a lampshade on his head, [but] we have a respect for Jay; an appreciation for him.”
“Sam went down the rabbit hole of reading about PTSD and I think the thing he and Chris talked about the most was [how] part of the problem is the joy that people end up finding in that act of violence that they didn’t know existed,” Jenkins said, which helps explain why Jay would be screaming in excitement while at the wrong end of a knife.
“He is not scared,” Pine said. “He’s like, ‘Fucking stab me! Let’s do this!’ […] I didn’t know [screaming was a symptom of PTSD], but I knew that he’s self-loathing and self-hating. The only way that he feels now is [by] hurting, so it’s like when [someone] slams his nose, he gets off on it. ‘Let’s party!'”
Ideally, that party might be held in more festive facilities.
“I Am the Night” airs new episodes Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.