Gary Cole is “An Officer and a Murderer” in Lifetime’s harrowing true-crime film

I got my first — and terrifyingly memorable — look at Gary Cole in 1984, when I was a college girl living in a ramshackle house with a bunch of other college girls, and he starred in Fatal Vision, the chilling NBC miniseries about the case of Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald, a real-life doctor and Green Beret convicted of killing his family. The telefilm was a smash and Cole went on to have one of the most varied and prolific film and television careers in the business, including standout roles in The West Wing, Entourage, Talladega Nights … and, of course, as the comically heartless boss in 1999′s Office Space.

But I’ll never forget him as the unnervingly arrogant military man who almost got away with murder.

Nearly 30 years later, Cole is back in uniform in the new Lifetime original film An Officer and a Murdererstarring as Col. Russell Williams, the Canadian Air Force pilot who used his high rank, sterling reputation and military know-how to mask a deviant secret life.

Before he was captured in February 2010, Williams terrorized his quaint Canadian village with a string of brutal and escalating crimes toward women — enjoying the seemingly unimpeachable cover of his unsuspecting wife’s and neighbors’ collective belief that he was their protector. And all the while keeping a carefully cataloged and organized collection of his victim’s lingerie (some of which he wore himself) and crime-scene photos, right under their noses.

The film clearly belongs to Cole, but Laura Harris (24) and Rossif Sutherland (son of Donald and half-brother of Kiefer) hold their own as the hometown cop and visiting big-city FBI investigator who team up to stop the killings and bring the savage soldier to justice.

I recently spoke with Cole about getting inside the mind of one of Canada’s most notorious and high-profile criminals.

CGM: This is a seriously complex individual — almost two characters in one. Is that, in part, what attracted you to the role?

GC: It was kind of a double life, and there were obviously a lot of extremes there, for lack of a better word. But I thought that, based on the two books that I read before doing this, the script they put together seemed to tell that story pretty well, even though there were a lot of details that you can’t put into two hours. They seemed to center in on the psychological element of it.

CGM: Because this film is based on a recent true story, there was plenty of material available for your research — so was your biggest challenge getting inside this guy’s head?

GC: Especially nowadays in any kind of recent true story, not only is there written material, but basically the last 10 minutes of the film is an interrogation — which is all documented — that reveals a lot.

Just by watching it, you can get a sense of what’s going on inside his brain and it has nothing to do with what he is talking about or the responses he is giving to this detective — until he finally kind of surrenders and begins to reveal the real information. And even then, it’s in a way that’s not real forthcoming. But just by seeing it visually, you can almost watch his brain work.

So that was really helpful, along with these books that documented the case. It went pretty thoroughly into some analysis of what his psychological makeup might be.

CGM: Now that you’ve had a chance to figuratively walk in the guy’s shoes, why do you think this noble man could become such a sadistic criminal?

GC: Let’s put it this way: If there was another person who did the exact same thing who was, say, unemployed and lived in someone’s basement, it doesn’t make those actions any more or less heinous. It’s the fact that the way people perceived him, in their eyes, it was a betrayal towards them. That’s the double life.

He was obviously able to compartmentalize his life. He was good at his job and he ran the base well and people respected him, but when you get right down to it, that’s all irrelevant. He was a brutal serial rapist and murderer. So the rest doesn’t really matter other than it masked what he did.

In his eyes, it was the perfect setup and disguise— because nobody looked his way. Nobody had any suspicion, because they just couldn’t. It was too unthinkable that somebody in his position could do what he did.

CGM: And that gave him a sense of invincibility — the sense that even if he did get caught, nothing of consequence could possibly come of it.

GC: For whatever reason — his upbringing or the military or whatever — I think there was some kind of strange entitlement to commit these horrible acts to satisfy his hunger. In fact, some of the psychology that was written about it, in terms of his conscience and his thoughts about law enforcement, was that he was actually excited by the fact that he was being pursued by law enforcement. He left intentional signals and clues, because he thought he was superior to them in terms of being detected. So that was all part of the fantasy and the crimes themselves — he would watch the news reports and it all fed this fantasy.

You can’t look at somebody like that and say that they have a black-and-white version of right and wrong. But I do think that he was different than most in that he knew that what he was doing was wrong, but he really believed that, “I’m never going to get caught, so it doesn’t really matter.”

But sometimes that was blurred by, “I need to do this because it feeds my hunger and everything else is irrelevant.” I think that’s what it finally got to. The whole thing was just progressive.

CGM: The final scenes of the film — in which you and Rossif Sutherland, who plays the detective and profiler who finally brings you down, go head-to-head in this sparse interrogation room — were great fun to watch. Both of you play these immensely controlled men who are begin to just simmer under the surface …

GC: It’s not in the script, but this detective — and it’s a composite, this character that Rossif plays — the real guy in Ontario, Jim Smyth, deserves a lot of credit for how he was able to extract information out of Williams. He actually says to him at one point in the real interrogation, “Listen, I know that you probably don’t need me to explain this, but I also know that I’ve sat across from a lot of people in your position and I know that your mind is probably racing right now.”

And that’s very true. That’s what actually happens. He realizes that he is basically cornered and he has no escape route and he’s already dug himself into a hole by agreeing to be interviewed without a lawyer — all of which he could have avoided just by saying no. But he chose not to. And that’s what happens — the speed of what is going on in his brain overtakes his ability to save himself.

The real interview you can find all over the place in its entirety — it went viral soon after it was done. So I studied it a lot and I’m sure Rossif did, too. Rossif has a screen presence that is really interesting to me. He’s almost gentle and intimidating at the same time. He has this great voice that’s very deep and muscular and yet the volume is very understated. And he did a really good job of re-creating the attitude of this guy — which was, “I’m going to be your best friend, and we’re all here to help and we just want to get to the bottom of this thing” — and yet slipping in the fact that I’m a suspect.

It was great to work on that, because I had studied the real tape a lot and had stuff that I could use in terms of body language that Williams used a lot. And while I was going through the scene, it made sense why his body was doing all of these shifts — because he goes from this kind of confident, arrogant “I’m here to help” position into sinking his head like a little schoolboy who’s in trouble.

That was lot of fun to work on and Rossif was so good.

CGM: The scenes in which Russ forces Linda to pose for his “trophy” photos are so disturbing. How difficult were they to shoot?

GC: It was difficult to shoot — and one of the reasons that it was was because Kristina Pesicthe actress that portrays Linda, was so committed and really just went for it. It was so disturbing to do it. I mean, we obviously knew that we were filming a movie. But the tone in the room, even with all the crew — it was hard! That’s not something you really want to examine.

I thought Norma Bailey, who directed the film, had a real good sense of this whole movie — and not only was she good, but I think it is significant that this was seen through a woman’s eyes. I think that was really insightful. It makes it what it should be. It’s probably intangible to viewers, but on the set — especially doing a scene like that — I thought that was invaluable.

CGM: That emotional anchor is also apparent in the scene in which Williams confronts Marie-France. That, to me, seems to be the moment at which he really crossed the line from rapist and torturer to killer and is letting her know — without saying it outright — that he had selected his first victim.

GC: And that was a real circumstance. The scene itself and the dialogue may not have been exactly what happened, but that situation did occur — where he was talking to her and started to reveal the information that he knew about her, and how disturbed she was by that and relayed that to some people. It was unsettling. Because he was way out of line, for one thing, and — like we were talking about — it started to reveal how brazen he had become. He didn’t take any precautions.

CGM: It’s scary to watch when the thing that makes a great soldier — being able to compartmentalize death and terror and all of the horrible things that you witness — goes one step over the line and takes a person from someone honorable to someone horrific. And interesting to play, I’m sure.

GC: Absolutely. And there’s actually a moment in the movie where Laura Harris, who plays the other detective, is looking at a profile of the suspect that they’ve made up through analysis, and right at the bottom it says “possibly military.” Because of the ability to compartmentalize and detach and because of the efficiency and the forethought.

CGM: You played another murderous military man in the miniseries Fatal Vision — which is actually the first time I laid eyes on you. And you unnerved the bejesus out of me, just like you did in this role. Did the insight gained from researching and playing Jeffrey MacDonald help inform how you approached playing Russell Williams?

GC: Maybe not specifically, because that was a long time ago, but it’s territory I’ve certainly been near. Because, first of all, the guy was in the military and his behavior — especially that kind of understated arrogance — was similar. Fatal Vision had more to do with domestic murder, the murder of his family. But the makeup of the person — even though there were a lot of differences in the stories — there were similar things.

When I first saw these books, I immediately thought of Fatal Vision – even just looking at the cover with this guy in a beret, I was having déjà vu. [laughs].

An Officer and a Murderer premieres Saturday, July 21 at 8pm ET/PT on Lifetime.

Immediately following the film, the network will debut the hourlong documentary Beyond the Headlines: An Officer and a Murderer, which examines the actual Russell Williams and the inner workings of the investigation that led to his capture. The special will feature news footage from NBC’s Dateline, including original footage of  Williams’ actual interrogation.

Images and An Officer and a Murderer video: © 2012 Lifetime Entertainment Services, LLC, a subsidiary of A+E Networks. All rights reserved.

About Lori Acken

Lori just hasn't been the same since "thirtysomething" and "Northern Exposure" went off the air.
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